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Twelfth Annual Artas Lettuce Festival Draws Crowds of Palestinians and Foreigners

Contributed by Artas Folklore Center on 05.02.2014:

By Leyla Zuaiter

It is unseasonably cool, and if the skies are not clear, the forecast rain has not materialized. At 2:00 on April 6, the garden of the Convent of the Enclosed Garden in Artas is packed with spectators. They have seen the posters, received invitations, read the ads in the newspapers or heard about it from their friends and neighbors. They have come from neighboring towns, villages and refugee camps, or come from afar, braving checkpoints and torturous roads. Young and old, men women and children, recognized pillars of Palestinian society, or the men on the street–all have taken their seats. The air is thick with collective anticipation. The Twelfth Annual Lettuce Festival is about to begin.

The stage is modest, to be sure. Lengths of wood nailed together the day before in the pouring rain by the villagers and covered with carpeting cannot hide some of its odd angles. And the tree in the garden of the Convent of the Enclosed Garden is right smack in front of it. But this does not seem to decrease the enjoyment of the village children and their mothers sitting on the “balcony” designed as much by nature as garden, nor of the invited guests and dignitaries below. The Turkish Ambassador and his wife and the Turkish Commercial Officer have place of honor in the first row, but so many are the distinguished guests, that they overflow into the back rows.

Shh, they are about to begin. But first things first. A verse from the Koran is read, and the spectators are asked to stand in a moment of silence for Palestine’s dead, before the members of Jafra, Artas Folklore Center’s Troupe, exuberantly burst onto the stage. The air of purity given off by their costumes befits this troupe of adolescent boys, famous for its adherence to traditional dance forms. Thanks to Jerusalem’s British Consulate, the Festival’s sponsor, they have a new set of costumes to replace those they have outgrown. Their spiff new off-white robes and head-dress tied back out of their way in a distinctive manner, they show the audience why they are the winner of so many awards, and why they are sought after in international dance festivals, such as the one in Crete last summer. Their skill turns the tiny, makeshift stage into a large terrain and the 15 boys into hundreds. It is hard to believe that all of the rhythm and melody moving those feet come from one traditional wooden flute– as their teacher, Abu Lutfi far lighter on his feet than he is in years urges them on by example into greater effort. They dance several dances in succession in tight circles, some especially graceful ones peeling off occasionally to dance within it.

Then more words—for words count much in a society with such a rich oral tradition—and the audience listens attentively: the Governor of Bethlehem, beseeches the Artas people to care for their environment and heritage, the director of the Artas Folklore Center speaks about the devastating effects the planned Wall will have on the rich natural, cultural heritage, destruction of archeological sites—not to mention tourism. The head of the village council discusses the difficult challenges the village faces. The representative of the Palestine Wildlife Society, the Festival co-host discusses the role of his organization in protecting the environment.

Now the Turkish musicians add spice to the standard festival fare. For how many Palestinian festivals can boast of having the saz, a Turkish village instrument, with vocal accompaniment—the music just similar enough to catch the audience in its rhythm, just different enough to intrigue them and engage their imaginations.

A change of pace, gender and provenance follows in the form of the all-girl Khaimeh Folklore Troupe, all 11 of them dressed in thobs with cross stitch embroidery, their heads covered with white veils, from the nearby refugee camp of Dehaisheh, well-known for its cultural activities. They, and several other youth troupes have been spotted in a recent Heritage Day hosted by the Palestine Wildlife Society. Palestinian villages still produce poets, and who better to prove it than Artas’s own poet-Aman Allah Ayesh, a published poet, who recited his poem Sindibad. The master of ceremonies skillfully smoothes the transition of one segment to another though the rich Arabic language, evoking images, traditions and values, reminding the assembled of who they are and what they have in common.

A brief intermission, Artas style, ensues, in which youngsters in traditional dress pass out a head of lettuce to each guest, at once practicing traditional Palestinian hospitality and reminding everyone why Artas is famous for its lettuce. Taken fresh from the ground the lettuce is deliciously cool, crisp and refreshing and seemingly irresistible. For a moment the only sound to be heard is that of collective munching.

The smiles now turn to laughter as a comedian from Hebron, parodies the accents of various Arab personalities and nations.

Then the Artas Folklore Troupe leads the guests to the exhibits, dancing all the way across the picturesque bridge over the Artas Valley. They look at old photos of the village and its inhabitants, photos of the natural and cultural heritage of Palestine, and paintings. They visit the museum, and buy embroidery, olive wood and books on Palestinian heritage. One family history enthusiast takes the opportunity to ask the Turkish ambassador about access to Turkish Archives for use in completing his family’s genealogy. Thanks to the Berlin-based founder of Palestine-family net, in Palestine for the Festival as well as the conference “ Palestine and Education: Strategies for Empowerment under Extreme Adversity” sponsored by AEI-Open Windows at the International Center of Bethlehem, he may soon have help. But right now, he is busy taking spectacular photos of the festival. Before leaving, the guests are treated to more village hospitality in the form of savoury pastries, and salads.

The next morning quite a few people turn up for the Spring Hike from Solomon’s Pools to the village. Among the participants are an engineer from Ramallah, a family from Hebron, a family whose head is a British Palestinian, and a woman with five children from Abu-Dis whose husband has called her from America to inform her about the festival. Carrying sophisticated wildlife-viewing equipment on tripods the Executive Director of the Palestine Wildlife Society based in nearby Beit Sahour, and Artas Folklore Center’s official partner in the festival, , leads the participants, who are provided with binoculars. Off they go to enjoy the natural and cultural Heritage of the Artas Valley.

Meanwhile knots of people assemble in the village center, visiting the exhibits. The French Cultural Attache and the wife of French Consul are among those treated to impromptu dancing, and singing accompanied by the rababa of the Artas Folklore Troupe.

A group of students, their hair on end–.whether due to Abu Lutfi’s mesmerizing tales or the gel he exhorted them against using –stand in rapt attention as he urges them to try olive oil instead. Enthralled by the brief and hurried allusions to the fascinating history and heritage of Artas, a group of students from Abu Dis who have made the effort to come to the festival, make vows to return.

The group of hikers arrive in the village with radiant faces and excitedly reports spotting a Rock Hyrax, a small mammal resembling a rabbit but related to the elephant, which has no business being in Artas. The hikers fall upon their home-cooked meal with relish and rest for the day’s folklore show including a play, by former Minister of Tourism and Antiquities about the Finnish Anthropologist, Hilma Grandqist, who lived in the village, a girl’s percussion troupe, a Palestinian Fashion show, and an Agricultural Play by Artas’s own Abu Lutfi.

The festival is now officially over but the hike is repeated the next day for members of foreign NGO’s. Members of the Artas Folklore Center tell the proverbs associated with the wildlife seen, and the Turkish Musicians play under the trees. After lunch the Artas Folklore Museum magically expands to hold all of the visitors and members of the Artas Folklore Troupe, who motivated by the appreciation of the audience, keeps seeking to surpass its last dance. The stomachs of the guests magically expand as well, to accommodate the heads of lettuce pressed upon them. The young performers are rewarded by a gift of Turkish caps from the Turkish Ambassador, distributed by the Turkish singer. Tired but happy everyone disperses. But they will soon be back for more.

This article was originally written for Paltour News 11 April/May 2011

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