Born in a refugee camp near Hebron, in southern West Bank, Mahmoud Abu Hashhash is a Palestinian poet and currently the head of the Culture and Arts programme at A. M. Qattan Foundation, headquartered in Ramallah.
Besides two books of poetry, he is the author of the novel ‘Ramallah, mon amour’. For the first time, he was invited to Voix vives, an international festival of poetry that takes place in Sète in southern France. Your Middle East met up with Mahmoud to have a conversation about art in Palestine.
Your Middle East: Why is it important for a Palestinian artist to be invited to such an event (Voix vives)?
Mahmoud Abu Hashhash: It’s truly important to be here for Palestinian intellectuals because it can help to change the views of the image of Palestinians produced through the media, which leads to misconceptions. Many people keep a negative and wrong image of the Palestinian people. In fact, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very abstract in their mind. The majority doesn’t know in which conditions we actually live; if we enjoy a rich cultural life or not. However, it is fundamental that people know this side of the reality too: we have been struggling to achieve a normal life where we not only enjoy arts and culture but we also produce them.
YME: What is the impact of the Israeli occupation on the artistic production and the cultural life in Palestine?
MAH: The impact of the occupation is overwhelming on all aspects of our life. Occupation has been denying the Palestinians any feeling of security and stability which is necessary for the prosperity of culture. Despite that and in spite of the absence of infrastructural institutions, there is a vital cultural scene in Palestine.
Before the First Intifada, there were many cinema theatres in different cities across the Palestinian territories. Now, there are very few places where we can see films, while there are many filmmakers. In spite of the lack of infrastructure, we continue to find alternative ways to make up the absence of such institutions. The Palestinian civil society organisations have played an exceptional role in keeping culture dynamic in harsh times, where Palestine has suffered a suffocating occupation which kept it besieged and isolated over decades.
YME: How hard was it for you to study in the West Bank?
MAH: I studied in Birzeit University. In 1989, the main campus was closed as it was the case for all the universities across the Occupied Territories. So the lectures we carried out outside of the university, in different places in Ramallah and Birzeit.
Mobility is a big question in Palestine. In a chapter of my book, Ramallah, mon amour, I describe a journey that I made from Ramallah to Hebron in order to visit my parents. I spent the whole day. This happened to me in 2002. I felt at that moment that it would be easier to travel to France than to cross Palestine, that I need less effort and less humiliation to land in Paris than to arrive in Hebron. Ramallah, mon amour deals with what looks like living in a country in war.
YME: Is art used as a political tool in Palestine?
MAH: In the 1960s and the 1970s, one could be arrested simply because he was a Palestinian artist. For example, Silman Mansour and Mahmoud Darwish, who was arrested more than once because his poetry was playing an important role in leading the movement of liberation. Both were true popular figures. Even illiterate people knew who they were. At that period, the artistic creation had to send an explicit and relevant political message and art was assuredly serving politics. Indeed, art and politics were almost assimilated.
The Oslo Accords brought a great change. Now, Palestinian artists are no longer the ambassadors of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which used to drive the cultural life inside the Occupied Territories. In the meantime, we are more interactive with the rest of the world.
YME: Do you personally consider art as a political tool? And do you use it in this way?
MAH: Not specifically. I don’t directly or explicitly send a political message in my poetry. But, because I’m a Palestinian, my poetry is always interpreted in such way. Critics can’t see us in another way. Of course, politics will always be there: we, Palestinians, our life is interrelated with politics. So, I write more about how politics and the conflict affect me, “Mahmoud, who was born in a refugee camp and who lost his parent, dead in a refugee camp.”
As a poet and a Palestinian I have the right to exist independently. I don’t need an Israeli counterpart and he doesn’t need me to exist, we don’t complete each other.
YME: To what extent are you involved in the international grassroots campaign promoting the cultural boycott of Israel throughout the world?
MAH: Palestinian artists are by default involved in that campaign. It is hard for us to sit at the same table with an Israeli as far as we live under military occupation. In fact, I don’t take part in any common event with Israeli artists. Most of the time, our will as a Palestinian is respected. We can’t be pushed to do something with an Israeli.
YME: How can the cultural boycott help the Palestinian people?
MAH: The cultural boycott is useful because it helps through putting pressure on all Israeli intellectuals and opinion makers throughout the world. The boycott is definitely not a plot against the Israeli intellectuals personally. Indeed, I share several views with some of them. In fact, this is a non-violent strategy, taking part to the large peaceful movement. The more Palestinians are committed with, the more international community will be eager to put an end to the occupation.
YME: The cultural boycott is criticized because it is allegedly neither legitimate nor legal, what would you like to say to those who stand against the initiative?
MAH: Artists are definitely not “normal” citizens. They are leading figures because their works and their position are always somehow influential. Every artistic creation is a statement. As I said, the boycott is never personal: the Israelis are not targeted as a person but as an artist. We will boycott them until they take a clear stand regarding the situation: they are living in a country, which is occupying other peoples’ land and confiscating their freedom without them putting any pressure or taking any measure to end the occupation. Until they move, they should be considered as part of the occupation machine.