Arab Culture Capital Jerusalem felled by political tensions

March 2009 -

The celebration of Jerusalem as the Capital of Arab Culture has turned into a political fencing match. Both the aftermath of the war in Gaza and internal tensions among the Palestinians threaten to spoil the festivities. Israeli authorities have not yet approved the celebration of Arab Culture in Jerusalem (Al-Quds in Arabic). Cultural centre The Orient House in Jerusalem has been closed since 2001 for reasons of security, for example.

Jerusalem has always been the contested prize in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel considers it the birthplace of the Jewish culture. But the city also holds significant cultural importance in the Arab world. Two years ago, the Arab ministers of culture - joined in the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) - elected Jerusalem as Culture Capital 2009. The first city to be awarded that title was Egypt's capital Cairo, in 1997. For an entire year, festivals, expositions and performances are organised in the city and additional funds are made available for the arts.

Jerusalem's events have been postponed since the war in Gaza. Whether or when the first activities will be held is still unclear. The conflict between Hamas and Fatah makes the organisation difficult. Each group has its own 'national' committee. Hamas' Minister of Culture, Attah Abu As-Sebah, proposed they work together in the hope that "culture might unite that which politics have divided". That has not yet happened. His government has budgeted one million dollars for this purpose. The Fatah government has allocated five million dollars for activities in East Jerusalem and along the West Bank.

Damascus was Culture Capital in 2008. At that time, the Arab ministers of culture signed the Damascus Statement, assigning top priority to stimulating the Arabic language. The Arabic language needs support on the Internet and in audiovisual media in order to preserve the Arab cultural identity, according to the ministers.