April 22

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Palestine Dispatch: The writers of Haifa

I spent a few days this week in Haifa. I was interested in learning what it means to be a Palestinian writer in what most Palestinians call “48” – shorthand for the territory Palestine lost in 1948 to what became the state of Israel. I spoke to a few “48” writers during my visit last spring, such as Ala Hlehel in Akka and Raji Bathish in Nazareth.

There is something different going on in Haifa, though, where Palestinian writers and other creative types are building themselves a proper scene. The centre of the creative action is Masada Street: a short, tree-lined road of tiny cafes and bars, tattoo parlours, antique shops, and bookstores. I spent a disproportionate amount of time on the street-side tables surrounded by tattooed hipsters, leftist intellectuals, artists, musicians and poets. Masada would be the coolest street in just about any city in the world.

The story of a cheap neighbourhood transformed by artists sounds familiar, but simple gentrification narratives don’t quite apply here. This is “48,” after all. For the Palestinian artists who built this scene, Masada is more than a just a place for creative people to gather. The construction of a home for the Palestinian artistic class is an act of resistance and reclamation. Everyone is welcome on Masada – there is just as much Hebrew as Arabic on the posters and shopfront signs – but this is undoubtedly Palestinian space.

I met Bashir Shalash, a poet who founded a publishing company, with offices on Masada, that publishes Palestinian writers in Arabic. I drank with the poet Asma’a Azaizeh on the patio of Abatjour, a restaurant one street up from Masada where Asma’a lives with her twin sister. We talked about poetry and writer gossip as she smoked Dutch tobacco from hand-rolled cigarettes. I sat with Bashar Murkus, a 23 year-old playwright and actor whose play about a jailed Palestinian terrorist caused a storm of controversy last year. Since then, Murkus and four colleagues founded their own independent theatre company, renovated an old Ottoman building into a performance space, and are now midway through their first season.

People consider Ramallah the heart of Palestinian artistic culture. This is a hard claim to argue. The city houses important arts organizations, hosts international festivals, and presents concerts, theatre and dance events. But the scene in Haifa seems more organic and DIY, and less stuffy and dependent on foreign donors, than what is going on in Ramallah. For Palestinian artists, and writers especially, Haifa is an exciting place to be.

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