Poetry, dance and music fail to rescue The Land Day

Chitra Kalyani
7 Min Read

What do people remember of a land they left or, to be more precise, were forced to leave, 60 years later?

National anthems of Egypt and Palestine began an evening which ended with the Dabka (traditional folk dance of the Levant). One wishes it had been the other way round – a father who had settled in his little girl with the promise of “You ll see Dabka left at 8 pm when the event was about to end, and the dance had not yet begun.

The Land Day commemorating 60 Years of Dispossession and Displacement held at the American University in Cairo (AUC) earlier this week was not an event meant to turn things around or change perceptions.

For one, the event was insular. An organizer offered the explanation that the event was expected to cater to a largely Arab, hence Arabic-speaking, audience who are already well acquainted with the Palestinian cause. A large number of foreign students and general attendants alike, keen to know more about the Palestinian cause, had limited access.

Suchitra Vijayan, who works at African and Middle Eastern Refugee Assistance (AMERA), attended the event to get acquainted with Palestinian traditions and culture as she hoped to visit the country later this year. She was disappointed as the president of organizing Al Quds Club had said that the event would be bilingual – which was true – but only for the introductions to speakers and events.

The Homeland. The Land. 1967. 1948. It was clear Nayef Hawatmeh, a PLO founding member, gave an informative eyewitness view of Palestinian history. Some, like Egyptian Laila Bahgat, were impressed with the speakers charisma and found it was “educational to hear “their chronological treatment of history.

Yet some found that a history lesson did not add much.

“The voice that I heard, the voice of the cause, is an outdated one, said an AUC graduate student in the Middle East Studies program. “Every generation has to redefine that voice.

The foreign student, who preferred to remain anonymous, said she found the event an “internal ceremony that was “for Palestinians, or those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, leaving little room for engagement or dialogue.

As the student pointed out, the “interactive element was missing. Rather, the interactivity was limited to the singer Azza Balbaa s performance, who responded to suggestions for songs.

Herself a singer, Bahgat was particularly impressed with a Fayrouz classic called “Zahret El Mada’en (A Flower among the Cities), a song Balbaa closed her performance with.

“It is a sensitive song, said Bahgat noting that the presence of prayer in the song was quite moving.

Another student was unimpressed by Balbaa s performance, “She was not performing in a natural way.

Yet much of the crowd was easy to please and Balbaa s performance garnered much applause. Some attendants were “amazed that people cheered at every suggestion of return and repossession of the Palestinian land – be it in the rhetoric of speeches or in the turns of song and poetry.

Vijayan, despite the language-barrier, was also impressed at the “rock-star adulation that poet Harun Hashim Rashid received at the event. The founder of a photography-related charity entitled “Lines of Grey, she surmised that art – rather than popular entertainment – enjoyed such popularity at the event because of the dispossession of land.

Elhassan Anas, an Egyptian student at AUC, told Daily News Egypt that he had asked both the poet and the politician a question. “Had the definition of ‘Munadel’ [variously defined as someone involved a struggle or resistance] in Egypt changed since 1948?

“No, definitely not, answered Rashid, “As long as the Palestinian people exist, the concept will not change, either.

Rashid s answer sounded much like his poem written in response to Golda Meier s statement that there are no Palestinians (anymore).

“Palestinian! Palestinian! My name is Palestinian! goes one of the lines in Rashid s poem recited at the event.

In another poem, Rashid spoke in the voice of a woman that participated in Jaffa demonstrations, speaking of the city s pride and of the desire for its people to return.

The aforementioned anonymous student wondered whether the youth felt the same way.

Hawatmeh had a different answer to Anas’ inquiry. “Every phase has its own ways of dealing with the other side, said Hawatmeh, whose participation in the first negotiations with Israel was seen by many as betrayal.

“A machine gun without a clear political vision is only for destruction, added Hawatmeh, who also co-founded the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Anas enjoyed the Dabka as a welcome finale to the much-protracted event.

The event “didn t meet my expectations, said Anas, who wanted to see how Palestinians at AUC – most of whom had been living outside of Palestine, or inside with great immunity – dealt with the cause.

“You can feel it when someone is dying to deliver a message or if someone is just doing it because they should.

One could not help but wonder, like Anas did, what the event hosts were thinking when they said, “See you next year, and forgot to add the usual “in Palestine.

In his book I Saw Ramallah, Mourid Barghouti said that Palestine would belong to its people only when one complained of the land, of its heat and dust.

The fear is that for years to come, Palestine will be a place beyond criticism in song, in dance, in art.

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