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Culture as the Art to Breathe

 There was a time when people thought that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like a 100-meter run. Participants behaved accordingly; they gathered their strength in a concentrated effort and within such a short time. When they reached the goal, they were out of breath, but they could afford it for this short time period. However, increasingly people are realizing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the longest ongoing in modern history, is more like a 36-kilometer marathon. If participants would behave similar to in a 100-meter run, they will perish. They will resign quickly, lose hope and heart and emigrate either physically or psychologically. In a marathon, people need to breathe differently, to train in another way and to run in a well-trained yet more relaxed speed. One has simply to have a long breath. Culture for Palestinians living in this ongoing and seemingly unending conflict is the art to keep a long breath. Often I meet people and donors who think that culture in this context is a luxury we Palestinians cannot and should not afford. For these donors, relief is what the Palestinians need under occupation. They need bread to eat, to fill their stomach so that they can think. This is usually the logic used. Our tragedy as Palestinians has been that our struggle and since the Balfour Declaration has been often portrayed as a humanitarian crisis rather than one that has to do with identity and self-determination. But people “shall not live by bread alone”. Culture is one of the most important elements for people’s survival. Under immense constrains and in the most immoral situations, culture is the art to learn how to breathe normally. In contexts of conflicts, people are concentrating mainly on those who “kill the body” but often they forget about those who “kill the soul”, i.e. the dignity, creativity and vision of a people. Without a vision, nations “cast off restrains”. Culture is the art for the soul not only to survive but to thrive. Culture is the art to refuse being just on the receiving end, to resist being perceived only as a mere victim. Culture is the art of becoming an actor rather than a spectator. It is the art of celebrating life in a context still dominated by forces of death and domination, an art of resisting creatively and non-violently.

However, culture is a necessity not only at times of conflict. Culture is crucial not mainly in resisting occupation but it is essential in a positive way of expressing oneself the way one is and to communicate one’s story the way one wants. Culture has thus to do with self-determination. Culture is the place where we determine who we are as we define ourselves and not as defined by others. Culture is the medium through which we communicate what we really want in a language that is different than the political semantics and religious formulas. Within the Palestinian context, people have reached a stage where they feel that political rhetoric does not represent anymore what they think and want. Also, people often feel suffocated from certain forms of religious expressions that have too much religion with too little spirituality. Culture is a sacred space where people learn how to breathe freely in a context where the fresh air seems to be almost already used up. This is why I believe that culture is one of the most important pillars in a future Palestinian state. The role culture will play in our future state is what will determine for many if Palestine is not only their homeland by birth but by choice too. What happens in the cultural zone will indicate the direction Palestine is heading towards: a democratic state where there is not only freedom from occupation but also a state that guarantees legally the freedom of expression and allocates resources to insure that the cradle of the three monotheistic religions will become a major cultural hub for humanity.

Last but not least, culture is an important bridge between Palestine and the rest of the world. Although culture has to do with expressing oneself as one is, yet this is done always in relation to others. Encountering the other is always important in understanding oneself. It is in the light of meeting a different context that one realizes one’s own unique context. Culture becomes thus the space where people can meet others and themselves, where they can discover a language that is local and yet universal and where they realize that in order to breathe, one has to keep windows wide open to new winds and fresh air brought across the seas and oceans. Simultaneously, what Palestine needs are ambassadors of its culture who can express the unique spirit of the land and its people.  Culture is the means that empowers us to give face to our people, write melodies to our narrative and to develop an identity that is deeply rooted in the Palestinian soil like an olive tree, yet whose branches reach out into the open skies.

It is for these reasons that we, at the International Center of Bethlehem, have decided in 1997 to focus and invest most of our resources on culture. We opened in 1999 the “Cave” Arts and Crafts Center with workshops, a gallery and a gift shop; and we dedicated in 2003 Addar Cultural and Conference Center with a state of the art multipurpose auditorium. Out of this same conviction, we are opening this September the Dar al-Kalima College as the first of its kind college that is offering vital, accredited and comprehensive higher education in arts, multimedia and communication. This is our contribution to strengthen the civil society, cultivate talent and communicate hope so that a fresh spirit will continue to blow within, throughout and across Palestine and we all can breathe, “have life and have it abundantly”.

Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church
General Director of the International Center of Bethlehem




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