Just two weeks before the latest exchange of fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip, I traveled to Ramallah to serve on the jury for an art competition hosted by the A.M. Qattan Foundation—part of the larger Qalandiya International, a biennial event and collaboration among seven Palestinian arts organizations. While the situation on the ground has shifted dramatically since then—the political weather is always changing here—this latest reassertion of Israeli military force only underscores the importance of these fragile but enduring cultural institutions.
THE PASSPORT COUNTER at Tel Aviv’s fortresslike Ben Gurion Airport is shaped like a popcorn stand. When I arrived earlier this month, I was gently ushered aside to a small room with a TV unhelpfully perched up so high it was impossible to see what was on, along with a Coke machine and a mostly asleep assortment of Iranian pilgrims. I settled into my plastic throne, and hundreds of minutes later, it was my turn to be questioned.
What do you plan to do in Israel?
I will serve on a jury for an art competition in Ramallah.
This inspired a blank stare on the part of my interlocutor.
But there is art in Tel Aviv.
Two rounds of similarly elliptical questioning later, I collected my passport, and moved on.
The drive from Ben Gurion to the West Bank, where I would be for the next week, is not a long one. About fifteen minutes in, after passing the Moshe Safdie–designed, Blade Runner–inflected Modi’in housing development (it will in itself represent the third largest Israeli city when completed), we swerved off the modern highway and onto a narrow, one-lane road marked by broken-up concrete. This is Zone B, my driver helpfully told me, explaining the A, B, C system that represents different levels of Palestinian sovereignty, or Israeli negligence, depending on who you’re talking to. From that turnoff, you’re not far from Ramallah, one of the epicenters of Qalandiya International.
Naming a biennial “Qalandiya” is at once earnest and ironically bittersweet. A village of some 1,100 people, the site of a former international airport, a graveyard for cars, and a refugee camp, Qalandiya has summoned vastly different images at different times in this region’s restless history. Yet the most pervasive image evoked by the moniker today is that of a mammoth checkpoint that, since the completion of the security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, has been the primary vessel for people passing through from one side to the other for work, school, or medical care. Every day, thousands of commuters—those who manage to get through the pettifoggery of permits—make their way through the dimly lit, cavernous tunnels here. As the site of an airport that until 1967 connected Palestine to the world, Qalandiya is a site marked by paradox; today, it vividly evokes separation.
My first destination was Ramallah. A historically Christian town of some 40,000 full-time residents (120,000 during daytime) spread over rolling olive tree–lined hills, its architecture is marked by a sea of off-white buildings made from stone. After the Oslo Accords, Ramallah became the de facto headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and, as a result, grew considerably, with the environs of greater Ramallah reaching just shy of 300,000 people. Beyond the PA and a bevy of international organizations, the town is also home to a number of cultural organizations, from the A.M. Qattan Foundation—my host, which invests in education—to the visionary Riwaq, which exists to safeguard Palestinian architectural heritage.
I spent my first three days looking at artwork for the Young Artist of the Year Award (yes: YAYA). As ever, the best work—and there was plenty of terrific art—didn’t take advantage of the fact that, for Palestinian artists, courting melancholy can be a lucrative strategy. A fair amount of improvisation was involved when pieces from a couple of artworks were either missing or just didn’t show up at all from neighboring towns or, in one case, Beirut. “The situation is always part of the artwork,” said Yazan Khalili, who cocurated the competition with Reem Shilleh.
By Wednesday, a larger group had arrived in Ramallah, including Frieze editor Jennifer Higgie, poet Quinn Latimer, IKON director Jonathan Watkins, Yasmine Eid Sabbagh of the Arab Image Foundation, and plenty of rugged Scandinavians I never actually met but who seemed to pop up, Waldo-like, throughout the town. On Thursday night, we all gathered in a crumbling Ottoman house outside Qalandiya, only a stone’s throw from the separation wall and its calligraphic marvels (graffiti!), for the biennial’s official launch. There was abundant speechmaking, noteworthy among them a spirited welcome from a village elder, along with a short history of Qalandiya by Riwaq codirector Fida Touma. Not long after, artist Dirar Kalash settled into an electronic performance in a low-ceilinged room, at the same time projecting what seemed to be images of the naqba. As Kalash wound down his moving dirge, we hopped on buses back toward Ramallah and the Riwaq headquarters to wind down the night.
The following day, I visited the International Academy of Art run by my fellow juror the barrel-chested Khaled Hourani. (He bears a strong resemblance to former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, though I couldn’t tell him that to his face.) Hourani is mostly known for his brilliant collaboration with the Van Abbemuseum last year to bring a rare Picasso to Palestine—a dizzying experiment in logistics. Also present was artist Khaled Jarrar, who showed us his new sculptural pieces, Concrete, fashioned from broken-off pieces of the separation wall.
“Is it illegal to steal bits of the wall?” I asked.
“The wall is illegal,” he replied.
Chastened, I turned to Shilleh and asked if she would be joining us for the opening of “Gestures in Time” in Jerusalem later that night, the exhibition curated by Katya Garcia-Anton and Lara Khaldi. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m green,” referring to the color of her West Bank travel document. (The trip was, as it happens, full of the sort of ironic details Joan Didion would lunch on.) Armed with a luxurious blue passport, I hopped on a microbus for four shekels from the Champs Élysées of Ramallah and made my way through Qalandiya—the checkpoint—switching minibuses en route and ending up at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. It was Friday, so relatively quiet, and I followed knots of Filipino pilgrims around, ending the afternoon with a drink at the American Colony Hotel, a nineteenth-century house–turned–utopian community–turned–luxury hotel. (In the 1930s, its regality as yet unfaded, it was the backdrop for much of the filmic version of Agatha Christie’s winning Appointment with Death.)
By 6 PM, it was time to move back to the Old City, and my first stop would be Qalandiya director Jack Persekian’s office which, until 1988 was the site of his father’s bookbinding business. There, I found Khaldi nursing a beer and rehearsing her welcome speech in Arabic. Persekian, always immaculately dressed, gave me a short history of “The Jerusalem Show,” the event he launched six years ago under the umbrella of his nonprofit, the Al Ma’mal Foundation. As the three of us walked down to the launch event through a labyrinth of tchotchkes, pilgrims, and colorful rugs, Khaldi reflected on why contemporary cultural projects were so urgently needed. “We’re oppressed by history.” It was hard not to agree; the scene around us, with all of its unspecific tensions, was about as tranquil as a romp in the overfull children’s playground at Jack in the Box.
We ended up at the site of two beautiful Mamluk-era hammams, where a number of works were sensitively installed, including an enigmatic wall projection by artists Julia Rometti and Victor Costales, and suspended bread sculptures by Mexico City–based artist Martin Soto Climent. From the hammams, we ran around the corner to the Lutheran church that, as one friend remarked, looked not unlike Hotel California, and where Latimer delivered a moving epistolary tribute to eight poets, from Anne Carson to Etel Adnan.
On the final day, Riwaq organized a visit to the postcard village of Abwein, thirty miles north of Ramallah and the site of many of the organization’s most compelling conservation projects. We drove out with Riwaq codirector Khaldun Bshara narrating our zigzag course—lingering especially over the PA’s gargantuan construction of an Emirati-style guest palace (when PA funds froze in 2011, the construction suspiciously continued)—until we settled into old Abwein, which dates back at least one thousand years. There, some of us were shown around by village children, while others took a walking audio tour prepared by artist Uriel Orlow about the lost history of a mental hospital erected on the grounds of a legendary massacre. Eid Sabbagh, her new baby in tow, gave a lecture-performance on the diverse lives of vernacular photographs based on her seven years of living off and on in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. After, a bunch of us spoke with the outgoing mayor of Abwein, a septuagenarian woman with heroically good skin who, in one swift stroke, did away with every standard cliché about the misogynist Arab Street.
That night ended back in Ramallah with the announcement for the Young Artist of the Year Award. Jumana Manna took the top prize, with a video work using as source material an archival photograph taken at the home of Alfred Roch, a wealthy Palestinian who organized a luscious masquerade at his Jaffa house in the 1930s. “Of course, no other animal likes to embroider the facts as much as we do,” Manna’s voice-over reads as the camera pans over the chicly powdered faces of the assembled. The overlong awards speech, written by yours truly, was read aloud in both Arabic and English, making the crowd antsy and sending them all to swarm like bees around the shawarma machine. Lighthearted revelry ensued, of the kind that already now—with the paranoia fulfilled—seems more and more difficult to imagine.
Left: Artist Dirar Kalash. Right: Fatima Taher Sihweil, mayor of Abwein. (Photos: Eloise Bollack/Riwaq Photo Archive)
Left: Leila Shahid, General Delegate of Palestine to the EU, Belgium, and Luxembourg.. Right: After the opening of “Gestures in Time.” (Photos: Negar Azimi)
Left: Riwaq's Sahar Qawasmi and architect Samia Khalil. (Photo: Negar Azimi) Right: Shahd from Abwein, reciting Jumana Abboud's audio performance in Abwein. (Photo: Eloise Bollack/Riwaq Photo Archive)