We deserve a better death.
Our bodies are disfigured and twisted, embroidered with bullets and shrapnel.
– Musab Abo Toha, from his collection ‘Save Gaza’.
Like a puzzle, each verse of this poem fits together to tell the brutal history of the Palestinian people.
Circa 1948, the nakba, is embedded in the Palestinian memory as a time of violence and displacement when 480 villages were destroyed and snatched by Israel. Evicted from their homes and farms, never to return to their ancestral homes, the displacement continues to this day. Poets and artists recall the tragedy of the nakba with nostalgic images of an unforgettable loss of lives and land. Sliman Mansour a leading artist, widely known as the “Artist of the Intifada” focuses on narratives of living under constant military occupation. His other concern is the threatened cultural identity of his people, as they are turned into global nomads.
Art Historian Samia Halaby explains how Palestinian artists work despite challenges that are particular to their situation. They cannot even take their studio space for granted, its destruction and re-establishment are often a never-ending cycle of moving homes, cities and countries. Their works are confiscated by Israeli authorities— frequently censored, with artists being detained and tortured for their ideas. They are prevented from setting up artists’ organizations; exhibitions are disrupted, and artists are forced to live under constant surveillance. A question often posed by the artists, poets and writers is, how can the world forget their plight, particularly the Arab states. A famous short novel by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun, speaks of the Palestinian struggle and the unconscionable neglect of the international community.
Our names are pronounced incorrectly on the radio and TV.
Our photos, plastered onto the walls of our buildings, fade and grow pale.
Palestinians are constantly under pressure to move as their territory is increasingly occupied, access to Jerusalem has become limited, Gaza and West Bank are now splintered spaces. Further divided by a 708 kilometers long wall, Israel’s tool of apartheid, this widely condemned barrier has yet to be removed. The wall is further used to humiliate and dehumanize Palestinians on a daily basis, with delays and searches at checkpoints. Subverting this concrete weapon, the artists have turned the wall into an album of Palestine ‘s brutal history and their courageous resistance for the world to see. Heroes like Leila Khalid, the famous freedom fighter, are celebrated here and have a place next to images of everyday experiences like arrests and torture by the occupiers. Harassment and violence against children is a reoccurring theme in the art. Poignant are the windows painted on to the wall that open into imagined serene landscapes and scenes from everyday life of living in peace. Murals of solidarity by artists from across the world populate the wall, the famous graffiti artist, Banksy has left behind an image. An ironic image that makes you smile, is one of a little girl in a pretty flared dress, body searching an Israeli soldier.
The inscriptions on our gravestones disappear, covered in the feces of birds and reptiles.
Two globally recognized, contemporary Palestinian artists Mona Hatoum and Emily Jacer produce provocative works to spotlight deep trauma of the on-going destruction of Palestine. In August this year, I saw Measures of Distance (1988) at the show Being and Belonging showcased at the Royal Ontario Museum. The 15-minute-long video is a work based on letters sent to the artist in London, by her mother from Beirut, during the civil war. The scrolling text of the letters in Arabic form a kind of translucent shower curtain that conceals the figure of her mother, who is shown taking a bath. The artist reads a translation of the content of the letters and in her voice you hear about everyday matters, separation, longing and family relationships. The video lets the audience into a space of intimacy and vulnerability where they slowly become aware of lives torn by conflict, exile and loss.
No one waters the plants that give shade to our graves
The blazing sun has overwhelmed our rotting bodies
Emily Jacer, Palestinian artist and Professor at The International Academy of Art, Ramallah, won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale (2007) for her work titled Material for a Film based on the famous Palestinian writer Wael Zuaiter, who was murdered by the Israeli secret service in Rome. Her installation allows the visitor to walk through texts, short videos and photographs as an introduction to the writer’s life, work and contribution that brutally ended by a state sanctioned crime. I still remember her project on Arabic books at Documenta some years ago. She made metal replicas of books looted from Palestinian homes and institutions that are now housed in the Israeli National Library as ‘abandoned property’. Displayed on bookshelves of a congested space, Jacer humanizes their embedded history by documenting personal inscriptions on the books, names, side notes even bookmarks left by the owners. This remarkable project highlights another dimension of the destruction and theft of knowledge in Palestine. For the 2009 Venice Biennale which was organized under the thematic All the World Futures, Jacer’s research-based work was censored and disallowed. To underline the centuries of entwined history of Venice and the Arab world, she wanted to exhibit the name of each ‘Vaparetto’ (water bus) stop in Arabic, along with the Italian one. When at the last minute the project was cancelled by the authorities, without giving a reason, the artist went ahead and distributed the brochure she had created to explain the context and give visibility to an absent project.
It’s never easy to share the Palestinian side of the story, vested interests and powerful players that support the Israeli occupation are ready to block its path. The strongest weapon against this, for the last 7 decades, has been the Palestinians’ will to resist the takeover of their homeland. With the increase in violence and impending genocide, people and nations with a conscience need to step forward and open doors for them to be heard globally. Most importantly create forums for a transparent dialogue on the separation of anti-Zionism from anti- Semitism, so a space for the truth of the Palestinian people can be heard and understood.
Title image: Stenciled graffiti , Gaza. Artist unknown, attributed to Banksy