At a Cultural Hub in Bethlehem, Art Thrives in the Fray

One of Dima Srouji’s most vivid childhood memories of her hometown, Bethlehem, occurred in front of the house known as Dar Jacir. It was the year 2000, and she and her mother were driving past the historic but crumbling 19th-century villa along the main road connecting Jerusalem and Hebron when they were stopped by a group of young Palestinian men who urged them to roll up their windows and find another route to their destination. The second intifada had begun and the air was heavy with tear gas.

Almost two decades later, Srouji came back to Dar Jacir, now the Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir Center for Art and Research, as an artist-in-residence. “For me, to occupy that space again 20 years later as almost like a defender of and cultural actor within that space, is very powerful and very empowering,” she said in a phone interview.

Srouji, an architect and artist, is part of a cohort of 22 residents and dozens of other collaborators — dancers, landscape designers, musicians, filmmakers and writers — from the Palestinian territories and around the world who come to Dar Jacir to create work, run workshops with local artists and residents, and, for many, to get to know what day to day life is like in the West Bank.

The stately stone house was built in the 1880s by Yusuf Ibrahim Jacir, the mukhtar (town registrar). It was lost to the family because of bankruptcy in 1929. It served as a prison and army headquarters during the British mandate, and was the site of more than one school after 1948.

In 1980, Dar Jacir was repurchased by a member of the family. In 2014, Yusuf Nasri Jacir — great-great-great-grandson of the original owner — along with his daughters, the artist Emily Jacir and the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, decided to transform it into a center for art and culture. Artist residencies and programs open to both artists and the public launched in 2018.

The location of the house made the project both challenging and necessary, according to Emily Jacir. The Israeli security barrier cordoning off Bethlehem and the West Bank runs down the middle of the road in front of the house, with a watchtower and main checkpoint one block from its door. The Aida, Dheisheh, and Azza refugee camps are close by. The street outside Dar Jacir’s wrought-iron gates is a flash point for confrontations between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. Sometimes the clashes spill past those gates, as they did in May.

But persistence in the face of this reality is the point. “Yes, it’s a difficult location, but we’re not going to go anywhere,” said Aline Khoury, the center’s managing director. “When there are times of tear gas and clashes and whatnot, OK, we have our emergency situation, we get out, we take care of ourselves, we take care of our artists, but the next day we’re back in, we clean up, and we continue.”

Early on in the renovation, Vivien Sansour, a Bethlehem-based artist, anthropologist and conservationist, and Mohammed Saleh, a permaculture designer and activist, also from Bethlehem, took on the task of reviving the compound’s terraced gardens — a traditional form of urban agriculture in the region.

The first thing they had to do was clear the ground of hundreds of tear gas canisters that littered the site. “I brought 16 young volunteers to clean a tiny terrace — just clean the soil from the shrapnel, from the canisters, from the glass,” Sansour said in a video interview. “It took a long time — how do you literally clean the soil, to bring it back to life?”

Sansour’s art practice involves reviving forgotten agricultural methods; she founded the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library. During her residency, she and another resident, Ayed Arafah, built something they called the Traveling Kitchen, so Sansour could cook meals for residents in the area while sharing knowledge about Bethlehem’s agricultural heritage, with the goal of “agri-resistance”: growing as a political act and form of remembering.

On one of Dar Jacir’s terraces, she planted a patch of jute mallow — an ingredient in one of Palestine’s traditional staple dishes, mulukhiyahsurrounded by vivid zinnias. She called the project “Home,” and invited neighbors to take part in the laborious process of harvesting the greens, and then cooking and eating them together.

Saleh, meanwhile, used a patch of ground at Dar Jacir to create the Urban Farm — a testing ground for highly efficient growing methods that can be replicated by Bethlehemites so that even the smallest sliver of soil can be productive. The project is urgent, said Saleh, because the security barrier and encroachment of Israeli settlements have largely cut Bethlehemites off from surrounding farmland and olive tree groves. “The question was, how can you be a farmer without land?” Saleh said.

“I found this terrible symmetry that instead of gathering flowers in the garden we’re gathering tear gas canisters,” Michael Rakowitz, the Chicago-based artist, said of his visit to Dar Jacir in 2015. The experience led him to return in 2018 to direct a workshop, comprising mostly local artists, called “On the Question of Making Art in a City Under Siege.” “We started meeting in the garden, and then the idea was just to meet everybody on the block,” he explained.

The workshop ended with a barbecue, where Rakowitz and other artists cooked for anyone who wanted to eat, and where the local community could meet its local artists.

It is no wonder that food plays such a big role here. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bethlehemites used to say “the food is at Dar Jacir,” and both residents and travelers could come for free meals. Because of this history, Emily Jacir notes, “hospitality is an important aspect of our project, the right to host.”

Sound is also a major part of the center’s activities. The Chilean American composer Nicolás Jaar came for a two-week residency in 2019. He converted an old storehouse on the property into a sound studio for visiting artists (many from Latin America, where there is a large Palestinian diaspora) and for local people taking part in programs and workshops. Children from the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps come to learn the basics of electronic music.

There is a decidedly non-institutional atmosphere. The Jacirs have largely eschewed funding from both governmental and nongovernmental agencies to avoid any limitations on the activities of the center or pressures placed on the artists to deliver tangible outcomes, Jacir and Khoury said.

“I think Dar Jacir is a very special place that does something very different than other cultural spaces,” Jacir told me via email. “It really is artist-led and -directed. In many cases artists come to us because they feel comfortable, or maybe more like welcomed, and I feel that this is a strong part of who we are.”

The independent, collaborative and interdisciplinary model of Dar Jacir — as well as its ethos of generosity — reflects the spirit of Emily Jacir’s art, which was recognized by a Golden Lion at the 2007 Venice Biennale and a Hugo Boss Prize in 2008, in both cases for work that addresses the circumstances of the Palestinian community and the conditions of exile. But the relationship is reciprocal, she said: “On a very personal level, this house has been the root, the very anchor — indeed foundation — to my entire practice as an artist. You could say everything radiates out from here. This is my center.”

In a piece shown at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, called “letter to a friend” — an intimate video missive to her friend Eyal Weizman (a founder of the investigative collective Forensic Architecture) about her experience in Bethlehem — Jacir’s narration speaks of her expectation that Dar Jacir would eventually find itself caught up in the violence that happens outside its gates.

Her prediction came to pass on May 10. In the unrest that followed an Israeli police raid on the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, protesters gathered at the watchtower near the center. During a clash between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters, an errant projectile landed in the Dar Jacir compound and sparked a fire that burned the Urban Farm. Jacir instructed the staff and artist residents to leave. Days later, on May 15, during a silent vigil in front of Dar Jacir for Nakba Day — a commemoration of Palestinians’ mass displacement in 1948 — witnesses said they saw Israeli security forces enter the compound and ransack the empty building. Windows were broken, doors kicked in, and equipment taken.

In response to inquiries from The New York Times, officials from the Israeli military and the border police denied any knowledge of a raid or seizure of equipment.

The Dar Jacir team is now taking stock of the damage and making plans to rebuild. A fund-raising effort by a group of U.S.-based artists and art historians has already raised more than $35,000 for the purpose. Other artist- and filmmaker-led fund-raisers are taking place in London and Italy. Emily Jacir and Khoury estimate the damage at upward of $40,000.

For many of its past residents, the rebuilding cannot happen soon enough. Srouji remembers the Bethlehem of her childhood as a cultural center, with musical performances and theater transforming the city into a thriving, even euphoric, place of possibility. “Dar Jacir was the only time, now almost 20 years later, where I re-experienced that — where I found a space in the city where I’m from, where I grew up in, that I could feel that kind of energy again.”

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