DC Palestinian Festival: An Expression of Home and Exile

The DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival opened its doors on October 5 and will run through October 9 in downtown Washington DC at three different venues: the District Architecture Center, Regal Cinemas at Gallery Place, and E-Street Cinema. The organizers of the festival, now in its sixth year, hope to ignite a conversation about Home and what it means for Palestinians.

Nearly 6 million Palestinians outside Palestine, including 1.5 million refugees, are compelled to “identify with more than just one place to call home,” architect and keynote speaker Iman Fayyad told the audience at the opening reception of the festival. As a largely diasporic population, Palestinians exhibit a powerful longing for a common home: a mental and emotional “frame of reference,” as the keynote speaker said, where their heritage and culture can thrive. In this respect, the role of the arts is to “help us think of innovative ways through which we can preserve the past, overcome our present challenges, and inspire optimism about the future,” Fayyad explained in her remarks.

The festival lineup echoes a similar message. With an impressive 33 film screenings, interactive live performances between artists in Gaza and Washington DC, and an architectural exhibit, organizers said they sought “to change the common narrative.” That narrative is often stereotypically violent, “not only about Palestine, but also the Palestinian community at large,” said Huda Asfour, a musician and one of the festival co-founders.

Though the festival is Palestinian, “it is not just about Palestine,” board member Nusayba Hammad underlined. “We work with other marginalized communities of color in DC. For instance, we are featuring a Honduran-Palestinian,” she explained. In the past, “we worked with Palestinian artists from South America, Europe, and all over the Arab world and the US,” Asfour chimed in.

The festival’s impact has grown steadily in the five years since its inception in 2011.  Although there is always more to learn, Asfour told Palestine Square, she noted that Palestinian film and art are often approached with loaded political assumptions that risk missing their artistic value. “Palestinian artists are like all other artists,” she went on. “Our vision, then, is to overcome the idea that politics dictate Palestinian arts.”

Gaza Portal Makes History

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Sol Band, a Gaza group, plays to an audience in DC through the portal.

This year’s festival stands out not only for its film lineup, but also for the pioneering portal into Gaza using audio and video technology, in collaboration with Mercy Corps and Shared Studios. The portal allows artists from Gaza and DC to perform together live, and festival goers have the opportunity to speak with Palestinians in real time. The portal will be housed for a year at a United Nations Works and Relief Agency facility in Gaza City, giving the people of the besieged enclave a chance to engage with the rest of the world through a variety of projects and activities.

A conversation between John, a San Francisco State University student, and Yahia, a freshman at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, encapsulates the portal experience. The pair spoke about life in Gaza and the US, their musical tastes, hobbies, and dating cultures, as well as Yahia’s time during a short visit to the US.

Yahia: Hi! My name is Yahia.
John: Hello, I’m John. How is your day going?
Yahia: Busy! I visited friends and went to classes.
John: What do you study?
Yahia: Sociology and Psychology. How about you?
John: I’m finishing a Master’s program in political science.
Yahia: That’s cool!
John: What time is it there? It’s 11:30 AM here.
Yahia: It’s 5:30 PM.
John: That’s crazy! What do you want to do in your life?
Yahia: I want to do social work.
John: What’s it like to live in Gaza?
Yahia: I used to think that Gaza is not a good place. But when I travelled to Ohio, I found out that every society has its own problems. In a way, it was a blessing, because it helped me overcome a lot of the negativity I had about Gaza.
John: What was most surprising about American culture?
Yahia: Refills at restaurants and the dating culture.
John: What’s the dating culture like in Gaza?
Yahia: It’s not as common and open as in the US.
John: What do you do in your spare time?
Yahia: Swimming, reading, and social media. I always watch President Obama’s White House weekly address. I like his charisma.
John: I know! I’m sad he is leaving.
Yahia: What’s your favorite band? I like One Republic.
John: I listen to alternative rock.

While the conversation between John and Yahia may appear superficial, it is simply ordinary, serving as an engaging bridge to understand Palestinians’ quest for an ordinary life in a “normal” home that is not defined by the realities of foreign occupation, war, exile, and displacement. The films being screened at the festival as well as the portal experiment bring exactly such a perspective to spectators and participants.