'The Salvation Army insisted on seeing a purely cultural event with political eyes and then complained that the event was political," says Manal Swairjo, co-organizer of the concert featuring Lebanese oud (Arabic lute) composer Marcel Khalifé. The concert was scheduled to take place at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre at the Salvation Army Corps Community Center. After six months of organizing and four days before the contract was to be signed, the Salvation Army rejected Swairjo's application to use the center as a venue. "We have no problem with objections or precautions," says Swairjo. "We're always open to dialoguing. What was most disheartening was the preemptive judgment. There was an initial prejudice existing against our advocacy."
The Salvation Army objected not to the performer, who is a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Artist for Peace, but to the organization presenting him. Swairjo, a professor of biochemistry at Western University in Pomona, is active in the Arab-American community -- she advises San Diego's chief of police in this regard and is the cultural coordinator for Al-Awda, the "Palestine Right to Return Coalition."
According to Swairjo, planning for the concert began in January 2007. In February the center's theater manager accepted a $500 cash deposit and instructed Swairjo she need only pay the rest of the rental fee and submit proof of insurance for the concert to proceed. On July 31, when Swairjo's partner contacted the theater manager to request a seating chart, he was sent a rental application form and informed that it must be filled out to "formalize" the rental contract.
"[The theater manager] e-mailed my partner, saying that they were declining our application without any explanation and referred him to the Salvation Army captain John Van Cleef. He called Mr. Van Cleef and asked for an explanation. Mr. Van Cleef argued that the event was unbalanced and divisive. When he was asked to explain more explicitly, he said it was unbalanced because it didn't include an Israeli performer and that it will upset certain people. When asked what people, [Van Cleef] said the Jewish community in San Diego. Many of us are Jews in our organization."
Van Cleef communicated the center's stance to me via e-mail. "The single-focus agenda of Al-Awda placed the Army in a position that could be misunderstood as taking a political stand on a sensitive issue." He says Swairjo's claim that the center insisted that a Jewish performer be included onstage is false.
"Instead of giving us credit for hosting these artists and having someone like Marcel, who is an advocate for peace, he made a whole concert discredited or not qualified to be in his venue because of our advocacy," argues Swairjo. "It's not professional or respectful -- it's discriminatory. They are no doubt having constant cultural functions, and never did they require any one community to be inclusive of the rest."
When asked to explain what it is about Al-Awda that might cause divisiveness, Van Cleef points to the section of Al-Awda's mission statement that reads, "Al-Awda unequivocally supports the fundamental, inalienable, individual, and collective rights of all Palestinian refugees to return to their original towns, villages, and lands anywhere in Palestine from which they were expelled." The implications of such an agenda, he states, "speak to a broad, historic, sensitive, and political issue. The Salvation Army -- an apolitical organization -- does not want to be misunderstood as having taken one side or the other."
"Al-Awda is basically a human rights organization," Swairjo explains. "It advocates for Palestinian refugees of war and calls for universal human rights. Several significant members of the Jewish community are involved with Al-Awda because they understand that the right of Palestinian return is essential for any peace. Just like Amnesty International works on politically controversial issues, like the rights of political prisoners, doesn't mean Amnesty International is a political organization."
According to Van Cleef, the Salvation Army directed the concert organizers to other "suitable" venues. Four weeks after being rejected by the center, the concert was rescheduled to take place at the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre. "We were more explicit this time and asked early enough for an application," says Swairjo. "But we had to start from scratch -- print tickets again, do advertising, flyers, and posters. It was a lot of work and cost." -- Barbarella
Marcel Khalifé and the Al Mayadine Ensemble
Sunday, October 14
Birch North Park Theatre
2891 University Ave
Cost: $35 to $100
Info: 619-239-8836 or www.birchnorthparktheatre.net