The Predicament of Palestinian Cultural Production
One of the major consequences of the war of 1967 was the dismemberment of Palestinian society from its "natural" cultural terrain in the neighboring Arab countries. Books, newspapers and journals were no longer available in the West Bank and Gaza. Because of Israeli restrictions on the movement of people, physical access to periodic Arab festivals, theaters, universities and cultural forums became extremely limited. Arabic films from Egypt and Lebanon - the main suppliers of the regional cinema industry - were no longer available. Only radio and television programs continued to reach their audiences in Palestine, but those were, without exception, state¬-controlled and their cultural fares of dubious value.


Thus Palestine became a segment of a broken whole, left to its own devices. The result paradoxically was not altogether negative. Isolated from their historical cultural affinities, local writers, musicians, poets, and artists took it upon themselves to recreate setting. Because of Israeli military censor¬ship on publications and performances throughout the West Bank and Gaza the initial attempts at cultural creations were based in local colleges and municipalities. The Ramallah City Council became the sponsor of a series of summer theatrical festivals in the early seventies, while the Nablus and Bireh Public Libraries (both administered and funded by their respective city councils) held weekly sessions of lectures, poetry readings, and heated discussions on the future relationship between Palestinian and Arab culture. In East Jerusalem, where Israeli law was unilaterally extend¬ed in 1968, and the Arab sector was annexed in 1980, a measure of legal freedom allowed for the limited flourishing of a Palestinian press and the¬ater - most notably the establishment of al-Hakawati Theater (later the Palestinian National Theater), al-Wasiti Art Center, the Sabreen [Music] musical and dramatic groups. Clearly, cultural isolation became an incentive for creativity and independence.
This process was galvanized by a military regime that was as hostile to the articulation of a Palestinian national sentiment, as it was keen at sup¬pressing its manifestations - both political and cultural. Restrictions on the performance of plays; the banning of public assemblies; closure of uni¬versities and schools; censorship of texts; and the banning of imported books (which at its zenith in the 1980s reached about 3,000 titles); all were acts that failed not only to suppress the mushrooming of creative cultural activities, but gave it a strong nationalist content. Israeli actions were per¬ceived as aiming at undermining both the cultural and national ethos of Palestinian society.

Revivalism and Identity

In reaction, these actions generated a grassroots movement (felt mostly in the domain of dance and music) that was primarily folklorist and revivalist. In every township in the West Bank and Gaza, and in scores of villages, social clubs, study groups, dabke troupes and local ethnographic publications cele¬brated what could be termed as an assertion of the suppressed national spirit.
Throughout the seventies and part of the eighties, these traditional artis¬tic activities dominated the Palestinian cultural scene. They were demon¬strative, repetitive, heroic, highly stylized and mechanical. Occasionally some daring groups were able to transcend the purely folklorist frame into modernist adaptations which were able to inject them with an "impure" but original dimension. Altogether they constituted an important ideolog¬ical transitional formulation of Palestinian national identity.
Once this identity began to rest on solid ground, Palestinian cultural activity (sometime in the late seventies) forged into the direction of exper¬imental, cosmopolitan, and - tentatively - internationalist currents. This can be perceived first in the repertoire of the local theater, thei1 in painting and literature, and lastly (the least developed) in music and cinema.


Palestinian cultural productions today suffer from two major impedi¬ments: one is the institutional constraints, such as weak infrastructure, lack of funds, absence of equipment and performance arenas, lack of special¬ization and the predominance of amateurism. The second impediment is likely to be more formidable. It has to do with the uncritical and "heroic" image with which Palestinian art and literature are received in the Arab world and among local audiences. It has the effect of reinforcing a spirit of false achievement and self-assurance. It also stifles the atmosphere of com¬petitiveness within a wider circle of artistic performances that is essential for healthy cultural development. In effect, it sets unique and separate standards for judging Palestinian art which elevate it beyond critical assessments.
Now that Palestinian society is about to enter the community of "nor¬mal" nations, this feature of exceptionalism is likely to come to an end. Young artists will have to define their vision within the needs and vision of a new and altered society. One that is neither "heroic" nor begging for international aid. Relations with neighboring Arab societies, as well as with the international cultural networks, will hopefully be based on parity and mutual creative exchange.

This is the foreword to an inventory of cultural institutions in Palestine to be published in late 1995 in Arabic and English.