Celebrating Jerusalem as the capital of Arab culture

Despite Israeli objections Jerusalem was chosen as this year's Capital of Arab Culture. But festivities planned for January 22 were postponed because of the war on Gaza, leaving people wondering if the UNESCO-sponsored cultural event will happen at all.
Israel disputes Jerusalem's designation as an Arab capital.

BEIRUT, January 26, 2009 (MENASSAT) – The Arab Capital of Culture is an initiative undertaken by the United Nation's cultural organization, UNESCO, to promote and celebrate Arab culture and encourage cooperation in the Arab region. It is part of UNESCO's global Cultural Capitals Program, which has included the Arab countries since 1998.

But in 2006, the Arab Ministers of Culture controversially chose Occupied Jerusalem as the 2009 Arab Capital of Culture.

Israel, which claims Jerusalem as its own "eternal, undivided capital," promptly objected to the decision, claiming that UNESCO was biased in accepting Jerusalem's designation as an Arab capital.

But despite a concerted campaign by the Israeli government, UNESCO made it clear that it had no authority to overturn a decision made by the Arab Ministers of Culture.

Festivities were supposed to start last week in both Jerusalem and the West Bank, but they were canceled because of the war in Gaza.

"The festivities should have been launched on Thursday January 22, but because of the attack on Gaza and the destruction resulting from it, the festival was postponed until March," Ahmad Dari, manager of a national Palestinian committee charged with organizing the planned celebrations told Agence France Presse last week.

Canceling event 'no small decision'

Some 47 participants including government ministries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society groups were galvanized around the UNESCO-designated day, and canceling the event was no small decision.

According to Dari, the cultural capital festivities were supposed to be launched in numerous locations on the same day: Jerusalem, Gaza, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Al-Rashadiyeh refugee camp in Lebanon, and the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

The Palestinian organizing committee said some $34 million had been raised to renovate old buildings, and prepare sites for specific cultural activities.

Dr. Mohammad Akram Adlouni, chairman of the preparatory committee for the civil society components of the celebration, said some 15 Arab countries were planning to attend.

As late as December 17 of last year, Rafiq Al-Husseini, chief of staff for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said that preparations for the UNESCO day were in full swing.

But concerns about escalating violence in the Gaza Strip were being felt even before Israel launched its attack on Gaza on December 27.

Palestinian Authority (PA) of Culture Tahany Abu Daqa said at a presentation of the National Committee for the Jerusalem Celebrations on December 16, "Due to the unfortunate circumstances, celebrations would have to be held outside of next year's Cultural Capital pick in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

Cultural legitimacy

The decision to postpone the festival was not well received by some of the participating cultural and artistic organizations, who said in separate statements that the UNESCO cultural capital event was a means of countering what they said was Israel's cultural hegemony in Jerusalem.

The event was a way to "initiate collective action to preserve and promote the Palestinian Arab character of Jerusalem....The struggle for Jerusalem is not just political but also cultural," the Jerusalem-Arab Cultural Capital of 2009 website stated.

Many Israeli commentators have said that the UNESCO event was being used as a means to stir up conflict in the Palestinian Territories—accusations that are even more relevant since the Gaza war.

David Bedein, head of the Center for Near East Policy Research, wrote in Arutz Sheva (Israel National News): "UNESCO is working with PA officials and key Arab figures in Israel to organize celebrations that they will turn into a huge event protesting against what they describe as 'the Israeli occupation of Holy Jerusalem.' The Palestinians' plan stems from the fact that 16 neighborhoods in West Jerusalem are constructed in place of pre-1948 Arab neighborhoods from which the Arabs fled during the 1948 war."

Some of Bedein's concerns were confirmed by statements made by Amir Mahoul last May. Mahoul is the chairman of Ittijah, the Union of Arab Community-Based Associations, an umbrella organization of Arab national parliamentary organizations (NPOs) in Israel.

"The UNESCO-Arab cultural capital event symbolizes the battle against the occupation, beyond the historical and cultural value of Jerusalem," Mahoul said.

"We expect Israel will make things difficult for us and this is a fact that we will take into account, and over which we will battle the Israeli occupation authorities."

Politics through cultural means

Many event organizers went on record saying they want the event to be rescheduled sooner than March, especially in the aftermath of Gaza.

"We hoped the event would also be a means of supporting Palestinian citizens in and outside Jerusalem who are constantly facing trials and hardships," one group, the Palestinian Forum, said.

Among the events that were to be held were lectures at Birzeit University and Al Quds University, and scores of music, dance, poetry and theater performances in locations throughout the West Bank.

Palestinian organizers had hoped to invite Arabic music superstars like Lebanon's Majida Al-Roumi and Iraq's Kazem As-Saher, but as far back as May 2008 questions were being raised by organizers as to "how they would overcome logistical issues such as issuing visas to nationals of countries regarded as hostile in Israel and overcoming their fear of being labeled 'normalizers.'"

In the specter of the war with Gaza, it would be hard for organizers to keep politics out of what is mainly an event for cultural expression.

Basem Al-Masri, an Egyptian-born British citizen who was involved in organizing the UNESCO cultural capital events, said after a meeting in May that not all of the events that were planned were political in nature. But he also stated that Palestinians have a natural right to express their political beliefs through cultural means.

"Israel has to choose whether it is a democracy, as it claims, or a non-democracy, like apartheid South Africa. Where is the democracy? I'm working through cultural avenues. Help me take young people off the streets. Isn't it better that they're busy in art workshops rather than turning to violence?" Masri asked.

Organizers like Ahmad Dari have made it explicit that any future event will indeed be politicized for Palestinians.

"We call upon all the artists to dedicate part of the festival to support Gaza and our people there. The attack on Gaza was also an attack on the festival that was supposed to launch from Gaza City," Dari said.