Coffee and cinema

Yabous Cultural Center transforms the city’s Arabic-speaking vibe.

Muslims and the movies (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Muslims and the movies
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
A quarter-century after cultural life in east Jerusalem withered during the first intifada, the arts scene in the Arabic-speaking third of the city is experiencing a renaissance.
Among the cultural establishments is the Yabous Cultural Center on Az-Zahra Street, which was founded in 1995 and moved into its permanent home last year. Yabous’s location – almost across the street from al-Hoash Gallery and near the Palestine National Theater and the Albright School of Archaeology, both on Salah ad-Din Street – is part of a growing cluster of cultural venues in downtown east Jerusalem.
The elegant cultural complex comprising an 85-seat cinema hall, a 420-seat performance hall including an orchestra pit, a 120-seat multipurpose auditorium, a café and a library, is housed in the former Al-Quds cinema – a movie theater built in 1950 at the beginning of east Jerusalem’s Jordanian occupation. Al- Quds, a landmark in the Hashemite-built Az-Zahara commercial district just north of the Old City, hosted up to 800 people in its glory years of the silver screen.
A skeleton of the neon sign that once proclaimed “Jerusalem Cinema” remains from the original picture house.
Like the nearby Alhambra cinema – which was shuttered in 1989 and reopened 20 years later as a café restaurant and special events venue – the two movie houses showed commercial movies from Egypt, Hollywood and Europe.
“We have been disconnected from the rest of the world for too long,” says filmmaker Rima Essa, the director of Yabous, which means Jebusite. “Our goal is to screen films from countries like Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and we hope that this center will be able to offer the Palestinians a new cultural experience and a different view on themselves.”
According to Essa, accessing culture has been an economic and socioeconomic hassle for Palestinians.
“At most of the cinemas in west Jerusalem, if you want to go to see a film, you will pay NIS 40. And this is money that Palestinians, because of the situation they are living in, cannot afford, so they are not exposed to cultural events and not exposed to things around them,” she says. “We are more and more inside a siege that Israel is forcing on Jerusalemites. So I’m hoping that this place actually will give the Palestinians – not only east Jerusalemites, but Palestinians in general – the ability to come and to see films.”
True to its mandate, Yabous held the Middle East premiere of Annemarie Jacir’s new film Lama Shaftak (When I Saw You) on September 22. Due to the high demand, it held a second screening – which was also sold out – and ran daily until September 28. The film, in Arabic with English subtitles, had its world premiere September 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival. At NIS 15, tickets are a bargain compared to theater prices in west Jerusalem.
The 96-minute feature is set in Jordan in 1967 – seven years before Jacir herself was born. The movie cost $700,000 to produce, but has the feel of a much larger budget. It poignantly follows a precocious 11-year-old boy, Tarik, as he runs away from his refugee camp seeking to return to his West Bank home following the Naksa (downfall or defeat) – a term used in Palestinian political idiom to refer to the Six Day War.
Like Jacir’s award-winning debut Milh Hadha al-Bahr (Salt of This Sea), which premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, When I Saw You avoids polemics about Israel. But for an IDF helicopter circling overhead in one scene, no Israelis appear in the movie.
Through the story of a single child, Jacir conveys a universal narrative of wanting to return home.
Jacir notes that a large group of Israeli expats came to see the film’s Toronto debut. According to the Hollywood movie industry newspaper Variety, When I Saw You has been selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, which will take place in Los Angeles in February 2013.
Following the Jacir film was the September 27 opening of Shareef Sharhan’s photo exhibition “Gaza Lives.” The exhibition, which continued until October 16, was co-sponsored by the Institut Français Chateaubriand. The French cultural center on nearby Salah a-Din Street memorializes the explorer François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, whose 1807 book Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem et de Jérusalem à Paris contains the last description of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before the disastrous fire of 1808.
Like Yabous, the French cultural center today has a more contemporary interest.
In addition to presenting film and photos, Yabous offers debka folk dancing classes for adults every Sunday and Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. The folk dance classes are supported by the Pontifical Mission.
Yabous’s donor plaque lists dozens of countries and foundations that have supported the center. Indeed, foreign aid is heavily funding the revival of east Jerusalem’s cultural scene. America House on Nablus Road, which opened in June 2010 on the premises of the former US consulate-general, recently presented an exhibition of the work of eight photographers from Jerusalem and the West Bank.
For more information about the Yabous Cultural Center, see