Ramallah’s cultural monopoly

Take a walk down the fancy neighborhoods of Ramallah, and you’ll witness a heady mix of cultural centers and activities, all bearing witness to an apparently vibrant Palestinian cultural scene. 

“Culture and cultural activity is at the core of human development, and it’s also at the core of exposing oneself to others, which is especially paramount at this juncture in human history,” says Ziad Khalaf, executive director of the A.M. Qattan Foundation, housed in a glittering new building in the upscale Ramallah neighborhood of Masyoun.

The Qattan Foundation’s is one of several very modern cultural facilities in Ramallah. Last year, Masyoun also witnessed the building of the $6 million Ramallah Cultural Palace, which was funded by the government of Japan as a gift to the Palestinian people. Ramallah also boasts the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, the Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinamatheque, amongst many other institutions that offer high-quality cultural events.

However, the further one gets away from the Ramallah-Bethlehem-Jerusalem triangle, the fewer cultural centers one sees. Sami Hammad, an ironworker in Nablus who has recently formed a grassroots group “to reactivate life in this town,” says that when it comes to cultural activity, Ramallah is “becoming overloaded,” and that other population centers such as Nablus are missing out.

“That the donors do not come to us is not right,” agrees Raed Shieukhi, a member of Hebron’s Theater Day Productions, which he says is the only organization putting on productions in the area since 1997. According to Shieukhi, in Hebron, though “people are a lot less open” than in Ramallah, they are very much interested in cultural activities. The current level of activity in Hebron, with a population surpassing Ramallah, “is not enough.”

Shieukhi’s view is echoed by Othman Hussein, director of the Ashtar for Culture and Arts based in Gaza City. He says that people in the densely populated Gaza Strip “need [cultural life] very much,” but don’t see it for a variety of socio-economic reasons.

Hussein blames the Minister of Culture Yahia Yakhlef, whom he accuses of taking “all the money for culture in Palestine and putting it in the bank.” He also points out the concentration of wealth in Ramallah, which has been serving as Palestine’s de facto capital since it became the temporary seat of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.

As Basil Ayish, who helped oversee the Cultural Palace’s first year of operations as a UNDP Tokten consultant, more diplomatically explains, “There is an inordinate amount of attention given to Ramallah for everything, not just cultural activities, and that’s partly because of the absence of any centralized planning, or failure … to organize in a way that benefits a broader society of Palestinians.”

Ayish adds, “The PA has almost all of their offices here [in Ramallah], you have NGOs here, you have a lot of internationals who are based here because this is where the action is, and you’ve got cultural centers which are being built by international agencies and local groups.”

However, Khalaf points out that “the concentration of cultural life in Ramallah” is not a major departure from its history as “a magnet for tourists, especially internal tourists” which began at the turn of the last century, when it became home to “an abundance of educational institutions and schools.” Also significant is the historic Christian presence in Ramallah, “which was predominant before 1948,” and helped create “the relatively liberal attitude and environment in Ramallah … which is definitely conducive to cultural life.”

Multi-faceted artist and lecturer at Birzeit University Vera Tamari also emphasizes Ramallah’s history as “the center for academic institutions,” and “a place where culture and academia was much more developed than in other places.”

Of course, any society is going to have its cultural elite, which is urban and educated. Given its history, and how the formerly bustling East Jerusalem has been cut off from both the PA and the rest of the West Bank, it makes sense that Ramallah would still continue to set the pace for the rest of Palestinian society. As Ayish puts it, “There’s a community of art-goers … ultimately, it’s a small section of society that does these things.”

Indeed, Khalaf questions the long-term sustainability of cultural investment in less cosmopolitan cities. “When we support certain activities in Tulkarem and Qalqiliya, the number in attendance is fantastic,” he says. But if such activities were to be held on a regular basis, he asks, “What would the demand be like?”

However, it is widely recognized that there is a need to serve and develop Palestinian culture in the areas beyond the reach of Ramallah, with its bars and European-style coffee shops, to the more rural and traditional parts of Palestinian society. 

Khalaf thinks while “there’s a need to increase the activities and concentrate more and more on quality of cultural production” in Ramallah, which also serves East Jerusalem, “what should be realized and worked upon by all those concerned … is the need to reach out and hold activities and events in the villages and in Gaza. What I hope for is to see an increase and intensification of cultural activities throughout, with the hope that other cities will parallel Ramallah and even surpass it [in] time.”

Khalaf adds, “Many of our partner organizations here in Ramallah do realize the need to reach out and take these steps to encourage cultural life elsewhere, and many of them have done so.” 

For example, Tamari is serving on a newly formed independent committee of cultural experts with experience in management to oversee the spending of a grant from the government of Norway to the Ministry of Culture.

Explaining that the committee has received 480 applications from various cultural organizations throughout the territories for a part of this $1.2 million pie, she says, “one of the main issues was that [the distribution of the grant] will concentrate on areas like remote villages or groups of people who have been unprivileged so far in getting grants. … We are studying the areas where there’s a need.”

The committee is not discriminating against organizations that don’t have the experience of proposal-writing like those in Ramallah, with its scores of NGOs. “We were not prejudiced about bad applications,” says Tamari. If the group was “serious enough,” the committee would consider the application, and if the idea was good but needed more work, “we felt the Ministry [of Culture] ought to help them develop it” with the hopes of later finding funds.

This goal is echoed by Ali Khalil, the general director of the Ministry of Culture, who also defended the ministry. “We don’t have money. But we are working to open doors [for Palestinian culture-makers] with donors.” Noting that the ministry “can’t support activities in East Jerusalem because of Israeli policies,” plans are in the works for “a theater in Nablus and Gaza, and there are plans to build and support [a cultural center] in Qalqiliya, which is surrounded by the Israeli wall.”

Khalil agrees that “Ramallah is the main [cultural] center,” but blames the Israeli closures for shortages of cultural activities in the north and south of the West Bank and Gaza, and says the ministry recognizes the need to serve those communities.

But Ayish finds that “because there isn’t any real accountability of Palestinian politicians, we don’t know how much the budgets are … we don’t know how much money gets squandered … there very well could be money to support cultural activities throughout Palestine, we just don’t know.” Commenting on the Ministry of Culture, he adds, “There isn’t any real strategy. The expenditures of money could be political if they had the money to spend in the beginning. So there needs to be independence for the spending of money for cultural activities, in which case places like Ramallah might see less money, and places like Nablus might see more.”

Tamari recognizes that “there’s a bit of laziness as well. [The ministries] don’t seek to see how they could develop or put a strategy on how to develop culture all over.”

Shieukhi, whose organization is supported by both the Ministry of Education and foreign donors, says the problem in Hebron is with its five major families “that control the city and are concerned with building and commercial issues” and are “not so interested in culture.” Shieukhi adds that there is also a problem with corruption on the part of the Hebron-based cultural NGOs receiving funding, which “are working to bring money for themselves, and unfortunately [pocketing] the money.”

Also at work are crucial economic factors that limit the development of Palestinian culture. As Hammad points out, “In other countries, culture is like bread. But in poor places and places like [Nablus] it is a luxury.”

Ayish seconds, “Ultimately, culture is a luxury. It’s not making sure that clean water gets to people’s home on a daily basis.” Culture in Palestine is “further complicated because the section of society that would like to go [to cultural events] is cut off from access because of the Israeli occupation.” 

With an economy deadened by such movement restrictions, many people simply cannot afford either ticket prices or transportation costs, and have more urgent priorities than attending cultural activities. As Ayish explains, “Keep in mind that Palestinian cultural activities are cheap, but cost the same [to produce] as any developing country … You’re paying developed world prices [for production] when people can only pay 20 shekels [approximately $4 US] per ticket.”

He adds, “The costs of putting on [an event in Palestine] are actually higher because you can’t do it in too many places” due to Israeli closures. Additionally, “the market potential doesn’t warrant doing [a production] for a week on end” 

“Palestinian culture is fighting hard to stay alive,” says Ayish. “You are doubly hit as an artist. You have nobody helping you out unless you have made alliances with [donor] agencies] … and you can’t generate more revenue because people can’t pay more for tickets, and you can’t generate more of an audience because people can’t come and see your performance.”

Hammad is doing his part to make sure cultural life remains afloat in besieged Nablus, though he is not being supported by any official or semi-official institutions. Tickets to the events his group puts on are free, “and everyone who is interested can come.” He says, “Most people who attend or hear about what we do are supporting us; they offer to help by all means,” and that “other places that ask for [financial] support for everything, we consider that begging.” 

Hammad adds, “When we put on concerts or an activity, we do it in part as resistance. Part of the [Israeli] siege is cultural. This is resistance. [Culture] makes peoples’ lives easier, it gives them some motivation to live somewhere, and those artists who come here, come in solidarity. Some of those who come to perform here [want to financially] support us. We say to them, we don’t need money, we need friends. This is the biggest support.”

Despite all the factors working against it, Palestinian culture has arguably increased in quality. As Tamari puts it, “There’s a new scene that’s happening … young artists don’t go through the academic formative stage, and they jump into conceptual art, video, and installation … People really want to relay a message to the world in a much more sophisticated way about who we are as Palestinians.”