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Home > Life & Culture > Performing Arts
Promoting culture and hope in Gaza
Sami Abdel-Shafi, This Week in Palestine, Jan 15, 2008

This article was originally published by This Week in Palestine and is republished with permission.

Palestinians view paintings at an art exhibition at the French Cultural Center in Gaza City. (Maan Images)
The giant eucalyptus tree in front of the spacious yard of the Centre Culturel Franšais (CCF) - or French Cultural Centre - 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 nineteen 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 centre'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 centre's programmes.

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But all this has not come by coincidence.

As I sat in the office of the CCF's director, Mr. Gaetan Pellan, I could sense the genuine spirit of the CCF's work in Gaza. It was not the small size of the director's office that surprised me, but rather how this cultural mosaic of a space was neatly crowded with literature, artwork, exhibits, educational material and, best of all and for once in Gaza, no politics. Sitting at a small table that barely fit our notebooks and cups of tea, I learned more about how the CCF's mantra has been sensitive awareness to Palestinian culture and a true exchange of ideas. The centre's programmes are developed in response to the community's interests in the French language, music, art, literature, cinema, and other cultural activities. None of the centre's work is carried out without continuous feedback from the centre's frequenters and French-language students.

The CCF offers monthly programmes 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.

In addition, two artists are jointly sponsored - by the CCF, the Qattan Foundation, and the Welfare Association - every year to travel to Paris and to live in the "artists building," or CitÚ des Arts, for a period of six months. This helps them not only to further their talents and develop new techniques but also enables them to meet other artists from around the world who have also been invited to visit Paris and live in the same building.

Although the CCF offers such generous sponsorships and advancement of talent, it is sometimes unable to reach out to everyone in the Gaza Strip who is interested in its programmes. 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 four thousand 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 centre's vision of cooperating with Palestinians to create venues of normality during a difficult time was evident in the introduction of the "White Nights" annual festival in Gaza - held on the first Saturday of October. It is a tradition that was started by the municipality of Paris: the municipality remains open throughout the night and offers music events, art exhibits, video and music projections, and more. Placing Gaza in the same league as other prominent European cities where the French have replicated the "White Nights," the CCF in Gaza has witnessed the tremendous popularity of this event for the second year in a row. Gaza's "White Nights" offers multiple events that include a live audio/video concert connection from Paris as well as a host of contemporary French art, which attracted crowds of people and families.

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 organisations) 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.

The centre is already working on plans to expand the "White Nights" event for 2008, in cooperation with the international service of the municipality of Paris as well as the local community and Palestinian organisations. The CCF is working with Forum des Images - or the Image Forum - in Paris to create a competition for "Pocket Films" recorded using mobile telephones for the "White Nights" event. In more ways than one, this initiative promotes information exchange and deepens the understanding of the Palestinian people and culture among the people of France.

As part of the CCF cultural exchange in the Gaza Strip, a weekly radio programme was created in late 2006 on El-Manar FM radio station in Gaza City. Mr. Pellan hosts the hour-long programme in French, with Arabic translation. The programme includes a wide range of news and events that take place in France as well as information on the centre'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 programmes 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-Shafi is co-founder and Senior Partner at Emerge Consulting Group, LLC., a management consultancy in Gaza City.

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