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PALESTINE-CULTURE: A Festival Without Israeli Guns

Deborah Horan

RAMALLAH, Jul 2 1996 (IPS) - For the first time, no Israeli soldiers patrolled the streets when Palestinians kicked off their fourth annual Palestine International Festival here on Jun. 21. The mood that created fitted well with the excitement and nationalism as local and international troupes were displayed at the festival, which ends on Jul. 5.

The opening night of the two week event had a solidly Palestinian flavour. Young women marched through the audience in traditional embroidered dresses worn by women from the various regions of Palestine.

Opening ceremonies were punctuated with references to political prisoners being held in Israeli jails, future Palestinian independence and poems about the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

Five troupes, including local singers, dancers and an oud — the traditional Arab rounded guitar — player performed on opening night to a packed audience at the First Ramallah Group Club, a sports and cultural club in the center of Ramallah.

The excited atmosphere of the festival matched the mood in the streets of Ramallah, where night life has sprung up since Israeli troops departed the city in December as part of the Oslo peace accords.

It was in sharp contrast to the three previous festivals, when a pallor of fear was cast over the celebrations, said festival organizers. Though soldiers never entered the festival grounds, the possibility stayed in people’s minds, they said.

“Before, you always felt that maybe the Israeli soldiers would come in and disrupt it,” said Iman Hamouri, a festival organizer. “We worried that they would come in and start making problems for everyone and — that’s it — no festival,” she said. “This year it is much better.”

This year, the audience relaxed and enjoyed a mixture of local and international performers throughout the week. The English steel drum band Mangrove rocked the audience with a mixture of old ballads and reggae. Chico and the Gypsies, a French band, entertained Palestinians with a blend of vocals and guitar.

Two singing and dance groups from Galilee, across the green line in Israel, brought a touch of traditional Palestinian folklore to the fest. Takis Biniaris, a well-known Greek singer best known for his role in the Greek version of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar”, belted out his native tunes.

The Palestinian diaspora choir, Abbad Ash-Shams, sang nationalist songs about their homeland and the Palestinian struggle for independence. Founded in 1988 in Egypt with the help of well-known Egyptian musician Jamal Attiyeh, they won first prize in the Arab choirs competition at the Cairo Opera House in 1994.

The festival wrapped up its first week with a new children’s program, the first of its kind in Palestine. The evening featured local Palestinian children singing traditional folk tunes.

Next came bands and dance troupes from Norway, France, Germany, Tunisia, and Spain. Local and traditional Palestinian dancers were also scheduled to perform before Jul. 5.

The highlight for Palestinians was Al-Fanoun, the traditional Palestinian folklore dance troupe that has gained local fame since it began performing in the West Bank and Gaza in 1979. During the intifada, the seven-year uprising against Israeli rule, the troupe came to symbolize Palestinian cultural resistance to occupation.

Begun in 1989 with only local musicians and dancers as an expression of Palestinian nationalism, the annual festival began to include international performers in 1993 following the Oslo peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It has quickly become a cultural highlight for Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza — and those across the green line who have Israeli citizenship — and a way for Palestinians to reinforce their heritage.

“We wanted to show Palestinian culture,” said Hamouri, a member of Al-Fanoun, explaining how the idea for the festival began. “We have a long history in Palestine and a unique cultural heritage. We wanted to express it.”

With some 50,000 Palestinians expected to attend the Jun. 21- Jul 5 national celebration, the festival has become a major event in Palestine, reflecting the openness and optimism of a new era of peace.

It was sponsored by Arab Bank, the U.N. Development Programme, the Arab Insurance Co., and a Geneva-based United Arab Emirates foundation called the Cooperation Institute.

It was organized by the Popular Arts Center, a Ramallah-based non-profit cultural center that produces local plays and music concerts. Adding to the carnival atmosphere of this year’s event, organizers set up a fairground outside, with booths selling everything from traditional Palestinian embroidered bags and clothing to “PalNet”, the Palestinian link to the Internet.

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