Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Al Qattan

That afternoon we visited the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah (http://www.qattanfoundation.org/en/index.asp). The Foundation is a private organisation that supports and coordinates a variety of disciplines in Palestinian culture, including education, visual art, and culture for children, among other things. It’s financed by a wealthy Palestinian family based in London. I was with Nicola, a British artist and curator, who was visiting Ramallah for the purpose of organising a Palestinian solidarity exhibition in London in the autumn, and together we met Mahmoud, the head of the art and culture department. He was a bit tired and rushed but nonetheless found time to speak to us about the organisation. Mahmoud started off by describing his recent journey to London from which he’d returned this morning. The journey home had been demanding and had taken him two whole days which was why he was tired. Palestinians who carry the green identity card for the West Bank don’t have permission to travel through Israel and so Mahmoud, on his way back from London, had to travel via Amman in Jordan. That’s the normal route Palestinians from the West Bank have to take when they want to travel internationally. No wonder he looked exhausted.

Mahmoud works as a coordinator in support of Palestinian visual art, not just in Palestine but across the world. The organisation supports Palestinian visual artists who live in Israel, the so-called ‘1948 Arabs’, as well as all Palestinian artists who live in the region, especially in Jordan and Lebanon. It also supports Palestinian visual artists who are spread across the world including those who’ve never ever been to Palestine. He explained that in this way they strengthen Palestinian culture across the borders and walls that otherwise characterise the culture of the West Bank. This is how the Qattan Foundation resists the powers that try to limit Palestine to the areas delineated by the Wall and to strengthen Palestinian cultural presence in the region and across the world.

Another area of investment for the Qattan Foundation is in children’s culture. They run a children’s cultural centre in Gaza, with workshops and the largest library for children’s literature in the Middle East. He told us that even during the recent disturbances and armed conflicts in Gaza between the rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, no one had touched the children’s centre. ‘Not a single bullet’, he said. The place is built like a ‘souk’, an Arab market, with workshops and other rooms dispersed off a long corridor that runs all the way through the centre of the building. It would be interesting to visit the centre but it is extremely difficult to get permission from the Israeli officials to visit Gaza. I wasn’t even sure whether Mahmoud had ever been there himself.

On his desk, Mahmoud had a pile of identical books with the title, ‘Story of a Siege’. It was a book of photography about the Israeli siege of Palestinian governmental buildings in Ramallah in 2002. This was where Yasser Arafat was confined while the Israelis flattened all the buildings one by one until there was almost only one left. The book ends with Arafat’s burial, which took place at the same place shortly after. ‘The Israelis took his life’, it was said. I asked if I could buy a copy and Mahmoud said that there was no bookshop in the Qattan building and that there didn’t exist any actual book shop in Ramallah at all. These kind of interesting books have almost no distribution, which is quite symptomatic of the Palestinian condition. I bought a copy from Mahmoud for 100 shekels. Then he gave me a book from their latest exhibition of Palestinian visual artists called ‘The Young Artist of the Year 2006’, an exhibition that they organise bi-annually in Ramallah. It turned out that Nicola had organised this exhibition.

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