The Necessity of Culture

By tianabrown

As we are faced with the very real prospect of severe funding cuts, I had the opportunity to interview Yousef Awad, the director of the Jenin Creative and Cultural Centre who has put all his efforts into defending the importance of culture in a place where even the most basic needs aren’t always met. He lives in Burqin, just outside the town of Jenin in the West Bank, home to St George’s Greek Orthodox Church, the fourth oldest church in the world. He received a bursary to study project management at Gothenburg University in Sweden. He has collaborated with many European artists and human rights organisations. The most prominent collaboration resulted in the building of al-Hissan- the Jenin Horse. After an incursion by the Israeli army in 2002, by invitation of the Goethe Institute in Ramallah, Berlin-based artist Thomas Kilpper worked with young people in Jenin to build a five metre-tall horse made up of metal scrounged from crushed houses and vehicles. The Horse represents the endurance of the town. This collaboration paved the way for the creation of the Centre in 2005, with the support of Scottish organisations, mainly Women in Black and Old Saint Paul Church. The Centre is made up of a Committee of eight local people and a Support Assembly of 150 men and women. Yousef is currently seeking artists and theatre directors to collaborate in the production of joint youth-oriented theatre pieces and forum theatre.

1. How did you set up the cultural centre and what was its aim?

We started our work in Jenin in 2005 after the big incursion into Jenin Refugee camp. We felt that there was an urgent need for a safe place for the children to play or partake in any activity, away from the otherwise dangerous situation the camp was in. Many children were led to chase after the tanks; several of them were killed during the second Intifada. All these circumstances led us to take the initiative and got us thinking about the way we can bring the children out of these conditions.

It was very difficult to start something related to cultural issues in a place like Jenin and the rest of Palestine were the main priorities for people are keeping themselves safe from army incursions and meet their basic needs as well as maintain a roof over their heads. Culture and even education can seem frivolous.  In 2005 we opened the Jenin Creative Cultural Centre. Our vision is that of flourishing cultural creations and collaborations in a just and equitable world and our main mission is to establish an active leadership role for Jenin’s youth within their community and provide them with the opportunity to develop extracurricular skills and to fill their time with constructive and meaningful activities. The centre is run by group of young people from Jenin to provide cultural and educational services for local Palestinian communities in general and the youth in particular.

2. Who are the participants? Who is the audience?

We try to appeal especially to students from schools and universities and many of them are very talented in various artistic activities such as painting, singing, dancing and acting. We aim to encourage the expression of their talents and give them advice and helps in various workshops. We aim to show the work to the widest audience possible. We sometimes target schools more specifically by showcasing puppet shows as an educational method for teaching children about many aspects of their lives , traditions and customs .

3. How do you fund your activities?

Our main funding comes from the international groups and theatres we work with. The funds cover travel expenses and materials but not the actors. That’s one of the main problems we have. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to fund the work of the actors and workers.  We nevertheless benefit enormously from the experience of collaborating with various European groups.

4. What are the practical limitations that the occupation imposes on your work?

The main practical restriction to our work is the presence of the occupation in our land, which prevents us from having the freedom to explore any subjects we want. Also it prevents us from collaborating with cultural groups and institutions in the rest of the Arab world. Also the travel restrictions to Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories make it harder for us to reach a wider audience.

Many potential collaborators are put off coming over here as they consider it a dangerous place to visit. So many international companies go to Ramallah and Bethlehem, and the checkpoints on the main roads prevent us from reaching them to produce joint work.

5. What sorts of themes do you work on? What is your vision of theatre?

Theatre represents a much-needed breathing space for us. It’s the way we can express our dreams, fears and ambition for a better future. It is a way for oppressed people in general to create their vision of freedom and independence on stage. Theatre plays a very important role in educating people about their rights and about the actions they can take to gain them.

Theatre allows for this space in which actors can live for a short while, away from the difficulties and dangers of their everyday lives.

6. Do you believe all forms of art in Palestine are bound to be political in nature?

We try not to set limits and we do not bound our participants to a specific way of working. In Palestine everything is related to politics. Politics cover all aspects of our lives. We can’t go on tour, we can’t reach the sea, which is 20 KM away, or visit friends because it is not safe, we are often unable to go to hospital and we often lack water. It is up to actors and writers to use this and create theatre around these situations in a comic or dramatic way.

7. What have you been able to achieve so far?

I am mostly proud of having been able to send children to visit other countries as part of our cultural exchanges. It opened their eyes to the fact that a different way of life is possible. They were able to show our European collaborators and audiences what their lives are like under occupation. We have had the chance to reach a wider audience thanks to interviews with the BBC and Al-Jazeera. It gave young people here an enormous sense of achievement and respect for their community.

8. How did the collaborations with European artists arise?

I had studied abroad and have met people that are very supportive of our work, with whom we later collaborated. Yet, it is not easy, we lack resources and infrastructure and many artists are reluctant to come to Jenin.

9. What do your activities at the centre consist in?

We open every day. I am here to welcome the students and schoolchildren who come to visit us and to set up workshops and offer them guidance. We try to arrange these to fit with university and school schedules. We have writing and performance workshops and rehearsals whenever we are producing a show.

10. What are your ambitions for the future? How do you see the centre evolving?
Our dreams are ambitious: a big theatre in Jenin where we can rehearse and showcase our productions.  Our last rehearsals took place in a car garage and we managed to win first prize at the Venice festival for this work. We would like to collaborate with other artists more frequently and offer more workshops and opportunities. All of this depends on how much money we have at our disposal. The worst thing to happen would be to run out of money to pay rent at the end of the year.

Any theatre companies or cultural groups keen on collaborating with the centre can post a comment with your contact details. Check out  015970.ning.com

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