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Culture in Ramallah: An Overview

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.08.2007:

By Fatin Farhat

In spite of the emotional and physical distance that stands between my life today and the years I spent abroad either studying or working, I still vividly recall the euphoria and the overwhelming sensations of nostalgia that relentlessly invaded me whenever I thought of Ramallah while I was away. In the most absurd fashion, I have always been attached to this strangely normal yet extraordinarily exuberant little town. Like many of the original inhabitants of the city, I grew up in the old part of town commonly known as Ramallah Il Tahta. From a child’s perspective, the architectural landscape of my old neighbourhood, the surrounding hills, and the churches and mosques engulfing the vicinity were simply magical. And in spite of the Israeli occupation, throughout my childhood, Ramallah seemed to remain out of harm’s way; resilient and immune to threat (after all, I was born in 1975). Adding to reality a speck of fantasy was also a must! The safe and unthreatening beauty of the city always intensified with the elders’ stories of the glorious Hotel Odeh, the sleepless nights of the legendary Ramallah Summer Nights Festival, and the visits of celebrities and politicians such as Arab cinema stars Fatin Hamama, Omer El Sharif, and King Hussein.

However, in spite of the city’s obvious vitality, when the need for cultural or artistic excursions came up at school or at home, by and large our destination was always out of town, heading either south to Jerusalem or north to Nazareth. Ramallah could have been Palestine’s summer resort, a socially stimulating city, but could not, in all sincerity, be described as the cultural core of Palestine. Years later, at my homecoming, nothing in my past experience had prepared me for how my city had transformed itself into the cultural hub of Palestine. Like many others, I had failed to see that although Ramallah did not act as a cultural focal point back then, it surely exhibited the proper infrastructure that was leading the city in that direction.

Ramallah: the cultural hub of Palestine?

It is not arbitrary to assume that Ramallah has become the cultural hub of Palestine. For simple indicators, pick up This Week in Palestine or Al-Ayyam newspaper on a regular day. Usually, most of the cultural and artistic advertisements announce special events (art exhibitions, theatrical productions, dance performances, music concerts, etc.) scheduled to take place in Ramallah. In many cases, when an event is announced elsewhere, scratching the surface is likely to lead to the discovery that the event is part of a festival or seasonal event organized by a cultural organization based in Ramallah. And if you are growing less comfortable relying on printed media such as newspapers as a medium of communication, I certainly hope that you can cope with the numerous e-mail circulations that could arrive in your account on a daily basis announcing special events in art and culture, also mostly based in Ramallah. And to keep up with the contemporary flavour of the city, one is no longer obliged to remain a hostage to the actual premises of cultural and arts organizations. Nowadays, visual arts exhibitions and music concerts are held in the most fashionable cafés and bars in town.

The persistent question remains the following: How could Ramallah manage to transform itself into such an urban cosmopolitan centre?

Unlike ancient Palestinian cities such as Nablus, Hebron, and Jerusalem, Ramallah is a relatively young city, established by a group of Christians who emigrated from Jordan only a few hundred years ago. Whereas the ancient cities mentioned above exhibited clear and defined urban features and were characterised by long historical, social, and cultural traditions and images, Ramallah being a youthful city, remained largely free to develop more spontaneously. This fact made Ramallah more hospitable and open to newcomers and new ideas, especially as the overwhelming majority of the city’s original inhabitants have emigrated from Palestine, allowing for a huge margin of internal Palestinian migration.

In the past, Ramallah was a predominantly Christian town. The Christian identity of the city led to the establishment of a number of private missionary schools in the city in the 19th century (e.g., The Friends Boys and Girls Schools established in 1869). These initiatives have inevitably increased the mobility of Palestinians and foreigners from and to Ramallah. The availability of scholarship opportunities to Palestinian students in Europe, the United States, and international academic institutes in the region (the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo, for example) has also increased as a result. Although the number of Christian inhabitants of the city has significantly decreased over the last few decades, the Christian presence remains influential. Nowadays, one must not underestimate the religious diversity of the city and the role that this diversity has played in boosting levels of tolerance that are conducive to the promotion of an active and open cultural life.

Whereas the infamous 1993 Israeli closure of Jerusalem proved to have severe and detrimental effects on the historical capital of Palestine (politically, culturally, socially, and economically), it also contributed, ironically, to the revival of Ramallah. With Jerusalem sealed off to Palestinians, Ramallah gradually assumed the cultural and social role once occupied by Jerusalem.

Cultural institutionalization

Palestinian culture and ways of life have been significantly influenced by the peace process, which has led to the return of thousands of Palestinians from the Diaspora. In due course, many of the intellectual returnees have settled in Ramallah. In spite of the initial culture shock that Palestinian society suffered due to the sudden change in its social fabric as a result of this mass influx, the Palestinians who have returned to the homeland have added a vital sense of diversity to Palestine, in general, and naturally to Ramallah, in particular. Having lived in various cosmopolitan Arab settings such as Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Tunis, and of course elsewhere in the world, this sector of Palestinian society was privileged to be exposed to a unique medley of various cultures and regional and international artistic and cultural experiences. In addition, among the returnees were a number of Palestine’s most influential Diaspora artists and writers.

In addition, the peace process also led to a boom in Palestinian institutions. For reasons that go beyond the scope of this article, the peace process was geared in the direction of supporting Palestinian civic society. Consequently, a great portion of donor funding poured into this particular sector. The development of Palestinian non-governmental institutions has inexorably also led to the development of the cultural sector in Palestine. Many individual artists and art operators’ initiatives were actually transformed into a group of specialized cultural centres that represent most cultural and artistic disciplines (the performing arts, the visual arts, literature, music). In fact, a bit of research indicates that the majority of the presently operating cultural institutions were established from the glorious years of the peace process onwards. To name a few of these prominent cultural and artistic organizations: Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre was established in 1996, Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation was established in 1991, Ashtar for Theatrical Productions and Training was established in Jerusalem in 1991 and in Ramallah in 1995, Al Kamanjati for Music Education was established in 2005, the Palestinian Academy for Contemporary Art was established in 2006, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music was established in 1993.

From the visual arts to the new circus school: a kaleidoscope of events

Indeed, the richness of cultural and artistic life in Ramallah stems from the availability of a kaleidoscope of events and institutions that are open to the public all year round. As mentioned above, the town is full of active NGOs that specialize in almost all disciplines in the arts and culture. Over the years, many of these NGOs have also developed a tradition of regular and annual events that are anticipated by the public. One of the most important festivals is the annual Palestine International Festival for Music and Dance, which was launched by the Popular Art Centre in the year 1993. Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque presents the Ramallah audience with several specialized film festivals per year. The First Ramallah Group takes credit for organizing a pioneer annual festival in contemporary dance (The Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival). A.M. Qattan Foundation regularly organizes the Young Artists and Writers Awards. Shashat for women’s cinema launched a women’s cinema festival in 2006, which has also become an annual event. And in 1995, Riwaq launched the first biennale of architecture in Palestine, which will be presented to the community in October 2007, as a biennale for both art and architecture. Among the most interesting and refreshing initiatives launched during the last year is the Palestinian Circus School.

Furthermore, the organizers of the above events and others have realized the need for the decentralization of cultural activity outside the perimeters of Ramallah. Consequently, in recent years one can always find a mobile component to festivals and projects, integrating performances into cities such as Bethlehem, Nablus, and Jenin. In addition, there seems to be an essential, yet not fully crystallized, movement towards arts production in peripheral and rural Palestine. To further widen the audiences in the arts and culture, schools and universities have also become crucial venues for performances and events.

In addition to NGOs, Ramallah hosts a few active independent production corporations, particularly in cinema production. More and more, groups of young artists are mobilizing to create private structures that can support their own personal artistic projects as well as the projects of others.

International and Regional Dimensions

In Ramallah, cultural and artistic activity is not exclusive to Palestinian institutes. Among the most active foreign cultural centres in Ramallah is the Franco-German Cultural Centre. In one of only a few models of German-French cultural cooperation in the world, the French Cultural Centre and the Goethe Institute joined forces in Ramallah almost three years ago to form this one operational compound. The city also hosts branch offices of AMIDEAST and the British Council. Foreign offices in Ramallah offer various services to the community, including language classes, scholarship opportunities, organization of artistic and cultural projects, and the support of local artistic and cultural initiatives.

In recent years, arts operators have made a priority of placing Ramallah in the broader context of vibrant and culturally active Arab and European cities. The Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, in its second edition, was organized in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beirut, and Amman simultaneously. Ramallah is also ready to welcome in November the famous Meeting Point Festival (a multi-disciplinary art festival), organized by the YAT Fund-Brussels, which will take place simultaneously in nine different Arab cities (Ramallah, Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Tunis, Alexandria, Cairo, Al Menia, and Casablanca). In addition, the Ramallah Municipality is presently hosting the offices of the project, A Season of Contemporary Palestinian Art and Culture in Belgium, which stands today as the largest cultural project on Palestine in the world.

Challenges and Setbacks

Having recognized the cultural and artistic vitality of the city does not negate the challenges that the sector is facing today. Indeed, the Israeli occupation of Palestine remains to be a major challenge. The mobility of artists, art operators, and art production is extremely difficult and at times impossible because of the siege that is imposed on the Palestinian population. In addition, some of Ramallah’s art and cultural organizations have not been immune to systematic attempts at destruction. In 2003, the headquarters of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in the city were occupied by the Israeli forces. Both the Khalil Sakakini Centre and Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque were broken into.

It is important to note that most cultural organizations that operate in Ramallah are totally dependent on foreign funding. And even in Ramallah (an affluent city), there is no real market for artistic events and productions, and there are no indications that a market will emerge any time soon. Furthermore, the contribution of the private sector to artistic and cultural fields remains insignificant.

One of the most alarming cultural controversies in Ramallah is the Ramallah Cultural Palace. Funded by the government of Japan, the largest and best-equipped cultural space in Palestine has not reached its maximum potential due to battles of sovereignty and the lack of clarity of its role and future.

A Final Note

In a strange way, the changes in the city have also shaped my career. In spite of my genuine interest in the arts and culture, I am not an artist myself. The artistic and cultural revival of town have been extremely conducive for reconciling my interest in the arts with choosing what I believe will be a lifetime career as an art operator. However, to me personally, the random and chaotic urbanization of town has sadly made Ramallah lose a fundamental part of its old character and magic. Many of the town’s most memorable monumental buildings were ruthlessly demolished to be replaced by high-rise buildings. The hills of Ramallah no longer match the memory I had of them in my mind. And of course, the rhythm of town has also changed. The nostalgia for the above, although painful, can also be instrumental, for me and others, as a driving force towards re-capturing and emphasizing the essence and uniqueness of the town in the new context of Ramallah’s urban development.

Fatin Farhat is the project coordinator for A Season of Contemporary Palestinian Art and Culture in Belgium.


This Week in Palestine

September 2007

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