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Gazan artists, intellectuals seek to revive culture cafes

The mushrooming cultural salons in the Gaza Strip provide writers and artists with an outlet for expression.

Despite the Israeli siege, poverty and unemployment, cultural centers are emerging in the Gaza Strip. Inside El-Khodr Shrine, an ancient monastery in Deir al-Balah that dates back to the third century, a group of young writers and poets have started meeting regularly to discuss art, literature and other aspects of culture, providing a break from the everyday woes in the Gaza Strip.

Writer Nabil al-Areeny founded the Toukan Literary Salon in May 2017, specifically choosing Deir al-Balah, a small, impoverished city in central Gaza with few job opportunities, a handful of recreational centers and a large refugee camp.

“The Toukan Literary Salon aims to help young people develop themselves and express their creativity,” Areeny told Al-Monitor. Members of the salon are young writers who wish to develop their skills and search for opportunities to publish their works. Local publishing houses such as the Samir Mansour Library for Publishing and Distribution participate.

Areeny believes that the complicated political situation in Gaza has a negative impact on the cultural scene. According to him, the political and economic situation and Palestinians' focus on making a living prevent both the government and individuals from placing culture high on their list of priorities. Despite the hardships Palestinians in Gaza face, Areeny has established cultural salons in the Gaza Strip, Ramallah and the 1948 territories such as the city of Umm al-Fahm.

While Areeny holds the cultural meetings in historical places, writer Yousri al-Ghoul has chosen to hold his own cultural salon at a cafe in southern Gaza City. Writers, poets and artists gather there as music plays in the background. The scene brings back memories of cultural salons in the 1960s in the Arab world and Palestine, which encouraged liberation movements to organize against the colonization at the time.

Ghoul, with help from others, founded the Cordoba Cultural Center to promote cultural dialogue between different groups and to stimulate cultural life in Gaza.

Ghoul said that given the cultural vacuum in the Gaza Strip and ideological differences, he felt he had to take a stand as an intellectual. He said he wanted to bring together people to discuss "different views and promote the concept of dialogue.”

The meetings take place once a month, with the participation of media activists, theater actors and directors, writers, photographers, musicians and painters. Ghoul describes the meetings as a “cultural hybrid.”

Artist Mohammed Akila performs on the oud during these evenings, playing the revolutionary tunes of Sheikh Imam, Samih Shuqair and Marcel Khalife, and the traditional songs of Umm Kulthum and Fayrouz. “When it's time for the music, everyone sits and listens, capturing these moments and requesting more songs. Music creates a wonderful atmosphere during the gatherings,” Akila told Al-Monitor.

He said, “You cannot imagine how happy those at the gatherings are, especially because concerts in Gaza are rare.” Akila believes that salons are among the key cultural gatherings in the country, noting, “The Palestinian people stand behind the Palestinian cause. We [must] shed light on the cultural arena. I believe that we have to fight the culture of power with the power of culture.”

Neveen al-Ghoul finds in cultural salons support for her talent as a writer and an audience ready to listen as she reads her works. “We try to escape reality, strip off its ugliness and restructure it with beauty. We sometimes succeed, but often fail. Cultural salons reflect a beautiful image that shows life from another perspective and adds touches of beauty and comfort for everyone, encouraging them to practice what they love,” she told Al-Monitor.

Only a small percentage of the annual budget of the Palestinian Authority (PA) is allocated to cultural activities. According to the 2011-2013 strategic cultural plan published by the Ministry of Culture in Ramallah, culture activities across the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, did not exceed 0.003% of the PA general budget.

Deputy Culture Minister Anwar al-Buraawi told Al-Monitor, “The Ministry of Culture participates in the activities of the cultural salons and facilitates them. We also take part in activities to create a lucrative fertile environment to sustain and expand them. However, we cannot provide any financial support.”

Buraawi praises the role of cultural salons in society, noting that the ministry has plans to establish a cultural salon in each governorate in the Gaza Strip to promote cultural activities, revive cultural life and further promote the national social rhetoric as well as protect cultural heritage. However, given the lack of financial resources, the ministry may find it difficult to carry out its plans.

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