Palestinian culture denied

The ruin of Palestinian culture is the birth moment of a new Israeli consciousness, based not only on erasing the Palestinians’ presence, but also on erasing their culture. Gish Amit, ‘Ownerless Objects?‘, Jerusalem Quarterly 33

After what Palestinians call ‘the catastrophe’ of 1948 – the Nakba – the new state of Israel set out to ‘de-Arabise’ the entire landscape. Pine forests and parks were planted over the ruins of many of the 400 or so Palestinian villages that had been forcibly depopulated. David Ben Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, appointed a Governmental Names Commission to re-label each town, village, river and hill. In his words:

Just as we do not recognise the Arabs’ political proprietorship over the country, so also we do not recognise their spiritual proprietorship and their place names.

Politically-inspired biblical archaeology is still being used today to justify land theft. In East Jerusalem, Palestinian communities are being displaced to make way for a ‘City of David’ tourist park promoting an exclusive narrative of Jewish origins. The term Israel gives to this still accelerating practice is ‘Judaization’.

Between the Nakba and the Occupation: Fighting back with words

Culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration. Edward Said, Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said

We have a country of words. Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel. Mahmoud Darwish, from his poem – written shortly after the siege of Beirut in 1982 – ‘We Travel Like Other People’ in Victims of a Map

The upheaval of 1948 had a calamitous effect on Palestinian artists and writers. Poet Fadwa Tuqan, born and raised in the Palestinian city of Nablus, describes the effect on her in her autobiography, A Mountainous Journey:

Thousands of refugees, moving eastward in their flight, arrived in Nablus. Houses, mosques, schools and the caves in the mountains were jam-packed with them. Many long months passed after this first scandal on Arab soil, before I returned to writing poetry.

Palestinians who managed to avoid expulsion and stay in what became the State of Israel went from day to night – in April 1948 they were physically and culturally part of a large Arab, Levantine, post-Ottoman world; in May 1948 they were suddenly in shattered fragments under Israeli military rule, with no freedom of movement and limited means of communication with the world outside. And in one of those perversities of human behaviour, many people in the Arab world regarded them as collaborators for living under Israeli rule.

Poets Samih al-Qasim and Mahmoud Darwish were children at the time of the Nakba. Darwish’s birth village, al-Birweh, was demolished, but the family managed to stay on in the new state as ‘present absentees’; al-Qasim was of Druze origin, and went to prison when he refused to serve in the Israeli army.

Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors

After a young Darwish electrified a Palestinian crowd in Nazareth with this poem, he was arrested several times and put under house arrest.

Together with Tawfiq Zayyad, who became mayor of Nazareth, he and al-Qasim were known as the ‘poets of the resistance’ – though Darwish, who went into exile, resisted writing only nationalist poetry, as did Fadwa Tuqan – but their work wasn’t read outside Israel until an exiled writer and journalist, Ghassan Kanafani, published an anthology in Beirut in 1966.

Kanafani was part of the huge upsurge in Palestinian exile organisation and Palestinian morale that accompanied the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1960s. Karma Nabulsi describes alongside these political developments ‘an ebullient revolutionary culture of music, film, poetry, radio, photography, painting and plastic arts… Those of us who were once part of it can barely believe it ourselves.’

Kanafani, born in Acre and exiled to Syria as a child with his family, published one of his most important novels, Men in the Sun – a terrifying fable about Palestinian refugees suffocated by Arab indifference – before he became a spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and editor of its weekly, al-Hadaf: ‘My political position springs from my being a novelist’, he said. ‘I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite.’

In 1972, shortly after three members of the Japanese Red Army, recruited by the PFLP, killed 26 people at Lod airport in Tel Aviv, Kanafani and his niece were killed by a bomb in his car in Beirut. Other poets and writers were also assassinated by Israel during the 1970s, for their involvement with the PLO: Wael Zuaiter, who translated Montesquieu and Voltaire into Arabic, in Rome in 1972; Kamal Nasser in Beirut in 1973.

From the 1967 Occupation until now: Censorship, sabotage and siege

The suppression of Palestinian culture in the Occupied Territories is still very much on the Israeli agenda. When Israeli forces re-invaded Ramallah, in the West Bank, in 2002, they ransacked the Sakakini Cultural Centre. The trail of destruction included manuscripts belonging to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, an Israeli citizen, whose poems were banned from the curricula of schools in Israel until 2012. Darwish said in 2001, ‘I just wish they’d read me to enjoy my poetry, not as a representative of the enemy.’ The following year, after the Israeli rampage through the Sakakini Cultural Centre, he explained to William Dalrymple:

The Israelis wanted to give us a message that nobody and nothing is immune – including our cultural life. I took the message personally. I know they’re strong and can invade and kill anyone. But they can’t break or occupy my words. That is one thing they can’t do. My poetry is the one way I have to resist them.

Under such conditions, art takes on new layers of political meaning for both occupied and occupier. Before Palestinians in the West Bank can travel to another town to view paintings or hear music, reach a rehearsal of a play or a concert, or tour a performance, they usually require permission from Israel. Randomly – and often – it is withheld.

Cultural exchange, whether among Palestinian artists, between artists and audiences, or between Palestinian and international artists, is anything but free because all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under siege, their movements conditional on the whim of an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint or an Occupation bureaucrat, the practice of their art liable to suppression by a hostile Occupation regime.


Further reading:

The Nakba Law: Censoring Palestinian culture and history responds to the passing of a law by Israel in 2011 effectively criminalising commemoration of the Palestinian ‘Nakba’ or ‘catastrophe’ of 1948:

it will take more than this recent raft of laws to prevent Palestinians from pursuing their education or remembering their culture. Despite decades of censorship and destruction, the expression of Palestinian culture and identity has continued. It is impossible for any Palestinian to pretend that the trauma of 1948 or of the successive dispossessions and forced exiles inflicted upon them are no longer central to their lives.