Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Good intentions

As I mentioned earlier, Ramallah is Palestine’s face to the world and the place where most international visitors arrive when they are going to visit the occupied territories. On a global level, there are many people who support the Palestinians and it’s almost a tradition for progressive artists and intellectuals to support the Palestinian cause, just as I do. In this sense Ramallah, the most stable and Westernised city in Palestine, has become home to a whole variety of international cultural festivals. June is especially packed with cultural events, usually of a particular bi-lateral pattern: Palestinian/Swedish cultural festival, Palestinian/German literature festival, etc.

On Monday evening I went to two of these events, mainly to observe how these meet-ups unfold and to see to what degree of collaboration we can speak of as there are so many heartfelt Western intentions that can rapidly become patronising and colonising when they arrive here. So I went to a Palestinian/Belgian poetry night in Al Mahatta, an artist-led gallery in the city centre. The space consisted of a huge room with perfect white walls — a true white cube. The group behind the project had fixed everything up themselves. Any gallery person in Europe would be envious. On this evening Al Mahatta made space for three Belgian poets and a Palestinian to present their texts.

It was a true séance from Babel, with French, Dutch, English, Flemish — and Arabic, and there’s a certain pleasure in listening to languages you don’t understand. You inevitably start listening to other things than just the literal ‘meaning’ of the words. I became more aware of the style of presentation and especially the body language. With this in mind, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with what I saw from my European colleagues. They were, of course, nervous about the context they were presenting in and were probably overdoing it in order to underline their status as artists. Most of them made a lot of exaggerated facial expressions and slightly too energetic movements during their reading, although perhaps I‘m just being oversensitive. The Palestinian poet read a couple of poems from a collection in a more concentrated manner, and that was that. He didn’t try to translate or make up for anything by performing.

The first question from the audience was, in fact, directed at the collaboration: What collaboration had there actually been between the Belgian and Palestinian poets? I didn’t quite understand the answer but it became apparent that the group of poets were going back to Belgium together to do the same performance. The theme of the event was ‘identity’, and there was an interesting discussion about where the production of identity is located. A member of the audience explained that in Arabic poetry identity is embedded in language — it is shaped through language. What was implicit in what he was saying was that identity is not created by the person, which, for me, was exactly what we’d just seen examples of from the Belgian poets who were very preoccupied with making their words their own, so to speak.

We left the séance before the discussion ended and decided to go to another event: a Palestinian/French jazz session. It turned out to be a French jazz-quartet who had incorporated a Palestinian percussionist as a fourth member. The percussionist was a young man who did his best to accompany the three Frenchmen who were playing piano, bass and trumpet. The band played American jazz classics, cool and bebop, and played them well. At one point, the drummer switched his drum kit for a Palestinian drum: a tabla, which you play with your hands. He was good at accompanying the music but it immediately sounded strange to my ears, although strange in a good way. Then a young local man from the audience took over the drum and went on a wild solo that quickly dismantled the rest of the orchestra. They just stood and watched the temperamental drumming of the new band member. The original percussionist continued at the back on his drum kit, blending in with the rhythms of the tabla. After a while, the French musicians attempted to play along but were slightly awkward although in the end they were slowly able to rein in the music and pull it back to the safety of traditional jazz. It seemed like the Palestinians could play along with the jazz but the French couldn’t contribute much when the music started moving into unknown territory for them. All in all, however, it was a good concert and the café owner Bazem was really proud of the event.

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