Why the caged bird sings
The Israeli authorities seem intent on curbing Palestinian cultural activity. Clemency Burton-Hill reports from Jerusalem
24 Jul 09

Israeli authorities seem intent on curbing Palestinian cultural activity.
Clemency Burton-Hill reports from Jerusalem

The woman’s hand was shaking as she pulled the piece of paper from her pocket and cleared her throat. You could have heard a pin drop in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s bustling Old City, as the audience — here to see a gala performance of Brahms’s German Requiem and not envisaging spontaneous speeches from members of the choir — tried to make sense of this unexpected overture. The woman was a soprano from the Palestinian “Olive Branches” choir, based in Bethlehem, who were joining forces that night with members of the Choir of London for the finale of a music festival that had been taking part in the West Bank for the past two weeks, encompassing concerts in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. After a traumatic afternoon at the checkpoint, she and her fellow choir members had asked permission to give this speech — which pleaded for the rights of Palestinians to express themselves through music and other forms of culture — as a condition of them participating in the concert at all.

It turned out that, despite permits having been granted weeks ago by the Israeli authorities for all members of the Olive Branches choir to travel from Bethlehem into Jerusalem, when crossing through the checkpoint for the rehearsal that afternoon, certain members had been refused entry. On what grounds? “Unspecified security concerns” — obviously. As the soprano, her voice steady but her hand still trembling, wearily repeated that favourite IDF term, there was a sigh of recognition and resignation among other Palestinian musicians in the group. Exactly how an amateur choir coming into Jerusalem to sing a little Brahms poses a major security threat to Israel is not clear, but nevertheless, this episode was but the latest in what appears to be a campaign of suppression — sometimes covert, sometimes explicit — by Israel of public cultural expression by Palestinians.

Just days before the Brahms concert, three twelve-year-olds from Ramallah, all of whom had earlier been granted permission to enter Jerusalem, had been denied passage through the notorious Qalandiya checkpoint. They were supposed to be taking part in the chorus of Puccini’s La Bohème at Al-Hakawati, the Palestinian National Theatre, that night. The kids had been learning their songs and rehearsing their scenes for months. When I had visited them at Al-Kamadjati, an association of refugee camp music schools based in Ramallah, earlier that week, they had been overflowing with excitement about the upcoming performance in Jerusalem. Their teacher, Julia, had confided in me that she was a little worried about potential disturbances at the checkpoint — for many of the kids it would have been their first trip to “Al-Quds”, even if their families had once hailed from there — but had been confident that everyone would get in; after all, every last bureaucratic demand had been painstakingly undertaken to ensure that each child was granted the elusive, precious blue permit.

For the children who were — seemingly randomly — denied entry, therefore, the disappointment was bitter and hard to bear. One mother described how her daughter Al’a had burst into floods of tears, so excited had she been about singing and dancing on stage — not to mention finally seeing the city where her father’s family had previously lived for centuries. “Did you find it strange that the IDF should have decided that your daughter posed such a significant security threat to Israel that they wouldn’t let her enter Jerusalem?” I asked her. She shrugged. “Whenever we try to express ourselves, that is a threat to Israel, because it suits them better to say that we are stupid, uncultured people, you know, terrorists, nothing more, while they have all the concerts and the operas and the culture. They do not accept the idea that we have something to say for ourselves, so they try to stop every time we do.”

The burgeoning of a Palestinian arts scene and the naming of Jerusalem as 2009’s Arab Capital of Culture has clearly infuriated, if not outraged, many Israelis: during my fortnight in the West Bank I heard countless stories about Israel, that most valiant of democracies, shutting down Arab cultural events, especially those with the word “Palestine” or even “Palestinian” in the title. While the quashing of an event by schoolchildren who were planning to release hundreds of balloons in celebration of Al-Quds was left to the Jerusalem police force, the Palestine Festival of Literature in June was repeatedly closed down by machine-gun-toting IDF guards. It ended up having to be hosted not in “Palestine” but on “diplomatic” soil at the French Cultural Centre and British Council.

When I was — as usual — hassled and interrogated for hours at Ben Gurion airport on my way back to London, it was my material from the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp that seemed most to exercise the spotty, teenaged security boy as he rifled through every item in my suitcase, dirty underwear and all. “Why do you mix with Arabs?” he demanded, apparently unable even to spit out the P-word. And then, with a sinister little scoff under his breath: “What is this ‘Freedom Theatre’? They will never be free.” As I began to try wearily (and pointlessly) to defend my interaction with Palestinian singers, actors and musicians, I thought back to the night before. “They keep shutting us down, we will keep singing”, my friend Omer, a nai (traditional Arab flute) player, had grinned as he jammed with another friend Walid, an oud (stringed instrument) player and two singers, Mai and Diala. “We will keep writing poetry, we will keep making films, we will keep striving to make something beautiful from our lives, you know? Everybody has a right to express themselves. We just have to hope that one day somebody will hear us.”
Read Tom Service’s review of the Choir of London’s production of La Bohème that toured the West Bank here