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For still-stateless Palestinians, cultural life serves as a building block

Even as hopes for negotiating a future Palestinian state seem more remote than ever, there is an attempt here to build cultural institutions that inspire people to respond to their history and identity through art and exhibitions.

Nasser Nasser/AP
A visitor looks at copies of books by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish – translated and published in several languages – at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2014.
Nasser Nasser/AP
Visitors enter al-Jalil Hall at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum, dedicated to the late Palestinian national poet, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 16, 2014.

On the top of a steep hill in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinians’ de facto capital, the new Mahmoud Darwish Museum unfolds like the pages of an open book.

In one wing of the milky colored stone building, poems written in the neat hand of the man celebrated as the Palestinian national poet are on display alongside items like his writing desk and the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which he penned.

On the other side is a hall where Palestinian authors, poets, filmmakers, and other artists from around the Arab world give readings and talks.

On a tour of the building’s grounds, Sameh Khader, director of the museum and its foundation, points out an outdoor amphitheater and the lemon and olive trees transplanted from Palestinian villages and cities. He pauses next to the centerpiece of the outdoor plaza: Mr. Darwish’s tomb.

“Our goal is to not only commemorate Mahmoud Darwish, but to open horizons to create another Mahmoud Darwish. We don’t want to just be a beautiful graveyard, but an active cultural center,” says Mr. Khader, a fastidious man in a tweed blazer and a red tie. “We are dedicated to promoting the cultural scene in Palestine as part of our national identity.” 

Even as hopes for negotiating a future Palestinian state seem more remote, perhaps, than ever before, there is an attempt here to build cultural institutions and a cultural life that inspire people to respond to their Palestinian history and identity through art and exhibitions.

In the last two years alone, three major Palestinian museums have opened, the Darwish Museum among them. There are also performing art centers, music schools, theaters, and art schools.

“I think these institutions have developed because of the absence of a state. They are an attempt to establish a niche which an otherwise newly established state would have fulfilled,” says Salim Tamari, a Palestinian sociologist at nearby Birzeit University who is currently teaching at Harvard. “They give pride of ownership to Palestinians who can see part of their heritage recognized in artistic and aesthetic form.”

Another new museum is the Yasser Arafat Museum in the center of Ramallah, which houses a museum of Palestinian history with an emphasis on the life of the former Palestinian leader. The gleaming white modern edifice incorporates the bunker where he spent the last years of his life under siege, surrounded by Israeli forces, as well as his large tomb, which is guarded by a pair of Palestinian soldiers.

In the nearby Palestinian town of Birzeit, the Palestinian Museum, a sprawling $35 million, 3,500-square-meter modern space built into a hillside and overlooking ancient terraces, defines its mission as highlighting the history and culture of Palestinian society. Its founders, including Zina Jardeneh, who chairs the board of the museum, describe it as a “transnational institution.”

Courtesy of Iwan Baan/The Palestinian Museum
Visitors to the The Palestinian Museum in Birzeit.

In this way, Ms. Jardeneh writes in an email, the museum is “capable of overcoming geographical and political boundaries to reach Palestinians within historic Palestine and beyond. Its digital collections and online platforms, alongside its network of local and international partnerships, will allow for the sharing of skills, resources, programs and exhibitions with individuals and institutions worldwide.”

‘Bolstering the national identity’

Among the museum’s online projects is a digital archive that includes oral narratives of Palestinians recounting their lives before and after 1948, when Israel was founded as a state and Palestinians fled or were evicted en masse, an event mourned by Palestinians as the Nakba, Arabic for the “disaster.”

“We certainly believe that we can take on a leading role in building the community and bolstering the national identity,” Jardeneh writes. “Our work revolves around sensitizing students and the new generation and arming them with knowledge. We believe that these are the essential steps toward” enabling nation building.

Along with the trio of museums, recent cultural milestones include UNESCO’s declaration of Hebron’s Old City as a world heritage site and the building of a Roman style amphitheater – with seats for 5,000 carved out of stone and room for another 15,000 spectators on adjacent grass – in Rawabi, a new city on the outskirts of Ramallah.

Ramallah currently serves as the Palestinians’ cultural – in addition to the political – capital.  It is home to the Ramallah Cultural Palace, which stages plays and concerts in a 750-seat hall, and hosts the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, which is named for the late Palestinian intellectual and has branches in other West Bank cities, East Jerusalem, and Gaza City. In 2010 the conservatory revived the Palestinian National Orchestra. Ramallah is also the site of a national arts school, and in recent years Palestinian art biennials.

East Jerusalem, which Palestinians declare to be their future capital, is home to the Yabbous Cultural Center, a performing arts center, and is the other main cultural nexus.

‘People want to be seen’

Presenting Palestinian culture is considered a tool for promoting national liberation by Palestinian leaders even if the funding for much of the cultural activities comes from foreign donors.

But the fragmented nature of Palestinian political and physical geography – its population divided and restricted from traveling between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – makes the reach of cultural life a challenge. For Palestinian artists, they can more easily travel abroad to exhibit their work than they can travel between the Palestinian territories, let alone travel to nearby Jerusalem to museums there.

Courtesy of Alaa Badarnehm/The Palestinian Museum
Visitors walk through The Palestinian Museum's 'Labour of Love' exhibit opening.

“What astonishes me is how many people want to be seen and to do, so they write poetry, paint, act in films, and direct films. I think this is about looking for recognition art and culture and literature. We are looking for a place to stand to be equal,” says Khader, himself a novelist.

In his office sitting in front of an oversized black and white photograph of Darwish, Khader puts a slideshow on his computer of the over some 100 events he oversaw last year before pivoting to politics and bemoaning the impasse with Israel.

“Culture is an act that creates hope for people. But how can we create hope and promote hope and give people hope at a time when the world is going crazy?” he asks.

He views the Israeli orientation as hawkish and fitting into a larger tilt toward the right that, he says, can also be seen in countries like Italy and France.

He pauses and moves on, then circles back to his message of inspiring people to become activists, saying, “Hope is core of the change.”

Visit to the Arafat Museum

The Yasser Arafat Museum describes itself as both a place of commemoration for Arafat as the father of Palestinian nationalism and as a museum of Palestinian contemporary memory.

“We tried to overlap the history of Yasser Arafat with the Palestinian narrative,” says Mohamed Halayka, director of the museum.

And indeed, although the museum is bookended by a visit to Arafat’s tomb, and at the end, his bunker headquarters where he spent 36 months under siege by the Israeli army during the second Intifada, the museum feels as much as a museum of Palestinian history as it does as a museum of Arafat himself.

Walking up ascending ramps, visitors learn about Palestinian national history from the turn of the 20th century until 2004, when Arafat died. Paintings, murals, photos, and videos depict key historical moments – from the arrival of young European Jews to farm in then-Ottoman Palestine at the turn of the 20th century to the outbreak of both intifadas.  In one of the exhibition rooms, a long list of prominent Palestinian cultural figures who have died is highlighted, among them novelists, filmmakers, painters, and poets.

Courtesy of Yasser Arafat Museum

“They helped unify the Palestinians despite our being fragmented,” Mr. Halayka says. “They maintained the Palestinian spirit and collective identity.”

Pages of Arafat’s diary, written in neat small letters, are on display alongside a pair of trademark thick black plastic framed glasses and the pistol he always wore (even when addressing the United Nations). A description of Jewish settlement building and its impact on Palestinian aspirations for statehood is seen soon after the Nobel Peace Prize that Arafat won in 1994 – together with his Israeli counterparts, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres – for negotiating the Oslo Accords.

Perhaps the most powerful exhibit is one that only has the barest touches of the curator’s hand. It’s the underground living quarters of Arafat during his time under siege in the Mukatah, the Palestinian center of government.

Tourists walk through the room where his guards slept, their blankets still on the beds. There’s a conference room with a television set and a long wooden table where Arafat met with advisers and guests. Sand bags are lined up against the walls of the space, and in the final room, Arafat’s bedroom, a stack of his trademark keffiyehs, folded neatly and in a stack, still remain in a filing cabinet repurposed as a closet.

A conversation with Palestinian artists

The task of nation-building through culture can feel especially overwhelming given the grim political situation, says Khaled Hourani. A painter and former artistic director of the Palestinian Academy of Art, Mr. Hourani gained a measure of local fame in 2014 when he brought the first Picasso painting to Ramallah.

“There is a dynamism in the art scene despite the political situation,” he says in a sun-flooded balcony off the Ramallah apartment he uses as his studio. “But there is less hope than usual.”

Sitting next to him is his friend, Mohammed Bakri, a well-known actor and director. He is also Palestinian and lives in Ramallah, but was born and grew up in Israel.

“We do art because we feel it. We don’t do it for Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] or Hamas or Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. We do it for our future, ourselves. For our soul,” he says.

“I’m dying to do a film which is not related to this place, I mean politics,” Mr. Bakri says. “But every time I say I don’t want to deal with politics, life is pushing you to be political, forcing you to deal with identity and political issues.”

“I would love to make just a love story.”

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