ABU DHABI // Mohammed Obaid was only seven years old when he first visited Jerusalem, his family's native city, but the experience has remained with him ever since. Mr Obaid, now 22, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi and holds a Jordanian passport, has repeatedly been denied permission by Israel to visit Jerusalem. Despite the rejections, he still applies every year.
"Jerusalem to me means the hub of religions, where peace and beauty meet," Mr Obaid said. "When I went there, it was the most fabulous place I had ever been to." Although he and his family have not been able to return, over the past few months they and many others have been given a taste of Jerusalem through events in the UAE and elsewhere honouring the city as the 2009 Arab Capital of Culture. While Palestinian artists, musicians, poets and academics have been showcased in Jerusalem and the West Bank, other countries across the Arab world and beyond are also honouring Jerusalem. In the Emirates, lectures, performances and exhibitions are taking place throughout the year in celebration of Jerusalem, or Al Quds.
"This is not about Jerusalem alone but about Arab culture in general," said Maysa Harb, the cultural attaché at the Palestinian embassy in Abu Dhabi and one of the organisers of the UAE events. "For us, it is a good opportunity to prove to the world that Al Quds is an Arab city, but for all religions - Muslims, Christians and Jews." The city is one of the holiest places for Muslims and is also home to significant Christian and Jewish sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall, one of Judaism's holiest places.
Events to mark Jerusalem as this year's Arab Capital of Culture had been scheduled to start in January, but the launch was postponed until March after Israel's 23-day bombardment of Gaza. The launch was again scuppered when Israeli authorities prevented the event from taking place in Jerusalem; organisers moved the celebrations to nearby Bethlehem. "It is so important to show our identity through our culture and to promote our Arab identity, our rights and our country," Ms Harb said. "We are in the middle of a conflict against an army, so it is good to show that we have a rich culture and [that] we should be allowed to live in peace and without occupation."
East Jerusalem has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Today, almost half of the more than 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank live in settlements in East Jerusalem. One third of the city has been expropriated for settlement activity, according to the UN, in violation of international law banning the settlement of territory seized in military conflict. Israeli authorities have also continued to restrict Palestinian development in East Jerusalem, where unemployment hovers above 10 per cent and the separation wall stifles economic and social life.
As part of the UAE events honouring Jerusalem, lectures and seminars were held on issues relating to its current social and political situation as well as to its history and cultural significance. At a talk in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Khaled, 73, a writer for the Sharjah-based Al Khaleej newspaper, focused on the Palestinian experience from 1948 up to the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. In a telephone interview, he said: "Jerusalem, of course, is very special, but it is under occupation, so functions are taking place all over the Arab world to show how important it is to every Arab."
Other events have included a traditional Palestinian wedding, in which four couples celebrated their big day together, with more than 1,000 people in attendance. In April, the Palestinian dance troupe Wishah travelled from their base in the West Bank city of Ramallah for performances in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Murad Swaiti, a Palestinian singer from Jericho in the West Bank and one of the finalists in Superstar, the Middle East's version of American Idol, also performed in Abu Dhabi. The 19-year-old's rousing performance was particularly well received, Ms Harb said.
In Al Ain, a festival showcasing that city's various communities saw Palestinian cuisine, poetry and folklore on display. According to Ms Harb, the activities will continue for the rest of the year, with events including a Palestinian fashion show and an art exhibition showcasing the work of artists from across the territories. The Palestinian embassy is also looking to host more poets, writers and high-profile figures, including Saeb Erakat, the veteran politician and former chief negotiator.
Ms Harb stressed that the events, which will be announced in the coming weeks, were not solely geared towards Palestinians or Arabs, and she encouraged people from elsewhere to attend. Next year the focus will shift from Jerusalem to Doha, the capital of Qatar, which was named the Arab Capital of Culture for 2010. Every year, Arab ministers of culture, in collaboration with the Arab League's Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation, choose a different city as the Arab Capital of Culture. Sharjah was the capital of culture for 1998.