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Art In Palestine: A Narrative And Mobilisation Tool, A Necessary Means Of Survival

Words by Shahd Abusalama

The well-known Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata has

passed away in August 2019 but left behind a wealth of art and research,

rooted in questions of identity, resistance and exile. In his 2002 essay

“Art under the Siege,” he asked:

“How does one create art under the threat of sudden death

and the unpredictability of invasion and siege? More specifically, how

do Palestinian artists articulate their awareness of space when their

homeland’s physical space is being diminished daily by barriers and

electronic walls and when their own homes could at any moment be

occupied by soldiers or even blown out of existence? In what way can an

artist engage with the homeland’s landscape when ancient orange and olive

groves are being systematically destroyed? When the grief of bereaved

families is reduced by the mass media to an abstraction transmitted at

lightning speed to a TV screen, what language can a visual artist use to

express such grief? (Boullata, 2004)”

These questions have long troubled Palestinian artists as they

attempted to process and challenge a precarious and dehumanising reality

shaped by military occupation, apartheid and siege. I make a humble effort

to understand drawings I created in my late teens and early twenties, in

relation to these questions, situating it within a wider history of Palestinian

cultural resistance.

Since my birth in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the north of the Gaza

Strip, the biggest and most densely populated refugee camp in Palestine,

I have never known what life is like without occupation and siege, injustice

and horror. Growing up in a refugee camp was the window to understanding

our reality under Israeli colonial occupation. Art has been the way I naturally

sought from a very early age to describe what I felt was indescribable.

I was only nine years old when my parents noticed my drawing

skills that were limited to black warplanes, pillars of smoke in the sky and

crying eyes. This coincided with the eruption of the second intifada in

September 2000 when I used to accompany my mother and aunt to the

martyrs’ funeral tents to offer our condolences. I used to hate the green

colour, as it was associated in my memory with loss and mourning; the

martyrs’ funeral tents, which were disturbingly visible in the Jabalia refugee

camp’s landscape, were mostly green. The first poem I ever learned to

memorize by heart was one by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish

entitled, “And He Returned …In A Coffin”. As a nine-year-old girl, I stood

in front of many mourning families in those green tents, looked into their

tearful eyes, and in a powerful but shaking voice, I recited,

It was moments like these, during the tumult of the second

intifada, that fundamentally shaped my consciousness about the land and

my place in it. Since childhood, the scenes of war, the faces of martyrs, the

injured and political prisoners, the weeping of the martyrs’ relatives over

the loss of their beloved, have been haunting me with a desperate wish

for this injustice to end. These scenes pushed me to seek art as a way to

process those extraordinary surroundings, to reconcile with my wounds,

to express my emotions, memories and experiences, much of which is

collectively shared amongst the Palestinians.

Creativity in such a context is not only a necessary tool for

survival in a taxing background of violence but, as Boullata contented in

several articles, an expression of survival. For example, 100 Shaheed—100

Lives exhibition, by Ra’ed Issa and Muhammad Hawajri from Bureij

Refugee Camp in central Gaza, commemorated the first one hundred

victims of the al-Aqsa intifada. The exhibition grew out of their intimate

contact with the bereaved families and violence. Using a blend of abstract,

metaphoric and representational language, their artwork expressed “the

state of being a survivor of and eyewitness to daily death.”

Personally, observing more Palestinian children being born in

such a difficult reality that subjugates them to terror and trauma at very

young age is the most painful. As a result, most of my drawings are of

Palestinian children whose innocent facial expressions I find most telling

of our shared cry for justice.

Palestinian Art as a Visual Instrument of Resistance

Since the twentieth century, in their encounter with

Zionism and European imperialism, Palestinians, like

other colonised people, understood early on that

“questions of culture... are absolutely deadly political,”

in harmony with Stuart Hall’s thinking. We saw in practice

how the Zionist negation of the Palestinian people

is interwoven with negating everything they represent,

including Palestinian culture. The great robbery of tens

of thousands of books, manuscripts and artifacts that

coincided with the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine

is a testimonial event, which repeated itself numerous

times across the history of the Palestinian struggles.

Without culture, Israel can claim more easily that, to use

the infamous words of its Iron Lady Golda Meir in 1969,

“there was no such thing as Palestinians.”

Just as colonizers used culture as a weapon of

domination, colonized people tended to use culture

as a weapon of resistance, for culture is also “a critical

site of social action and intervention” which has the the

potential of destabilizing power (Procter, 2004). Although

art, music, and literature and every other form

of cultural expression of a people under a settler-colonial

reality are often sidelined by the more pressing

and life-threatening issues of daily violence and survival,

this does not imply their absence. Palestinian

cultural production has historically engaged with the

politics, suffering and challenges of the particular era,

and attempted to use these spaces, however limited,

to express resistance against British and Zionist colonialism,

to represent their struggles, pain and political

aspirations, and to solidify a national and cultural identity

undergoing an existential threat. In such a harsh

reality where the boundaries between the personal, the

collective and the political blur, Palestinians found it

hard to separate the aesthetic from the political in their

cultural and artistic expressions.

This is especially true of Palestinian art, which historically

served as a visual reflection of the Palestinian

struggle. It aimed to depict the reality of the Palestinian

people, our struggles, hopes, aspirations, and urge for

mobilization at an international level against injustice.

It also acted as a tool to provide a self-representational

counter-narrative to the hegemonic Zionist one which

is largely based on the demonisation and the negation

of the Palestinian history and people to justify their colonial

domination. Art for many Palestinians was seen

as a way to participate in writing their own visual narrative,

to critically and creatively engage with their sociopolitical

surrounding matters, to express their identity,

and to amplify the Palestinians’ political demands.

Against the humanitarian imagery that reduced Palestinian

refugees to victims, or colonial representations

that slammed them as terrorists, Palestinian artists,

such as Ismail Shammout and Naji Al-Ali, sought to

transform the image of the Palestinians into active

agents of revolutionary change.

Over the course of the Palestinian struggle, the

Palestinian people increasingly regarded artworks that

expressed and challenged their living conditions under

Israeli control as a means of resistance. Many Palestinian

paintings displaying the ‘forbidden’ colors of the

Palestinian flag have been confiscated, and many artists

faced interrogation or even a prison sentence due

their art that Israel perceived as ‘an act of incitement’.

Let us not forget the late Palestinian influential exiled

artists Ghassan Kanafani and Naji Al-Ali, whose artistic

and literary production led to their murder.

Being a daughter of an ex-detainee means I have grown a unique attachment to the plight of the Palestinian

political prisoners, not only from a political perspective but also from a personal one. As a 19-year-old boy,

my father spent a total of fifteen years in Israeli jails, but he is only one amongst over a million Palestinians

who experienced detention since 1948, including children, women and elderly people. The stories of resistance,

resilience and repression that I grew up hearing about his stolen youth have made me develop a

particular passion to this cause. Currently, over 5 thousands of Palestinian detainees are in Israeli captivity

with no access to their most basic rights by the Israeli Prison Service, including fair trial, proper medical

care and family visits.

The plight of Palestinian political prisoners and their families, however, is not given the deserved attention

in the political arena, especially at an international level. They are not only marginalised, but also

dehumanised in a media discourse that tends to reduce them to mere statistics or defined their resistance

in terms of ‘terrorism,’ similar to the way Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists in South Africa

were represented.

Throughout my upbringing, I have witnessed their families’ immense pain as my family joined their

weekly protests in front of the Red Cross in Gaza, calling for dismantling the Israeli prison system and freedom.

As I developed more skills of expression, I coupled drawings with writings that recorded stories of

Palestinian detainees and their families with whom I developed an intimate relation after years of weekly

protests. Many expressed their pain as a form of imprisonment in time, another theme that inspired my

drawings in my attempt to communicate the families’ longing for a reunion with their beloved ones without

barriers in between.

I tried to depict their determination to break their chains which they expressed repeatedly in legendary

hunger strikes. “Hunger strike until either martyrdom or freedom” is a motto that many prisoners adopted

across the history of the Palestinian Prisoners Movement.

chains shall break


My generation, the third-generation refugees, was already blueprinted with the traumatic events

of the Nakba, which for Palestinians, is not only a tragic historical event, only to be commemorated

once a year with events such as art exhibits and national commemorations. “It was never one

Nakba,” my grandmother used to say asserting that ethnic cleansing was never a one-off event

that happened in 1948, when Palestinians became stateless refugees. The Nakba is experienced

as ongoing; an uninterrupted process of Israeli settler-colonialism and domination that was given

continuity by the 1967 occupation, the violent invasion of Beirut and Palestinian refugee camps in

Lebanon, the two intifadas of 1987 and 2000, and the siege on Gaza and the constant bombardments

and demolitions across the shrinking occupied Palestinian territories.

Growing up hearing our grandmothers recount the life they had before, the dispossessed lands

that most would never see again, has formed the collective memory of the Palestinian people. My

grandmother described a peaceful life in green fields of citrus groves and olive trees in our original

village Beit-Jirja, one of 531 villages that were violently emptied of its inhabitants and razed to the

ground in 1948. The landscapes, the tastes of their fresh harvests, the sounds of peasants’ dances,

the joy of family gatherings and traditional weddings, all burdened her traumatic memory in a

sudden rupture that turned our existence into non-existence. She found consolation in storytelling

that cultivated inside her children and grandchildren a burning desire for return and a life of dignity.

The continuity of our liberation struggle, from one generation to another, resembles hope for

the Nakba generation and their descendants, another theme that several of my drawings attempted

to express –. They were my response to several Zionist leaders who assumed that “the old will

die and the young will forget.” The drawings come to assert that the old may die but the young will

keep on holding the key, until our inalienable right to return is implemented. In 1948, most refugees

fled in a haste and fear, taking whatever they could carry at a moment’s notice. They carried the

keys of their homes in their exodus, and although many know that their homes no longer exist, they held onto their keys, passed it to their children, making

the key become a symbol of the undying Palestinian

hope that return is inevitable. The young generation

is perceived as those who will carry the burden of the

cause and continue the struggle of the previous generations

until freedom, justice, equality and return to the

Palestinian people. Thus, Palestinian children became

the symbol through which “We nurse hope”, as Mahmoud

Darwish said.

The majority of Palestinians have become politicised

due to their complex and intense political reality that

shapes every aspect of their lives. I am no exception.

David Gauntlett suggested that creativity is a part of

showing connectedness and participation that can affect

artists’ lives positively as it can lead to greater general

happiness and consequently less depression and

better physical and mental health (Gauntlett, 2010).

Drawing was a tool in which I found empowerment to

my voice. It served as a tactic to overcome the state

of siege and occupation imposed on us, to escape

the feeling of helplessness that can be easily felt in

such suppressive and oppressive life conditions that

the Palestinian people endure. It was also a tool that I

used to engage politically and socially with the harsh

surrounding. With the internet becoming accessible, I

resorted to online social networks to reach out to the

international community, believing that the Palestinian

people’s struggle for liberation is a central global issue.

The turning point of my life was at the age of 17,

when I lived through “Cast Lead,” a 22-day massacre

which Israeli forces committed in Gaza. During that dismal

period, as Christmas and New Year celebrations

were being marked around the world, we all had a terrible

sense of alienation from the rest of the world as

we remained in darkness amidst continuous bombing

and mass killing. Around 11 am on the 27th of December

2008, we were attending the mid-term exams. It was a

normal day until Israeli warplanes started shelling all

over the Gaza Strip, announcing hundreds of victims

from the first hour. The chaos that ensued at school

and the living horrors that followed for 22 days of bring

stricken by military machines from land, sea and air, left

a lasting impact on everyone.

There was no safe place in Gaza, and when people

fled their dangerous areas to UN schools as a make-shift

shelter, such as Al-Fakhoura where my father worked as

a security guard, they were bombed by white-phospho-


rous ammunition, an internationally-banned weapons.

A few families then sought refuge in our home, believing

that it was relatively less dangerous. One of them

was the family of my childhood friend Aliaa Al-Khatib.

On the morning of 5 January 2009, her father Ali left to

check on his elderly parents who lived through Nakba,

refused to leave their home. He promised to be back

before night fell with more food and clothes for his

family. In the evening, my father received a phone call,

carrying unbearable news to his wife and 6 children: he

was walking near his home when an Israeli helicopter

shelled him, tearing him to pieces. That morning was

a goodbye none of us had anticipated but death was

closer than we thought.

At night, I was sitting in blackout, surrounded by

my mother and siblings in one small room of our house

under one blanket. No voice could be heard, just heartbeats

and heavy, shaky breaths. The beating and

breathing grew louder after every new explosion we

felt crashing around, shaking our home and lighting up

the sky. Then suddenly, the door of our house opened

violently and somebody shouted, “Leave home now!” It

was my dad rushing in to evacuate our house because

of a bomb threat to a neighbour. I remember that my

siblings and I grasped Mum and started running outside

unconsciously, barefoot. For three days we stayed in a

nearby house, powerless as we sat, waiting to be either

killed, or wounded, or forced to watch our home destroyed.

Thankfully, that threat turned out to be a tactic

of psychological warfare Israel used to break people’s

will for liberation.

This merciless and inhumane attack killed at least

1417 men, women and children. I wasn’t among them

but what if I had been? Would I be buried like any one of

them in a grave, nothing left of me but a blurry picture

stuck on the wall and the memory of another teenage

girl slain too young? Would I have been for the world

just a number, a dead person? I refused to dwell on that


Many drawings of mine were inspired by the memories

attached to this traumatic event and similar experiences

that proceeded. The trauma was relived

whenever an attack was repeated. Most importantly,

resorting to art was a necessary means that helped me

preserve my sanity amid traumatic events that I experienced

throughout my life in the suffocating blockade of

the Gaza Strip. It allowed me to engage with the politically-

fueled reality and express the suppressed voice

and denied rights of the Palestinian people in visual

forms that can communicate universally.