The centre helped me learn about my Palestinian heritage. Now, it's closing.
I had known about Beit Zatoun for a long time before actually going there in person.
Being too hopeful, I didn’t think that it would ever close. But, being Toronto, Beit Zatoun is shutting down for the same reason its neighbour, Honest Ed’s, is shutting down, and pretty much the reason your favourite anything in this city is shutting down: gentrification.
The closure is both a loss as an activist space in the city and as a cultural hub for Palestinian identity.
Beit Zatoun helped me learn about my maternal family. What I got out of this place were tiny fractions of my heritage that wouldn’t have been recovered by my mother’s memory or a detailed Google search. I knew folks who were in the same boat as me, but it was a matter of finding a physical ground.
A community can work to revive lost histories and traditions, but it’s location that gathers them together.
Over the past seven years, Beit Zatoun—“House of Olive” in Arabic—has hosted over 1,000 events coming from virtually every community making up Toronto and cutting across many dimensions of identity. It worked tirelessly to create a community based on mutual awareness and building solidarity. Only 25 per cent of its events had anything to do with the Middle East and the centre was well-known in left and radical activist movements as much as it was a space for the arts, like the Shab-e She’r poetry nights.
To me, it felt like visiting the home of a relative you hadn’t seen in a decade.
While it took me forever to finally visit, I was welcomed with a quiet hospitality by way of treats when I did make the trek. And every single time after that. In fact, Beit Zatoun events were known for having bread, olive oil, za’atar to dip, coffee with cardamom, and tea with sage adorn the tables for people to consume.
Making guests feel like they were at home was the point, says founder Robert Massoud. He wanted to provide a place where discussions and connections would naturally occur after a film viewing, panel, or gallery opening.
“People come here for an experience… not to just sit at an event and leave, but to go to an event and to talk about it with those who were there.”
It was through conversing with attendees that I discovered how Palestine’s cultural foundations were dependent on its women being in charge of the oral storytelling and folklore.
How tatreez, a type of embroidery, despite being put down as a domestic hobby, was like a language amongst these women. Each textile pattern had a separate meaning. (When my mother was 14, she took it upon herself to make a blue abaya with tatreez, and had passed it onto me last year.)
It wasn’t just a place for learning, Massoud told me, but a location that also provided a sense of legitimacy for folks who wanted to know more of their own history.
Despite the large turnout from the activist and indie community, Beit Zatoun suffered from lack of support from mainstream Toronto. Big cities tend to stifle grassroots organizations, looking for entrepreneurial types of activism instead, or the type that, Massoud maintains, follows a “hipster capitalist” model.
Consider it a major setback at a time when Toronto is in need of many safe spaces for marginalized groups.
Beit Zatoun is not officially over. For now, the virtual world will be its abode via website and social media pages.
But the House of Olive won’t live in a sole spot in the future. Massoud said that instead of being a hub for events, it will now become a string of salons held at different locations. And perhaps one day, he hopes, another generation of collectives will form a new spot in the city. I hope so, too.
Beit Zatoun’s last three events:
1) 1,001 Events at Beit Zatoun – The Goodbye Party. Saturday, November 26, 6:30-10 p.m. Tickets from $20-$50.
2) Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night) XLV – Fourth Anniversary. Tuesday, November 29, 7-10 p.m. $5 at the door.
3) Reflecting on Beit Zatoun – Past and Future. Wednesday, November 30, 7-9 p.m. PWYC at the door.