Monday, December 18 2000 02:46 21 Kislev 5761
Haifa's happy holidays
(December 17) - Given the current urgent need for a dosage of ethnic and cultural togetherness, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Holiday of Holidays Festival in Haifa is little more than a political ploy to get the people back on the recently self-deposed prime minister's side.
Nothing could be further from the facts.
For a start this will be the seventh year the annual festival has been held. And Beit Hagefen, the Jewish-Arabic cultural center responsible for the initiative, has been promoting unity between all members of our ethnic-mosaic-of-a-population, all year round for many moons now.
This weekend sees the official unveiling of the Holiday of Holidays Festival in and around Wadi Nisnas and the German Colony in Haifa.
The festivities will start at noon today and, at least in terms of the range of events laid on, it seems that the Beit Hagefen crowd have done their best to appeal to almost everybody's entertainment tastes. There will be liturgical music, jazz, clowns and other street acts, reggae and dance music for the "younger crowd," art exhibitions, an antiques fair, arts-and-crafts stalls, and events specifically for new immigrants.
Although unrelated to recent political developments across the Gilo-Beit Jala divide and elsewhere, the significance of the timing of this year's event is not lost on Beit Hagefen events manager and festival producer Rivka Bialik.
"This country, and Haifa in particular, is home to Jews, Christians, Moslems, Bahai, Druze, new immigrants, you name it," says Bialik. "Today I would say that, despite everything, Haifa is an example of successful coexistence. We try to bring people together through culture because we're not politicians."
HOWEVER, Bialik is keen to highlight the positive impact which she hopes the festival will have on the general social and ethnic climate.
"We are definitely using the festival to call on people to say 'yes' to peace, tolerance, and equality," she adds, noting that, despite its declared apolitical nature, the event is supported by the Ministries of Culture and Absorption and the Municipality of Haifa.
"We have a very special mayor [Amram Mitzna] who addresses these aspects of life."
In fact, the dates of the festival - starting today and continuing through four successive weekends - were defined by religious rather than political events. The festival spans the Hanukka, Ramadan, and Christmas seasons and the organizers hope to attract thousands of Israelis and tourists from all over the country to take part in the varied program of events.
The hub of the festival is Wadi Nisnas which, until around 20 years ago, was a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood. In time, the Jewish residents improved their socioeconomic status and moved out to more up-market areas of Haifa.
But the neighborhood has retained its multi-ethnic character and Beit Hagefen is located nearby. Many of the festival activities will be based in and around the Wadi, with an exhibition continuing until the summer of workby artists of all cultural and religious persuasions.
A central part of the Beit Hagefen manifesto is "to work to bring people together and to develop social and cultural ties with the Arab world."
A tour of the recently opened Coexistence Walk will be a major feature of the festival. Visitors will follow a route around the neighborhood which offers a view of life in the area and of the outdoor works of art which, this year, focus on the topic of children. In the words of the Coexistence Walk prospectus, the art "symbolizes the beginning of the new millennium and hope for a better future."
The Walk is designed as a socio-ethnic experience as well as an artistic one.
"You can take a map and walk along the route by day or night - the works of art are illuminated - and meet the local residents on a one-to-one basis. It's hard to walk through Wadi Nisnas without being invited in for a cup of coffee and a chat," Bialik says smiling, adding that the nature of the art exhibition is censored only by the wishes of the locals.
"We are their guests and don't want to take over their lives," she explains. "There was one artist who wanted to hang artistic carpets on a wall and she wanted to paint the wall black. However, a resident called Khalil whose balcony faced the wall said that black is a bad color so we made sure the artist used blue and other colors. Khalil died only a week later. I would have felt bad if we hadn't respected Khalil's wishes."
WADI NISNAS will also provide a stage for street acts from practically every artistic discipline. Circus performers will perform stunts while jazz and classical musicians blow, pluck, and drum their version of artistic truth to passers-by; actors will add a theatrical aspect to the parade, and various groups will sing songs in any number of languages: "All the languages we speak in this country," says Bialik.
Bargain hunters or people who like to embellish their home interior decor with some esthetics from the past will, no doubt, make a beeline for the antiques fair which will be held on all four Saturdays of the festival plus the two Fridays of Hanukka.
"Most antiques fans will find something they like there, I'm sure," Bialik says confidently.
True to its declared intent of fostering inter-ethnic peace and harmonious coexistence, the Holiday of Holidays antiques fair will play host to a dealer from unexpected and welcome quarters. Mutaz Jaweed Hammuri will bring a carload of antiques from his shop in Amman, Jordan, for the occasion.
"I will be bringing silver antiques, plates and ceramic articles and handmade oriental dresses," explained Hammuri in a telephone interview from Amman. "I really would like to bring more with me but I haven't got the room."
Hammuri's wares will add a flavor of Islamic art from "the other side," although his product range includes some surprising items from a bit closer to home - our home.
"I brought some of the silver items from Iraq and they are all Jewish," the dealer says. "They are from 60 or 70 years ago."
Hammuri will be in Haifa today and tomorrow and on each of the three Saturdays thereafter and will bring a message of hope together with his artifacts.
"I'm very glad to be coming and it would be nice to do something like this in Amman some time," he says. "Hopefully, things will settle down and it will become possible. We all hope for the best."
Beit Hagefen general manager Dr. Moti Peri has his own, somewhat humorous theory about the reason for Haifa's robust interracial health and why it is a particularly apt venue for an event that celebrates festivals of the three main monotheistic religions.
"Mohammed never came to Haifa, and neither Moses nor Jesus, so maybe there is less to fight over," he laughs. On a more serious note, Peri says the festival is a special event in the country's cultural and ethnic calendar.
"This is the most comprehensive festival we have," he declares. "In fact, it's a unique festival in global terms. There are many communities around the world with Jews, Moslems and Christians - in places like San Francisco, Toronto, Liverpool and London - and we have over 60,000 immigrants from the former Soviet republics who came here with the last wave of immigrants."
As a city which prides itself on being the most ethno-religious cosmopolitan in Israel, Haifa is using the forthcoming festival also to provide its immigrant population from the former USSR with a stage to display its cultural and artistic wares. The Russian element in the festival program - "Olei Haifa" - was initiated by Ministry of Absorption director general Boris Maftsir and applied by Lana Alter, spokesperson for the Immigrant Absorption Authority in Haifa.
"This is the first time that immigrants are taking a major role in the festival as part of Olei Haifa," says Alter. "This is really a project of cultural integration. There will be painters, musicians, singers, and actors performing during the festival."
The Holiday of Holidays program is largely an outdoor affair and there will be a parade of different artists along the Coexistence Walk route.
"There will be theatrical parades with actors and dancers, giant puppets, chamber and classical musicians, and circus performers, and the works of art on display there will also include works by Russian immigrants," Alter explains, adding that the parade will also include an art form brought here by the immigrants.
"They were responsible for introducing ballroom dancing to Israel."
Considering the significant immigrant community in Haifa, Alter feels it is high time they had a place in this unique event. "We're really pleased the Ministry of Absorption asked us to participate," she says. "The Immigrant Absorption Authority has been around for six years so it is time we joined in."
THIS YEAR'S festival program is targeted at all ages as well catering to cross-cultural tastes. Besides all the liturgical, classical, jazz, and folk concerts, the music program includes a Groove Tent located in the German Colony below the Bahai Temple's spectacularly manicured gardens. Gil Borstein, the "man-behind-the-tent," will provide mixin' and scratchin' high-energy DJ entertainment as well as several top reggae acts, including Aba Shanti from London.
"The festival is a special event so I wanted to provide something suitably different," Borstein says.
"The music will be avant garde, a sort of underground culture, like they have in lots of cities around the world where young people go to hear their own kind of music." Aba Shanti will be main foreign act, and the Groove Tent will also provide a stage for a newcomer on the local reggae scene, Camal Jamal.
"Aba Shanti is an amazing act. He was the hit of London's Notting Hill Carnival this year. And I think Camal Jamal is going to take the reggae scene in this country by storm," Borstein enthuses.
Despite the multi-ethnic nature of the festival, Borstein prefers to concentrate on the age cross-section he hopes to attract to the Groove Tent rather than addressing the racial aspect of the event.
"We want to add another cultural profile to the festival," he says. "If Moslems and Druze and Christians want to come that will be great. But with the current situation it's difficult to know who will turn up. I really hope we manage to mobilize the young community in the north that doesn't normally have access to underground culture - you only get that in Tel Aviv.
"We really want to break out of the routine a bit and give people a reason to be happy." Let's hope the bad regional vibes take a holiday and the festival fulfills its promise of oneness and harmony. Amen!
©Copyright 2000, The Jerusalem Post