RAMALLAH // It is not often Palestinians get a chance to see best- selling international artists up close and personal. Once a year, however, the Palestine International Festival offers exactly such an opportunity, and, judging by the packed outdoor venue at the Ramallah Cultural Palace on Friday, it is an opportunity people are keen not to miss. So keen, in fact, that tickets to see the popular Iraqi singer Ilham al Madfa'i, who recently signed up with Virgin Records, were oversold. The 1,500-seat venue was long filled yet people were still filing in by the time al Madfa'i and his nine-piece band took to the stage. By the time he had finished his first medley of hits, walls became temporary stands and aisles were overflowing.
In some parts, tempers flared and very Palestinian arguments broke out, particularly between one group of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who had travelled three hours to be at the concert and another group of locals. The former group, exasperated at not being seated, proclaimed it would be the last time they came to "an Arab-organised" event. The latter, annoyed at the former standing in front of them, replied in no uncertain terms that these "Israelis" should "put up and shut up".
Organisers brought out more chairs, but could have spared themselves the trouble. When al Madfa'i launched into the popular folk song, Fogh el-Nakhle (Over the palms) people were on their feet, this time dancing and singing. For the duration of the performance, indeed, many could have gone entirely without seating. With committed fans like this, it did not seem strange that al Madfa'i had long proclaimed a desire to play in Palestine. But the last time he tried, in 2005, he was denied entry by Israel.
Such obstacles are partly why organisers are so keen to emphasise that the festival is not just a run-of-the-mill song and dance festival. An annual tradition that started in 1996, it was forced into a three-year break after the start of the second intifada. It relaunched in 2005 and, in response to Israeli closures, deliberately divided into venues across the West Bank. It may be a festival of music and dance, but politics cannot be avoided.
"This festival is an affirmation that Palestinians are here to stay," said Rafiq Husseini, chief of staff for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in his opening speech. "It is an affirmation that we are determined to fight the occupation and it is confirmation of the Arabness of Jerusalem, the holy city." Some of this year's performances will be held in Jerusalem as part of its stint as Arab Capital of Culture.
Certainly, the festival is not simply entertainment, organisers say, but a form of defiance and a way to break Palestinian isolation. "The festival is a way for Palestinians to feel connected to the world," said Ruba Zaghmouri of the Popular Arts Centre, which organises the festival. "It is a way to overcome barriers and checkpoints." It is also a way for local artists to mingle and gauge themselves against Arab and international artists. This year's festival was launched on Thursday by the accomplished Palestinian dance troupe, El-Funoun and their new, very consciously Palestinian show, Images Remembered. It represented three eras of occupation under Ottoman Turks, the British and Israel, through the traditional Palestinian dabke dance.
Bookending the festival will be the French band Chico and the Gypsies, better known as the Gypsy Kings, who have played the festival before, as have Turkish dance troupe, Fire of Anatolia. Their repeat billings are a testament not only to the drawing power of the festival but the desire on behalf of established international artists to participate. And, of course, entertain. Politics will never be far away in Palestine, and entertainment is no exception. Nevertheless, said Ms Zaghmouri, "Life, even under occupation, must go on". That certainly, was a message al Madfa'i had taken to heart. Playing the crowd like the experienced showman he is, he kept the best for last and brought every single person to their feet when he launched into his best-loved hit, perhaps one with special resonance for Palestinians. It was a love song, Mali shoughoul fi souq (There is no work for me in the market). And it was sung back at him with gusto by a crowd having by then long forgotten any seating issues.