Tucked away in the colorful Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, home to both Arab and Jewish communities, was a unique gathering of Palestinians and Israelis. It was not a round table that brought them together this week, but a stage.
This year’s edition of Paris’ first ever Israeli-Palestinian art festival, “Pèlerinage en décalage,” which translates to “Off the Wall Pilgrimage” in English, took place in the historic venue of La Bellevilloise and brought together more than 30 Palestinian and Israeli artists.
Free of charge and designed to take guests on a creative “pilgrimage” to Palestine and Israel, the festival’s program included a wide-range of art shows: from poetry readings, documentaries, art exhibitions, and sketches during the day, to musical performances for the night owls.
Amal Murkus, a Palestinian folklore singer from Galilee, performing a Mahmoud Darwish song along with her son Firas Zreik.
“This festival is a good representation of what we could do as Israelis and Palestinians,” said Gabriel Saleh Bourdon, an Israeli-French human rights lawyer.
“It is also very interesting to see what the crowd looks like. It’s a very unique crowd that you can’t see elsewhere,” he said.
Paris is home to the largest the Muslim community and Jewish community in Western Europe.
“I think anyone who would come here would break any prejudgment they have about what Arabs, Palestinian, Jews and Israelis are willing to do when it is in the right context,” he added.
The idea was conceived after an uncanny encounter between Kenza Aloui, a Moroccan Muslim who grew up in Rabat, and Inès Weill-Rochant, a Jewish French national who was raised in Jerusalem, at a French university, Sciences Po.
In the course of their studies, Aloui and Weill-Rochant had the opportunity to switch roles. Aloui departed for a year abroad in Tel Aviv and studied Hebrew, while Weill-Rochant left for a year in Cairo.
Having been exposed to the diverse dynamics of the Middle East, they decided to organize something that would challenge the common clichés about the prolonged Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the voices of people first-handedly affected by it.
“We know speeches of peace and hand-shakes and all things that usually come with Palestinian and Israeli events and we’re kind of sick that,” Kenza Aloui, one of the two organizers, told Al Arabiya English.
“[We] managed to create a free space, a space where basically anyone is welcome and without actually putting some kind of message that everyone has to agree with beforehand.”
While the content of the artwork and discussions might be far from neutrality, the funding is “completely independent” of political influences.
“We don’t want to get any money from the people involved, so no money from Israel, no money from Palestine, no public money,” said Aloui. “And we were in different situations where we had to refuse money because this money would put our independence in trouble.”
Instead, the two young organizers, who recently started their own curating company together, resorted to crowd funding on the Internet.
In their selection of artists, the two organizers usually target artists “wouldn’t usually get invited to official institutional places because they have things to say, or they have things to say in a different way,” added Kenza.
Among those who stunned the diverse Parisian audience with a passionate musical performance was the 20-year-old singer and musician, Rasha Nahas.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Nahas, who grew up in Haifa, said such festival was a rare occurrence that she understood the need for.
“People just don’t know anything about the situation. They judge according to censored news and politicians’ speeches...They don’t have access to the people and to the art."
“I think every encounter between every group of humans is very needed in the world that we live in, especially between groups in conflict,” she said, adding that there must be “a critical understanding” and “a critical dialogue” about this encounter.
Wary of accusations of normalization, which tends to taunt many Israeli-Palestinian collaborations, Nahas argued that art should “come first.”
“I understand the need of boycott,” she said in reference to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) global campaign, which calls for the economic, political and cultural boycott of the state of Israel in support of the Palestinian cause.
Nahas said that while she boycotts settlements products and the State of Israel products, and refrains from playing in Israeli festivals, she does not “understand” the boycott of art because “the moment you do art, it’s free.”
“I am sick of being politically-correct. I believe in people and I believe in art. I am sick of nationalism. I am sick of putting a flag on every art. I believe the solution is the complete opposite of nationalism."
“There is occupation, there is segregation, there is inequality, and there is an oppressed side and an oppressor side,” she continued. “But holding another flag in my eyes is not the solution. I make art to be free and I don’t want to be stuck in more boxes in more statements."
But her songs are not devoid of politics and nationalism – only they reflect the singer’s own personal experiences and not a group of people’s, she emphasized.
“Every song I sing people perceive it as the Palestinian woman singing the song. Yes, I am Palestinian. I am proud of it. I am a woman and I am very proud of it,” she said.
“But I write this song as me, as Rasha, as a 20-year-old living in this cursed holy land, as a Palestinian minority inside the borders of 1948. And yes, I sing about the occupation. Of course, it’s an integral part to who I am, and I sing about the Wall, and I sing about inequality, but most of all I sing about me experiencing all of this through my eyes," she explained.
“My statement is very clear in my songs, and the most important thing is that the art speaks for itself. I think that when you get on a controversial stage it’s a shame and a failure to be politically-correct,” Nahas added, referring to the festival.
But Nahas’ energy and passionate songs, as well as her lack of “political correctness,” as she put it, is nothing less of what the two organizers were expecting.
“It [the event] is not neutral. It is political, but it is political through arts and we are fine with this definition,” said Aloui. “We can talk about everything here. We just do it through a documentary, a discussion with an artist, a performance etc.”
The festival came only a week following France hosted foreign ministers from major powers to put Israel-Palestinian peacemaking back on the international agenda.