A year in the life of Beit Zatoun

Opening night at Beit Zatoun in Toronto on Jan. 2010.

Beit Zatoun, the Toronto art space and cultural centre dedicated to Palestine, is a year old.

It opened its doors on January 30, 2010 for its first event, "Seven Days from a Gaza Diary," a performance for three female voices based on the diary kept by a young Palestinian woman during the invasion of Gaza, 12 months earlier in 2009. That night it was to be followed by piano improvisation by Toronto pianist, John Kameel Farah. And we -- the organizers -- held our breath, looking out our window mesmerized by the lights adorning our famous neighbour, Honest Ed's bargain store, wondering -- would anyone come to our evening? Could Beit Zatoun work?

The idea of a downtown art space and cultural centre with a focus on bringing people together to learn and have conversations around the many dimensions of Palestine's history, culture, and struggles against occupation had been in our minds for a while. We wanted a place where film, art, music, poetry, photography, workshops, book launches and talks would help humanize the Palestinians, provide an experience of the other and a better understanding of the issues facing Palestine. We saw it as bringing a different dimension to the solidarity work already being done in Toronto around Palestine.

Those involved had a history of activism around Palestine and had met each other through work with Zatoun, the Canadian non-profit organization that imports Fairtrade olive oil and other items from Palestine, and Project Hope, a Canadian-Palestinian NGO which works to bring art as therapy programs with children and youth in the West Bank, principally in the refugee camps of Nablus.

We wanted a centre which was also concerned with other issues of social justice within Canada and internationally. And we wanted to build links between various struggles and communities, and in doing so build a greater appreciation of the universality of the struggle for justice and peace in Palestine.

With seed money from Zatoun we were able to rent a beautiful space in Mirvish Village on Markham Street steps from the Bathurst subway station. We spent a month cleaning, painting, establishing an office, and buying chairs and tables and projection and audio equipment. And then we planned our first events, tried to spread the word through friends and listservs, and then waited.

Then came the night of the Gaza event. First just a few people showed and then in a lineup outside the door and soon we were scrambling to put out more chairs and stools. They came, they stayed; some wept, and everyone appreciated what they had just been part of. Afterwards they stayed around, to chat and to sample what has become Beit Zatoun's signature treats of coffee with cardamom, decaf tea with sage, pomegranate punch and bread for dipping in Zatoun olive oil and za'atar (herb mix). And they talked and argued and also proposed future events.

In the 12 months since, over 70 events have been held at Beit Zatoun, ranging from anarchist punk to book launches, from classical oud music to poetry festivals, from workshops to films, from art installations to fundraisers.

Our focus has been Palestine and we have attempted to explore some of the history, culture, and struggles of the Palestinian people, including those in the Diaspora. Beit Zatoun has celebrated the life and work of the poet, Mahmoud Darwish, marked the anniversary of the Nakba ("catastrophe"), commemorated the massacres in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, launched a Palestinian graphic novel and a host of other books, shown films about women in Palestine, held discussions about queer Arab issues, hosted a fundraiser for the Boat to Gaza and much more. Some events have been packed and raucous, others smaller and more contemplative. After every event people stay to drink tea, eat bread with oil and za'atar, and talk about justice work and solidarity across the many issues.

The range of groups and communities who have been part of Beit Zatoun has astounded us -- there have been a number of First Nations' films, discussions and a variety show, a brilliant Filipino art installation, Bolivian wall hangings. Latin American Harp music, Persian New Year celebration, Bengali poetry and much more. All events are archived on the website.

There have been some miscues. In trying to do a lot we sometimes fumble a bit, don't hit the right note or miss things. But, overall, we're pleasantly stunned by the welcome Beit Zatoun has received and the place it has come to occupy in the grassroots community. And we're getting better and developing a clearer vision of what Beit Zatoun is and what it can be.

In our second year, we hope to have an offering that is more fully developed and more assured but still retain the freshness of the grassroots. We look to deepen our relationships with existing communities and invite new ones. We will experiment with new mediums and novel ideas and innovative collaborations. The beauty of Beit Zatoun is that it is independent, unaligned and community-supported. We bring what enriches the community, inspired by the community.

Old and new friends are invited to the First Anniversary Open House on Saturday, February 5 from 6:30 - 11:00 p.m. Guests will be entertained and delighted by our many talented and generous performers:

• Sarv Ensemble, Persian traditional instruments

• Zainab Amadhy and Bonita Lawrence, First Nations traditional drumming

• Karim Sultan, oud

• Joseph Maviglia, accompanied poetry

• Suleiman Warwar, Middle Eastern percussion and oud

• Sheniz Janmohamed, ghazals (Indo-Perso-Arab poetry)

• Maryem Hassan Tollar and Roula Said, Middle Eastern music

You are invited to become a part of Beit Zatoun. Come to our events and bring your friends and family members. Link to Beit Zatoun facebook. Write, blog, speak about us for your community, union, student newspaper. Our beautiful, warm space can be rented -- for book launches, films, concerts, art exhibitions, talks, readings, and so on. Rental is a vital source of income helping to make us self-sustaining. Beit Zatoun also has a small shop where Zatoun products and other Fairtrade items, and hard to find books, calendars and DVDs, can be purchased. Experience the welcome and warmth of the Beit Zatoun community.

Meet you at Beit Zatoun!:
Address: 612 Markham Street, one door south of Bloor -- at Bathurst subway.
Phone: 647-726-9500


Visit for News and Events visit the website of join the Facebook page.

Robert Massoud is the founder of Zatoun and Beit Zatoun. He devotes much of his time and energy to creating opportunities for people to meet virtually or in person to experience the culture, history and being of the other so that greater appreciation and understanding may lead to justice and peace.

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