Palestinian Cultural Revolt Drowned in a Pint of Beer

Khashabi Ensemble Theater, an independent Palestinian theater company, recently introduced their own stage and space in the city. Their mission is to “use theater and the arts as a vehicle for reviving Palestinian identity and promoting social change in the Palestinian community in Israel.” (Khashabi.org)

Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article about Haifa’s artistic Palestinian milieu by Diaa Hadid. Immediately after its publication, on 3 January 2016, the piece entitled “In Israeli City of Haifa, A Liberal Arab Culture Blossoms,” garnered a good deal of controversy. The very next day, Ayed Fadel, the owner of Kabareet Bar who figures prominently in the piece, took to his Facebook account to  air his grievance publicly. He protested that his words and those of others had been taken out of context: that their ideas and projects were stripped of their socio-political dimensions given that Haifa’s artists and creatives operate within the conscious embrace of political resistance.

It is noteworthy that the piece originally appeared under the title, “A Liberal Palestinian Culture Blossoms in an Israeli City.” Nevertheless, in the online edition, the word Palestinian was removed, some would say erased, and replaced with the term Arab.

On 8 January, the Times’s Margaret Sullivan published two posts on her Public Editor’s Journal discussing the various critiques, the second one featuring author Diaa Hadid’s own response. Sullivan draws the conclusion that Hadid, and the Times in general, could provide more geopolitical context to their readers in order to frame their stories.

Enter Asmaa Azaizeh, a Palestinian poet and longtime Haifa resident who published an Arabic-language rebuttal in Lebanon’s As-Safir. In her short piece, Azaizeh expresses the indignation of Haifa’s Palestinian artists and cultural innovators. She points out that by missing the resistance component of their work, Hadid offers a reductionist and incomplete portrait of Palestinian cultural production inside of Israel, reinforcing negative stereotypes and a superficial understanding of Palestinians.

Below, we present an original and complete translation of Azaizeh’s article, with permission from the author.

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While ignorance belongs to the realm of the pitiable, the distortion of facts is properly a form of chutzpah. Not a day goes by when Palestinians aren’t questioned about their reality in a superficial or misguided way by Westerners. Such questions can be forgiven because they are naïve and well-meaning, requiring us for example to explain that those of us who reside in the territories occupied in 1948 are not merely “Israel’s good Arabs” but part and parcel of the Palestinian people. And then an ostensibly well-informed journalist comes along and deploys her carefully-honed words to represent our impressive “blossoming” in Israel, and more specifically in Haifa (where we have a margin of social and individual liberties), as a mirror image of the Israeli liberalism that is the hallmark of Tel Aviv.

Recently, the New York Times published an article by Diaa Hadid entitled “In Israeli City of Haifa, a Liberal Arab Culture Blossoms.” The title and content both seemed unobjectionable in comparison with the prevalent stereotypes about Palestinians in the Western media. The piece portrays the dawning of liberal Arab culture in Haifa with images of young Palestinian men and women, their bodies pierced and tattooed, downing beers in city bars. It should come as no surprise that through the lens of the New York Times, on the other side of the globe, we appear new to modernity and liberalism—after all, didn’t early European Jewish migrants to Palestine think of us as apes, with tails between our legs?  Nor, I suppose, should it be surprising that an Israeli taxi driver in Haifa once told me, “I didn’t know that Arab women wore jeans,” his mouth agape with incredulity at the sight of my pants. We shouldn’t be taken aback either by the mainstream US media’s opacity when it comes to Palestinians’ cultural and political efforts to shape an independent identity, so long as these same Palestinians can be portrayed as comfortable citizens who enjoy the right to vote and are the lucky, albeit famished, recipients of the tidbits thrown their way by Israel’s Ministry of Culture.

None of this surprises us anymore. And some of us don’t even bother to dispel preconceptions or counter stereotypes. There is after all some degree of  knowledge in the West (limited though it may be) about the many Palestinian initiatives and projects coming out of the 1948 territories—initiatives that have managed to transcend  borders and engage the outside world on new media platforms with well-formulated arguments using the English language.

For the NYT article, Hadid spoke to several Palestinians in Haifa about the city’s social and cultural scene as well as their latest projects. To those of us who know these projects and the people behind them, it is clear that she took their e statements about politics and culture out of context, something several interviewees noted on Facebook after the article’s publication.

For example, the article  features the founder of Kabareet Bar, Ayed Fadel, and quotes him as saying, “We want a gay couple to go to the dance floor and kiss each other, and nobody to even look at them. This is the new Palestinian society we are aiming for.” While this was an accurate rendering of his words, Fadel pointed out on Facebook that his statement was decontextualized as it was part of a larger conversation about the Palestinian culture of resistance in Haifa against Israeli hegemony. As Fadel noted, the article was a pathetic attempt to tell the West, “Look they’re just like us!”

By ignoring Kabareet’s mission to showcase contemporary and underground Palestinian music, the article minimized the political and cultural subtext of Haifa’s youth initiatives, which are nothing short of a cultural revolt. Such initiatives include the creation of active independent spaces like Kabareet and Khashabi theatre, established to produce authentic Palestinian theater without institutional Israeli input. None of this was mentioned in the New York Times article. The report said nothing about the fact that the projects in question jealously guard their freedom of expression and existence in an arena that is dominated by Israeli institutions. Rather, it focused on Palestinian aspirations for individual and personal freedoms, ascribing these to flourishing liberalism despite the dynamic Palestinian cultural movement that has battled the linguistic and cultural occupation of Haifa for years. Notwithstanding the fact that it also seeks to be liberated of the socially conservative society from which it emanates—and which is also censorious of the arts—the cultural revolt is essentially one to liberate Palestinian identity from Israel’s hegemonic hold.

The author of the article is familiar with the 1948 Palestinian territories. She wasn’t making a New Year’s visit to Haifa, she lived there for many years. Similarly, Haifa’s Palestinians, including those who drink beer at Elika Bar and dance at Kabareet, are all too aware of Israel’s institutionalized attempts to Judaize, deface, and plunder Haifa, a historic Palestinian city. Those who make statements with their piercings and tattoos are also taking clear political stances, whether in the New York Times or elsewhere, and that includes responding with real action to Israel’s policy of occupation.

As for Diaa Hadid, it wasn’t ignorance that propelled her article but a disturbing repackaging of reality. And as for us, Haifa’s Palestinians (whose blossoming Hadid found so impressive), we are left nauseated by the article’s appeal for US readers.

Asmaa Azaizeh is a Palestinian poet from Haifa.