“When you love a Palestinian woman
you love a spirit
that inherited the will to stand,
that terrify guards at check-points,
in a way no man can.”
“How can any man love but a Palestinian woman?” Ehab Lotayef asked the dimly-lit crowd at Sala Rossa. Although Lotayef was married to a Palestinian woman, the message of his poem was not romantic – it was political.
Alongside local and Juno-award-winning musicians, poets, documentary filmmakers and photographers who see their art as a voice for justice and the voiceless, Lotayef read his poem for the Artists Against Apartheid night on November 11th.
This event was held as Montreal’s part of the Fifth International Week of Action Against the Apartheid Wall, taking place around the world from November 9-16. This week is marked to raise awareness about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the apartheid system enforced by the wall and the boycott campaign to take a stance against it.
“Art is the most influential factor in causing change in the long-term,” said Lotayef, a writer, photographer and activist with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, because it “attacks the heart before it attacks the mind.” But he prefers poetry, because in Arab culture, “poetry is really something that shapes people’s ideas and thoughts.” He hopes his poetry opens people’s consciousness to what he calls an apartheid-like situation facing Palestinians today.
According to the United Nations, apartheid in South Africa was a system consisting of “numerous laws that allowed the ruling white minority in South Africa to segregate, exploit and terrorize the vast majority” and denied them their basic human rights.
Among other activists, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter uses the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the current “forced segregation in the West Bank and terrible oppression of the Palestinians” by the State of Israel, facing criticism that he was misusing the word..
Before she leapt into her own words and song with her smooth voice and red guitar, poet and folk singer-songwriter Valerie Khayat told the crowd that art should raise questions and give a voice to those who don’t have one. She felt it was particularly important to support this event because the conflict in the Middle East has been “misrepresented by the mainstream media in a way that moves people to think it is hopeless or too complex. The information becomes numbers and statistics and we forget the human lives behind them.”
“Art can take people beyond that,” said Khayat, because it can “move people to listen just by its medium and emotional quality when they would perhaps not listen if the issue was presented in any other form.” In that sense, “artists have a responsibility to address such issues especially when they are so urgent.”
Khayat takes part in events like this because she sees it as a way to reclaim the potential of art to create change rather than just being commercialized or background entertainment as it too often is at events for humanitarian causes.
With an equally soothing and emancipatory slow reggae-laden beat, the local Kalmunity Collective dedicated their first song of the night to Haiti. It was also a song “for the freedom of any people or country who wants to be free,” said poet and hip-hop artist MC Phenix, a member of the collective representing Montreal’s Haitian diaspora.
Fellow Kalmunity Collective member and singer-songwriter Mohamed Mehdi added: “Apartheid is a child of occupation and every occupation is a brother of every other occupation, so we are brothers and sisters against every occupation.”
Mehdi thinks the event was important because it linked culture and politics together and openly affirmed that what is going on in Israel and Palestine is apartheid.
The power of visual art was displayed by Nirah Shirazipour’s two short films, to highlight the diversity of artistic and emotional experiences in Israel and Palestine.
The films are part of a documentary series Beyond Blue & Grey, created by Shirazipour and a collective called Eyes Infinite Films, to show not only how art can affect change and uplift those living under Israeli occupation, but also how the occupation affects their art, culture, creativity – and “the human spirit.”
After 1948, many Palestinian artists were “using their creativity to immediately confront and challenge the displacement of their families,” explained Shirazipour, who spent three years in Palestine on and off.
Now artists in the region are also focusing on how the occupation affects them on an emotional and psychological level.
While she was in Palestine, there was a “sense of exhaustion and frustration because artistic sensitivities are also under siege, not only the physical body,” said Shirazipour.
One of the two documentaries she showed at the event was the 10-minute Jerusalem in Exile, which exposes Jerusalem-born artist Steve Sabella’s online photography project.
Sabella invites Palestinians in exile from Jerusalem to share their written personal memories of Jerusalem with him and then finds images resembling “the spirit of the place” that Palestinians in exile describe or lament not remembering, said Shirazipour.
Shirazipour said she hopes her films help to dig out some of the “deeper truths you don’t find in mainstream perception of the situation in the Middle East.”
The event served as a benefit for social and economic justice organization Tadamon! to continue its solidarity work between movements from Montreal to the Middle East and its campaign for the boycott, sanctions & divestment of the Israeli State.
Around the World, across time
Art and activism fight apartheid
The concept of a group of musicians getting together and publicly denouncing apartheid isn’t new. In 1985, American performer Steven Van Zandt, otherwise known as Little Steven, a former member of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, founded a musical group dedicated to protesting apartheid in South Africa.
Along with U2, Peter Gabriel, Afrika Bambaataa, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Run DMC among others, Van Zandt created the record “Sun City” under the name “Artists United Against Apartheid.”
Van Zandt was interested in South Africa because he had read that the apartheid system there was modeled after the American system of Indian reservations. He was particularly inspired by the luxurious Sun City resort in one of the most repressed regions of Apartheid South Africa. “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” was the chorus for the single, about artists refusing to perform at Sun City and thereby publicly sanctioning against Apartheid South Africa.
According to Danny Schechter, the journalist who helped Van Zandt with Sun City, the song combined an angry attitude with a high-energy, danceable tune – and most of all, educational lyrics:
Relocation to Phony Homelands
Separation of Families I can’t understand
Twenty-three million can’t vote because they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back…
Our government tells us we’re doing all we can
Constructive engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan
Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope
This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.
Sun City didn’t attain the fame or fortune of We Are the World. Half of the radio stations objected to the lyrics’ explicit criticism of President Ronald Reagan’s complicity in the arming of apartheid, recounts Schechter in his book The More You Watch The Less You Know.
Ironically, “some black stations said the song was too white, while many white stations considered it too black,” he wrote.
But the album and single raised more than a million US dollars for anti-apartheid projects and premiered at the United Nations, inspiring South African musician Johnny Clegg to create a similar organization, according to Schechter.
The Artists United Against Apartheid weren’t the only musicians putting the spotlight on South African apartheid. In the 80’s, American rap artists like Public Enemy and Stetsasonics used their rap appeal as an educational tool to challenge injustices such as apartheid. “South Africa’s not free, neither are we … Fight apartheid everybody” is a lyric from Stetsasonics’ album “A.F.R.I.C.A,” a record that came with a study guide and aimed to inform teenagers about southern Africa.
American music was not alone in using art against apartheid. Visual artists were also taking a stand against apartheid in the eighties. With help from the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid, a France-based association called Artists of the World Against Apartheid launched a global appeal for anti-apartheid visual artwork.
The result was a collection of 80 world-leading artists’ work and text contributions by internationally acclaimed poets, writers and philosophers. It opened in 1983 at the Fondation Nationale des Arts Graphiques et Plastiques in Paris, the first national collection created around the idea of a democratic principle. The founders intended to give the collection to the people of South Africa when they achieved “the first free and democratic government by universal suffrage.”
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