Friday, April 25, 2014

Culture in Palestine

Actor David Broughton-Davies looking out across Ramallah
In Arabic, the word for "home" and the word for "poem" are the same - bait.  I suppose "home" and "poem" are similar in English too, holding within them the sacred "om" sound that echoes through so many languages; but the discovery that in Arabic the words are identical has helped me to focus some of the thoughts that this time in Palestine has been provoking. It has helped me to understand the huge importance of culture here.

The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes in A Cloud in My Hand of the close identification between land and language, the way in which the place and tongue of both are, or should be, central to the formation of human identity:

"The place was prepared for his birth:
his grandfather's hill of sweet basil
with views to the east and west.
God's olive trees rising with the language."

But, for the Palestinian people, home is an absence.  The nakbar (catastrophe) of 1948, which drove so many of them from their homes, made land and its role in the creation of identity at best provisional.  And so the role of the poem, the other side of bait, has become absolutely central to the creation and the preservation of identity.  If Palestinian culture is undermined, then there will be no Palestine.  And so every cultural event, every educational event, every poem, play and song, is an act of resistance and resilience.  That is why, in total contradiction to the image presented in the western media, Palestine is probably the most culturally vibrant space I have ever encountered.  Everyone you meet here is deeply informed about history and culture: everyone is actively engaged in the preservation and regeneration of culture.  The young are proud of the learning they receive, and embrace their provisional status as a work in progress - their lives as a process of self-fashioning.  It is extraordinarily moving.  And very salutary to those of us whose cultures are being steadily eroded and commodified. 

The play we are rehearsing here with Ashtar Theatre, This Flesh is Mine, is also very much about creation and debasement of language, about exile and the right to remain, about home and poem.  One of the three English actors, Andrew French, said to me last night that we could not have done it justice had we not rehearsed in Palestine.  He is absolutely right. 

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