Under appreciated

The choice of plays, concerts and exhibitions is quite limited in east Jerusalem.

east jerusalem 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
east jerusalem 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
If you are looking for a cultural activity in east Jerusalem, Jericho or even Gaza, or a nice caf /restaurant in Ramallah, all you have to do is look up This Week in Palestine, an English-language magazine that is the Palestinian alternative to Achbar Ha'ir. The colorful brochure has articles and tips on culture, tourism and leisure and is distributed free in hotels and restaurants in east Jerusalem and Ramallah. The publication lists various cultural activities such as exhibitions, plays and movies, which can be seen in Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Judging by quantity, the leader in cultural activities is Ramallah, where one can choose between a play in al-Bider or al-Qasaba theaters, a flamenco dance performance in the Popular Art Center or an art exhibit in a German Cultural Centre. Last fall visitors and residents enjoyed the International Film Festival, the Euro-Mediterranean Film Festival, at least five art exhibitions and numerous performances. In comparison with Ramallah, the choice of plays, concerts and exhibitions is quite limitedin east Jerusalem. There is, however, an abundance of cultural centers, including the Palestinian National Theater, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, the Palestinian Art Court and others, in addition to the foreign cultural centers run by the consulates of Great Britain, France and Turkey. The funding situation is tough. Jamal Goshe, the director of the PNT, admits that today, when the PA is in a deep financial crisis, receiving any support for cultural activities is not an easy task. The PNT, like many other Palestinian establishments in east Jerusalem, lives on donations from the PA and abroad and does not depend on the cultural budget allocated by the municipality to east Jerusalem. "We don't want to be ruled by anyone and to receive orders from anyone," says Goshe. The total budget for culture for the eastern part of the city stands at approximately NIS 900,000. According to Faed Badarna, the head of the cultural department in east Jerusalem, the department started with the modest sum of NIS 300,000, and over the years the budget expanded to almost NIS 1 million, which is still negligable in comparison to the annual Jerusalem cultural budget of NIS 70 m. The money is spent on acquiring plays for the community and cultural centers in east Jerusalem neighborhoods and villages and for festive activities during Muslim and Christian holidays. There are also artistic and creative roundlets that operate under the aegis of the municipality, although the artists themselves do not advertise this fact so much - for political reasons. Faed says that the interest in cultural activity among the people of eastern Jerusalem is enormous. "When we bring plays to Jabal Mukaber or Issawiya, we often have a full hall, as many people have't seen a play in their life, and they are very curious and attracted to it. Of course we wish we could have more funds for all these activities." In reaction to an inquiry by In Jerusalem, the municipality press office said that in addition to the NIS 900,000, additional sums are being allocated to the east Jerusalem cultural budget. The residents of eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods themselves say that although the discrimination between the two parts of the city is evident, they believe that the root of the decline of the cultural life of the city is not the lack of funding, but the relatively recent isolation of Jerusalem from the West Bank. "Once my family used to come from al-Khader [a Bethlehem suburb] and we would all go out in Jerusalem, sit in a restaurant, walk Salah a-Din street and maybe catch a movie or a play. Now it's not an option anymore. They cannot come here since they don't have the permits and it's difficult for us to go through check-points all the time," says Said Mustafa, a 45-year-old resident of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. "At nights we usually just sit at home or visit friends, since there is not too much going on in the city in any case, no new shows, no normal cinema and the streets are dark and empty. It seems that cultural life in east Jerusalem has been in decline for the past six years," says his wife Salma. Goshe says the political situation also has a serious impact on culture. "Once, we could travel freely to perform in other Palestinian cities such as Ramallah and Bethlehem, and the audience from these cities came to attend our plays. Now the wall comes in between. Since we work a lot with Israeli-Arab actors from Galilee, we can't bring them into the Palestinian Authority, and we can't bring our Palestinian actors from Ramallah to Jerusalem to perform here. This is the kind of difficulty that we just don't know how to overcome," he says. He explains that today, when Jerusalemites are separated from the West Bank, it inevitably affects also the social and the cultural life in the city. "You cannot just talk about culture alone, [because] that depends on the general atmosphere in the city. When you walk the streets of east Jerusalem at night, they are empty and dark. Jerusalem is a dead city today. To bring a cultural revival, you first have to eradicate the fear and constant tension, you have to allow people to move freely." Next week the PNT is traveling to France with Gidariya, a play by the renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The play has also been to the States, where it made quite a few headlines and was a success. It seems that for the PNT it is easier to travel abroad than to perform in nearby Ramallah, Hebron or Jenin. "If the situation in the region does not change, our theater might be forced to close the doors," concludes Jamal Goshe, who believes that only a significant political change in the Holy Land might lead to a revival of culture in eastern Jerusalem today.