Performing against extinction: report from the IETM Caravan Palestine


During the first week of December 2018, IETM Caravan brought 36 participants to the State of Palestine. For most of them it is their first visit to this state without autonomy in its ever shrinking territory.

For IETM the visit to Palestine has revived its long-lasting relationship with the Palestinian art community.

It all started in April 2002, with the project “100 Artists in Palestine”. This joint initiative of IETM and Iman Aoun, director of Ashtar Theatre, brought international artists to West Bank and Gaza to meet with their isolated colleagues. It meant the kick off for several everlasting connections (e.g. with Les Ballets C. de la B.), books and guest performances.
In 2010, IETM revisited Palestine with a small delegation of 11 performing art professionals based in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and the UK. The visit was co-organised by Ramallah Municipal Council, and included meetings with around 15 local organisations in six Palestinian towns, as well as a lengthy video-conference between 40 West Bank Palestinian artists and cultural managers, the IETM participants and a dozen artists and cultural managers from Gaza.

©Noorrovers on Wikimedia

In the first three days of this Caravan, the participants were hosted by the first official showcase organised by the Palestinian Performing Arts Network, founded in 2015. Intense morning sessions, followed by up to 6 performances a day (16 in total, see below) made it into a crash course in Palestinian performing arts’ state of affairs. And as in any good performance - the opening act of the meeting set the tune: all people in the room (the Caravan participants, international guests of the PPAN showcase and Palestinian professionals) were invited to stand up in front of the projection of the Palestinian flag, to the Palestinian anthem over the speakers. To pay tribute to the martyrs. And to honour all the talents currently fighting for justice and freedom in Palestine. 

No room for doubt: in this country one cannot untangle arts and politics. And one cannot stay unmoved. Palestine is a traumatised country, which population since 1948 lives under a daily threat of losing access to their properties or seeing their crops or homes being destroyed, while settlers build rich villa’s on all West Bank’s hilltops, using all the water available. The scars by the loss of family members, friends, fields, houses, olive trees, dignity are even deepened by the fear of losing the Palestinian identity as such. And art is a way to protect that identity.

‘’Protecting identity and culture is a growing concern: we face extinction’’ said Iman Hammouri, chair of PPAN who introduced us to the network, which took a start after the IETM Caravan in 2010 and currently connects 15 companies in the West Bank and Gaza, challenging the policy of fragmentation and separation.

Last year, PPAN organised performances in houses of friends. This year’s edition with so many international guests sparks the hope for a new era of building connections, internationally. The network facilitates mutual inspiration and capacity building in the sector, reaching out to people that otherwise wouldn’t be reached and creating a common voice, for instance, to lobby for the introduction of art in the school curriculum. Meanwhile the challenges here are huge and specific: the occupation (which prevents Gaza-based companies to take part in the network), the lack of legislation, the shrinking donor support and religious fundamentalism.

Participants registering for the Caravan and PPAN Showcase ©Al-Harah Theater

History of the Palestinian performing arts

History in Palestine is dealt with in segments defined by several events or  “catastrophes”: Al Nakba (literally ‘the catastrophe’) in 1948, which expelled 750.000 Palestinians from their homes and land, the war of 1967 (which brought Gaza, the West Bank and Golan Heights under Israeli control and expelled even more Palestinians), the first intifada (1987-1991), the Oslo accords (1993-1995), which were not lived up to: the Israeli administration still has permanent military presence in more than 80% of the West Bank and the second intifada (2000-2005). And we could add the bombing of Gaza in 2014; the deadly commemoration of Al Nakba last year, and the construction of the wall which started in 2001, and now measures around 600 and soon more than 800 km.

Currently six to seven million Palestinian people live as refugees, representing the largest and longest displaced population in the world. An increasing number of over 800.000 settlers live in illegal settlements in West Bank and Jerusalem. Ramallah itself is developing vertically to house its 300.000 inhabitants on an ever-decreasing territory.

“The term ‘performing arts’ is only introduced here after 2008”, says Huda Odeh, independent consultant-resource development in culture, who introduced the Caravan crowd to the history and development of the Palestinian performing arts, “but the separate art forms have always been important in Palestine, even though they didn’t develop in parallel pace or periods in time.” The landmark dates listed above play a decisive role in that.

Notwithstanding the struggle under the British Mandate, Palestine in the 30-s and 40-s was a cultural hub with a well-developed contemporary music scene in all big cities. Ramallah was known as an open, multicultural city with ballrooms in its different hotels and parks. Visual arts and literature were flourishing, as were the folkloric arts connected to the different popular traditions in the rural areas.

Two broadcasting stations dating back from the 30-s were important as promoters of culture. Outside the cities and amongst the nomadic communities, folklore dance, music and songs were popular, while theatre was mainly restricted to a practice in schools. After 1948, the music sector suffered most: its best musicians were forced to leave. Since then, they contributed to the development of music in other Arab countries. The folklore music was less affected, but popular singers were forced to adapt the lyrics expressing a longing for the lost homeland and the sadness on the consequences of the Nakba. PLO (the Palestine Liberation Organization) started to broadcast from Egypt revolutionary songs, messages in march tempo, less interesting musically, with lyrics prompting for armed resistance and struggle.  

Not much was happening on theatre and dance after the Nakba, but the traditional dance Dabkeh survived in rural areas, and in 1962 the Ramallah festival (1962- 1966) started to programme that traditional dance on stage, establishing it as an art form in urban settings.

After the loss of territory in the 1967 war, in the early 70-s and 80-s many efforts of the local art world were directed towards the protection of folklore against its extinction. PLO’s Media and Cultural unit managed to support the formation of Al Ashiqueen music group, including musicians in diaspora. Their music was based on folkloric lyrics, but it adopted a well-received focus on resistance, steadfastness and longing for the homeland.

El Funoun Dance Troupe, founded in 1979, with the objective to protect the rich tradition of folkloric dance and music, started to vary on the traditional lyrics and movements, for producing works which tell stories of resistance. This formed the basis of a vast (including contemporary) oeuvre which would bring them global fame till today.

According to Odeh, the 70-s were the golden age of theatre: companies emerged mainly in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, some of which are still active today (like El Hakawati). Resources were limited, but the companies reached diverse audiences with high-quality productions. The 80-s marked the birth of more dance companies and the growth of a strong dance scene with festivals and traditional dance competitions.
A blooming period which comes to an abrupt end with the first Intifada brings curfews, imprisonment of artists, and the compulsory closure of many venues and companies. Protest songs based on traditional melodies and graffiti become the main artistic popular expressions - culture and arts are part of the political uprising. The underground production of cassettes with popular Intifada lyrics booms.

After the Oslo peace treaty, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is formed, including a Ministry of Culture. More international donors and NGOs start to support the process of the state-building and development. With this new opportunity for financial support, the cultural field begins to organise itself into academies and officially registered organisations.  In line with the split mood in the population, some companies do promote hope, others continue to focus on resistance.

And a new type of performing arts enters the stage: classical ballet, repertory theatre, and Western classical music concerts. Big international festivals see the light. Private cultural organisations start to operate and support the existing performing arts field…

And then, with the second Intifada starting in 2000, everything comes to a standstill again, and people reach back to the “Intifada mode” with the reemergence of the first Intifada songs. Tens of check points separate the Palestinian communities, and Jerusalem is totally closed off for Palestinians.

When, after 2006 people regain their breath, Jerusalem and Gaza stay blocked off from their colleagues in the West Bank, and NGOs shift their focus towards the only reachable area, the West Bank. Being separated from other regions, companies in Ramallah and Bethlehem start to reach out to the remote, isolated areas in the West Bank.

Challenges and needs

The challenges of Palestinian arts are manifold:

 - On national and political level – some beyond control of the individual organisations – are the occupation and its policies of closure of areas, fragmentation of the territory and the wars in neighbouring countries which shifted the attention away from Palestine. The PNA doesn’t develop favourable cultural policies, and there are no sufficient funds earmarked for the Ministry of Culture and the development of the sector.

 - On the level of religion: conservative cities like Hebron bar the population from the arts. In some rural areas, mixed traditional dance and music groups are not accepted.

 - On the level of the companies: understaffing is a problem, as are sustainability, efficiency and professionalism. Nevertheless, one can say that the Palestinian performing arts scene is still one of the strongest in the region (especially in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Gaza).

 - On the level of connection: Gaza is fully cut off (even accessing the internet connection is hard here), but also, in the West Bank, Palestinians have restricted mobility rights. Entry permits for visiting companies are often delivered at the very last minute, or just denied and not seldom visiting companies are sent back from the airport or bridge.  

 - On the level of survival: in August 2018, the only big theatre in Gaza, Al Mishal, built in 2014 by a private investor, housing a school and workshops (e.g. one run by El Funoun) and serving the whole theatre and dance sector in a five-store building, has been bombed and wiped off the map…

Money is a huge problem. Palestine is one of the most donor-dependent countries in the world. SIDA, Drosos, Prince Claus, Norwegian funds are very important donors to the cultural sector in Palestine. But recently, more and more national donors have been skipping arts and culture from their development policies (e.g. Denmark and the Netherlands). After the election of Hamas in Gaza, all USA and European funds were blocked or withdrew completely, contributing as such to the complete siege of the Gaza Strip and its population. Thank god, Palestinian and Arab funding agencies like Qattan, El Mawred, AFAC are still supporters of the sector and - unlike USAid and some Western donors - these three do not force Palestinian artists to collaborate with Israelis, a condition for funding which is not acceptable for most Palestinian performing arts organisations.  

But as Marina Braham, our host, partner in the EU CLAP! Project, and artistic director of Al Harah Theatre in Beit-Jala, underpinned, partnerships can be even more important than sponsorships. Tamasi Collective is a very important network of companies in the region. But according to her, the impact of “100 artists in Palestine” (see above) is also still sensible: exchanging experience, a continued dialogue with artists who are aware of the context in which their Palestinian colleagues are working is very valuable. ‘’If a partnership is built on trust, you can work even without funding.’’

For the artists in the room, collaboration with Israeli institutions is a “no go”, and the question asked by an international visitor raises emotional reactions: ‘’If they are serious and want to improve the Palestinian rights, they better work on that in Israel’’. There have been joint projects after 1993, but the second Intifada has put a definite end to it. We are informed that companies which accept Israeli governmental subsidy nowadays legally commit themselves to perform in the illegal settlements. Moreover, the refusal to collaborate at least prevents Israeli government from using the projects for whitewashing its politics. 

Which brings up the question of whether IETM - and the people in the room - would support the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)? Cultural boycott is a strategy which has been successful in South Africa, another country which suffered under institutionalised apartheid.

At the entrance of Aida Camp ©Nan van Houte

In 2014, by then newly formed Palestinian Performing Art Network asked IETM to support the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel (PACBI) as a reaction to the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. Since the majority of IETM’s members strongly objected against cultural boycotts, the Secretariat sticks to this position. Nevertheless, if a member asks for such a support, calls like these can be shared with the membership through IETM’s channels. Moreover: IETM will raise awareness, show solidarity and forge connections. That’s what makes visits like this one important.

The second part of IETM Caravan had a lighter schedule than the first days, but brought a lot of impressions of everyday life. The bus ride passing the red roofed settlements, showing which roads Palestinians are allowed to take and which they are blocked from (or can’t even cross), brought us to the center of Bethlehem, where tourists were flocking around the nativity church and a large Christmas tree dominated the big square. On our last day we would return to this square to watch the performance Flight 3 12, produced by Al Harah with artists with different abilities (as part of the European project CLAP!).

Bethlehem’s cultural offer is primarily staged in three large complexes, which seem more apt for conferences than concerts and performances: the huge Bethlehem Convention Palace Centre built to host the World Economic Forum in 2000 and the no-way less impressive fingerprint of Russia in the spic-and-span President Putin Palestinian Organisation for Culture and Economy (opened in 2017) and Russian Cultural Centre (2012). The difference with these mastodonts couldn’t be larger than with the theatre of Al Harah in Beit Jala we visit the other day to see their performance on the occupation, Meramieh. Al Harah hardly can seat our group of 36…

Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel ©Nan van Houte

Next day Marina Barham took us to a visit to Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel with its instructive museum on the history of the occupation and contemporary arts gallery, followed by a trip along the wall into Aida refugee camp. Later that day a bus trip brings us to the old city of Hebron, which Mosque contains the tomb of Abraham, patriarch of all three monotheistic religions. Even though Hebron is under Palestinian Authority, Israeli militaries are dominating the old city. The Ibrahim Mosque is a strong symbol of what this means: in February 1994, when Ramadan and Purim collided, an Israeli settler killed 29 Muslims in the Mosque. Since that date the holy place is divided in two, with two separate entrances. Without meeting or even seeing each other, Jews and Arabs can each from their side catch a glance of Abrahams tomb through bulletproof glass. But the Palestinians have to pass an Israeli checkpoint before entering, and their part of the Mosque was hit by Israeli missiles.

Israeli flags wave from houses in the middle of Hebron's old town, where settlers moved in the houses of Palestinian families who left the city. They now occupy 20% of the territory, protected by the watchtowers which mark the H2 area, the part of the old city under Israeli control. Protecting the old Palestinian houses from being bought, restored and occupied by Israeli is the main mission of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, which want to bring Palestinians back in the heart of the city. Not such an easy task, while everything in this city, the checkpoints, the watchtowers, the fishing nets to protect the marketers, the walls blocking of streets and the dancing and singing soldiers on a roof during praying hour tell me (and my record only covers a few hours) what living in this city under occupation means.

Like the former participants of IETM events in Palestine, 36 professionals left the place with a better understanding of the world behind the dominant narratives in all Palestinian productions we visited. They got familiar with the living and working conditions of Palestinians in general and the artists they met in particular. And they left the country convinced of the need for exchange and cooperation. A wish that mirrored the request echoed by all Palestinians for continued exchange, for training and residencies for artists, technicians and cultural managers.

Organisations met/ visited

Popular Theater Society, has its HQ and theatre in the youth centre of Al Ama’ari refugee camp (one of the 27 camps within Palestinian territory). Started in 1991 in Jordan, it moved to Ramallah in 1996. Currently the company counts over 30 people. All of them are volunteers: the theatre is a home to everyone who wants to share his/her expertise and loves theatre. All actors and off-stage staff we met have a daytime job as engineer, academic researcher, medical servant or else. Empowering and training young people is at the core of their mission.

Entrance of Popular Art Society in Ama’ari refugee camp ©Nan van Houte

The company offers a broad range of productions, choosing its style and audiences based on the issues they want to tackle (local texts, plays written by local authors/director, as well as plays by Lorca, Dario Fo). Each year they produce at least four performances (two for adults, two or more for kids) and the Ramadan Laterns Festival. The shows tour and most of them have free entrance. The PTS collaborates with Universities – both for training and performing, but is in need of technical workshops.

Popular Art Centre protects heritage and creates a space for art as a means of resistance;

The centre organises two festivals: the Heritage festival (1989- 1992 and 2008-now), to protect the folk performing arts tradition, and the Palestine International Festival (1993-2000 and 2005 - current), to break the cultural siege and isolation.

Since the break during the second Intifada, the Festival takes place in different cities: Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin, Gaza, Jerusalem…

Wishah Popular Dance troupe started during the second Intifada with a group of young dancers to build hope and dreams of peace.

Theatre Days Productions works under extreme conditions in Gaza, where they aim to make ‘’drama, theatre, and creative activities a regular part of the lives of young people in Palestine, so that they can find their individual voice, their sense of self, and discover their creative life; in stimulating these activities, TDP aims to provide the foundation for a peaceful development of Palestine, one with respect for human (children’s) rights and civil society. TDP tries to realise this by working with the formal education systems and local organisations working with and for children and young people.’’

TDP wasn’t able to meet with us in Ramallah. The company was presented by a resident of West Bank.  

Ashtar Theatre, currently based in Ramallah has been founded in 1991 in Jerusalem as the first theatre training organisation for the youth in Palestine by two prominent Palestinian actors (since 1977) Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem. Apart from training and creating performances for diverse audiences (e.g. the acclaimed Gaza Monologues), Ashtar is specialised in Forum theatre. The company resides in its own black box theatre, which serves the broader community.

The Palestinian Circus school, Birzeit is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, established in 2006 and registered with the Palestinian Authority since February 2007. It teaches circus in its own building Birzeit and in other cities like Jenin, Hebron, Ramallah and Al Fara refugee camp. A big circus tent is erected on its own premises in Birzeit for (contemporary) circus performances.

Al Harah Theatre, Beit Jala, the theatre organisation of the host of our second part of the trip and partner in CLAP!, Marina Barham, produces text-based performances for all age groups and organises theatre workshops and training in playwriting and scriptwriting. The theatre collaborates internationally, is a founding member of PPAN and is actively taking part in local and international networks. Asthar has a small theatre space in Beit Jala (near Bethlehem).

Artistic programme PPAN (in Ashtar Theatre and Ramallah City Theatre)

All performances in the artistic program find their material in the story of the people of Palestine, from the first Jewish immigration till today’s life under occupation. But in the ways these stories are told they show variety: from the more traditional tragedy style, mainly found in the companies and the actors of the first generation, to lighter and more humorous styles in the work of younger generations, which not seldom got their education in the companies of the first.

  1. Return to Palestine – Theatre performance by The Freedom Theatre, Jenin (Actors: Ahmed Tobasi, Amir Abu Al-Rob, Ibrahem Moqbel, Ihab Talahmeh, Ranin Odeh, Samah Mahmoud, Musicians; Aybak Al-Raee, Samer Khalid). Directed by: Micaela Miranda, Portugal.
    The sarcastic and comic story of a Palestinian born in exile returning to his homeland, told by six young actors in black on a few square meters, using the bodies of the actors as props and the music as scenery.
  2. Taha – Theatre performance by Qadita for Culture and Arts, Haifa. A great performer bringing a wonderful story on the life of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Taha received huge acclaim all over the globe.
  3. As the Sun Fell – Theatre performance by Al Harah Theater, Beit Jala. Al Harah brings dramatic theatre for different age groups. In “As the sun fell” a father desperately awaits for his lost son to come back home.
  4. Znad ou Zalghouta – Dabkeh performance by Baladi Centre for Culture & Arts, Beit Jala.
  5. London-Jenin – Theatre performance by the artists (graduates of the Freedom Theatre school); Faisal Abu Alheja & Alaa Shehada, Jenin. Directed by: Khawla Ibrahem, The Golan. A comedy by two actors, based on their own experience, situated in the waiting room of the UK immigration office. Returning home or staying in the UK – that’s the question.  
  6. Land of Tales – Storytelling theatre performance by artist Haneen Tarabeh, Shefa-ʻAmr.
    Three traditional stories from different edges of the world on the pitfalls and beauty of love and loyalty.
  7. 3 in 1 – Theatre performance by Yes Theatre, Hebron. Three actors reflect on stage on their real-life experiences as Palestinians, citizens of Hebron, men and …actors.
  8. Hip Hop Geez – Dance performance by Stereo 48, Nablus. A unique mix of different hip hop dance styles shows us life under stress on a small surface area.
  9. Sarab – Theatrical Circus Performance by The Palestinian Circus School, Birzeit.
    Contemporary circus performance by the ex-graduates of the circus school – a story where dreams don’t come true.
  10. Ansar – Theatre Performance by Tantoura Palestinian Theatre, Ramallah
    A reconstruction of, and reflection on a performance from 1987 about a prisoner in the Negev Detention Camp.
  11. And Here I Am – Theatre Performance by the artist Ahmed Tobasi, Jenin, directed by Zoe Lafferty, UK. The compelling life story of this artist who discovered his passion at the Freedom Theatre to conquer the stages in Europe.
  12. Oranges and Stones – Theatre Performance by Ashtar Theatre, Ramallah: a play without words about the first Jewish immigration by the two founders of Ashtar, Iman Aoun and Edward Muallem.
  13. Duja Quartet – Music Performance by The Edward Said Conservatory of Music, Jerusalem. Four students create a pretty fusion on a mix of European and Arabic instruments.
  14. Music Performance – Music Performance by Ens o Jam Band, Ramallah. Just listen to the YouTube clip under the hyperlink.
  15. The Rooster and Partial Memory – Dance Performance by El Funoun Popular Dance Troupe, Al-Bireh. El Funoun shows in two short dance performances why they are famous all over the Western world, for the way they merge traditional and contemporary dance.
  16. Dabkeh Performance –by Naqsh Popular Dance Troupe, Jenin. Shows Dabkeh as a hyperdynamic and living dance form, taking inspiration from popular and contemporary dance styles.
Nan van Houte is a cultural manager with an academic background and 40 years of professional experience in arts and culture. She has been active as director of theatre venues, developer of interdisciplinary programs and cultural policies, dramaturge, tutor and journalist. Her focus on the creation of a more inclusive arts sector and the impact of arts on societal issues, got an international dimension in her position as Secretary General of IETM, which she holds till March 2019. She is chair of the Board of Dancing on the Edge (festival, research and development of artistic exchange with Middle East and North Africa) and Board member of LaBenevolencija (humanitarian tools foundation empowering people and groups to encounter hate speech). As dramaturg and producer, she is working for Breaking the Silence, a multi-annual, multinational theatre production in Cambodia and Rwanda.


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