Walking into the sleek Bethlehem convention centre last Saturday morning to a crowd full of young people on smartphones and MacBook computers, I forgot that I was in Palestine. But it only lasted for a moment as my eye caught a glimpse of a massive Israeli settlement perched quietly on the hilltop above the centre and visible through the windows of the reception area. Ignoring the settlement as one ignores any random building, people around me were buzzing as the very first TEDx event held under military occupation was set to begin.
Despite living under military occupation, Palestinian culture is rich and varied. Highlighting this elaborate culture is something which sounds simple, but the realities of Israeli military assaults and a negative public relations campaign have made this a difficult task. Since the Second Intifada, Israel along with many in the West, have largely neglected the literary, cultural, musical and artistic traditions of Palestinians. Sadly, when most Americans think of Palestine or Palestinians images of terror, war and endless conflict enter their minds.
TED is an international conference platform based on spreading ideas with a focus on (T)echonolgy, (E)nivroment, and (D)esign. Originating in the United States, TED and TEDx (independently organized versions of TED) events have become an internet phenomenon successfully harnessing the power of social media by spreading informative lectures via Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. TED is the prime conference platform of the new media age.
Using TED’s structure, Palestinian comedians, writers, filmmakers, musicians, environmental CEO’s and poets came together last Saturday to host the first TEDx event in Palestine. Amidst the celebration of culture under occupation, International Solidarity Movement and Free Gaza Movement founder Huwaida Arraf delivered an emotional farewell to slain Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, who was killed two days earlier. The farewell was a harsh reminder of what life under occupation means for millions of Palestinians and the need for Palestinian unity.
While the event had a clearly political slant, it was not completely bogged down in depressing stories of occupation, control, war and violence. In fact, the atmosphere was jovial, upbeat and celebratory. Mohamad El Dahshan, a writer and blogger in Egypt, shared incredible stories from the Egyptian revolution such as the creative ways people recharged cell phones or computers in Tahrir square during the height of the demonstrations. Rim Al Banna, performed three songs for the late Juliano Mer-Khamis. Alessandro Petti, shared his insight about reorganizing space in the West Bank as settlements are dismantled. Khaled Sabawi explained how he wants to “keep Palestine cool” by harnessing geothermal energy to cool and heat homes. Some speakers like the cartoonist Wael Attili were denied Israeli entry permits to the West Bank and forced to deliver their speeches via video link from Amman or Beirut. Throughout the event, comedian and host Jamil Abu Wardeh kept the crowd engaged and laughing. The final speaker of TEDx Ramallah, the acclaimed author and architect Suad Amiry, was a perfect end to an exhilarating day. You have to see her speech, embedded in two pieces throughout this post, to understand what I mean.
The late Juliano Mer-Khamis, through initiatives like the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, wanted to move Palestinian resistance from violence to culture. He spent his life creating the groundwork for an Intifada of theatre, film, music, poetry, literature, comedy, satire and art. Listening to the variety of speakers, performers and personalities at TEDx Ramallah, Juliano’s dream of a cultural Intifada did not seem far away.
It is events like TEDx Ramallah which show that the Palestinian people have been successful in maintaining a vibrant and legitimate culture which is uniquely Palestinian. By embracing the new media world, TEDx Ramallah sent a message of hope, art and Palestinian existence to millions. Coupled with the embrace of nonviolent popular resistance to Israel’s increasingly violent occupation of bureaucracy, cultural events like TEDx Ramallah remind the world of the creation taking place under occupation in Palestine.