A shattered Gaza dominates cultural debate in a shocked Arab world

War and violence are breathing new life into old grievances. It has always been the job of art and culture to help make sense of what we see. Is it still a reliable guide in this tumultuous world? 

A woman holding a girl reacts after Israeli air strikes hit Ridwan neighbourhood of Gaza City, Gaza on October 23, 2023
A woman holding a girl reacts after Israeli air strikes hit Ridwan neighbourhood of Gaza City, Gaza on October 23, 2023

A shattered Gaza dominates cultural debate in a shocked Arab world

Beirut: The year 2023 gave us very little to celebrate. It will be remembered for the violence, anger, resentment, and destruction it brought us, but will it be understood?

We see – and make sense of – the world through art, literature, poetry, stories, theatre, song, and all manner of other cultural media, yet this is not a given. Has the world of art and literature kept pace with events? What can the creativity, prose, and screenings of the cultural scene say about the state of the world today?

In 2023, the Middle East erupted (or continued erupting) in several places, most notably in Israel and Gaza and in neighbouring Lebanon, where animosity towards Syrian refugees boiled over. How did those who define the culture of our times react?

Making sense of Gaza

Last year’s most shocking turn of events took place in the early hours of 7 October, when Hamas caught Israel off-guard. Its fighters broke through the fence (or flew over it), penetrated civilian settlements and military outposts surrounding Gaza, killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and soldiers, and took another 240 hostages.

For 16 years, the Gaza Strip had been an open-air prison. Before that, it was an occupied expanse of land that more than two million Palestinians call home.

Since 2007, the Islamist military organisation Hamas — labelled as a terrorist group in Europe and the US — has ruled the Gaza Strip. It manages the allocation of international aid, a lifeline for many Gazans, amidst the constraints of the Israeli blockade.

Retaliating against Hamas’s surprise offensive, Israel’s reaction was to neutralise around 1,000 attackers and then initiate a military campaign in Gaza with the mission of obliterating Hamas, both above ground and in underground tunnels, shelters, and hideouts.

Leaders and military figures in Israel — the only occupier and settler in today’s world — took their mission statement to the next level, brazenly voicing their determination to wipe Gaza off the map entirely. Not even the slightest distinction was made between Hamas and the rest of the population.

Israeli army soldiers are positioned with their Merkava tanks near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on October 9, 2023.

Before launching its ground assault on Gaza in a bid to displace residents into the Egyptian Sinai Desert, the Israeli army unleashed an indiscriminate barrage of rockets without differentiating between armed combatants and unarmed civilians.

In the “free world”, the narrative unfolded in a series of political incantations. The mantra of “Israel’s right to self-defence” was echoed across capitals, with no mind paid to the unsettling sacrifice of Palestinian civilians in pursuit of Hamas.

That Israel permitted settlers and ultra-right Jews in the Occupied West Bank to demolish homes, seize land, build settlements, and exercise lethal force at will for decades seems to have either been forgotten or ignored by these Western leaders.

How convenient.

With the wool pulled tightly over its eyes, the world did not — or would not — see the Gaza tragedy unfolding. Amid the sound of bombs dropping and buildings crashing, a deafening silence prevailed, save for the occasional chant of “terrorism”, which appears to have become a totemic magic word.

With the wool pulled tightly over its eyes, the world did not — or would not — see the Gaza tragedy unfolding. Amid the sound of bombs dropping and buildings crashing, a deafening silence prevailed.

In the international political lexicon, however, any talk of 'terrorism' now gets filed under empty incantations or flimsy definitions of the horrors unfolding in our world every day, not least the plight of the Palestinians.

Against that political and military backdrop, can literary and artistic expression, coupled with grassroots political thought, pull the blindfold from the world's eyes and authentically mirror the reality of our times?

The doors that remain open

On 11 July 2023, the world said goodbye to Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera. In his twilight, weathered by time, enriched with fatalistic wisdom, and adorned with a touch of cynical satire, he produced his last novel, The Festival of Insignificance.

Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera in Milan.

In it, he encapsulates his perspective. "We've known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, reshape it, or head off its dangerous headlong rush. There's been only one possible resistance: not to take it seriously."

Likewise, Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun captured the mood. "And I say goodbye to these stones that have begun to decay, blackening all at once," he once wrote.

"Rain falls without a care upon this life of mine, always lit like a jail cell. I leave it now, where only the door remains to me… I am no longer the gardener of my life. I leave it for new tenants and friends who earned it with their betrayals."

Amid the devastating Palestinian tragedy in Gaza, poet Samer Abou Hawwach put into words what many felt.

"It no longer matters if anyone loves us," he wrote. "The love of the great angel in his bright white sky is enough… Our lives have been jaded by this rock we carry on our backs, this eternal curse we carry from abyss to abyss, from death to death, without ever arriving."

On 29 October, as war in Gaza raged, Lebanese historian and writer  Ahmed Beydoun wrote on Facebook: "I clung to silence here for over two months. At first, it was the weariness and tedium, but this month, it is because of frustration and dismay." 

A decade ago, he wrote that "Palestinians will do anything to stop what is happening to them, whether by means of a carefully crafted plan or an improvised policy… The neighbouring regions will not be spared from the Palestinians' actions, and those who claim the Palestinian cause has concluded will find it alive and well". 

He continued: "They will likely assert that the Palestinians are mistaken in what they are doing. They will likely be right in that assertion. Yet, the Palestinians will not relent, persisting in their alleged misstep however far they can get." 

"It is the easiest and rightest thing to tell them they are wrong; it is the cruellest thing not to tell them what is right. Someone tell them, at the very least, that rightness is dead!"

It no longer matters if anyone loves us. The love of the great angel in his bright white sky is enough.

Samer Abou Hawwach, Palestinian poet

Neurotic philosemitism

After the Hamas attack, an unprecedented surge of neurotic love unfurled from Western governments towards their Jewish communities and the state of Israel. This obsession persisted even as Israel turned the Gaza Strip into dusty ruins (at the time of writing, Israeli forces had killed more than 20,000, almost half of them children). 

A Palestinian child watches as smoke billows on the horizon after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on October 13, 2023.

Nowhere is this philosemitism as extreme as it is in Germany, which many believe still seeks redemption for its Nazi sins. In 2008, former chancellor Angela Merkel told the Israeli Knesset that "Israel is a German national interest".

But amidst the clamour to support Israel, some voices in Germany have questioned the prevailing orthodoxy.

Among them is Susan Neiman, a Jewish American writer and philosopher living there. 

On 19 October, she published an article in The New York Review of Books titled 'Historical Reckoning Gone Haywire'. In it, she said German efforts to address its genocidal Nazi past had in recent years morphed into a kind of "philosemitic McCarthyism" that sees Jews as "eternal victims". 

This, says Neiman, is threatening the rich cultural fabric of Germany, where dozens of Palestinian, Arab, Islamic, and even German voices and events have been cancelled under the pretext of "inciting antisemitism".

This neurotic philosemitism is even seen in language. The terms 'Holocaust' and 'antisemitism' have been removed from historical context and elevated above the realms of history and society. As words, they now seem to exist beyond space and time – eternal, absolute, untouchable. 

However, it is well-established that these terms and the historical events they represent stem from Europe's modern history and culture. They would not have entered Arab and Islamic history and culture were it not for Western cultural influence.

Germans, Israel, and the past

Neiman appreciates the unique narrative of post-war Germany, shaped by the acknowledgement of the devastating crimes it committed against humanity. Germany recognises that Nazi aggression drove the world to war and to the harrowing Holocaust, where millions of Jews perished. A need for redemption haunted the nation.

Germany bearing the burdens of the defeat in 1918 was a partial driver for the rise of Nazism, so Germans "cultivated a narrative that cast them as the war's prime victims," according to Neiman. 
Contrary to the usual tales of glory, heroism, romance, and rhetoric, Germany shaped a unique national narrative that veers between two opposites. 

On the one hand, it paints itself as a victim whose emergence from victimhood was marked by horrendous Nazi crimes. On the other, it undertakes an obsessive quest for absolution from those crimes. 

Some say that this desire for atonement pushed the German narrative even further. No longer were Germans merely 'perpetrators' — their entire country was the guilty nation. 

Has this historical reckoning reached a point of hysteria?

Some say it has and that the national German urge to right the wrongs of the past may now be expressing itself as support for Israel regardless of what Israel does. Many in Germany are, therefore, careful to categorise Israel's actions in Gaza as "self-defence". 

In the arts, some fear that the push to purge Germany of antisemitism may have gone too far, with increased censorship of cultural and artistic expression. Neiman thinks that Germany's fixation with its past may hinder its clear thinking in the present. 

According to Emily Dische-Becker, the Jewish director of the German branch of the Diaspora Alliance, Germany wanted the State of Israel to be "the happy ending to the Holocaust". Anyone who deviates from that party line is, therefore, antisemitic.

German efforts to address its genocidal Nazi past had, in recent years, morphed into a kind of "philosemitic McCarthyism" that sees Jews as "eternal victims".

Susan Neiman, a Jewish American writer

US love of guns keeps killing

To understand Israel today, it helps to understand both the US-Israel relationship and their respective grievances, while to understand our world of increasing violence, it helps to understand US gun culture. 

Within hours of the 7 October attacks, US President Joe Biden was planning his visit to Israel, which, he said, "must again be a safe place for Jewish people". He added: "If there were not an Israel, we'd have to invent one." 

The words of Biden shed light on why some hold such animosity towards America, to the extent that they become capable of atrocity on the scale of Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks. They might say that their hatred for the Americans matches the love in the US for Israel, which humiliates and harms its opponents and has done since the foundation of Israel. 

On that note, Paul Auster's book Bloodbath Nation, published in March 2023, delves into the issue of gun violence in the US, where there is a unique culture of firearm possession, with over 393 million registered guns — more than one per adult.

More than 40,000 Americans die every year from being shot — that's as many as are killed on the roads. What makes this the most violent country in the Western world, Auster asks? While he meets the victims, photographer Spencer Ostrander captures crime scenes and aftermaths. 

Ostrander lost several friends within a few months, some to drink-driving, some to drug overdoses, and others to suicide, so for him, this project was a form of mourning and a way to document the shootings that shook the US and ensure they remain etched in the American collective memory.

Auster thinks that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution — the right to bear arms - is a legacy of the White colonisation of America, the massacres of Native Americans, and the economic prosperity derived from slavery. 

In White America, the rifle symbolises supremacy, independence, and macho masculinity, he argues. Yet, as he discovers by speaking to people, the shooters are often described by neighbours and family as quiet, gentle, kind — and loners. 

Gun violence is still a hot topic, having polarised American society for years. While some campaign for gun control, the National Rifle Association (NRA) defends gun ownership as intrinsic to "American patriotism" and intricately tied to the history of independence and victory over indigenous peoples.

So, are there any parallels between gun-owning, gun-toting America and the Jewish settler state that still routinely kills Palestinians and seizes their land?

Ailments of the Levant societies

Back to the Middle East and Lebanon — a country hit hard by an economic collapse in 2019, whose rulers now seek to cast the blame on Syrian refugees in the country, of which there are around 1.5 million. 

Syrians have been escaping Bashar al-Assad's regime since a brutal civil war erupted after the Arab Spring, flocking to Lebanon's northern and eastern borders to seek shelter in their neighbour's land. Most planned to leave for Europe, especially Germany, but while many did, hundreds of thousands stayed to seek work.

Yet Lebanon already had myriad problems of its own, mostly of its own making. Economic mismanagement topped the list, closely followed by the influence of Iranian proxy Hezbollah on the country.

Grappling with these crises, Lebanon's rival political voices found vulnerable Syrian refugees a target for their rage. In short, they found someone to blame. Comments from politicians, followed by deportations of thousands back to Syria, lit the touchpaper. 

Lebanon and Syria have a complex past. Former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad once infamously claimed that "Lebanon and Syria are one people in two nations". It served his purpose - his army had invaded Lebanon, subjecting it to dominion. 

An oft-heard criticism is that the Lebanese treat Syrian workers and refugees with disdain, exploiting them for cheap labour in menial jobs while subjecting them to societal contempt. 

Although politicians may have spoken about "brotherhood and cooperation between fraternal peoples", on the street this has been a toxic relationship that deteriorated when Lebanon's currency sank. 

As international aid groups waded in to give Syrian refugees aid in foreign currency, it made matters worse, stirring resentment and envy among the impoverished Lebanese. Eventually, this erupted into violence towards the end of the summer of 2023. 

It began in Christian areas, where former President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil have built a political platform based on ethnic, racial, and religious grievances and animosities. 

Aoun's movement falsely claimed that the Syrian refugee influx had been the cause of Lebanon's fragmentation and impoverishment. Syrians soon faced a backlash, which only halted when Israel began bombing Gaza in retaliation.

Like the Palestinians, who are torn between rival factions such as Fatah and Hamas, the Lebanese are also splintered, immersed in internal grievances and conflicts until an external threat suddenly snaps them out of it. 

When internal and external threats collide, the result is hybrid proxy civil wars, usually involving Iran's proxies in Iraq (Popular Mobilisation Forces), Syria (Bashar al-Assad's regime), Lebanon (Hezbollah), and Yemen (Houthi group Ansar Allah).

Between exile, Damascus, and Cairo

Egypt, whose president has just been re-elected with almost 90% of the vote, remains cohesive but economically strained. Meanwhile, few Egyptians are brave enough to criticise the ruling regime, which casts a shadow over arts and culture.

By contrast, European and American intellectuals, artists, and cultural figures have been free to vehemently oppose their governments' attempts to shield Israel from criticism over Gaza. Arab elites living in Europe have joined them, navigating censorship hurdles and even reaching out to anti-Zionist European Jews. 

Palestinian writers and artists long settled in Europe and America have emerged as the most dynamic voices protesting Israeli propaganda that seeks to recast the perpetrators of war crimes as victims.

In Syria, meanwhile, many free thinkers still feel shaken to the core by the untimely death in late September 2023 of Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, known as the "Voice of the Syrian tragedy" during the stifled revolution, especially in his novels In Praise of Hatred, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, and Death Is Hard Work. 

Writer Khaled Khalifa speaks during an interview with AFP at his home in the Syrian capital Damascus on June 2, 2020.

Read more: Khaled Khalifa: The extraordinary novelist who captured Syria's tragedy

Barely two months later, Egyptian writer and novelist Abdo Jubeir — one of a newer generation of Egyptian novelists who rose to fame in the 1970s — also passed away. His notable works include Stirring the Heart and The Way of the Individual trilogy. 

Jubeir recounted his experiences in Cairo's student movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, vividly narrated by the late writer Arwa Saleh in The Stillborn. 

Palestinian writers and artists long settled in Europe and America have emerged as the most dynamic voices protesting Israeli propaganda that seeks to recast the perpetrators of war crimes as victims.

Arabic novels and literary accolades

In the realm of Arabic literature, novels have played a significant role in the last 20 years. Some argue novels only flourished in Lebanon in war, with poetry otherwise being of paramount importance in Arab intellectual circles. 

In Egypt, myriad new novelists emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, an era in which Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

In the thriving literary landscape of the Levant and Gulf regions, notably in Saudi Arabia, poetry has taken a back seat in the cultural landscape. Many modern poets, once pioneers of the post-modern era, have shifted their focus to writing novels. 

Three key factors likely fuelled the density and expansion of Arab novel writing. First is Mahfouz's Nobel win — the first Arab writer to receive such global recognition.  

Second is the growing demand for translations of Arabic novels after 9/11, with European cultures suddenly eager to understand Arab and Islamic societies. 

Third is the proliferation of literary awards presented to novelists by cultural forums and institutions in Europe, Arab Gulf countries, and Egypt, most notably the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, established 16 years ago.

In 2023, Omani novelist and poet Zahran Alqasmi won the prize for his novel The Water Diviner. He had published ten poetry collections before venturing into novels. 

His book examines the social dimensions of irrigation systems and agricultural practices in an Omani rural community. Alqasmi sought to move away from "politically and historically-charged novels in favour of delving into the details of ordinary human life."

Read more: Why Omani novelist Zahran Alqasmi tells the stories of ordinary people

In early October, Lebanese novelist Rashid Al-Daif was awarded the Mohamed Zafzaf Prize for Arabic Novel at the International Cultural Festival of Assilah in recognition of his literary legacy that spans four decades.

On a global scale, this year's Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Norwegian Jon Fosse, a poet before becoming a playwright and novelist. As a result, Fosse masterfully fuses nuanced and succinct narratives with theatrical dialogues and poetic undertones.

In another remarkable acknowledgement this year, French-Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf was named the Perpetual Secretary of the Académie Française, France's most venerable cultural institution. 

Some see this honour as a form of glorified appreciation sought by French cultural circles for contributors from abroad, especially Lebanon, which is known for its Francophone elite, but Maalouf's record speaks for itself — his historical novels have been translated across the globe.

Saudi cinema comes of age

Beyond page and print, a new artistic wave is sweeping through the Arab world with the rise of Saudi cinema in 2023. This is surprising because the Kingdom's cinematic journey only began in 2018, two years after the launch of its Vision 2030 reforms 

When the AMC cinema screen at the King Abdullah Financial Centre in Riyadh lit up for the first time in two decades, it marked the return of film screenings to the Saudi capital. It signalled a pivotal moment in the Kingdom's cultural transformation.

According to 2023 figures, 56 movie theatres have opened across 20 Saudi cities, with 518 screens. These cinemas have screened 1,144 films in 22 languages from 38 countries, including 22 Saudi films. Box office sales reached 31mn riyals, now employing 5,000. 

The cinematic landscape saw significant developments with the establishment of the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah in 2021, following the creation of the Ministry of Culture's Film Commission in 2020. 

Jury members pose for the Closing Night Gala Awards at the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 08, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Saudi Arabia's cinematic credentials on display at Red Sea Film Festival

The Commission aimed to position Saudi Arabia as a global hub for film production in the Middle East and host filmmaking projects that appeal to local, Arab, and international audiences. 

Indeed, in 2022, eight Saudi films and three Hollywood productions were filmed in the Kingdom. The Kurrasat Cinema Film Review magazine was also launched that year, coinciding with the eighth edition of the Saudi Film Festival.

This year, Saudi cinema experienced remarkable growth. Among these were the inaugural Film Criticism Forum and the launch of youth training programmes, educational initiatives, and production support through collaborations between Korean and Saudi companies to advance cinematic and cultural production. 

The Red Sea Fund, dedicated to supporting film projects, backed 33 initiatives this year, benefiting over 18 feature and short films with a total support value of 40mn riyals from the Film Commission. 

The first edition of the Saudi Film Forum in 2023 also brought together a distinguished group of Arab and international film industry professionals, with over 100 experts and 50 speakers participating, alongside executive directors and investors in the cinema sector.

In the realm of artistic accomplishments, a noteworthy highlight was the impactful presence of women. At Effat University of Arts for Women in Jeddah, which provides educational programmes in cinematic arts, over 150 accomplished women graduated in 2023. 

Studies and statistics have revealed that Saudi women have a profound passion for cinema. A testament to this fervour is the emergence of five Saudi female directors, some of whom were nominated for prestigious international awards in the cinematic arts.

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