Dreams of liberation: Israel’s censorship of Palestinian art
''Palestinian cultural organisations are working collectively to tackle obstacles, recently rejecting funding conditions that stipulated they must depoliticise their work. It's a decision that has seen The Freedom Theatre lose 80% of its funding, but solidarity and firm values, which include supporting BDS, have helped grow a unified Palestinian art sector.''
Israel’s history of silencing artists
Most famous are the murders of writer Ghassan Kanafani in 1972 in Beirut by Mossad and cartoonist Naji Al Ali in 1987 in London. However, our research that started with The Freedom Theatre’s present-day experiences has taken us as far back as the British Mandate.
Nuh Ibrahim, a poet, singer and fighter, wrote anti-British and anti-Zionist material. His song collection became so popular in 1936 that it was banned. A year later, he was imprisoned after the spread of his chant: "Plan it, Mr. Dill”, that mocked the occupying armies’ commander in chief. In 1938 at 25 years old, the British shot and killed him.
Ibrahim wrote in his diary about “new laws” that imprisoned scholars, on mass, using fabricated charges. That legal system which negates human rights and targets those who speak out, has been maintained by Israel until this day.
Bilal Al-Saadi’s arrest this September is his second. He has been given three months in Administrative Detention - a type of imprisonment that requires no charge or trial, and can be renewed repeatedly. This strategy sees thousands of Palestinians incarcerated, including dancer Loai Tafesh in 2016. As is common, Tafesh was told that evidence against him must be kept confidential to protect the source. Held for over a year, he had no knowledge of why he was imprisoned, beyond a suggestion from one interrogator that Israel didn’t like the politics behind dances he choreographed.
In the late 80’s musician and composer Suhail Khoury was arrested by Israel for copying music tapes. “They arrested me as if I was a terrorist and what I had was a weapon”, he recalls. At the time, there was no law to convict him, so they used one from the British Mandate, issuing a verdict of 15 months under the title incitement to violence and revolution.
It was a similar charge that Ibrahim had been given 50 years earlier, and Dareen Tatour would be given over 25 years later in 2015, after writing her poem Resist My People Resist Them.
Prisons as psychological torture
The prison system is created to psychologically break people. But despite solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and continued tactics of disorientation, artists have found ways to creatively resist.
Khoury, subjected to severe physical torture, survived by writing musical melodies in his mind which he later published. Cartoonist Mohammed Saba’aneh, put in Administrative Detention in 2013, daringly stole a pen and paper to draw the experiences of prisoners. He smuggled the cartoons out, opening an exhibition and publishing the book White and Black.
Other forms of prisoner disobedience include hunger strikes, which Mohammed Abu Sakha from the Palestinian Circus School defiantly joined. However, the long-term physical impact made it impossible for him to perform again. However, the long-term physical impact made it impossible for him to perform again, so he now focuses on training the next generation of artists.
Suhail Khoury, now Director of the National Conservatory of Music, was arrested again in 2020, alongside his wife Rania Elias, who together had co-founded Yabous Cultural Centre.
Formed after the Oslo agreements, Elias emphasises that Yabous, “was the start of an impossible task, to keep Jerusalem, our Palestinian capital, on the map”. Detailing how attacks have intensified after the USA relocated its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, challenges have included raids, interrogations and the confiscation of documents, files and computers.
As we collected artist testimonies, perhaps most shocking was the bombing of Said Al-Mishal Cultural Centre in 2018. Co-founder Ali Abu Yaseen explained that he was meant to show a play that day then, “suddenly, the United Nations Development Program called and ordered us to cancel without giving any reason”. A few hours later, an Israeli bomb turned the six-story building into a crater. “I cannot believe that the theatre disappeared along with fourteen years of our work in a moment and nine missiles” he added.
Resisting despite repression
Less than a month before, the Village of Arts and Crafts, had been destroyed, and in 2009 the Red Crescent Theatre and Gaza School of Musical Arts were razed to the ground. Within days of Said Al-Mishal Cultural Centre being flattened, artists organised performances on the rubble, with Ali Abu Yaseen pledging: “We have created artists, and we will stay to be artists”.
Borders, checkpoints and walls have not only divided Palestinians from each other, but stopped the crucial work of artists taking alternative narratives from that of the media to international audiences.
But as technology develops, so do the possibilities of how to circumnavigate censorship. At The Freedom Theatre, we recently created In A Thousand Silences, which uses virtual reality to immerse audiences in performances and can be watched on a headset anywhere in the world.
Nevertheless, even if artists manage to travel, their work is still at risk of censorship. The Freedom Theatre’s production The Siege, for example, faced Zionist protests, attacks from the media and legal accusations of promoting terrorism. Whilst managing to disprove these claims and tour to sold-out venues across the UK, performances in New York were cancelled by The Public Theatre.
Palestinian cultural organisations are working collectively to tackle obstacles, recently rejecting funding conditions that stipulated they must depoliticise their work. It's a decision that has seen The Freedom Theatre lose 80% of its funding, but solidarity and firm values, which include supporting BDS, have helped grow a unified Palestinian art sector.
After two years of collecting testimonies that highlight Israel’s strategy of targeting artists, we created ‘The Revolution’s Promise’. A global solidarity project, it encourages people worldwide to share these stories that not only detail censorship but celebrate the many ways Palestinians use culture to resist.
Now with Bilal imprisoned, this call to join a global conversation and put pressure on Israel to stop attacks on artists has never been so crucial.
Zoe Lafferty is associate director at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine where she is currently collaborating on the global solidarity project ‘The Revolution’s Promise’ and virtual reality film ‘In A Thousand Silences’.
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