Omar Al-Qattan: (Cultural) Palestine Will not Die
The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar conducted an in-depth interview with the Chair of AMQF’s Board of Trustees about the speech he gave in the YAYA (Young Artist of the Year) award ceremony in October 2016. The speech had raised several thought-provoking questions around cultural development in Palestine. Below is the full script of the interview, as published in the newspaper.
After the Palestinian Nakba, his family fled Jaffa and took refuge in Lebanon, where he was later born in 1964. After the outbreak of the civil war, he moved to the UK to study literature, then to Belgium to study cinema. He debuted his art career with the impressive Ahlam fi Faragh (Dreams in a Void), a film he directed in 1991. He continued to work on a number of films, the last of which was Zindeeq (Heretic), directed by Michel Khleifi in 2009. His career in cinema, however, had to come to a halt as his work in cultural management grew, especially with the expansion of the A. M. Qattan Foundation (AMQF), established by his father in 1993, and his involvement in other cultural projects across Palestine. Today, Omar Al-Qattan is Chair of the AMQF Board of Trustees, Chair of the Palestinian Museum and Member of the Board of Trustees in Taawon-Welfare Association. His name is associated with several cultural projects inside and outside Palestine, and that is precisely why we had to take a closer look at his speech in the YAYA award ceremony, held last month by his Foundation.
Al-Qattan’s address came as a surprise to many artists and cultural figures: some judged it as bold; others as unwarranted since the cultural scene, in their view, is in the best shape possible. The discussion had pushed the author of the present story to publish an article on Al-Qattan’s speech under the title “Omar Al-Qattan: A Belated Jeremiad… or Not!” in Al-Akhbar’s issue of October 26, 2016. The article, written in the aim of starting dialogue and highlighting legitimate questions, caused controversy and made it necessary to contact Omar Al-Qattan for a one-on-one thorough discussion of his speech as well as several issues across the Palestinian cultural scene.
By Tariq Hamdan
§ In the speech you gave during the YAYA award ceremony in Beit Saa, downtown Ramallah, you raised several issues, including “the collapse of the Palestinian national project”, “the incapacity to change the status quo” and “the gap between cultural work and the common human experience”. The points you made generated controversy, especially among those who may be unaware of the importance of self-criticism. What made you give such a speech at this particular time?
Allow me, first, to clarify some of the points I had mentioned in my speech – which you interpreted in your article differently from what I had originally intended. I hope that you, and the rest of the Al-Akhbar team, would accept some reproach from my part. I mean, I was surprised to see that you had written an article in such a way – as if you were quoting me – without consulting me. For the sake of professional ethic and mutual respect, I would have hoped that you had asked me for my opinion before reporting on what I had supposedly said. It is the least one can do. For instance, how could one call a number of questions that I had raised in an attempt to start a level-headed dialogue a “Jeremiad”, as if I were lamenting a glorious past? The Palestine cultural scene is alive; it will not die. And those who were led to believe otherwise had better leave it. I was simply raising questions, nothing more. I was not lashing out on myself or anyone else. Quite the contrary, I feel the utmost respect for my fellow artists, writers and other professionals in the field. It is because I love Palestinian and Arab culture and take pride in them that I have evoked these issues. Neither my own convictions nor AMQF’s vision and policies allow me to embark on such a quest for self-destruction or the destruction of others. In my view, culture’s role is to raise questions rather than engage in public bashing duels.
As to the issue of foreign funding, one great success story in contemporary Palestinian culture is the significant presence Palestinian artists, writers, filmmakers and educators have achieved in international fora, with the support of our friends “from abroad”. Palestinian culture has also become organically linked to the “foreign” international culture. It can no longer be isolated, as if living in a bubble. It is my belief that cultural work, wherever it may be, must aspire to reach every person out there, regardless of their origin. Furthermore, there is an erroneous ‘moral distinction’ between local and foreign funding and a belief that local funds are somehow automatically better, more progressive or even more patriotic than foreign funds. That is simply not true. For instance, the biggest funders in Palestine are the PNA and Hamas – do you think that their investments in culture are more efficient and progressive than those of the NGO community? Plus, many Palestinians today are “foreigners” too in a sense. I for one consider myself Arab and British at the same time, and that does not constrain my moral and political engagement to the Palestinian cause in any way. The same could also be said of thousands of supporters in various fields, who are working with us on joint projects and may take risks to provide support for Palestinian and Arab people. Enough with this ambivalence. It is true that AMQF is a national organization that relies only secondarily on foreign funding, but experience has taught me to base any distinction or preference upon the quality of cultural projects and their ethical, humanitarian and political commitments, not their funder’s nationality.
Finally, you claim that the participating institutions at the third edition of Qalandiya International (Qi) would not have collaborated on the festival had it not been for the lack of funds and the need to work together. That is an unfair claim against the cultural sector. Despite all political divides, there are many collective local cultural initiatives, enough to make Palestine proud. Qi is no more than the culmination of such collaborations. Take the ES National Conservatory of Music, for example: it has managed to reach across the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, engage many colleagues from inside and outside Palestine and succeed in spreading music education throughout the country. That could not have been possible without the joint efforts of all those involved. AMQF, for instance, established the Gaza School of Music and handed it over to the ES Conservatory; Taawon-Welfare Association and the Shehabi family restored the Conservatory’s building in Jerusalem, and so on. There are many other examples – the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival and the Science Festival, to name a few – that function entirely within a decentralized and collective local framework.
But let me go back to your question on the reason behind the issues I raised in my talk. In my view, the culture sector around the world, not just in Palestine, is experiencing several crises similar to the ones I have named. We need to be aware of these problems so we can lead the way in creating an educational and cultural environment that can counter this crisis – one that came about with the 2008 global financial crisis and which revealed deep-seated inconsistencies within and among modern societies. It has also exposed the growing income gap between populations, the rise in youth unemployment, the scarcity of natural resources and the numerous environmental challenges, among other things. That is exactly what some of us have been warning against for years; that is, the breakaway of postmodernism (which coincided with the Oslo Accords process) from urgent humanitarian issues and the limiting of some cultural production to shallow formalities and narcissistic concerns, which eventually led up to an endless series of crises both in Palestine and the Arab world. It was certainly unforeseen, and we surely did not expect it to hatch all the violence and destruction we have witnessed in the recent years. I have simply felt that it was my duty to raise these questions once again; not to self-flagellate but to foster an environment of dialogue, awareness and critique among fellow artists, writers and industry professionals – some of whom, and only some, seem to have been going round in formalist and individualistic circles, for years now, which kept them from establishing a critical and dialectical relationship with their everyday reality.
§ How do you evaluate AMQF’s experience in the past 16 years, since its establishment?
First, it is important to note that AMQF works in three main fields: education, culture and early childhood. These are basically three different facets of the same process. If we are to evaluate AMQF’s work, we need to take into consideration what we have done in all these areas. In all modesty, I believe that my colleagues’ work in the last two decades was so creative, professional, innovative and committed that I feel honored to have been part of the team throughout those difficult years. The AMQF Educational Research and Development Program (ERDP), for instance, works with teachers all over the country, including the 1948 occupied territories, and has achieved successes for both individuals and communities in a variety of areas, such as Drama in Education, early childhood, autism, science education, project-based learning, curriculum development and puppets in education. As to the Qattan Center for the Child (QCC), it has a big library, a theater, science, computer and art labs, an outreach service and a mobile library that travels across the Gaza Strip, reaching especially remote and marginalized areas. It will not be an overstatement to call QCC an “oasis”, as do many of its visitors, under the current criminal blockade of Gaza. Finally, there is the Culture and Arts Program, which truly is a leading figure in the Arab World. Since its establishment in 1999, the program has been active in a variety of fields of cultural creation, especially the young’s. It has worked with Palestinians everywhere and with many of their Arab and foreign peers. The program was launched when the cultural field was considered marginal and secondary in the region. It has created learning and teaching opportunities for many and has succeeded in organizing cultural events across the country, including in the occupied Golan Heights. It has also reinforced the regional and international presence of Arab and Palestinian culture, notably with the creation of the Mosaic Rooms in London and the support it provides to Shubbak Festival (London) and Selat project, which helps foster art among the young in refugee camps in Lebanon.
None of the above, however, erases the mistakes we must have made along the past years. We constantly review, question and criticize our own work to improve it. That includes asking the tough questions. We certainly do not want to ‘make a silk purse of a sow's ear’, as the saying goes – that is, to live in a vicious circle, with no connection or relevance to the poor political, social, environmental and economic situation we see around us.
§ Do you think that a gap exists between the larger Palestinian society and cultural production? If so, why?
Artists and intellectuals need to create gaps with their surroundings and larger societies. In other words, there needs to be confrontation between the intelligentsia and its community. If the former is capable and brave, it will challenge its community and authorities lurking within it. It will raise questions that society may reject or counter with harsh critique, accusation and even violence. I think that we in the Arab culture sector may have strayed away from playing a similar role. That was the point I was making when I remarked on some artworks lacking audacity in tackling YAYA themes.
§ How do evaluate the work of the Palestinian civil society? In your opinion, what is required of it at this point?
It is impossible to make such an evaluation in a newspaper interview. Nonetheless, I think that Palestine can confidently take pride in the long legacy of its civil society, which emerged due to the absence of government institutions under the occupation – even though it may have been tarnished by instances of negligence, exploitation and corruption. Plus, the Palestinian Arab society is entitled to its own projects and NGO’s, even when these diverge in terms of performance. What is crucial to me is that these institutions are independent and democratic, and play the true role of a “third sector” that responds to needs government policies overlook. This creation of alternative initiatives certainly applies to the culture sector as well.
§ Some claim that the work of NGO’s, especially those working in culture, has created a narrow social class that exclusively produces and consumes cultural production and events. This is supposedly happening at a time of receding social justice with regard to access to culture and of a growing gap between the public and the cultural scene. Do you agree?
Statistics show a rise in economic and social disparities in Palestine. This will inevitably be reflected on all sectors, including cultural institutions. Everywhere in the world, one can find “official” intellectuals, those close to the authorities, and “independent”, critical and progressive ones. This equally applies to institutions. What we need to do, above all, is to foster community-based dialogue and initiative in order to change public and cultural policies towards a vibrant culture sector, an independent and unbiased free education system and innovation opportunities for all social and age categories. These are the foundations of our work. Sometimes we succeed; other times, we may fail. And the same goes for other organizations. It is a continuous dialectical dynamic that can never end, unless fascism takes hold of society and forces us into silence.
With regard to access to culture, I believe the claim may be unfounded in the sense that non-governmental cultural action is much more spread across social and geographical spaces than in the past. Qalandiya International 3 and the Science Festival, as well as many other examples, bear witness to the accessibility of cultural activities to the wider public. Such events offer free access or charge minimal entry fees. This makes them accessible to most, if not all people.
§ ‘The ‘street’ can be the birthplace of violence and fascism, just as much as it can be the guarantor of an amazing popular culture…’
§ On a different note, it can be noted that many Palestinian cities and villages still suffer from severe cultural deprivation, despite modest attempts in the recent years to push cultural activities outside the confines of the city of Ramallah. This is happening under the largely indifferent gaze of the government and civil sectors. What are your thoughts?
I think this is an unfair claim, at least towards the civil society. One must not forget that societies need central, dynamic cities just as much as they need small towns and villages. Cinema, for instance, could not have seen the light of day, had it not been for big and rich urban agglomerations. I refer back here to Marx’s dialectical thought, which allows us to understand the dynamics of history and use them to further freedom, justice and prosperity. If we fixate on rigid dichotomies such as city/countryside, middle class/working class, without realizing the possibilities of their development and fusion, we will fail to see all contradictions and potential for change – the essence of all observation and analysis, in literary fiction for example, and in creative work in general, and, why not, revolutionary and progressive thought too. This is not to say that our organization is not very keen on expanding its geographical reach and decentralizing its resource distribution and even decision-making processes. QCC in Gaza, for example, has 11,000 members, but its outreach service extends to more than 35,000 children from across the Strip. The Teachers’ Center in Ni’lin, near the Apartheid Wall, and many similar teacher fora in Nazareth, Hebron, Dura, Jenin, Gaza and other areas, constitute an essential extension to the work of ERDP. As to the Culture and Arts Program, its activities span from the Jordan Valley to the Golan Heights, and from Haifa to Jerusalem and Beirut, in addition to London and many cities around the world.
§ Some point to a deep structural fault in the civil society’s work, dating back to the early years of the Oslo Accords. Oslo was followed by the hatching of numerous NGO’s that worked without national strategies or solid foundations for a sovereign civil state. Do you agree?
That may be true, but how could we possibly work according to national strategies while our society is divided from within and continues to live under occupation? This is far too big of a responsibility for one sector to bear.
§ Despite the vibrant cultural scene in Palestine, the country still lacks a clear and influential cultural policy that can constitute an encompassing reference to establish frameworks and trends and focus on national priorities. How can that be achieved?
Allow me to disagree with the tone of your statement, which sounds almost Stalinist. We do not want influential policies, frameworks or references, but democratic laws that guarantee education and culture the freedom and independence they need for creativity and liberation. Nonetheless, I do share your view with regard to one essential element that I have mentioned in my speech, that is, the need to strengthen the foundations of professional and vocational education in the arts. It is time to focus on establishing national educational institutions and programs that start at the nursery school level up to university – as is the case of the National Conservatory of Music.
§ In your opinion, how can cultural production be improved in terms of quality and rapprochement to the ‘street’ and the wider public?
This duality is somewhat dangerous. The street is not necessarily ‘better’ or more worthy of attention than the intellectual. One must not forget that the street can be the birthplace of violence, irrationality and fascism, just as much as it can be the guarantor of an amazing popular culture. The point I made in my speech was that we needed to be aware of the language we use so that it could have more impact on viewers, readers or recipients and have more relevance to the public’s concerns and griefs, by being more daring and less obscure.
§ In recent years, we have seen some cultural productions seek Israeli funding in light of the PNA’s abstention from supporting artists in the 1948 occupied territories and the limited funds Palestinian NGO’s have at their disposal. Is that not a good reason for you to consider establishing a Palestinian Culture Fund, instead of giving free rein to the Israelization of Palestinian culture, which the occupation uses to whitewash its image abroad?
We do not consider political boarders in dealing with Palestinians. From the very start, we have supported teachers, artists, children and youth regardless of their background and place of residence, including the 1948 occupied territories. This holds true from the time my father funded the publishing of Poems of the Occupied Land, a collection of poems by Ahmad Khatib, in Damascus in the late sixties, as I recall. That was the first ‘contact’ between poets of the 1948 lands and the Arab world. What individuals and institutions (those who benefit from Israeli funding) do is subject to their conscience and judgment. They must take responsibility for their actions. And I have to point out that I am opposed to all attempts to isolate or boycott them, and encourage those who do not agree with them to express their opinion in a democratic, non-exclusionary way. Our society is fraught with irrational hostility and our conversations are highly emotional. We as intellectuals need to insist on the right of all individuals to exercise their political and moral choices and defend them without fear. We must have the right to respond to their acts and criticize them, but without intimidations or threats. This is one of the reservations I have on some calls for a «cultural boycott»; to me, they are more exclusion and moralization than democratic dialogue.
§ What do you think of the present political situation in Palestine as an intellectual, an activist and the son of a family that lost its life and land in Jaffa?
My family was a Petite Bourgeoisie Jaffa-native family that did not own much before 1948. My grandfather was illiterate and he lived with his family in a leased house, which he did not own. Like all Palestinians, my family lost, above all, the life it led, as you mentioned, under the extremely unfavorable political circumstances they had at the time. This still holds true today. Nevertheless, Palestinian people nowadays are becoming the majority within the borders of historical Palestine, despite all attempts to push them out of their land. The Palestinian people is still vibrant with life. But we need to understand the importance of thought, awareness, education and liberty to be able to shape a society that can not only resist the occupation, but also create a better present and future for the entire region, including the “Jewish people” living in Palestine. It is a future built on justice, equality, democracy and freedom, rather than the colonization, racism and civil wars that have germinated in the region at the hands of the Zionist movement as well as a number of reactionary and sectarian movements and countries. One must not forget the great Palestinian National Charter, which was born from a democratic dialogue within the national Palestinian movement and had precisely called for the achievement of such idyllic objectives.
§ Was your speech marking a review, a revaluation or possibly a change in AMQF?
The issues I raised in my speech have been discussed at length, including within AMQF’s literature and what I have personally published in the past years. What is certain is that we at AMQF do not back down in the face of adversity and that our commitment to our goals is unwavering. As to the form of our support, it has to be malleable and respond to changing historical conditions. Otherwise, we would be unworthy of the Palestinian cause and its brave people. Plus, we are just an NGO supported by a family with limited resources, so we plan and act accordingly, and pay utmost attention to the quality of our work over its quantity.
§ Your art career had an impressive start with the film Ahlam fi Faragh (Dreams in a Void) (1991). You continued to work on a number of films, the last of which was Zindeeq (Heretic), directed by Michel Khleifi in 2009, before fully engaging in the fields of cultural promotion. Did cultural management steal you from artistic production? And will you have an imminent comeback in film?
Maybe. I do not know. I have decided to abandon filmmaking for several reasons; some of which have to do with cinema and the cultural environment, in Palestine after the Oslo Accords, and in the world after the dominance of liberalism and the demise of progressive ideology. I honestly also had, and still have, many doubts about my talents in the field, but the determining factor was the success of AMQF. This success entailed additional financial needs, which pushed me to join the family business in Kuwait and contribute to its reboot to generate new income, capable of supporting the Foundation and other cultural organizations, such as the Palestinian Museum, whose team I have been leading for more than four years. I think every person has a destiny, and they have to invest in their strengths, strive consciously for their own plan, without fear or hesitation and bearing full responsibility for it. That is how my father and mother raised us, and I hope I have lived up to these noble principles in my work so far.
To read the original interview click here.