Theater of Cruelty

Village life in the West Bank

TRAVEL LETTER / Palestinian Minister of Culture and award-winning author Atef Abu Saif wants to highlight the rich cultural heritage and bring the art to the people.


The afternoon light is soft in Ramallah during autumn; as the sun goes down, the city is packed into golden haze. The season's first rainfall just washed the olive trees clean; the harvest can finally begin. International solidarity activists have already arrived in the West Bank to protect the olive farmers attacks by Israeli settlers.

The annual Palestine Heritage Week will be held just before the harvest starts in full, with village festivals in every nook. This year will be complicated by the celebration of Israel introducing power cuts for the villages, which will have to cope for a whole week without electricity. The Occupation Authority claims that the Palestinian authorities have not paid the electricity bill. The Palestinian Authority (PA) accuses on its side Israel for withholding cash payments to PA from February this year. Palestinians' confidence in their own authorities declines; the Israeli occupation wears off the forces and hopes for change. The festival week with celebration of own cultural heritage is badly needed.

If luck keeps him alive, Saif may end up at the top of the political hierarchy in Palestine.

I'm sitting in the back of the car of PA's relatively fresh Culture Minister Atef Abu Saif (46), along with his adviser Raed Fares, while security officer Mustafa gently drives over slippery roads out of Ramallah. In the presidency, Saif is enthusiastically concerned that the culture belongs to the people. “The field of art is most aimed at the elite. But the vegetable vendors in the souk should also feel at home in the theater, at exhibitions and other cultural events. The culture is glued to every society and must be inclusive, ”he says. The Minister follows up from village to village to attend local festivals all week, and tonight we drive to Bil'in and Kafr Ni'ma, west of Ramallah.

Atef Abu Saif became Minister of Culture in May 2019 and is one of the youngest Palestinian politicians. He holds a doctorate in political science, but is also an award-winning author, and in 2016 he visited the MOT show in Oslo with the book Under the drones. Diary from Gaza. His family was among the more than 750 Palestinians displaced by the Zionists during the Nakba ("great catastrophe") in 000, and Saif grew up in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City.

In March was Saif attacked of ten masked men in Gaza, after speaking out against Hamas' brutality against its own population. He survived so far. It is not the first time he has been near death; both during the first and second intifada he was shot by Israeli soldiers. The scar on the cheek after the bullet that went through his face reminds him daily that he has been lucky. "I got lucky in every single Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. And this bad luck commits, ”says Saif. He is ambitious on behalf of both himself and his fellow citizens. If luck continues to keep him alive, Saif may end up at the top of the Palestinian political hierarchy.

village Music

The sky is on fire as we pass the villages up in the hills. On clear days you can see the Mediterranean from here, if you add goodwill. For Saif, who has grown up in a seaside town but now lives in the West Bank, the minister has an "impenetrable" wall between him and the sea "abnormal," as he says. Although Saif is a minister, he is not allowed to visit East Jerusalem or Gaza, where his wife and four children live, without seeking permission from Israel. His family has not yet received a Gaza Strip exit permit. "It feels absurd to hold a ministerial post, but still not have the power to do something as simple as having breakfast with their children. It wouldn't take more than an hour and a half to drive to Gaza if it wasn't for all the walls and checkpoints. "

Green Hamas pennants hang outside a residence along the road into Bil'in. Saif exchanges his gaze with the security manager as we park in front of the people's house. He has previously said that he struggles with pain in one leg after the March attack, and I ask if he feels unsafe. "Never," he answers firmly before opening the car door. Saif is warmly welcomed by the village mayor; women and men gather around him to take selfies.

Atef Abu Saif
Right in the picture: Atef Abu Saif. Photo: Vibeke Harper

I love a face in the crowd – Abdullah Abu Rahma, former leader of the Bil'in Popular Committee Against the Wall. It's been over ten years since I was here last, but the tear gas and rubber bullets the Israeli soldiers sent to us, demonstrating peacefully against the ongoing construction of the separation wall and the expansion of the Modi'in Illit settlement on Palestinian agricultural land, are not so easy to forget. Neither is Abdullah, who invited to dinner after every Friday demonstration. He eagerly talks about the victory in the Israeli Supreme Court: The inhabitants of Bil'in hired an Israeli human rights lawyer, and the wall and settlement were convicted unlawfully. In 2011, Israel had to move a bit of the wall a little further down, so that the Palestinian farmers regained access to parts of the olive groves. "You know, we must enjoy our victories, no matter how small they are. And no olives taste better than ours! ”Abdullah says, grinning.

In Kafr Ni'ma we are greeted by the mesmerizing sound of the yarghoul flute, which sneaks out from the stage in the assembly area. At the entrance, stalls are set up with locally produced goods: olive soap, wicker baskets, visual arts, jewelry and sweet home baked items served with coffee. The Minister of Culture is moving from booth to booth, small talk with everyone, boasting the crafts and tasting the goodies. Advisor Fares whispers that Atef always says "we stay here for an hour, max two" before arriving at such festivals. "But people from Gaza are so social and talkative, we will never get home until after at least three!" He laughs warmly.

Hundreds of women, men and children have stood in front of the big stage, where musicians, dancers and poets entertain. Fares throws himself into the link of dancing men, while Saif is content with light-hearted moaning and rhythmic clapping. Then the speakers occupy the podium. Among them is Walid Assaf; PA Minister and Head of the National Committee for Resistance to the Wall and Settlements. In August 2018 became Assaf shot with rubber bullets by Israeli soldiers during a non-violent demonstration against Israeli land theft in the village of Ras Karkar. He escaped with an injury to his left ear.

Norway's two faces

It's been dark when Atef has been speaking and we are leaving the festival in Kafr Ni'ma. On his way home, Fares says he knows Saif from his time at the University of Bir Zeit, outside Ramallah. "Atef is an artist and intellectual, he vile something, has the drive and drive. The changes he has so far received in the Ministry of Culture promise well. Among other things, he has brought in several capacities from the cultural field, both women and men, and he has raised the arts expertise in the ministry. In fact, Dr. Atef is one of the few I believe can do anything. ”The Minister of Culture seems rather shy about the tribute from the adviser. He emphasizes that he is only a team leader and highlights the good assistance of the Norwegian representative office. “Norway is the only country that directly provides financial support to the Ministry of Culture. These funds are crucial for us to shape the evolution of cultural life in Palestine. Budgets are small and needs are great, but growing up in Gaza has fortunately taught me the importance of looking for solutions, not problems. ”

"Growing up in Gaza has taught me the importance of looking for solutions, not problems." Atef Abu Saif

"What did you say in your speech?" I ask. "Many things," he answers dryly. Then he turns to the back seat and smiles crookedly. "The essence was that this is our home, we Palestinians have nowhere else to go. That is why everyone must make the most of the situation we are in right now and help create the Palestine we want our children to grow up in. We must endure until better times come. And they're coming. "

However, better times do not come by themselves. The Palestinians are asking for concrete political support that is forcing the Israeli abuses to cease. Norway is responding to the prayer with assistance for Palestinian state-building and humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. At the same time, Norway sells weapons to the occupying power, and in the Granavold Declaration, the government expresses a desire for "strengthened research and development cooperation, trade, tourism and cultural exchange with Israel". The same statement states that the government will "impose economic and political sanctions on serious and persistent violations of international law". But the latter is thus Israel excluded.

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