What is art? Art is a language that conveys a huge number of messages and contexts. It tells us something about history and humanity . Good art through its many mediums, film, video paintings novels, song , poetry , cooking , embroidery, glass tells us a story. Art in conflict is a powerful tool either intentionally or otherwise ‘Every beautiful poem’ as the late Mahmoud Darwish potently put it is ‘ an act of resistance’ . A still photograph can create an indelible memory and define a moment in history. The image of Yasser Arafat on the Whitehouse lawn , his hands stretched out eagerly towards a reluctant Yitzhak Rabin says it all . Then and now.
Its been gradual but the plethora of Palestinian art through films novels, sculpture and photography seems to have exploded into a kaleidoscope of stories of the Palestinian psyche. Exploring identity and struggle it has been an effective compelling way of emphasising displacement, the occupation the disenfranchisement of any normality. Taking various mediums these different forms of art tell both our collective narrative and personal experiences .
In many ways Palestinian art be it through Urban art , graffiti , novels and films have impacted more than a political process. Palestinian graffiti has been a powerful way for those to communicate with the outside world while under occupation and separation. The graffiti art movement has its roots in the first intifada and was a method to articulate and express national resistance. The graffiti on the separation walls tells the world in pictures and messages what its about. It gives a vibrancy and spirit to the Palestinian struggle by screaming eloquently ‘I am here’, ‘ I have an identity’ I am not going away in spite of the wall.’
At the other end of the spectrum, the excitement and momentum that Mohammad Assaf, a young man from Gaza, created in Arab Idol was not just about winning but reflects the struggle that all Palestinians have in movement. His story of how he got to Beirut for the competition was a reminder of what its like to be denied freedom of movement.
The aggressor in any conflict situation needs to erase the identity of those they occupy for legitimacy, slowly chipping away at anything that can remind us about our identity. Israel has understood this and has been effective and active in prompting its narrative its version of the truth denying often the existence of Palestine and its people through films, photographs , novels. The profound effect the Anne Frank diaries has on the readers emotion and sympathy is huge. Israel has even hijacked our cuisine claiming it be their own gnawing away at our national and regional cooking heritage . This was sharply rebutted by the wonderful cookery book written by Paula Haddad and Maggie Schmitt Gaza Kitchen; A Palestinian Culinary Journey that interweaves stories, memories with recipes and confirms the daily embattlement of living under siege.
These are all creative methods of re-affirming our culture, heritage and identity despite Israel’s measures of denying us an existence. It defies the aggressors means of taking everything away and trying to obliterate the Palestinian narrative and truth.
Historically the victors write history through their perception but through art Palestinian artists have been able to recount and display their truths their narrative, their attachment to Palestine. Comedian Mysoon Zaid has shattered countless stereotypes through her comic routine whether its gender inequality or the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Disregarding her disability of cerebral palsy she uses humour as a weapon to broach subjects that are taboo in the USA. Its given the Palestinians a voice, a place and affirms our history and legitimacy to the land.
The distinctive blue of Hebron glass was an industry that began under Roman rule. That glass places us . The exquisite Palestinian embroidery on the traditional thobe identifies the owners village and status. Palestinian vintage costumes confirm our lost villages and no amount of rewriting history will change these facts. These artistic expressions are part of our history forever.
Palestinian film makers writers artists have changed the landscape on how the Palestinian struggle is viewed globally. Their narratives and truth reflect and demonstrate the pain, daily reality of living under occupation. Renowned Director Michel Khleife whose Wedding in Galilee , opened the doors internationally for Palestinian film-makers, shows us how even a wedding requires permission from Israel’s authorities due to curfews. Rula Jebreals book and script for the film Miral potently shows Hind Husseinis efforts to create a children’s orphanage after 1948 Arab Israeli war and the Deir Yassin massacre. We can emphasise with the internal conflict young Miral faces between her sweethearts determination to follow the armed struggle an her belief that the way forward is through education.
The potency of art and its impact is clearly demonstrated by Israel’s attempts to curtail it. Israel understands the effects it can have and made strong objections on Elia Suelimans film Divine Intervention when it was submitted for an Oscar as Palestinian film under the foreign Category. The controversy went to the heart of the political struggle of a national identity. It wasn’t just a film but a narrative about Palestinians right to their own national identity. Israel attempts to ban entry of films under the Palestinian banner has been consistent. Its contention that Paradise Now was not eligible as a Palestinian film is a case in point. Israel’s legitimacy needs to erase any acknowledgment about our existence. The film about suicide bombers by Hani Assad went to win the Golden Globes despite Israel’s Israel objection .
Likewise Israel’s attempts to ban Jenin Jenin a film by Mohammad Bakri on the grounds that it was libellous, recounts the events of the infamous Operation Defensive Field. Award winning films like Ava Maria , directed by Basil Khalil and Omar by Hany Assad are powerful tools in giving a voice to the Palestinian truths internationally. It confirms Palestinians talents and creativity thereby raising awareness off the Palestinian struggle.
The films may not overtly be political but they reflect what life under occupation is like. Or as a refugee is. Leila’s Birthday by Rashid Masharawin demonstrates the frustration of a father, a taxi driver in picking up a cake for his young daughter. It shows the reality of how a simple task becomes a mountain to climb due to obstacles and road blocks.
These various artistic mediums are powerful tools in the 60 year conflict. A well written novel moves us and draws us perhaps by its personal an intimate picture. Susan Abulhawa’s book Morning in Jenin recounts the daily reality of growing up in a refugee camp. It resonates. It portrays the horrors of Israel’s daily incursions and death but also the spirit of the Palestinian community in its collective struggle, its humanity.
The significance and value of art is not so much that it changes the political situation but it promotes and empowers Palestinians, their message, their narrative, their identity and struggle and in turn this impacts on the wider politics through awareness it brings as it reaches out globally .
When work by Palestinian artists becomes collectible as in Photographer Tarek Al Ghoussein’s work on displacement and identity it tells the whole world there is Palestine . His photos have become highly prized and collected by major museums including the British Albert museum and the Guggenheim.
The vast array of Palestinian artistic expression be it through installation art , films , poetry , song, dress , graffiti , books can be understood as a way of commenting on human experience. These images , texts, in whatever form will remain long after we are gone keeping our story our struggle our history alive. From the Grande of Palestinian art Leila Shawa , Samia Halaby, film maker Annemarie Jacir, Mona Hatoum’s work in sculpture and video on displacement to Mahmoud Darwish's powerful poetry, these will remain long after we are gone and remind the world of what happened, what our struggle was and is and become part of our history.
What the effect of these works does is it places us . It gives us a name and identity . it shouts ‘we are ‘we exist’.