Sitting perched on a hill in the suburb of Al-Masyoon, the Ramallah Cultural Palace has an almost conspicuous air of tranquillity to it. Just down the road lie the mangled remains of half a dozen cars destroyed by Israeli tanks as out in the distance one can see the first signs that the separation wall is finally beginning to encroach on the city. The gleaming new building, however, almost seems to rise above these troubling reminders of the enduring Israeli occupation, offering instead a sense of hope and renewal. The Ramallah Cultural Palace is the first and only cultural centre of its kind in the Palestinian territories. The centre contains state-of-the-art facilities including a 736-seat auditorium, conference rooms, several exhibition halls designed to handle anything from intimate poetry recitals, to film premieres and big-ticket music events. The centre cost approximately $5 million to build and is the result of a six-year joint venture between the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Japanese government. The Japanese are no strangers to such projects, having previously helped build a similar cultural centre in Cairo.
Izuru Shimmura, head of the Japanese diplomatic mission to Palestine explained to Al-Ahram Weekly why the Japanese helped fund the project. “The importance of such a cultural centre stems from the need to preserve the very rich Palestinian cultural heritage,” he said. “We hope that the new centre will create a venue for cultural exchange among Palestinian people as well as with other cultures throughout the world.” Shimmura’s comments are just one indication of the high expectations being placed on the Ramallah Cultural Palace. There is a real sense that the centre represents a kind of turning point, or at the very least a symbol of the kinds of normal activities Palestinians can look forward to once the occupation ends.
The centre’s grand opening on 5 July will kick off a busy month of inaugural activities including a keynote address by Mahmoud Darwish and a concert performance by well-known Palestinian musician Simon Shahin later in the month. The Spanish group Radio Tarifa, whose critically acclaimed music stems from a fusion of Andalusian and Arabic influences, is set to perform on 25 July. The Cultural Palace will also host the first ever Ramallah International Film Festival on 8 July, followed a few weeks later by Palestine’s first ever musical.
Ayoub Rabbah, Ramallah’s mayor, told the Weekly that he hoped the bevy of planned activities sends a clear message that despite the hardships being endured, Palestinians can still host world-class events. “It is a necessity for any people to have a cultural centre like this. Ramallah is well known to be a city that supports the arts,” he told the Weekly, adding, “the Palestinians have the right to continue our normal life despite the hardship and occupation.”
In addition to the cultural events planned throughout the month, the centre will also host celebrations on 7 July to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the UNDP’s Programme Assistance to the Palestinian People (PAPP). Building the cultural centre was a major PAPP undertaking with UNDP staff heavily involved in every stage of its construction.
Timothy Rothermel, the UNDP’s special envoy to the Palestinian occupied territories, told the Weekly that its completion was a cause for celebration for both Palestinians and the UNDP. “A cultural centre is particularly important in the Palestinian context because it gives a sense of national identity at a time when people are struggling for their nationhood,” he said.
While PAPP has provided a variety of assistance to the Palestinian people over the past quarter century, including major infrastructure projects in both the West Bank and Gaza and the release of the first ever Palestinian Human Development Report, Rothermel told the Weekly that he considered the cultural centre to be one of PAPP’s greatest achievements. “Culture cuts to the core of development,” he said. “People can be deprived of their incomes, their education and their crops, but it is hard to take somebody’s love for music and the arts. And in a place like Palestine, that doesn’t have its own recognised identity yet, I think to preserve the past but also to adapt it and to share Palestinian traditions is a very important thing,” he said.
Completion of the building was delayed by almost a year owing to the logistical nightmare involved in trying to build anything new in the occupied territories. With the border often being sealed without notice, officials were often hard-pressed to find the most basic building materials. Rothermel also told the Weekly that UNDP staff also sometimes faced “frustration at checkpoints, particularity with the treatment of national staff.”
Despite the headaches and the difficult situation still facing the Palestinians, everyone involved in the project is tremendously optimistic about the impact the centre will have on the city of Ramallah and for Palestinians everywhere. The opening “does happen to coincide with a time where the noose seems to be tightening around the Palestinians. The hope is that this operation will give a renewed sense of pride and hope for a better future,” said Rothermel. After the ceremonies on 5 July, responsibility for the maintenance of the building will fall to a board of directors comprised of Palestinian intellectuals and artists, with joint management with the municipality of Ramallah and the Ministry of Culture.
This article was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly
The Ramallah Cultural Palace’s Programme for July and August is:
Thu 8 - Wed 14 July: Ramallah International Film Festival
Fri 23 July: Simon Shaheen (violin) and Qantara (orchestra)
Sun 25 July: Radio Tarifa (Spain)
Thu 5 August: NCM - Childrens Musical