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The Jerusalem Palestinian Festival: Fining the Cultural Vacuum
To millions around the world, Jerusalem holds special significance. Tourists visit the city for its holy sites, but these are quite detached from the human dimension and, on the ground, there is a different reality. Not too long ago, East Jerusalem was a bustling center for all Palestinians. Since the closure imposed on the West Bank and Gaza (1993), cutting East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland, the city has started to gradually lose its status as an economic, educational and cultural center for Palestinians. By night, its streets are deserted and its cultural life has all but vanished. Jerusalem's Palestinian inhabitants are either seeking better opportunities elsewhere or looking for entertainment and cultural activities in other towns in Palestine or on the booming Israeli western side. It is dawning on us more and more that if we, Palestinian Jerusalemites, don't act immediately, it could be too late to reverse this trend.

Current Activities and Achievements

With this in mind and to fill this cultural vacuum, Yabous Productions was established in 1995. The name Yabous refers to the Yebusites, or Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe that built the first city on the present location of Jerusalem around 5,000 years ago. The concept of yearly Jerusalem Palestinian festivals in music and art is a testimony to the strength of community action on behalf of Palestinian and Arab culture in Jerusalem. Yabous Productions, with its focus on musical productions, should be seen as one aspect within the context of a drive for cultural revival in East Jerusalem. Several other organizations in Jerusalem are working in the areas of theater and the visual arts. (These are beyond the scope of this article, but we hope to cover their activities at some point in the future - Ed.) They, naturally, share common objectives that also guide Yabous's work:
• The promotion of artistic and cultural activities in Palestine as a whole and, in particular, the attempt to create a specific Palestinian cultural ambiance in Jerusalem;
• The organization of cultural activities where none exists, in order to meet the local needs and interests and, simultaneously, to attract and develop new audiences;
• The encouragement of professionalism and innovation in artistic productions;
• Cross-cultural exchanges through the presentation of a variety of international productions to Palestinian Jerusalem audiences, and the promotion of Palestinian productions locally and abroad.

Festivals Organized during the Past Three Years

Since 1996, Yabous has been organizing festivals on a yearly basis. Behind the scenes, the company faces special impediments, like difficulties in obtaining visas and permits from the Israeli authorities for visiting performers and artists. A major problem is the closure, which denies access to the city to a major part of Palestinians residing in the Palestinian areas. Other problems are of financial and technical natures, especially as East Jerusalem lacks well-equipped auditoriums or concert halls.
• The Jerusalem Festival for Arabic Music, 1996
The object behind this program was clear: to help restore Jerusalem to its former status as the center of cultural life. This festival, which ran for four days, was held at the Palestinian National Theater and hosted talented professional Palestinian groups from Tarshiha and Nazareth (in the Galilee): the Tarshiha Oriental Music Troupe, Al-Sheikh Imam Program by the Nazareth Municipality Cultural Center, the Al-Farabi Troupe and Simon Shahine, a Palestinian from Tarshiha who now lives and performs in the USA.
• The Jerusalem Festival for Sufi Music, 1997
The following year, Yabous organized a music festival of a different type, that of Sufi music. It was held at Al-Quds University, Hind Al-Husseini College in Jerusalem, as well as at the Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, on the occasion of the Holy Month of Ramadan, with the participation of groups from Palestine, Morocco and Turkey. Sufism is a mystical sect in Islam and Sufi performers are best known as the whirling dervishes who, dressed in special costumes, chant and dance to a sort of spiritual music. One performance was, unfortunately, canceled as the troupe from Pakistan - the Sabri Brothers - were denied entry permits by the Israeli military authorities for "unspecified security reasons." During the Sufi Music Week, artists and musicians toured and sang in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem in their "Caravan of Joy."
• The Jerusalem Jazz Festival, 1997
This is the first of the jazz festivals to be organized by Yabous. It was held at Al-Quds University and at Al-Siraj Theater in Ramallah, with the participation of groups from Germany, Austria, Italy and Kurdistan. This event exposed Palestinians to a different type of music, opening them up to foreign art forms and building bridges with other cultures.
• The Arab Theater Festival, 1997
This festival was organized in cooperation with the Ashtar Theater Group in Ramallah. During the six days of the festival, a network of Arab theater was created and encounters between theater directors from different corners of the Arab world took place. In a round-table, they came together to discuss such issues as women in the Arabic theater, and the merits of international or local dialects. The festival brought together actors from Palestine, Jordan and Morocco. The plays performed included: Accidental Death of an Anarchist; Martyrs Are Coming Back and The Child of Light from Palestine; Medea and The Garbage Man from Jordan; and finally, Save the Soul from Morocco.
• The Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music, 1997
All performances were held at the Tombs of the Kings, a great historical site, under French jurisdiction, with a seating capacity of 800. In contrast to the first festival of Arabic music, this was not confined to artists from Palestine. They came from Tunisia - Lutfi Bushnaq; Morocco - Jil Jalalah; Algeria - Houria Aichih; and also from Palestine - Reem Al-Banna. Co-sponsored by a number of Palestinian bodies, this festival succeeded in developing burgeoning cultural links between Palestine and the rest of the Arab world.
• The Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music, 1998
In addition to Palestine (The Oriental Music Ensemble and the Farabi Musical Group), the participants came from Jordan - Iman Taisir; Tunisia - Trio Anour Braham, and the artists Musataf Dahlah and Lutfi Bushnaq; Morocco - Aisha Radwan and Adwar Group; and from the U.S.A. - Simon Shahine and his Group of International Musicians.
• The Jerusalem Jazz Festival, 1999
Encouraged by its first experiment with jazz, Yabous held a second jazz festival this year. It too was attended by a large audience as jazz is slowly attracting Palestinian audiences. The festival ran for six consecutive nights, March 18-23. The main events took place at the YMCA in East Jerusalem. Additional concerts were held in Ramallah and Bethlehem. When they were not performing, the artists held workshops during the day, in collaboration with the Palestinian National Conservatory of Music (located in Ramallah and Bethlehem).

The Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music, 1999

On July 6-15 of this year, Yabous organized the annual Jerusalem Festival of Arabic Music. This year the venues were chosen with a view to promoting Jerusalem's historical and architectural attributes. The main location was the large open-air stage at the Tombs of the Kings. Another was the cloister of the Lutheran Church - Dabagha - in the Old City of Jerusalem, with a 100-seating capacity. The artists and musicians came from the Arab world, like Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and, of course, from Palestine - but also from the United States and Turkey. The diverse program of Arabic music ranged from solo singing to choirs, from orchestral music to Oriental ensembles and muwashahat (poetry and songs composed by Arabs during the period of their rule over Spain). Alongside the concerts, the artists held workshops, in collaboration with local musicians, as well as the teachers and students of the National Conservatory of Music.
This year, the Religious Music Festival - Amen (December 16, 1999-January 6, 2000) is sure to be the highlight of the millennium, since Yabous has created a special program of concerts, workshops and prayers, to be held in Palestine, the place which is celebrating Bethlehem 2000 and Ramadan in the same month. Choral groups will perform at a variety of venues in mosques and churches in different locations in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron. Groups from Morocco, Egypt, Norway, Turkey, Austria, Greece and the United Kingdom will participate in this festival.

The Long-Term Objective

A festival, by definition, is a short-lived event and these types of cultural events are ephemeral. But the festival holds open the possibility of emergent cultural creation and interaction. Although cultural activities, including annual festivals, proliferate in the Palestinian Authority areas, a long-term objective is to make the Jerusalem Palestinian Festival one of the most popular festivals in the region. East Jerusalem remains isolated culturally as well as politically, and the Jerusalem Festival serves to anchor us in our Palestinian identity.

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