Suad Amiry is coordinator of the Palestinian team for the Jerusalem program at the Smithsonian Institution’s 1993 Folklife Festival in Washington. An architect, Amiry is also a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks with Israel. As Middle East Report was going to press, the Jerusalem program was postponed. The interview begins with Amiry’s explanation of the postponement. She discussed the Festival with Penny Johnson, a contributing editor of this magazine, in Ramallah in April 1993.
Why was the Jerusalem Festival postponed?
I could answer in one word — finances — since we arrived at the cutoff date with the Smithsonian far short of their funding target. But I think this needs further explanation. The organizers of the Festival — the Palestinian and Israeli teams and the Smithsonian — agreed to a vision of Jerusalem based on parity and equality. This vision and the shared pool for funds did not attract some funders. Clearly, our funding strategy must also include consciousness raising and new approaches, both of which require time. Our new vision demands new sources of support and I hope we can find these in the next year.
What Jerusalem are you representing?
Most important is a clear definition and acknowledgment that East Jerusalem is an Arab city, a Palestinian city, distinct from West Jerusalem. The Smithsonian is not stating either that Jerusalem is divided or united, but recognizing two vocabularies. At the festival, Faisal Husseini will represent East Jerusalem. The project, of course, is cultural, not political, but the message is that Jerusalem belongs to other people, not simply Israelis.
Have you experienced any problems in placing a political grid over Jerusalem’s living culture?
Our problems are as rich as the city itself. We want to convey the Arab character of the city: Our counterparts will certainly be focusing on Jewish Jerusalem. We want to express the richness of East Jerusalem, the variety and plurality of cultures, religions and subcultures. But how to convey this richness for a “walk-by” audience on the Mall without losing our message? The visitor who comes to the real Jerusalem comes on many levels — as a tourist, as a pilgrim, as a political person.
Is the “folklife” criterion restrictive or helpful?
The Smithsonian concept of folklife is interesting and challenging but frustrating as well. The goal is to humanize, in a positive way, to show everyday life through people’s work, craft and artistic expression. Presenting “normal life&rduqo; is a challenge in itself. How do we represent the presence of army and settlers? Do we ask a soldier to come with us and set up a checkpoint on the Mall? “Folklife” is a concept without conflict. The visitor on the Mall wants a moment of enjoyment. But the reality of Jerusalem today is harsh and sad.
One partial resolution is to set up a learning center, where the history and the conflict can be discussed by Palestinians and Israelis. In the Smithsonian conception, the participants bring the conflict with them in their stories and lives. If we bring a merchant, part of his story is the nightmare of tax collection in the Old City. This was a frustrating part in representing aspects of folklife: Crafts are dying in Jerusalem, crippled by taxes, no tourists, shutdowns and a depressed economy. Shall we present these crafts as in their prime? Are we setting up a special place for crafts on the Mall that doesn’t exist in Jerusalem?
It’s a bit like ethnographic museums that display the “best” of cultures on their way to extinction.
I suppose the impulse to preserve and conserve comes when things are dying, or at least in danger. I have felt many times that this is the worst time to present the culture of Jerusalem, after 25 years of occupation, and five years of intifada. Many of the best musicians have left; others have not performed in five years because there are no weddings, no parties, hardly any public events.
Why have you selected the Old City as the center of your representation of Jerusalem?
First, there have been some areas of contention. The Israeli team, for example, wants to represent the Western Wall, and perhaps the Jewish Quarter of the Old City as well. Does this mean we should represent Talbiyya and Bak‘a [pre-1948 Palestinian neighborhoods in West Jerusalem]?
Second, Palestinian researchers have tended to slight urban culture and focus on peasant culture. Peasant culture has become a sign of Palestinian identity endurance. Everyone knows about embroidery in peasant dress; what urban women wore is less known. Peasant culture has been idealized, and urban culture ignored.