Art Mingles with Politics ; Palestinians Celebrate Life, and Resistance, with Vibrant Cultural Festival

By Kershner, Isabel | International New York Times, November 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

Art Mingles with Politics ; Palestinians Celebrate Life, and Resistance, with Vibrant Cultural Festival


Kershner, Isabel, International New York Times


The festival, Qalandiya International, faced special challenges in catering to a fragmented Palestinian society struggling against Israel and recovering from the 50-day Gaza war.

Jugglers and stilt walkers led the procession one recent evening from Manara Square to City Hall here in street theater meant to recall the first Palestinian intifada.

Back then, in the late 1980s, there was no Palestinian Authority, the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank was ubiquitous, and the Palestinians closed their movie theaters out of respect for the hundreds killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

In the 2014 version, part of a Palestinian arts festival held every two years, parkour acrobats leapt across the urban landscape as Palestinian Authority police officers stopped the traffic and two youths masked in black-and-white kaffiyehs surreptitiously distributed reprints of a 1988 leaflet with instructions for "the popular masses" from the underground intifada leadership.

But things took a bizarre turn when a plainclothes Palestinian security officer tried to arrest the two youths because the permit for the procession apparently did not extend to masks and leaflets.

"Sometimes art is more political than politics itself," said Khaled Hourani, a Palestinian artist who helped organize the procession. "In a way," he said of the mask episode, "it became part of the show."

Putting on an arts biennale anywhere is complicated. Here, the festival, Qalandiya International, faced special challenges in catering to a Palestinian society that is highly politicized, physically fragmented, internally divided, partly autonomous but still struggling against Israeli occupation, and not given to displays of frivolity or celebration.

The timing of the biennale, from late October to mid-November, raised more questions about appropriateness, so soon after the death and destruction of this summer's 50-day Gaza war.

"There was a discussion," said Jack Persekian, director of the Palestinian Museum, now under construction, and an organizer. "But it is a celebration of continuity, of life, of steadfastness and, if I may, resistance. There was no doubt we should go on."

If anything, the festival has served to underscore the intense interplay between art and the Palestinian cause.

The juggling sticks used by the performers from the Palestinian Circus School were red, green, white and black, the colors of the Palestinian flag.

Asked about the connection between the circus and the first intifada, Nayef Abdallah, 29, a circus director, said the circus showed "you can resist with your body and defend your land in a nonviolent way."

"It's better to juggle balls than to throw stones, because that can get you killed," he said, adding, "We are creating a cultural army."

Qalandiya International was named for the refugee camp and old village just beyond the wall that separates Jerusalem from the camp, Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank. The festival comprises dozens of events -- exhibitions, lectures, discussion panels, tours, screenings and street activities. Its overriding theme, "Archives, Lived and Shared," is an invitation to interpret some of the tools that help build national identity and collective memory.

Spread among the cities of the West Bank; East Jerusalem; Gaza; and Haifa, in northern Israel, locations that Palestinians cannot easily move between, the event also encompasses Palestinians from the diaspora and international artists from abroad. …

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