An Oasis in a Cultural Desert

The Palestinian cultural landscape is barren. Those who live in Ramallah are relatively lucky, as the city is the lynchpin of Palestinian culture. A first-hand report by Sebastian Blottner

The Palestinian cultural landscape is barren. Those who live in Ramallah are relatively lucky, as the city is the lynchpin of Palestinian culture, an oasis in a cultural desert. A first-hand report by Sebastian Blottner

Cultural activities in the occupied territories, already few and far between to start with, have become more and more rare since the start of the second intifada in the year 2000.

The few remaining artists and creative individuals are generally members of an exclusive circle of society, where everyone knows one another.

With around 80,000 inhabitants, Ramallah is an exceptional town in Palestine, famous for its liberal flair for decades and once even a popular holiday destination. The first Palestinian dance festival was launched there as early as the 1950s.

Ramallah has a theatre, a music conservatorium and a palace of culture, and hosts exhibitions and concerts. It even has its own nightlife, of modest proportions.

Like everywhere else in the Palestinian territories, no one in Ramallah can ignore politics, and that goes for artists too. They live their entire lives in the context of Israeli occupation and increasingly precarious living conditions.

Dealing with these conditions in creative form is difficult, and forgetting them is almost impossible. As a consequence, the "national topic" is very much the main material behind Palestinian art.

Promoting education and young artists

One place where this art is exhibited is the Sakakini Cultural Centre. The centre, housed in one of Ramallah's few remaining old villas, is one of the most important local cultural institutions.

The independent Qattan Foundation is just as well known. Initiated by a wealthy Palestinian in exile, the foundation carries out sustainable development work in the fields of cultural and social policy. Education is one of its most important working areas.

The foundation runs two children's libraries in Ramallah and Gaza, with the aim of promoting literacy skills. It also supports young musicians, writers, actors and journalists towards building professional careers.

The university in Bir Zeit, just a few minutes' drive from the centre of Ramallah, has found a way to provide access to art despite the difficult political situation.

The university operates a "virtual gallery" with an extensive archive and a platform for Palestinian artists on the Internet. Art lovers can at least visit virtual exhibitions, unhindered by checkpoints and queues.

Film students in former hotel

Another part of the university, the Institute for New Media, offers further education courses and practical training for students, first admitting Palestinian film students to study directing, editing, camera and sound recording in 2007.

The crumbling institute building was once a luxury hotel. Now tiny studios, offices and seminar rooms are crammed into the former suites.

Talented students may well be able to show their films in the well-known Al Kasaba Theatre. The building in the heart of Ramallah houses a cinema and a theatre.

The cinema is currently the only functioning movie theatre in the whole of Palestine, showing at least three films a day.

The current theatre productions have won prizes at international festivals. Plays for and with children are an important part of the Al Kasaba team's work, primarily for educational purposes.

A piece featuring Cinderella in a wheelchair, for example, encourages children to integrate people with disabilities, with other plays teaching them about healthy eating and other everyday subjects.

Support from abroad

In late 2006, a new art academy opened in Ramallah, the International Academy of Art Palestine, financed with funding from Sweden. This is not the first attempt to prevent Palestinian cultural life from grinding to a halt from outside the country.

The lack of independence is the greatest problem for the arts in Palestine. All the main institutions and foreign sponsors that cooperate with them work within set parameters, particularly stressing the idea that Palestinian art has to be political.

But there is occasional criticism of this type of concept, for instance from members of the independent creative group "Idioms". Sceptical of the institutionalised Palestinian cultural industry largely dependent on foreign funding, they point out that it is not just difficult but almost impossible for artists to survive in Palestine without opting into the established networks.

Sebastian Blottner

© 2007

Sebastian Blottner travelled to Ramallah in December 2006. This occurred through an exchange programme for cultural journalists specifically designed by the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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