The giant eucalyptus tree in front of the spacious yard of the Centre Culturel Français (CCF) – or French Cultural Center – in Gaza is symbolic enough. One of the last such trees that remain in the city, it stands in living memory of Palestinian appreciation of foreign cultures and in testimony to 19 years of genuine French cultural partnership and cooperation with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
It seems pleasantly odd that the CCF never ceased to operate but actually expanded its activities during Israel s physical occupation of the Gaza Strip, the advent of the Palestinian National Authority, and the present period of deep Palestinian division. The CCF remains in full operation in spite of the worsening situation. The French government set a refreshing trend through this affirmation that culture need not suffer the woes of politics even as its official position is at odds with the deposed government in Gaza.
Plans are under way to build a new 1,000 m2 building in 2008 on Charles de Gaulle Street, a main road in Gaza City. The structure will be built on a 2,000 m2 plot of land that was given to the CCF by the Palestinian National Authority. The new building is a direct response to the increasing demand for and growing popularity of the center’s activities over the years. It will also house the consular offices for visa and passport services as well as guest quarters for French visitors and artists who will come to participate in the planning and implementation of the center’s programs.
But all this has not come by coincidence.
Mr Gaetan Pellan, CCF s director, says their mantra has been sensitive awareness to Palestinian culture and a true exchange of ideas. The center’s programs are developed in response to the community s interests in the French language, music, art, literature, cinema and other cultural activities. None of the center’s work is carried out without continuous feedback from the center’s frequenters and French-language students.
The CCF offers monthly programs that include art exhibits, concerts, film screenings and other activities. Whenever possible, French artists are invited to display their artwork and, more frequently, Palestinian artists from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are invited to participate in art competitions. The CCF creates all the promotion material and sponsors exhibits at all of its branches in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.
Since taking responsibility for the CCF in Gaza two years ago, Mr Pellan has been tirelessly thinking of ways to reach prospective students and French culture enthusiasts as well as associations in the central and southern areas of the Gaza Strip who are often unable to afford transportation to come to the CCF in Gaza City. Pointing to all the cultural material that can be shared with potential associations, he reminds me of cities in France that were linked, or paired, years ago with cities in the Gaza Strip.
Whereas the link between the cities of Dunkerque and Gaza promotes ongoing, frequent cooperation, the links between the cities of Evry and Khan Younis, and Saint-Denis and Rafah could produce more activity if the Palestinians who live in these cities were under less economic pressure. Given the constraints of the dire economic situation, the CCF aims to nourish cultural activity and exchange through cooperating with various local associations throughout Gaza to provide logistical support to facilitate attendance at events in Gaza City. Citing a recent event attended by 4,000 children from all over Gaza, Mr. Pellan simply stated how important it is for CCF that children are exposed to new things so that they experience culture and enjoy their childhood just like children in France do.
The growth in attendance at the CCF s events and exhibits, as well as in the number of events held, illustrates the increasing appreciation of the CCF by the Gaza community. The growth in participation in cultural events (held at the CCF and other organizations) tripled between 2006 and 2007- from 3,000 to 9,000. In addition, there are more plans to increase the number of French-language students, which grew from approximately 393 in 2006 to 458 students in 2007.
As part of the CCF cultural exchange in the Gaza Strip, a weekly radio program was created in late 2006 on El-Manar FM radio station in Gaza City. Mr. Pellan hosts the hour-long program in French, with Arabic translation. The program includes a wide range of news and events that take place in France as well as information on the center’s activities and plans in Gaza.
Even as the Gaza Strip is under siege and torn apart by countless tragedies, the active presence of the CCF – with all its programs and events – testifies to the persisting civility and openness of Gazans, and all Palestinians for that matter, to foreign cultures. It equally testifies to the genuine spirit of the CCF in advancing the French culture while just as genuinely hoping that Gaza would have a fair chance at a better, more open, life.
With the goal of sharing a lot more than simply bad news about Palestine, Palestinians who serve in diplomatic missions throughout the world would do well to introduce similar venues for cultural exchange in their respective countries.
Sami Abdel-Shafiis co-founder and senior partner at Emerge Consulting Group, LLC., a management consultancy in Gaza City. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service, and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.