Culture

Three notes from an occupied territory

BEIRUT: On the evening of May 15, gunmen broke into Bethlehem’s Dar Jacir art center, trashed its offices and equipment and stole a number of items – including telephones, a computer, hard drive and cameras.

The center reports that during an Israeli army incursion earlier that week, several fires blazed on and near its grounds, reducing its urban farm to ash and forcing its resident artists to leave the site.

With Zionist gangs hunting Arabs in ’48 Palestine and marching through occupied East Jerusalem, the center released a statement reassuring colleagues that none of Dar Jacir’s team or resident artists had been injured during the break-in.

Two days after the burglary, the team said they were still working to discern the extent of the damage, “as this assault has affected personal items of our residents, ongoing collective projects, as well as items related to our library.”

The security crackdown following Israel’s most recent inconclusive election result, escalating into yet another bombing campaign of Gaza, has been felt all over historic Palestine, including its creative sector.

“They announced that it will cost $9 billion to repair the damage from the Gaza attack, but all the raw materials must be bought from Israel,” artist and curator Jack Persekian said. “They destroy it, then they make money from rebuilding it. Meanwhile they’ve been told that their ‘iron dome’ will be replenished.”

The founder of two East Jerusalem art institutions, Anadiel Gallery and Al-Ma‘mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Persekian says Israel’s crackdown in Jerusalem (which corresponded with Easter and Ramadan celebrations) extended and intensified earlier pandemic restrictions on Palestinians, whose freedom of movement is routinely constrained by the occupation regime.

“They close the Old City every year because they say they want to control the tourists,” he said. “Of course there were no tourists this year, so it makes no sense that they should close everything at this time. Then they attacked worshippers in Haram al-Sharif. Why? They just want to push people to the brink of confrontation.

“Unfortunately this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s not just now.”

Persekian says the city’s Palestinian cultural institutions were closed at the start of the pandemic and stayed shut until mid-April.

“It became more difficult during Ramadan because, after a year of COVID shutdown, serious decisions were made to try to return to ‘normal’ – resume activities, receive people in the venues and start a program. With the confrontations and the crackdown on people in Haram al-Sharif and in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere, cultural centers and institutions were obligated to hold back on doing anything just to see what to do in light of these new realities on the ground.

“I feel that nowadays people are reluctant to engage in cultural activities and programs because of the situation and because of its proximity to people’s livelihoods and homes and friends and family. In Jerusalem, the effect is very very strong and very visible. No one is in the mood for any activity that would distract from what’s happening on the ground, from going to places like Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City and standing in protest and in solidarity with the families that are being kicked out. People who don’t go to demonstrations are working with social media, garnering support, each is trying his or her work in light of this.

“The case of Dar Jacir is particular, though, because they’re right there, in proximity to the confrontation line with Israeli soldiers.”

An independent artist-run initiative, Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art & Research was founded in 2014 by a team of artists and researchers headed by Emily Jacir, best known for her award-winning contemporary art, and including her sister Annemarie Jacir, a prize-winning film director and producer.

Managed by Aline Khoury, Dar Jacir is devoted to educational, cultural and agricultural activities – exhibitions, workshops, artist residences and such – with an accent on knowledge production and research.

It’s situated in the Jacir family home, a stone structure al Mukhtar Yusuf Jacir erected in the late 1880s at the fork of the Jerusalem-Hebron Road. More recently, the Palestine Authority has placed a checkpoint on the road in front of the house. This checkpoint has become a favored confrontation point between residents of Bethlehem and the town’s several refugee camps and Israeli security forces.

It’s not unusual for the Dar Jacir team to be cleaning up teargas canisters and the like after Israeli army incursions and this was among their first tasks after the May 15 attack.

Jacir takes up this business in her 2019 short “letter to a friend.” The film offers an intimate primer on the historical and contemporary ambit of the Jacir family’s ancestral home – one whose tone veers from affectionate to estranged, amusing to lyrical.

One of its opening vignettes is dedicated to documenting the artist’s post-incursion tidying chores – gathering little piles of spent teargas canisters, a third of which are the three-canisters-in-one version Zionist security gunmen favor.

“Palestine is the most tear-gassed part of the world,” Jacir remarks in voiceover, and Bethlehem’s nearby “Aida refugee camp is the most tear-gassed place.”

For independent cultural institutions, the pandemic was a disaster, reflects Bir Zeit-born film director and producer May Odeh. “Now we have another disaster.”

The impact of the COVID-19 on Palestine’s cultural sector will be familiar to anyone close to the creative industries worldwide, Lebanon included. Arts organizations were forced to cancel their programs, cutting off artists from their public and arts workers and technicians from their income.

In Palestine too the internet provided opportunities for exhibition. During the pandemic Odeh and her collaborators launched the Palestinian Film Platform, which has made films and conversations about cinema available on social media.

“We got a lot of support from Palestinian filmmakers, who gave us access to their films for streaming,” she said, “all for free, because we need some kind of hope.

“Palestinian filmmakers are everywhere. Palestine is everywhere – in Paris, inside a refugee camp in Lebanon, in Canada, in Gaza, in ’48 ... We feel united as filmmakers and as people, and to create this kind of cinema archive for people to access.

“This is what keeps me alive,” Odeh says. “In terms of finances and future prospects, things are not good ... Last year I didn’t find any support from anyone, but I did find this voluntary work and support for the dream of the Palestine Film Institute. I found energy and success in it.”

In Palestine some funding is available for audiovisual and performing arts but not for cinema, making the lockdown disastrous for Odeh’s production and distribution work. The only project she was able to complete was Ameen Nayfeh’s feature “200 Meters.”

“Our post-production facilities were in Sweden and the Swedes didn’t lock down,” Odeh said, “so we were able to finish and do a festival tour, but ‘200 Meters’ couldn’t screen in Palestine.

“We were planning to launch ‘200 Meters’ and [Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s] ‘Gaza Mon Amour’ in Palestine but this craziness canceled everything. Yes, we are not in Jerusalem. Yes, we are not under attack in Gaza, but we we’ve all been traumatized by all the violence around us.”

True to its title, ‘letter to a friend’ is framed as a missive, dated 11 April, 2019. Jacir’s correspondent is Eyal Weitzman, the founding director of Forensic Architecture, an organization whose researchers use architectural knowhow and technologies to investigate state violence and human rights violations.

FA’s work reverberates in the practices of several research-oriented contemporary artists. The group itself has been nominated for the UK’s Turner Prize for contemporary art, as has their sometime-collaborator Lawrence Abu Hamdan. FA also threw its resources into creating an empirically accurate animation of the incidents leading to the August 2020 Beirut port explosion.

While teargas canisters frequently litter Jacir’s Bethlehem landscape, they aren’t the most significant features she sketches for Weitzman.

There is her dog, for instance. Thanks to the discharge of various ordnance, she shows distinct symptoms of PTSD, wedging herself into a tight space any time there are clashes outside, or fireworks.

Just down the road from the house is Rachel’s tomb. Historically it had been a pilgrimage site for Muslims, Christians and Jews, until the Oslo Accords allowed Israel to appropriate it as an Israeli heritage site.

Most present is the segmentation of historic Bethlehem, itself a metaphor for the Palestinian condition. She notes that the Israeli separation barrier has severed the city’s connection to Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years. The wall also snakes through the city itself, cutting off households from their properties. Between that and the 18 illegal settlements that surround it, the city’s area is less than 13 percent of what it was.

The artist frames her intimate document of Bethlehem as a piece of evidence. Is it possible, she asks, for Forensic Architecture to investigate a crime before it happens?

 

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