Given the same materials and the same opportunities, young children all over the world paint in a similar way. They don’t necessarily paint the same things. (Eskimo children will paint different animals from the children in the Sudan.) What is similar is the way young children make intuitive marks on the paper — a question of space, gestures, proportion, even color.

The first early language of painting appears to have a biological rather than cultural basis. Young children, a thousand years ago, would probably have painted — if they had had the chance — the way children do today. The first marks on paper are ahistorical. And this is why — sentiment apart — the art of young children is innocent. It speaks of the painter’s own experience, uninfluenced by any other.

The first language of painting tells everything it tells as if for the first time. The “voice” with which it speaks of tear gas or submachine guns is the same as it uses to speak of a cloud or a house. Consequently, its evidence is incontrovertible, as would be the evidence of a stream or a tree if suddenly they acquired the gift of making signs.

In the occupied territories 10-year olds know by heart the three silhouettes of the prisoner being beaten, the special walk of the blindfolded, and the way children, when shot, fall to the ground. In the occupied territories schoolchildren know, before they learn Euclid, that space is what you carry with you past the guns, and that not even death can take this space away from you.

In the face of brutality, children grow up fast. Innocence here benefits from no protection. Some of these paintings are already fully adult. For example, Yusif Dad’s painting of a woman in solitary confinement, or ‘Abdallah Afif’s painting of chaining and blindfolding everyone in Jalazon schoolyard, or Ahmad Awad’s painting of soldiers checking the identity card of the man returning from the market, blindfolding another and beating a third. In these adult pictures the language is no longer purely intuitive but also consciously chosen so as to carry in the safest possible way the painter’s message to the world — safest here meaning lucid — the qualities of a truth in a situation obscured by lies.

A Jewish proverb once said: The lie has one leg, the truth has two. The State of Israel has forgotten that — as it has forgotten so much else.

The territory these children paint has its own spatial laws. All their lives they have seen areas being fenced off, roads being shut, doors being locked, land being requisitioned, houses being knocked down, heroes being pursued. Their space has always been stolen, and the theft has always been covered by raised guns. Look at their pictures.

Then the children taught themselves how to resist. They invented their secret. Their secret was to imitate the air, which nothing can confine and through which everything is visible.

The Israeli military machine now faces the following question: How to destroy the sky above a homeland in stories which children tell themselves before they go to sleep?

Such a task is not only evil, it is also impossible.

Where the TV cameras were banned and journalists forbidden, schoolchildren painted for the world in watercolors. Look at their pictures. And learn from their innocence.


This text is the preface to Kamal Boullata’s Faithful Witnesses: Palestinian Children Recreate Their World (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1989).

How to cite this article:

John Berger "Children’s Territory," Middle East Report 157 (March/April 1989).

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