CELEBRATION OF PALESTINIAN CULTURE is an enlightening cultural festival that shares stories of the Holy Land and celebrates Palestinian creativity. To enrich participants’ experience of Palestinian culture, CELEBRATION is a multimedia experience with an art exhibition, feature film screenings followed by Q&As with the directors, public conversations, and live performances by the avant-garde Diyar Dance Theatre from Bethlehem, and the international Palestinian hip-hop sensation, DAM. To learn more about this event we talked to Jordan Elgrably, director of the Levantine Cultural Center.
Bijan Tehrani: Could you please tell us about your involvement in the Palestinian events and what motivated you to arrange this event?
Jordan Elgrably: For me working here with the Levantine Cultural Center I think the question of Palestinian history, culture and identity has always been one of our utmost priorities, because we feel that the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian narrative, at least in the United States, are the underdogs.
In 1948 the history, which I won’t go into in any detail, but many Palestinian towns and villages were erased in the creation of Israel so with the Palestinian diaspora, there are all of these people and their kids and grand kids who remember where they came from, yet they can’t go back. So it is a powerful story, the Palestinian story is one of refugees, it is a story of losing your home and in some cases your identity. Even on a cultural level, Israel has somewhat eclipsed Palestinian Identity; for example I saw an article recently about new Israeli cuisine and what is it? It’s hummus, babganoush, it is all of these traditional Arab foods that Palestinians make and here they are calling it “new Israeli cuisine.”
So we wanted to present a cultural arts series that would show both traditional and both contemporary Palestinian culture. In this way, Americans can see Palestinian culture not in terms of terrorism or rhetoric or war but as about people who are dancing, playing music, people who are painters and writers and intellectuals, folks who are creative thinkers and non-violent protesters—that is the Palestinian representation that we want to offer with this series.
BT: I think that in Israel there are many artist and filmmakers who are trying to find solutions for the existing problems.
JE: Yes I agree, and as a result, we don’t participate in the cultural boycott because we feel that we should hear from people inside the country, both the Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians who are Muslim or Christian; we want to hear from the dissenting voices within the state of Israel just as I am sure people in the Middle East want to hear from dissenting Americans who disagree with US foreign policy. We don’t want to shut off that discourse, so in fact we are bringing out a filmmaker who is an Israeli citizen but an Arab filmmaker named Sameh Zoabi. His film is called Under the Same Sun. If we were participating in the cultural boycott then we would not be able show his film. Sameh Zoabi is a key person because he speaks Hebrew, he is a Palestinian so obviously Arabic is his first language, and he is a kind of a cultural diplomat, he goes back and forth between the Hebrew-Israeli culture and the Arab culture and his film is a visionary story because it imagines what the future could be like if people could manage to work together, which they are going to have to do.
BT: How challenging is it to arrange and event like this?
JE: Well, we have a multi-day event, it is actually 7 days of activities and geographically the series is spread out, so we are doing events in Hollywood for four night and three nights in Orange County, to reach as many people as possible. We have thousands of seats to fill, it’s a big job as an operation to import all of these people from the Middle East and bring all of them together and promote it. But the biggest challenge I think still is that many Americans, especially here in LA with people that are involved in the film and television industry, there is a natural resistance to the word Palestinian and the culture because for so long it was associated with terrorism and suicide bombings and only for the last few years have people begun to open up. Only since Arafat and Rabin were on the White House Lawn with Clinton in 1993 has there been the beginning of change, the image of Palestinians began to change, and then Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich came out in 2005—the Palestinian characters in that film had a voice, they weren’t just terrorist figures that were two dimensional, but they actually talked about what happened to them and their exile and so forth. Spielberg was criticized for that. I am not saying it was a revolutionary film but this was a Jewish filmmaker in Hollywood allowing Palestinians to tell stories about themselves, so it was not so demonizing them.
After that you had Paradise Now, which was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe. Then in 2009, you had Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka, and a number of other films that came along. So people are beginning to feel like they can watch these stories about Arabs and Palestinians and try to understand what is really going on here. But the challenge is still difficult because there is a resistance in Hollywood to Arab culture, which has been exacerbated by 9/11 and all of the scare tactics that our government has used since 9/11 against Arabs and Muslims. Islamaphobia sells and fear sells and the government uses fear to get what it wants, bigger budgets for so called security. We saw the problem with this heightened security a few months ago, with Emad Burnat, the filmmaker of the documentary Five Broken Cameras” (another Oscar nominee). When Burnat flew in for the Oscars, they stopped him at LAX Airport because he’s Palestinian, and the company that oversees LAX is an Israeli security company, so they flag people. They had no reason to stop him. I actually just wrote an op-ed for Alternet.org that asks, Is Hollywood afraid of Palestinians? The LA Times didn’t want to run the piece, they turned it down. I think it’s still a sensitive subject, there is a challenge in even being able to do this series and promote it widely and have people come see it.
BT: I hope that there will be more open minded people who will get the chance to see what you are doing, which is really promoting peace through your events.
JE: Thank you, Bijan. That is the hope. At the end of the day we believe that this event is about promoting peace. The future of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is in their hands and you can’t make peace with someone that you don’t talk to, so this series is allowing people to talk to each other and it allows Americans to see Palestinians not as terrorists but as fellow human beings with a legitimate cause, calling for the same freedom and justice we all want.
BT: How can people get to the different venues and experience the different events that you have?
JE: The best way to get information is either on our new website www.celebratepalestine.org or our website www.levantinecenter.org or call us the number is 323-413-2001. We also have a call out for volunteers, and we are beginning this series on the 30th of September with an art exhibit on the cultural center and then we will be at the Harmony Gold in Hollywood for the remainder of it.