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In the Spotlight: Nablus Culture

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 05.03.2007:

By Sami Hammad

What can be said of cultural life in Nablus? Is it possible for culture and military occupation to exist side by side? How can we define culture? Is it part of the arts as are music, theatre, and literature? Is it a set of habits and traditions? Or is it a form of heritage as architecture or food? Can we separate culture from education? Is it possible to view culture as a portrait-detailed and in-depth-or should we look at its background and history as well to get a broader perspective?

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to begin when Nablus began.

Historians propose various starting points when describing the history of Nablus. Some assert that it is nine thousand years old; others mark its beginning some seven thousand years ago; yet others begin with ‘Shechem’, the name given by the Canaanites, which belongs to the Chalcolithic age (3000-2500 BC). The name ‘Neapolis’ was bestowed on it when the Romans destroyed the city and rebuilt it anew in 72 AD.

Throughout history, Nablus has undergone the trials of various occupations. Sometimes, as in the case of Napoleon, the city was able to resist, and has since been called Jabal al Nar (Mountain of Fire). Its population as well as its geography have contributed to its strength and vitality. Fertile soil, 22 water springs, abundant in its wealth and commercial prowess, Nablus was known as a regional gem-the ‘Dry Port’-whose influence reached Istanbul, Bahrain, Baghdad, and Egypt. As recently as the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was known as the economic and sometimes even the political centre of Palestine.

An environment of prosperity helped to create a fertile ground for cultural growth. At the same time, its location between two mountains and far from the sea has allowed it to build its own personality, which is reflected in its habits, customs, and traditions. Its relative isolation from the international arena preserved these characteristics from being diluted by foreign influence. Thus, we can say that Nablus has a personality all its own, and its inhabitants take pride in its uniqueness and in the fact that Nablus can be described simultaneously as ‘open’ and ‘closed’.

A strong identity and relative prosperity have allowed Nabulsis the freedom to develop their taste for knowledge and culture. In 1911, the Nablus Municipality (which functioned as a truly powerful governmental body) established a municipal theatre, in addition to a café called Al-Manshieh, which served as a place for the cultural and political elite to meet in the afternoons. The theatre and café hosted big names in music year-round. The long list includes Yousef Wahbi, Badeea Masabni, Fathia Ahmad, Abd Al Mottaleb, Abd Al Wahab, Om Kulthoum. Over the years, the cultural centre has been expanded to include the Nablus Municipal Public Library, which now includes a collection of over 75,000 books, in addition to an archive section.

During the 1950s, three cinemas and another theatre were built. In addition to screening Arabic and foreign films, they also hosted concerts given by Fareed al Atrash, Asmahan, Fayrouz, and the Egyptian ‘Rida Group for Popular Arts’.

To complement cultural development, the Najah National School was established in 1918. Najah provided not only an opportunity for basic education, but also fostered an environment for advanced studies. Its distinguished faculty included Qadri Tukan and Abd Al Raheem Mahmoud, among others. Extra-curricular activities such as speech clubs, poetry clubs, and literature clubs were also initiated. Some notable graduates of Najah are Ibraheem Tukan, who educated his sister Fadwa Tukan at home, and Khayri Hammad, who is described as the most prolific writer in the Arab world, having authored or translated 120 books.

It is interesting to note that, in 1912, the mayor of Nablus created a new tax called ‘daribat al-maaref’ (education tax) to be imposed on estate owners in order to ensure that funds be available for building schools. The tax was later adopted throughout the Ottoman Empire.

During this particularly fruitful time for culture and education in Nablus, the business sector was also flourishing, despite the occasional ups and downs that are typical in any city.

With the Israeli occupation in 1967, all aspects of life were negatively affected. Many previously thriving initiatives were almost brought to a halt. Personal and financial security deteriorated. Political issues and the paralysis of military occupation prevented the creation and even the maintenance of many activities. Al Zaytoon Theatre, for example, was formed by committed volunteers who worked hard to prepare a hall given by the municipality for the production of Sadallah Wannous’ Biaa Al Saber. Though the play opened on schedule, soon after, the theatre was served a military order to stop the show and close the theatre. Numerous similar experiences affected any attempt to sustain cultural and educational development throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result of political changes during the mid-1990s, there were renewed attempts at various initiatives, especially after Arafat’s announcement that Nablus was to be the economic capital of Palestine. Although there were some successes-the establishment of the municipal children’s cultural centre and the Manko Children’s Library and public park, among others-the gap between ‘talk of peace and prosperity’ and the stark reality of day-to-day life continued to widen. It is remarkable, however, that within such a destructive environment, the people of Nablus managed to continue to hold some of their most important cultural events, namely the Sebastia Festival and some poetry-reading events.

After these disappointing years, another significant phase in the life of Palestinians on the West Bank, and in particular those living in Nablus, was the unprecedented and destructive Israeli invasion of West Bank cities in September 2000. The total siege imposed on Nablus transformed the economic capital of Palestine into the poverty capital of Palestine. Continuous 24-hour curfews, including one that lasted 103 consecutive days, completely crippled the city. Wanton destruction by Israel’s occupation forces as well as the systematic obliteration of architectural and cultural heritage sites contributed to yet another ‘transformation’: a society that was focused on cultural and educational development quickly became a population committed to developing a culture of resistance, a culture of survival. A complicating and distressing factor in the overall deterioration of the situation was the ‘collaboration’ of some local Palestinians with Israel’s destructive policies.

As this siege continued for much longer than that in other cities, the residents of Nablus felt they could wait no longer for external or even governmental bodies to help them gain their freedom-psychological if not physical. A number of public and private initiatives were begun in order to retrieve culture (a form of resistance in itself); to ensure the survival of Nablus inhabitants; to broaden a world that had become oppressive and suffocating; to give hope and encouragement to the young generation, who were slowly being overcome by despair and apathy as they faced the pressures, aggression, and violence of everyday life; and to remind people of their humanity through protecting and developing culture and heritage.

Despite numerous obstacles (financial as well as others), the Nablus spirit won out, and some new initiatives were created, often through individual efforts and personal financing. Though the nightly incursions and killings continued, as well as the ongoing curfews and closures, some remarkably active and determined groups of people worked hard to ensure that life, not just survival, prevail.

The Balata Cultural Forum meets for weekly literary discussions and debates and publishes its forums on the internet. (Even the Algerian writer, Al Taher Wattar, sent his latest novel to the group for review.) The members of the Dr. Afinan Darwazeh Literature Circle meet on the first Thursday of each month to discuss various literary topics, and twice a year, the general public is invited to traditional music performances.

Al Yasmeen Theatre Group, which began in 1988-1989, has lived through numerous trials and tribulations due to curfews and military orders that forbid gatherings for practices or performances. In spite of this harsh reality, as well as serious financial difficulties, Al Yasmeen managed to put on a number of performances during the first and second Intifadas. One of its children’s theatre performances, Salma wa al Hakem (Salma and the Ruler) even won first prize in the 2005 Children’s Theatre Festival. Unfortunately, Al Yasmeen was unable to participate in the Moroccan theatre festival due to the fact that other Palestinian cities seem to have a monopoly not only on support for cultural activities, which prevents Nablus from receiving its fair share of funding, but also on virtually every aspect of life-commerce, politics, culture, etc.

Najah University has played a key supportive role in the process of cultural preservation and development in Nablus. The first building to be constructed on its new campus was the Fine Arts Faculty, followed in 2006 by an 870-seat fully equipped theatre that includes a 35mm film projector. Najah frequently hosts forums and conferences that enhance the atmosphere of cultural development. In addition, Najah offers its facilities free-of-charge for many cultural activities as well as logistical support in planning and advertising events. In July 2003, the University opened its own radio station, which not only provides multicultural programmes but also promotes the preservation of Palestinian cultural heritage.

The Zafer Masri Foundation, which built a remarkable multi-function building in 2000, provides foreign-language courses and also offers its facilities for cultural activities.

The French Cultural Centre contributes significantly to cultural development through programmes that feature various artists from France and film screenings in cooperation with other associations in town.

A recent private initiative, Nablus The Culture, was begun in May 2005 in order to revive the city’s cultural life. The first events included musical concerts given by local and international musicians and groups such as Julien Salemkour, Erich Hueiter, Daniel Del Pino, Peter Van Hove, Edith Garcia, Samer Totah, Eric Schneider, Ioannis Potamouses, Yalalan, opera singers Donna Zapolla and Coke Morgan, The Young Palestinian Orchestra of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), the oriental music group of ENCM, Maqamat and, of course, a monthly concert by Barenboim-Said Foundation musicians.

Nablus The Culture opened a music school in April 2006 and boasts a distinguished teaching staff, most of whom are from the Barenboim-Said Foundation. Good relationships have been created with many local and international associations that provide invaluable support. They include ESNCM, Barenboim-Said Foundation, Bethlehem Music Academy, Al Kamanjati, Ashtar Theatre, Popular Arts Center, Music Fund, and Ictus of Belgium, among others.

Nablus The Culture has also organized poetry recitals by local and foreign poets as well as film screenings. A future plan is to form a cinema club and to hold weekly film screenings.

Since acquiring its own centre, Nablus The Culture hopes to expand its activities. Among these are theatre training (and a future drama school) and, in cooperation with Ashtar Theatre, an international theatre festival to take place between April and June. Other plans include summer courses in visual arts, cultural heritage and art exhibitions, workshops for violin makers, courses in early childhood music education, the production of an anthology of traditional Nabulsi songs, and the formation of a children’s choir and a dabke dance group.

No survey of cultural life in Nablus would be complete without including the unique Sheikh Omar Arafat Foundation, which is led by Naseer Arafat. Naseer is committed to the preservation of cultural heritage sites in the old city of Nablus. The Foundation is housed in an old soap factory that has been renovated and transformed into the Nabulsi Soap Museum and a cultural centre for children who live in the old city.

In the midst of all these creative initiatives, it is, unfortunately, important to also mention the insidious presence of some nongovernmental organizations that actually undermine the mission of authentic cultural centres. These pseudo-organizations are often simply storefronts for various political factions.

Having made the tour of cultural life in Nablus, it may be easier than before to articulate a definition of ‘Nablus culture’. For Nabulsis at least, culture is the indomitable will to live and to flourish, even under the most inhumane circumstances, and to share the riches of one’s history and identity with others.

Sami Hammad is an engineer and the founder of Nablus The Culture. He can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

March 2007

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