Arts Briefing

27 04 2009


Mohammed Ali on the BBC

Mohammed Ali on the BBC

Because art always captures my attention, and because I know in my heart that when politics fail, arts become the alternative, here’s a list of some arts news:

1. The Palestinian Festival of Literature is going to take place in May, from the 23rd to the 28th. This is going to be in the form of a roadshow in the West Bank, highlighting the many problems that Palestinians face today. There will be 20 participants, not only Arab but from across the world. I would go to each and every event if I were there.

2. Third Generation is a work-in-progress form of play that is now featuring in Germany, combining young German, Israeli and Palestinian (Palestinian-Israeli) actors. It explores one of my favorite issues: identity, especially in the context of history. You can read Gal Beckerman’s review on the Forward, that was also on the Haaretz.

3. Palestinians filmmakers get a stage in London, and as CNN says, beating all the odds and difficulties of filming in a place that lacks cinematic infrastructure. There has been several Palestine Film Festivals, in Chicago, Toronto, even Texas. So much can be gained from art exposure. I will see “Salt of This Sea” this Friday through the New York Tribeca Film Festival and will let you know what I think.

4. Stanford University professor, Ronald Levy, becomes the first Jew to win a King Faisal International Prize (regarded as the Arab Nobel Prize), in Medicine. The prize consists of $200,000, a medal, a certificate in Arabic and English and dinner with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. I realize that this is not an arts update but it’s worth the mention. I wonder if Levy was super thrilled.

5. This is an old article that I kept in my records. Jerusalem art comes out to combine homosexuality and religiosity, called Out of the Sacred Closet – Beauty, Belief and Identity.” This is interesting and juicy. Reactions vary but artistic expression is always commendable.

6. Muslim graffiti in the UK by artist Mohammed Ali gets the attention of the BBC


Who Are the Seven Jewish Children?

1 04 2009


Seven Jewish Children - Jerusalem Post

Seven Jewish Children - Jerusalem Post

Are you fed-up with artsy posts yet? Well, here’s one more… A long one this time.

Famous British playwright, Caryl Churchil, recently wrote a controversial play regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has received both praise and anti-Semitism accusations. Over the past few weeks, newspapers covered the play, magazines wrote about it, and bloggers typed and typed and typed.

In this post, I will give you a summary of the controversial piece, a personal opinion and finally online resources to read, for those of you who are interested. Bored already? Give it a try.



“Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza” is a short, 10-minute play, first appeared in the Royal Court Theatre, London, in early February. It reached New York several days ago, with three readings at the New York Workshop Theatre, from March 25th to 27th.  Theater J in Washington, D.C., also featured two readings with the blessing and encouragement of Artistic director Ari Roth. I’ve also read that it will be going to other international cities soon.

The play is built on seven scenes. Each depicts Jewish parents discussing what to teach their children –mainly a little girl in the form of “her” – about Jewish suffering and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can read the New York Times Script.

“Tell her they did it to themselves,” the lines say in scene seven, “Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them…. Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out.” These particular lines are what provoke the anti-Semitism charge.

The play peaks at the end, scene seven, where Jews transform from oppressed under the Nazis to oppressors through the State of Israel. The play ends with:

“Don’t tell her that

“Tell her we love her

Don’t frighten her.”


A Personal Take

Churchill has always been clear about her views when it comes to this conflict, and it isn’t pro-Israel. In fact, she can be more outspoken than Palestinians themselves. I have noticed that the play reads a little differently than when heard and seen. Check out the YouTube video at the end of this post to get a sense.

I agree that some of the parents are portrayed as inhumane in this play, choosing security over ethics. Sometimes they look like they’re in denial; nonchalant about the Palestinians; almost racist. 

At other times, however, they feel and look like every other parent in this world: worried about the safety of their child, filled with love, wanting to protect at all costs. That is the core of humanity.

From an art point of view, this play is beautifully-written. The repetition of the words “Tell her” in each line is deliberately crafted to engrave that message of “telling.”

“Tell her” becomes a soothing sound; calming in its consistency. You begin to look forward to it.

The simplicity of the play is exactly what makes the images it evokes most horrific. The juxtaposition of this simplicity with the harsh reality makes it artistically brilliant. “Seven Jewish Children” focuses on words and emotions rather than elaborate scenes. 


Now to the super serious stuff…

I don’t believe that criticizing Israel necessarily constitutes anti-Semitism. People criticize for many different reasons, and some of us do so because we believe there’s a better way; that there’s a brighter future and all sides of the conflict are responsible for it. The recent war in Gaza, followed by Human Rights reports and soldier testimonies did nothing to modify Israel’s image. Hence, this play.

A blogger wrote that yelling anti-Semitism with regards to this play trivializes the idea of anti-Semitism. I tend to agree.  In fact another blogger wrote that censoring this play would have worked against Jews and Israelis rather than for their benefit.

One blogger wrote a long piece justifying the existence of the State of Israel and its actions as a response to this play. Most of the anti-Israel accusations are laid out and countered with a line of thinking that follows “Well, the Arabs have done worse.” I encourage and love debate. But this line of thinking has gotten us nowhere and it is used by both Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, all across the world. It’s beginning to get a little old.

Another blogger wrote that some of his Israeli friends agree with some parts of the play, that there exists demonization from the Israeli side. I believe that all sides of this conflict dehumanize all the others. Why would we be in this situation if it wasn’t so? 

One large debate is about the title of the play. Why “Jewish Children” not “Israeli Children”? The argument is that in choosing “Jewish,” Churchill casts a generalization on all Jews, therefore, becoming anti-Semitic. The only reason I could think of for this specific choice is that this play is not just about Israelis because Churchill portrays Jewish parents during WWII. They were not Israelis then.

I will leave the debate about the BBC’s refusal to air the play on its Radio 4.

But I will add one more note: plays are not created to be impartial. Plays are not created to agree with you, and some writers’ opinions can be junk. Plays and their likes are created to express an idea, from the playwright’s point of view, from the artist’s point of view. You can’t, and shouldn’t, put chains on that. Can you image where that line of thinking would lead us? Downhill, to the dungeons of undemocratic societies.


The List

Aside from the links embedded in my previous long paragraphs, here’s more for those intrigued:

1.     Michael Billington’s review on the Guardian 

2.     Playwright Sonja Linden on Free Speech Blog in response to the BBC

3.     Norman Geras’ witty review, imitating Churchill’s language

4.     The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg interviewing Theatre J’s Ari Roth

5.     The Jerusalem Post‘s article

6.     FrontPage Magazine’s article 

7.     The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephen’s response

8.     The Nation‘s article 

9.     Mark Damazer from the BBC Radio 4 blog

10.   Ben Cohen on the Z-word blog


If you can think of more that are constructive, taking different sides, feel free to add them through comments. Rants are also fine.

Here’s a YouTube video of one reading…

Strings of Freedom Disbanded

29 03 2009


Strings of Freedom - AP

Strings of Freedom - AP

I suppose that the international hype over a Palestinian youth orchestra performing for Holocaust survivors last Wednesday was not matched by Palestinian enthusiasm.

On March 25th, a group of 13 young musicians from the Jenin Refugee Camps in the West Bank performed for Holocaust survivors in the Israeli city of Holon. It was part of the annual “Good Deeds Day” celebration. See my post “Yes, We Can Do It Through Art.”

A friend alerted me to a follow-up article in the New York Times, about anger among Palestinians in Jenin over this “exploitation” of children. The anger was strong enough to disband the group, and ban the conductor, Arab-Israeli Wafa Younis, from the camp and the apartment where she taught.

News sources report that Holocaust denial is common among Palestinians. The anger here, stems from the idea that performing for Holocaust survivors represents an acknowledgment that undermines Palestinians’ own plight caused by Israel.

This is idiotic chaos.

People seem to be competing over who suffered more; who has more right to be acknowledged. It was a musical performance. The point was to bring people together through music, not politics. Those Holocaust survivors must have learned something about the Jenin Refugee Camps and the harsh life in it, and those young Palestinians must have learned something about the suffering of Jews and those who survived it.

The real victims here are the young students who gave much of their time and passion to Strings of Freedom. The Palestinians have effectively punished their own.

We need more brave acts like that of Wafa Younis and the Holocaust Survivor Center organizers. Acknowledging and sympathizing with the Jews who have suffered DOES NOT negate or undermine the suffering of Palestinians. It is NOT an either-or situation.

Al-Kamandjati Music Center set on fire

28 03 2009


"Oud" instruments burned at the center - Yedioth Ahronoth

"Oud" instruments burned at the center - Yedioth Ahronoth

Continuing my previous posts about art-related events and incidents, I found this piece of news on the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth online.

Al-Kamandjati Music Center in Jenin, West Bank, was found burned to the ground on Monday night. The center’s director and staff have informed the police, but no one really knows who exactly caused this. The fingers seem to be pointed at Hamas sympathizers and fundamentalists in the mainly Fatah-run territory.

This is truly a tragedy. The center’s press release called it “a crime against humanity and against the right of Palestinian children and Palestinian society to culture and education.”

Around 80 young Palestinians from the Jenin Refugee Camps come to this center to learn music. Its expertise, as its name indicates, is the violin (al-kamandjati means the violinist). Founded in Ramallah in 2002 by a stone-thrower-turned-violinist, Ramzi Abu Radwan, it has hosted and encouraged so many cultural and musical events around the West Bank, Gaza and southern Lebanon. Its international headquarter is in Agers, France, where Abu Radwan studied violin professionally.

I emphasize again how important art in all its shapes for the difficult life of a Palestinian living in the Territories, and anyone in any conflict. This center has filled the time of so many young Palestinians with productive knowledge when they could have been violently protesting outside or serving jail time in Israeli prisons. To destroy it is to destroy a bright opportunity, a window to vent frustrations and a better life.

Nothing has been mentioned about the finances needed to restore the building and buy new instruments. I reckon it would be quite expensive and restoration will be slow.

Until then, these Palestinian youth must find another hobby. 

Ramzi Abu Radwan - UNRWA article

Ramzi Abu Radwan - UNRWA article

Yellow Farce

27 03 2009


The British Times online, along with the Israeli Haaretz,  published news lately that the famous, long-running American TV show, The Simpsons, will go to the “Holy Land” next season.

The premise will be that the Christians, the Jews and Muslims are united in that they all get mad at Homer,” said the show’s creator Al Jean.

“It’s the only thing they can agree on.”

Poor Homer! The butt of all jokes again.

Homer won’t really solve the conflict in the Middle East (as the Haaretz’s headline humurously suggests). That’s a little too heavy of a burden for our clueless, goofy, yellow man.  What the Simpsons and their likes do best is provide an outlet of humor to really serious topics.

The show has generally been cautious when it comes to religions. It’s safe to say that it’s taken a different policy than say, South Park.

One of the Simpson’s favorite characters is Krusty the Clown: a Jew with scattered, curly, tealish hair who got disowned by his rabbi father for wanting to “act up” and making people laugh. Bart and Lisa reunite the two in a sarcastically funny episode later on.

As for Islam-related episodes, in one episode Bart comes back home from school in the afternoon, and right at the door, he yells “Salam Alaykom” to a South-Asian-looking kid walking outside. The kid responds with another “Salam Alaykom.”

I’m not a Simpsons’ die-hard fan, but this episode I’m looking forward to watch. 

Can We Do It Through Art?

25 03 2009


Sutter's Add in the Haaretz

Sutter's Add in the Haaretz

When politics fail, perhaps we should pave the way for the arts.

A Swiss artist called Olivier Sutter posted an advertisement in the Israeli Haaretz earlier this week, sponsored by the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia. The add offers NIS 8,000 (Israeli Shekels) to anyone who knows individuals that look like the eight people displayed in the ad.

The project, called “Enemies,” focuses on breaking down stereotypes and prejudices that are now engraved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by highlighting physical similarities through photography. Sutter had worked on a similar project for French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgians who have long had tensions. It’s time for the Middle East now.

I could not help but feel a sense of satisfaction when news about the project surfaced. In so many ways, it is in sync with the focus of this blog: we are more similar than we think, if only we open our eyes and really look at each other. A fellow blogger, Layla, posted comments on the same article. You can read her post here.

The exhibition opens next month in Switzerland and will tour in several other countries in Africa. I hope it gets a stage in Israel and the Palestinian territories, if not around all of the Middle East.