RAMALLAH, West Bank — Alaa Albaba stood before the audience of young Palestinians in Station 101, a cafe in Ramallah, talking about his journey from refugee camp to international exhibitions. Albaba, a multidisciplinary artist whose works have been exhibited in Germany and Jordan, talked for half an hour about his life and art, responded to questions and then left the stage to amateur artists, who took turns at the microphone singing, acting and reciting poetry.
The event, held Jan. 5, was organized by Sard, a creative initiative geared toward forging a community of young writers, poets and musicians in the West Bank. “Sard” means "to narrate,” which is what those who take part in its activities do on the first Saturday evening of every month. They read short stories, present songs, rap, perform skits and create visual works of art.
The open mic concept is the idea behind Sard, which began in 2016 by a group of Birzeit University students - Bahor Jarrar, Yasmin Khawaja, Khaled Samen and Majd Shehadeh. The initiative provides a safe space where Palestinian youths can express their thoughts and feelings and display their talents. A guest of honor, such as Albaba, is invited to each session to present his or her experiences for 25 minutes, followed by a Q&A and discussion with the audience. The stage is then open to others for five-minute slots.
The seeds of Sard were sewn at Birzeit University, where the concept had sparked interest among students. Sard co-founder Bahor Jarrar told Al-Monitor, “The idea grew quickly, moving from the Birzeit student community to the city of Ramallah in the spirit of youth and individual collaborative efforts.”
Jarrar explained, “[Sard] provides an open platform for those with a passion for performing in various fields, and as such, each event opens up a forum for public discussion to share insights and enrich through each other's experiences.”
Sard events attract young people not only from Ramallah, but also from Jerusalem and other West Bank cities. There is no fee to participate, and the venues — such as the Ramallah Cafe, Station 101, the Tamer Institute for Community Education and the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center — provide space free of charge and often support Sard’s activities by providing logistical support in the form of sound systems, spotlights and other staging equipment.
Jarrar remarked, “[We are] a non-profit, youth-based community initiative that makes no material gains from the events we offer to audiences. Sard aims solely to help young people express themselves and promote creative arts and culture.”
Another co-founder, Majd Shehadeh, in her final months at Birzeit, told Al-Monitor that the selection of the guest of honor is reflective of Palestinian identity and developing cultural trends. Since Sard's inception, it has provided a stage for numerous talented, up-and-coming artists, such as Raasat al-Raab, an ensemble whose regular performances at Sard events allowed it to prepare for and eventually participate in the 2018 Palestine Music Expo - in the same music festival as the acclaimed, internationally known Le Trio Joubran.
Leen Awartani from Ramallah has been attending Sard events since they began, when she was 16. She regularly performed sketches that she had written and recited her own poetry. “[In my works], I used to express what I had gone through during the month, letting off steam in Sard sessions,” Awartani told Al-Monitor. “I started experimenting with poetry in English and then Arabic, writing stories, sketches and performing them.”
For Awartani, taking part in Sard has been one of the most important experiences in her life. “It has not only helped me develop my skills, [but has also] given me space to express myself, my feelings and all the changes I have gone through.”
Currently studying law in the Netherlands, she returned to Ramallah during her study break and performed at Sard's open mike event on Jan. 5, presenting an interactive work of poetry in English.
Sard co-founder Majd Shehadeh told Al-Monitor that the initiative initially faced a number of challenges, ranging from low attendance to conflicts of opinion among participants, but they were overcome with time. Operating with a skeleton crew, the founders also had difficulty organizing events, and the lack of a media team prevented them from reaching a wide audience.
The coming year is likely to present a moment of decision for Sard. The co-founders have been debating about shifting the speaking forum to a community institution providing a more diverse range of youth services and creative activities while purposely shedding light on Palestinian cultural heritage. Regardless, they all want to continue providing a rare platform for creativity in their city and the rest of Palestine.
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