There is a scene in Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol (2015) which would make even the most hardened curmudgeon blub. A multitude of hopefuls are auditioning in Cairo for the Middle-Eastern version of the Pop Idol-inspired television franchise. Among them is Mohammed Assaf, a wedding singer from a Gazan refugee camp, who has risked life and limb crossing the border into Egypt for this one shot at stardom. He almost does not make it into the audition because of bureaucratic red tape but gets given a chance because of the surprising kindness of a stranger – as the film’s title succinctly reveals, Assaf goes on to win the 2013 Arab Idol competition.
Abu-Assad, an Israeli-born Palestinian, has won recognition for his films that address ‘hard’ issues – suicide bombers (2006’s Paradise Now) and the fate of Palestinian collaborators with the Israeli regime (2013’s Omar). Both were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, while The Idol was submitted as Palestine’s official entry in 2015 but was not nominated. Abu-Assad says, ‘The story of this young man, Mohammad Assaf, is such an incredible story that even somebody like me who, just three weeks earlier had won the Jury Prize of Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, was more excited for Assaf to win Arab Idol than for myself. I was caught on camera between thousands of people gathered in the square in Nazareth to hear the final results for Arab Idol; I was jumping in excitement like a little kid, and I have not had this kind of excitement for a very long time. When Ali Jaafar (the film producer with Quinta Communications) offered for me to direct Mohammad Assaf’s story, my arms were covered in goosebumps. I knew immediately that I would do everything to make this story a movie.’ Such was Abu-Assad’s commitment that he insisted on shooting the film in Gaza, despite confronting formidable challenges, and chose first-time Gazan child actors to play four pivotal roles.
Art and culture are integral to the collective self-worth of entire peoples. This is why Palestinian culture is so often made invisible by those who support the Israeli occupation. It leaves the rest of the world with images of Palestinians as barbaric suicide bombers and aeroplane hijackers who threaten the very existence of Israel as the Middle East’s only democratic utopia. And this is not a religious struggle between Muslims and Jews, however much the countless mass media reports reduce it in this way. More recently, even the Christian Palestinian dance troupe Baqoun nearly did not make it for their British tour in 2016 due to ‘difficulties with travel and obtaining visas’ – cryptic reasons indeed.
Where does one start, though, to uncover and celebrate the numerous examples of art and culture that capture the complexity of Palestine? We asked singer-composer and musicologist Reem Kelani if she would compile a list of her own inspirations. The result is highly personal and that’s why we love it. You will not find Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish listed here – as monumental as they are – because they are familiar figures already. Instead, get ready for a Top Ten of Palestinian cultural inspirations to delight and excite the uninitiated.
Kelani says, ‘I eat Palestinian Za’atar, therefore I exist.’ This aromatic herb mix of thyme, sumac, toasted sesame and sea salt is also often described as ‘Israeli’. And what’s the problem with this if nearly everyone in Israel consumes it too? The issue is that this kind of national labelling is not limited to za’atar – hummus is now being claimed as ‘Israeli’ too. And the choice of national adjective has serious geopolitical ramifications. Cuisines are products of the land – herbs, spices, meats, water, soil – and downplaying the Palestinian origins of certain foods is inextricable from the occupation of Palestinian land and the erasure of its national identity. This is not to say that everyone should stop referring to za’atar as ‘Israeli’ (or ‘Palestinian’). But it does mean that the consumption of za’atar is deeply political. The celebrated poet Mahmoud Darwish has a poem, ‘Ahmad al-Za’atar’, that demonstrates the deep connections between agriculture, cuisine and identity for Palestinians. And no, this does not mean everyone should stop buying za’atar from the famed British Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi either. He does, after all, explicitly market it as Palestinian za’atar. But why not try the za’atar sold by Zaytoun, a social enterprise and community interest company that was set up in 2004 to develop a British market for artisanal Palestinian produce? Be warned, though – za’atar is addictive!