“Jerusalem is Arab nationalism’s bride”; so wrote the Iraqi poet Muthaffer Al-Nawwab. Indeed, the city holds a lofty place in the concept of Arab identity, yet it is also a place that has seen more than its share of strife and contention. Yet as Arab Jerusalemites are increasingly persecuted, and as the attempts to pull Jerusalem further away from the Arab World continue, the city’s iconic status only grows in the eyes of all Arabs - be they Christian, Muslim, or secular. This bond is as intangible as it is incontrovertible, making it difficult to define and examine.
The Arab League named Jerusalem its “capital of Arab culture” for 2009, and although Israeli occupation authorities have, predictably, intervened to prevent and disturb celebrations in the city, Jerusalem remains a unique place whose people and visitors reflect diverse dynasties and cultures.
Culture is the embodiment of identity - it is how we define ourselves and our place in the world. The aim here is to present a vision of culture in the Holy City, as manifested in the accomplishments of selected writers, artists, teachers, and all others who have made the city of Jerusalem and Palestinian culture what it is today. Thereby the celebration of culture is not limited to local Palestinian or Arab culture but considers also the achievements of others since this particular city, throughout its history, has embraced so many different peoples, religions, languages and ideas, all which legacies of artistic expressions of all kinds.
Jerusalem is first and foremost known around the world as a Holy City. To be sure, it acts as such for millions of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, as well as Jews. For Arabs the city is Al-Quds, “The Holy.” It is the site of Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, “The Farthest Mosque”, as well as of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in addition to dozens of other sacred sites. Holy places dot the city’s landscape, and millions of visitors each year are drawn by its mystique of history and sanctity.
This juried exhibit features works by twelve artists in a variety of media that speak to Jerusalem’s complex historical, religious and emotional significance and consider the need for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict, recognizing the rights of Palestinians in the city.
Still, Jerusalem is much more. For many Arabs and Palestinians Jerusalem represents the symbol for loss and hope of recovery, which has been expressed in poetry, paintings, and other forms of expression through the last decades. It is a living, breathing city with a remarkable history and a vibrant Arab culture. Arab Jerusalemites are a resilient and striking people living among an amalgamation of international influences. The heritage and history of Jerusalem can be overwhelming at times. The beginnings of the Islamic Empire can be found within the walls of the Old City, for example, and such historical significance can be both a burden and a blessing. Yet the importance of the cultural and historical aspects of Jerusalem in the eyes of Arabs as a whole cannot be overstated. The writing, painting, and other forms of expression that have been produced with Jerusalem in mind are a testimony to its centrality in the hearts and minds of the Arab world.
Unfortunately, the narrative of Jerusalem is one that is rife with conflict. The city today is not one of peace; it is one of separation, racism, and hostility. Jerusalem has been reduced to a political pawn, a final status issue that lies at the heart of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict but that no one is ready to touch for fear of throwing the tenuous peace process into further doubt. Yet, the difficulties that surround access and rights in the city for Arabs have only increased their desire to maintain it as a part of their lives. This sentiment is especially true for those Palestinians who live so near and yet are kept away just the same. The world must realize that Jerusalem should be a free and open city, not an oppressive border town where an entire swath of its inhabitants are discriminated against.
In the end, culture is about our interactions with our environments, our fellow men, and ourselves. Arabs have a bond to the city that is different than connection held with any other city in the world. Mecca and Medina are holy sites whose political implications do not match those of Jerusalem. It is an international city, and the interactions between such disparate populations are evident in the streets of Jerusalem everyday. These days, though, that coexistence is rare. There is no cooperation in terms of urban planning, architectural integrity, or culture. The stark contrasts that have resulted prevent Jerusalem from being a single, cohesive entity. Rather, it is a divided city, and it remains to be seen whether this disunion can ever be reconciled.
Arabs have a long history of bringing culture and prosperity to the Holy City, and it is important to go beyond simple reminiscing and instead look at what those contributions have meant to Jerusalem and to the Arab World at large. Just as Arabs have had a profound effect on the city, the city has done the same in return.
Neither the Palestinians’ dispossession and dispersal into various cultural realities, nor 62 years Nakba and assaults on and oppression of Palestinian education, journalism, literature, art, symbolism and folklore, have succeeded in destroying the determination of the Palestinian people to resist through culture, preserve their identity and heritage, and protect their roots. As a result, it is a great diversity of styles, genres and media that characterizes Palestinians’ artistic expressions.
On the occasion of Al-Quds - Capital of Arab Culture 2009, PASSIA has produced this compilation of aspects of culture in the city in a bid to present the rich Arab-Palestinian culture between ancient heritage and modernity and to expand knowledge of the cultural diversity of the Palestinians. In addition, this publication features not only Palestinian-Arab poems and poets, authors, painters and other artists, but also acknowledges other international literary or art pieces that have been inspired by this unique city. The aim here is not to present an exhaustive survey but rather a representative overview of artwork celebrating Jerusalem’s universal and thus international unique characteristics as well as cultures all over the world together with the rich Palestinian culture in Jerusalem.
Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi