Performing Palestine: Resisting the Occupation and Reviving Jerusalem’s Social and Cultural Identity through Music and the Arts
Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 22.12.2007:
David A. McDonald
Resistance to the Israeli occupation takes many forms. From everyday acts of civil disobedience to outright engagement with occupation forces, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation have sought out myriad ways of negotiating the current socio-political landscape.1 One particularly fascinating arena for social and cultural resistance lies in the fields of popular culture and the arts. Though music and musical performance have often been ignored as epiphenomenal in the literature on Palestinian identity and nationalism, new studies of the Middle East have begun to refocus attention on the ways in which popular culture and performance are in fact constitutive modalities for the negotiation of power and resistance, social interaction, and identity.2 In keeping with this approach, this study highlights contemporary cultural associations, non-governmental organizations, and independent projects which seek to revitalize and restore Jerusalem as the cultural capital of the Palestinian people. This new wave of cultural activity (in the form of music, film, and arts festivals, concerts, and symposiums) in Jerusalem represents an important, yet often overlooked, front in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and the cultural continuity of the Palestinian community.
The development of cultural organizations over the last 15 years has had a substantial effect on social and cultural life in Palestine, and has served as an important model for civil, non-violent resistance to the occupation. In this endeavour, cultural programs aimed at educating, entertaining, and or enlightening Palestinian audiences convey a sense of national pride and community. What is more, these programs have provided a constructive outlet for dealing with feelings of loss, depression, and dispossession brought about by the occupation. As one professor at the Edward Said National Conservatory for Music said to me, “every hour that I teach a student is an hour that they are not on the street… Through music I can get these kids to drop stones, and instead pick up an instrument.”3
The primary goal of this article, however, is not simply to describe current attempts to reinvigorate cultural life in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but rather to expand the ways in which the tools and methods of Palestinian resistance are conceptualized. Compared to the angry scenes broadcast by international media, non-violent social and cultural activism goes largely unnoticed by the foreign press. The daily negotiation of Palestinian life under occupation is constituted by more than stones and demonstrations. It also includes building cultural bridges, inspiring artistic production, and creating moments of hope and achievement in the lives of Palestinian children and their families. Through various cultural and artistic programs, Palestinians are able to subvert the control of the occupation and take a proactive stance against the social and cultural transformation of Jerusalem and its native population.
Specifically, this article will focus on three cultural organizations; the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNMC), the Markez al-Fann al-Sha’bi [Popular Arts Centre], and Yabous Productions. These organizations work to undermine the physical and cultural control imposed by the occupation, as well as to enhance and develop cultural life through music, dance, art, and film. Moreover, each has been instrumental in the development of several music, film, and arts festivals in Jerusalem and the West Bank. These festivals have become extremely popular, and offer valuable insights into how music and popular culture serve to facilitate communal interaction and collective identity formation. However, the examples cited here should be seen as a microcosm of a much larger social project led by various grassroots organizations to preserve and expand indigenous Palestinian cultural practices.
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