Israeli authorities denied entry to Hazem Shaheen, the oud master, singer and founder of Egypt's well known independent band Eskenderella, as well as Jordanian musician Maen El-Sayed, ahead of their scheduled participation in this year’s Palestine International Festival for Music and Dance (PIF) which runs between 27 July and 8 August.
“The Israeli occupation refused to allow Shaheen into Palestine. Eskendrella’s concert(s) is cancelled, but this only makes us stronger and more confident that we are on the right path,” read a statement published by the band, who are staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause, via their Facebook page in the early hours of Friday.
For their part, organisers of PIF wrote on Facebook that refusing to grant Shaheen and El-Sayed entry to Palestine “only affirms the importance of raising the issue of freedom of movement, which was selected as the theme of our upcoming edition.”
The band was preparing for two concerts that would have been part of this year's edition of PIF.
Eskenderella's first concert was scheduled for 1 August at the Ramallah Cultural Palace, and was to be followed by a second concert on 4 August at the Jenin Secondary School for Boys.
“All members received their permits except for Hazem and Maen. There was a major delay but we were optimistic hoping the missing permits would arrive at the last minute,” asserted Salma Haddad, one of Eskenderella’s vocalists, in a phone conversation with Ahram Online.
The optimism was well-founded, especially with precedents of artists who received their entry permits days, and sometimes only one day, before their scheduled concerts in Palestine.
According to Haddad, one example, which also involves Maen El-Sayed, was a 2011 concert by Egyptian singer Iman Al-Bahr Darwish, when all troupe members received their permits well in time before the scheduled concert, except for Darwish and El-Sayed who received their permits one day before the concert.
“What can I say? It’s not about me. I’m devastated about and for Palestine. We tend to forget or get used to the fact that Palestine is under occupation but the truth is that the occupation is ongoing and continues to stifle Palestinian people,” Shaheen said of the decision in a phone conversation with Ahram Online.
As Shaheen proceeded to explain, refusing to grant him entry implies two things: “First, that the occupation is ongoing, especially for those who somehow have become accustomed to its presence; and secondly, that art is powerful, that it speaks to people, and that when it does, it is rejected.”
This isn’t the first such incident for the festival. In past editions, Syrian singer Lena Chamamyan and Tunisian singer and song-writer Emel Mathlouthi were refused entry.
Speaking to Sharaf Dar Zaid, the general coordinator of PIF, he stressed the commitment of the Popular Art Centre, the festival's organiser, to the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, adding that the centre is a “promoter of the BDS campaign and that it also partially contributed to the drafting of the campaign’s guidelines for the boycott of Israel.
"According to these guidelines," Dar Zaid added, “it is acceptable to grant Arabs’ entry into Palestine through permits issued by the General Authority of Civil Affairs,” which operates under the Palestinian National Authority.
“But unfortunately, the Israeli occupation authorities must ratify the issued permits,” added DarZaid who stressed that the centre does not apply for visas issued by Israeli embassies in the Arab countries, because this would constitute an act of normalisation with Israel.
According to Dar Zaid, while the centre has no information regarding why Shaheen and El-Sayed were denied entry, rejections are usually made based on security concerns.
Eskenderella's participation in this year's PIF would have marked the band's second performance in Palestine, following a 2012 concert in Gaza as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), an annual literary festival founded in 2008 “with the aim of supporting cultural life in Palestine, breaking the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation and strengthening cultural links between Palestine and the rest of the world,” reads the description section on the festival’s Facebook page.
Founded in 2005 by oud master and singer Hazem Shaheen, Eskenderella started playing in underground venues in Egypt before they became widely recognised, “shifting between revivals of the nation's classic tunes and ventures into new compositions,” according to their Facebook page.
Some of Eskenderella’s inspirations include famous Egyptian musicians Sayyed Darwish and Sheikh Imam as well as colloquial poets Salah Jaheen, Fouad Haddad, Ahmed Fouad Negm and Amin Haddad.
This year’s edition of PIF will feature concerts by an array of established musicians and bands, including the British-Palestinian band 47SOUL, Sweden-based Tarabband, as well as Tunisian musician Ghalia Benali.
The festival was founded in 1993 to help overcome the cultural siege imposed by Israel over Palestine, inviting artists from around the world to visit the occupied territories and offer music and dance.
PIF came to a halt between 2000 and 2005 due to the “strenuous political and economic situation.”
However, as of 2005, the festival came back stronger, expanding to host its events in cities and refugee camps across the West Bank.
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