During the After the Last Sky festival days (9.9 – 9.10.2016), I managed to visit Berlin, coming from Stuttgart, to see one of the festival’s theater shows: Azza, a musical play by Amir Nizar Zoabi. By then, I’d met Anna-Esther Younes, one of the festival’s curators. We met in Bulbul Berlin Café and restaurant and we went for a walk close to the river to have a calm talk.
Anna- Esther is a German Palestinian, born to a German mother and a Palestinian father. From her German side she also has a Jewish branch of the family that spans back two generations, which essentially led her to become interested in Critical Race theories and colonialism, as well as, psychoanalysis, due to racialized repetitions throughout the family history. She finished her PhD on the discourse around an ostensible “New Anti-Semitism” in Europe with the renowned scholar Prof. Judith Butler. She teaches at the Gender Studies Department at Humboldt University, writes and curates and is often moderating events around migration or/and racism in Berlin and Germany.
After the Last Sky festival is, as it’s been defined, the first interdisciplinary and international event in Germany assembling artists, activists, and academics dealing with »the im-/possibility of being Palestinian.« Over the course of a month, the festival provided the possibility to encounter a rich variety of Palestinian narratives and the artistic reverberations of actors, dancers, film makers, visual artists, musicians, performance artists, writers and spoken word artists. For the first time, the festival brought together around 70 artists and activists from three continents (North America, Europe and the Middle East) over the span of one month. The curatorial concept of the festival brochure states clearly the main question of the festival: What can we understand about our universal human condition through the example of Palestine and Palestinian narratives?
Rasha: Why do you think was it important to arrange this festival – a festival that focuses on Palestinian identity, culture, art, and cause – at a time when the world’s eyes are more on other places than Palestine?
Anna-Esther: Generally speaking [it’s important], because its never happened before in Germany – a festival lasting an entire month bringing together Palestinians from almost all over the world aiming to address various topics of Palestinian narrative and experiences. And why was it important? First of all, our goal was to bring Palestinian art and narratives into a broader German cultural and social debate. So far, Germany has the biggest Palestinian population in [all of] Europe, and yet we are still the most invisible and silent one compared to other Palestinian communities in Europe. Palestine, Palestinians, and Palestinian narratives are still primarily invisible in and absent from mainstream German discourse.
Unfortunately, only after the festival was over, a media »shitstorm« unravelled, with severe allegations of anti-Semitism against us as well as the accusation we incited to violence. Funnily enough, the journalist who brought these allegations against us, only came to a podium discussion and a workshop. Yet he felt able to not only judge the entirety of the festival, but to slander it in an almost »hysterical« manner. I believe most people who read this and other articles, saw quickly the hysteria and personal defamations as well as the polemics – this is not journalism anymore, this is lobbying. Unfortunately, many Palestinian events are still brought down with unfounded anti-Semitism accusations like these in Germany. Hence, many people are afraid of even touching the issue – especially those who would be needed as allies. Building resilience, trust and courage is what is needed.
Rasha: Before that article written against the festival in “Der Tagesspiegel” newspaper, had the festival been covered in the German media?
Anna Esther: So far we haven’t, we’ve been neglected by the media. Which is fascinating, because it’s a one month festival and even if you would made a festival about »trees in Kreuzberg« for an entire month we would have probably gotten more coverage. (laughing)
And again, it was the first time that anything like that ever took place and it could have generated a wonderful open and public debate. But the general „disinterest“, I think, might speak for itself.
Maybe there are more possibilities, maybe people didn’t hear about the festival. Which I doubt, because there are a lot of people who heard about it, even in Austria. So I don’t think that it’s about people not knowing.
Maybe it also the cultural and very political approach we took: We didn’t want to present artists isolated from politics. Every person comes from specific experiences, thus views and thus also desires for her/his/their work or future. We tried to bring these issues together in the curational concept and stress the politics behind the art and artist. Maybe it’s also one of the reasons why we are ignored, because we are not representing, what people think is, »an authentic Arab.« Which is already a very racist/orientalist stereotype. Meaning, if you don’t fall into the category of »terrorist, sexist, anti-Semitic arab« , or at least cater to these discourses and topics in one way or another, you are not covered. We spoke about what we wanted to talk about, instead. But again, after all, we can only speculate so far.
Rasha: What was really important to you as curators of the festival to bring this content to Berlin? And why focus on the modern Palestinian culture and art scene in this time?
Anna-Esther: What was very important to us, was not only to represent arts and cultures to a Western audience, but to also open the space of new generation of Palestinians that didn’t grow up in the Middle East. What we wanted was also to trouble questions around authenticity and belonging, for instance, as well as, put the issue of »international solidarity« back on the table. In other words, as long as we close ourselves to new realities, Palestine and Palestinians will not continue and that’s what we wanted to address. Maybe our parent’s generations have not come to terms with that, because they are still trying to figure out what they’ve lost. It is up to us right now to bring new dimensions to Palestinian life and reality, spanning from Palestine to Europe, to North America to Latin America, and beyond. Furthermore, our goal was to show that Palestinians are/were not the only people who had been expelled, colonized, put in camps. There have been so many other people before, maybe not directly like that, but again is why this festival was built on the pillar of decolonial solidarity, and critique of colonialism and racism, linking it to other people’s struggles. Especially those latter narratives are what connected Palestinians to the rest of the colonized world. That narrative had been there before in the ‘70s and ‘80s , for instance. So we were trying to bring something new to the table, another and new reality Palestinians and to Germans. Yet, at the same time, we tried to remain loyal to old decolonial narratives in the arts and politics that had been lost.
I didn’t have the chance to meet Pary El-Qalqili in Berlin – she is also one of the festival curators – so we had to have this interview through e-mail after the festival was over.
Pary El-Qalqili is a documentary film director, based in Berlin. She studied Cultural Sciences (BA) at European University Viadrina (FFO, Germany) and Directing at the University of TV and Film Munich. Her first feature film The Turtle’s Rage won several prizes in international film festivals and was released in 2012 in German cinemas. Currently she is working on a documentary about the neighbors of the burning refugee camps in Germany. She also works as an educator and curator.
Rasha: How did the idea of the festival get started? And why it was important to have a festival on Palestinian culture and art?
Pary: Our festival After the Last Sky rose from the urgent need to create an independent platform for contemporary Palestinian artists in Germany. Until now there was not such an event in Germany bringing Palestinian artists based in US, Middle East, and Europe together. Normally cultural institutions in Germany will strive for putting the Palestinian artist in dialogue with Israeli artists and stand, therefore, for a so-called »balance.« Our goal as independent curators was on the one hand to break with this unspoken rule and invite Palestinian artists to speak for themselves. On the other hand there are many stereotypes of »the Palestinian« circulating and we wanted to give a space where people can actually enrich their knowledge and their beliefs about what is or what can be Palestinian art, life, and identity.
Rasha: In a talk with Anna–Esther, she mentioned that somehow the media ignored the festival. What do you think is the reason for that?
Pary: It’s a matter of fact that we got only one profound article about the one-month festival, which is indeed very surprising as the festival was the first of its kind in the German art scene. I can only make assumptions – it might be that the press department of the theater did not do its job at its best, it might also be that the journalists were either not interested in such an event or could not read the curatorial language we used. The four themes of our festival and the artworks which were shown definitely opened a new discourse of how we can talk and think about Palestine and the relation to other colonial contexts and structures. We did not tackle any of the usual suspect terms such as »Islam«, »Rights of Arab women«, »Terrorism«, »crisis«, »peace«. So maybe our curatorial concept did not attract the media. Still, it is more than surprising that great artists such as Sana Moussa, Kamilya Joubran, Jowan Safadi, Leyya Tawil, Dirar Kalash, Steve Sabella, Hani Zurob, Larissa Sansour, Elia Suleiman, Kamal Al Jafari, Jumana Manna, Adania Shibli etc. were not featured more by the media. There was not a single interview with any one of those amazing artists by the media and a few of them are even based in Berlin.
Rasha: Is there a story that happened through the festival and touched you, that you’d like to share?
Pary: Stories, I don’t know…but there were many special moments which are deeply inscribed into my memory by now. Many of the performances were real experiences, as to say, I could really widen my perspective, my knowledge and my range of feelings and understanding. One example is the silence after the live sound performance of Dirar Kalash. The performance was so intense that no one dared to clap, there was just silence. And into the silence Dirar started to speak about his motivation to create that piece. Having passed a whole journey of bodily and imaginary nightmares throughout his performance, that moment intrigued me.
Rasha: Will you have a second edition of the festival next year?
Pary: We are planning to have a second edition, but as the financing needs so long, especially as we will do it in collaboration with another institution, we will need 2 years. But yes, there will be another After the Last Sky. For sure with new curatorial ideas and challenges.
After the After the Last Sky festival ended, an article explicitly against the festival by Johannes C. Bockenheimer was published in Der Tagesspiegel under the headline Against Israel – With Public Funds. Immediately, the festival curators responded with a statement – that has also been published on the official Facebook page of Ballhaus Naunynstrasse Theater Berlin – which reads in part: »Bockenheimer is putting the festival in a bad light with the accusation that it had been an anti-Israeli festival, in which violence against the Israeli state was allegedly advocated. These allegations were made quickly and unexpectedly by the journalist.
Based on the principles of the artistic work of the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, the curators strictly reject all forms of anti-Semitism, racism, discrimination, sexism, and violence.«
To read the full statement, please click here.
It’s worth mentioning that there was another German article about the festival under the title Gaza is Everywhere which was published in “Der Tagesspiegel” newspaper, and in the article the journalist Patrick Wildermann wrote: »(the festival) gives a unique overview of the contemporary Palestinian art scene, with protagonists from the occupied territories and the diaspora…Of course the narratives, no matter which genre, are influenced by the situation – as the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine is also named – but not that alone. With the festival, the curators Anna-Ester Younes, Pary El-Qalqili, and Nadia J. Kabalan focus on the underlying questions of exclusion, identity, and visibility of Palestinian artists in the international art scene.«