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Culture and Dissent in Palestine

Culture and Dissent in Palestine

By Am Johal

About a fifteen minute walk from the street vendors and businesses of the downtown Palestinian cultural capital of Ramallah, is a dangerous subversive place according to the Israeli authorities. So much so that they in fact in 2002 raided the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center and according to the Miami Herald "seized a computer and a cellphone, broke dozens of windows, swept books off shelves, peppered walls with shrapnel and bullets, spit pumpkin seeds on the floor and allegedly stole 3,700 shekels."

The Georgetown educated Director Adila Laidi said at the time, "It was just vandalism, part of a conscious desire to ruin everything Palestinian. Once you decide to do that, you go and methodically destroy every institution. Subconsciously, they are dreaming about shoving the whole Palestinian people out of existence."

In Occupied Palestine, it is as if you live a dehumanized existence from the day you're born. You are uneqal. You feel it everyday in how power is exercised. That relationship is rarely altered. You are second class and relegated to a Bantustan-like existence. When the people in power talk peace, you see the situation deteriorate. You see loved ones die, killed off by security forces. You face the Separation Wall and are denied entry into Israel to see family members. You learn to hate because you're isolated and you know nothing else.

Today you can still see the broken glass of the picture, the bullet holes and a broken door left in the board room, curated like an art exhibit. The Sakakini Center has at different times received funding from the Japanese Government, the United Nations Development Program, the Ford Foundation, the European Union and Dutch benefactors - hardly radical organizations in the grand scheme of things.

Director Adila Laidi tells me that the role of culture evolves over time and raises to the public questions like the normalcy of the Israeli Occupation. If Edward Said and Noam Chomsky argue that the role of the intellectual is to speak truth to power and Bill Moyers says the same of journalism, then what Laidi is arguing is much the same for art and culture in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In the office next door, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, known as the conscience of his people, is working on his literary review, Al Karmel, as he has since he used to edit it in Lebanon.

Laidi says that since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, there has been no normal life. And that as the role of art and culture develop as a means of expression in the context of the Occupation and the current Intifada, the Sakakini Cultural Center has a duty to reach beyond the middle, educated classes.

Her view is that music, culture, art and literature still has the power to lift people up to dream and imagine when their humanity has been reduced to an identity card. And by giving people access to these forms of expression, it can also reduce the gaps between those who are here and isolated with those who are in the Palestinian diaspora and the outside world. She sees it as a place where people can channel their anger and creativity.

Laidi sees the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center as a place to nurture Palestinian visual artists. She was also involved with curating the controversial 100 Shaheeds exhibit which memorialized the first 100 Palestinians which died in the Second Intifada.

In the introduction to the book, Laidi as the Editor writes, "one of the project's goals was to give back to each shaheed (martyr) his or her individuality...[hence] each [was given] his or her own personal space, featuring his or her name, photograph and personal object. The Shuhada [are] also presented in order of age. The objects and photographs ... speak for themselves, on their own terms, going beyond death to recreate a life without the clutter of text or obtrusive display devices." The exhibit has gone abroad to several countries and generated much discussion.

For now, the Sakakini Cultural Center is limited in their ability to go beyond Ramallah, hampered by the same security restrictions as everyone else.

Adila Laidi says, "We need to have more rooting in the community that does not currently consume culture, and have more popular forms which they can affiliate with."

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