During the summer of 1986,1 spent a month in the West Bank, keen to learn for myself about the effects of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian forms of expression, particularly in the visual arts and local crafts. A quick look at different cultural products indicated that traditional aesthetic values have for some time been rapidly eroding. Alternative aesthetic values were more often than not crudely colored by the reactive rhetoric intrinsic to the cultural ghetto created by the occupation. I set out to explore for myself the process that brings into being products which stir a sense of pride among Palestinians living under occupation, and to understand the components that endow these cultural products with their uniquely Palestinian character.

This article is from a longer, unpublished report written following my 1986 trip. Except for editorial changes, the text remains unaltered. Even though the text predates the intifada, it comes as no surprise that the uprising has been spearheaded by children, the nation’s primal force of creativity, inventiveness and indigenous resourcefulness.

Pushcarts

For years I have been fascinated by the toys created by children, especially those whose parents cannot afford to buy them any. Often these toys reflect a deep innate knowledge of raw material through which children articulate an astounding sense of imagination. A typical example is the pushcarts that Palestinian village children make out of tattered bits and pieces of abandoned wire. The linear shape of a bus, a truck, a car, a tractor or an ambulance takes shape in endless variations and sizes, with all the necessary details like seats and functional wheels.

A small vehicle may be pulled with a string. When it is bigger, its front wheels are connected to a steering mechanism that can be adjusted to the height of the young driver who walks behind the vehicle, steering wheel held in both hands. The fragile-looking but sturdy make-believe vehicle moves unhurriedly, like the delicate cage of a mythical carriage.

What is most fascinating is the child’s capacity to conceptualize a sense of volume in linear terms, giving body to a three-dimensional shape that can only be visualized in abstraction. This means picking up odd pieces of wire of various lengths, twisting and connecting them in such a way that one comes up with something — a pencil, as it were, drawing in suspended space.

Having made my interest in children’s toys known to various people, I was introduced to a certain “doctoor,” with moustache and all. “He is writing a book on Palestinian children’s toys and their traditional games,” I was told. “This is my man,” I thought to myself. I immediately asked him about the little pushcarts. He sat back in his chair, looked out of the window and with a few quick words dismissed “these petty objects” as “stuff not worthy of consideration by an accomplished artist” like myself. “Buses, trucks and cars are not part of our turath, our national cultural heritage. They are only a recent phenomenon in our environment.” He went on to lecture me about his project and its relevance to the turath and how our recorded turath is a shield that guarantees our survival against Zionist usurpation of our culture.

Monuments

As a child growing up in Jerusalem, I remember that a visit to Ramallah always began and always ended with the sight of the circular fountain at the heart of town, al-manarah. The fountain was decorated with five lion busts, sculpted in pink stone, facing outward. The lions’ stylized features seemed to me then more like those of sheep than lions, perhaps because the brothers Salim and Ayyoub Ghanayim who sculpted them in the early ’50s were naturally more familiar with sheep.

Anybody familiar with the legend of the five ancestral brothers who founded Ramallah (Sabra, Ibrahim, Shuqayr, Jiryis and Hassan) saw a special meaning in the fountain, whose lions seemed to watch over the little town. During summer days, the young men of Ramallah, refreshed by the sound of running waters and the fragrance of the flowerbeds, lingered around the fountain watching the young women pass by. This trip I was struck by the absence of the fountain. Some said the local municipality had removed it to make room for growing traffic. Others said the Israelis had ordered it removed in order the facilitate the movement of military vehicles. Now vehicles of all sizes and shapes drive through the old circle from all directions. Ramallah has lost its center.

Did anyone know where the five pink lions, representing the five ancestral founders, had been dumped? No one knew. But I did find a new breed of lions in Ramallah.

Blocking the pathway leading to Ramallah’s cemetery was an imposing, newly-built mausoleum. Unlike the rounded pink stone of the fountain which gently reflects the Mediterranean sun, the angular polished white marble of the monument stood out of place among ancient pines and cypresses. It was the final resting place of Karim Khalaf, the nationalist mayor of Ramallah. At its foot, I saw lions — I cannot remember now whether it was one or two or more. The number never seemed significant. Lifeless, the lions stood on frail, poodle-like legs, in a style recalling the Israeli Lion of Judah. The guard, employed “to ward off Ramallah kids from desecrating the sanctity of this new shrine,” told me that the mausoleum was made entirely of imported marble, built by Israeli workers under the direction of an Israeli contractor.

On my way out of the cemetery, I thought of that gracefully round fountain. I realized that it must have been obliterated while Karim Khalaf himself was mayor of Ramallah, and Khalaf&rsquos administration must have commissioned the young artist from Hebron, Isam Badr, to execute his first public monument in Ramallah.

Primitive-looking pink stone lions were not on Badr’s mind when he planned his Ramallah “masterpiece.” Not unlike his well-meaning patron, he was haunted by what he considered the more global theme of “Palestine.” Badr chose to represent the entire history of the Palestinian drama in the form of a horizontal mural that stretches across the entrance of the municipality (11.5 meters long by 3.5 meters high). Made of earth, glaze and a plastic that looks like metal, the composition consists of a disjointed series of abstracted human figures in interpretive gestures and positions. Some Israelis, I understand, are quite impressed by it. To anybody who has ever been to Baghdad, where Isam Badr spent his student years, the mural is at best a lilliputian imitation of Jawad Salim’s monument to liberty which adorns the Iraqi capital.

Badr, who claims to have built “the first Palestinian mural,” intimates that his mural is to the history of Palestinian culture as the Sphinx is to Egypt’s. [1]

Everyone in Ramallah knows that Badr’s mural was built on top of a colorful mural executed by Sarnia Taktak. This mural, donated by Sarnia to the Ramallah municipality, had brought her together with her future husband, the town’s then-mayor, Nadim Zaru. In time, the Israelis expelled Nadim Zaru, along with Sarnia and their children. In their absence, the authentic first Palestinian mural in Ramallah was buried under the work of another Palestinian artist, to make room for the great subject of “Palestine.”

Public Art

At about the time when Badr was completing his mural in Ramallah, Abed Abedi from Haifa was working with Father Elias Shakkour to design a mural for the playground of a new school in ‘Ibillin in the Galilee. With less than half the budget Badr required for his imitative “masterpiece,” Abed built an organic work of art that could well stand as a most authentic model for any future public art form in the country.

The immense but unassuming mural, which stretches across the entire school yard on a slightly curved wall, is a brilliant visual narration depicting the life of Elijah. Here, Abedi, a Muslim by tradition, working together with a Christian leader (not unlike the team of Badr, a Muslim, and Khalaf, a Christian by tradition) did not play to the theatrics of the great theme of “Palestine” nor to the confining interpretation of religious art. Instead, Abedi drew his inspiration from a legend that he interpreted through his palpable experience of Christians and Muslims living in a Jewish state.

Made up of indigenous stones, broken down into geometrically odd, flat pieces of natural shades and a limited variety of colors, the mural was conceptualized as a mosaic. Abedi intuitively believed that the most natural builders of this mural could only be the schoolchildren themselves. He orchestrated every stage of the operation, but the children themselves physically recreated their own environment with the new imagery of a legend that functions as a bridge between a mythical past and a promising future, in a language that easily reaches the hearts of people. Building a mosaic mural must have been to these children like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, but it must certainly have been more exciting, its lessons more lasting, a bridge between the function of the playground and the children who use it.

With this talent and commitment, one would expect to see more of Abedi’s work commissioned by local Arab leaders. But when the Arab municipality of Nazareth wanted to build what is so far its most visible monument, they asked Gershon Knispel, an Israeli sculptor and a communist of German origin, to build it. The work, depicting Hagar (Isma‘il's mother and Abraham’s concubine) was meant to draw progressive Israelis and Palestinians together. Instead, the Hagar memorial became a controversial issue among the Arabs of Galilee, while the general Israeli public remained indifferent. Most criticism centered around the exorbitant costs. A few suggested that its metallic monumentality amidst fallen stones, bushes and a couple of olive trees could only work as a metaphoric reminder of the European, Germanic presence in the heart of an pastoral Arab town.

Beyond the Olive Grove

In an old stone Nazareth house nestled among fruit trees, unstirred, lives the oldest Palestinian sculptor, Hanna al-Mismar. Unlike Knispel, al-Mismar is a native of Nazareth, and in contrast to Knispel’s massive work, al-Mismar’s is fragile and intimate, made not of cast bronze but of baked clay; its forcefulness lies not in its expressionistic character but rather in the rawness of its message. I was excited to meet a living master of that generation who could explain his art in relation to his life and environment.

In the late summer afternoon, the toothless and unshaven al-Mismar patriarch sat on a stone under the ancient carob tree in his yard. Al-Mismar spoke of his little figurines with big eyes, created years ago, as if they were living friends with whom he had only recently lost contact. Each one of his clay men had its own story. “What was the first sculpture you ever created?” I asked. “A little man,” he said, holding his hand slightly below his bony knee. “Only this tall.” He explained how that night he could not believe his eyes when he saw his very first clay man stand on his own two little feet. Suddenly the old man stood up and showed me how he had spent the night dancing around his “little man.”

Since I had seen a fairly large number of “little men” cluttered in his deserted workshop, I began to wonder if he had ever sold any of his work. “Of course not,” he said. “Of course not,” he repeated, as if offended by the question. Then, with a voice that seemed no longer to believe its own words, he continued: “I used to think that eventually my works would all be donated to a museum.” He paused. “Perhaps to the municipality of Nazareth.”

Al-Mismar may not have sold any of his statues but until very recently he was able to earn a living from his pottery. His eldest son, who by now had joined us, told me that the family business his father had developed over decades of hard work was facing its most serious crisis. Mismar Pottery’s original products were no match for the mass-produced items flooding the Israeli market, quite apart from the unannounced Israeli boycott of Arab products. In hopes of revitalizing their production, the Mismar brothers had spent a large sum to buy second-hand production equipment, but their ill-advised investment ended up a financial disaster.

Who had led them into this disaster, I asked. They fell silent. Later I found out that the man who was instrumental in killing a family business in Nazareth was the same ‘Isam Badr from Hebron who had built his fake mural right on top of somebody else’s work in Ramallah.

In the wake of his celebrated acclaim as a leading West Bank artist, it seems, Badr recieved an Arab grant to help develop traditional handicrafts in the West Bank. Funds in hand, Badr went off to Tel Aviv and bought brand-new equipment to introduce mass-produced pottery in the West Bank. In no time, the delicately hand-painted traditional Ottoman floral patterns in blues and soft greens which had been faithfully preserved for over a hundred years by Armenian artisans in Jerusalem were replaced by angular Quranic verses in flat black gilded with gold, and bold motifs alien to the fragile nature of glazed or unglazed pottery. The transparency of hand-painted colors was now made opaque by an instantaneous method of silkscreen printing. Exports to Jordan and the Gulf may have multiplied and pleased the institution which advanced the grant to “develop” West Bank crafts. Lesser men envied Badr’s mercantile gratification and greedier merchants followed suit. Badr’s home town became the bustling center of production.

Soon, the equipment Badr had bought in Tel Aviv had to be replaced by larger and probably more efficient equipment. But Badr did not want to invest in new machinery until he had sold the old equipment. The al-Mismar brothers in Nazareth were looking for ways to improve their family business and, not much tuned in to the distant world of the West Bank, were sold on the idea of buying the second-hand equipment from a well-recognized Hebron artist. But the molds of the “copy machines” Badr sold them produced only outmoded forms that had already saturated the Israeli market.

Meanwhile, the Hebron products continued to permeate the souvenir stores of the West Bank, and the traditional family businesses of the Balians and the Karakashians in Jerusalem began to look elsewhere for a market. I saw color photographs of dazzling hand-painted ceramic panels executed by the Balians, perhaps the best surviving examples of this Jerusalem tradition; these panels are today the principal attraction at the home of the president of Israel.

Experiment

Ever since I became interested in creating designs for Palestinian crafts, I had been conscious of my ignorance of these folk traditions. I set out to find craftsmen who might understand the demands of my art and in turn teach me the limitations imposed by the organic elements of their craft.

I had drawn a design for a silver bracelet and necklace based on the Arabic names of two friends of mine. Pencil drawings in hand, I began to search for an appropriate craftsman whenever I went down to the Old City. Only an innovative craftsman deeply familiar with his tradition would be able to execute it due to the unconventional nature of the geometric designs, I was told. Within days all references pointed to the same man.

George had little formal schooling. As a boy he had been apprenticed to an Armenian goldsmith. George already had a reputation as an expert among jewellers and artisans for his infinite skill in free-hand cutting of any pattern, in silver or gold, with perfect precision, no matter how delicately small or complicated.

I went to see George at his home in the Old City. Now in his late 30s, the father of three girls and a boy, George had been unemployed for some time, earning a meager income from sporadic freelance jobs. George told me that after the fall of Jerusalem in June 1967, while he was still an apprentice to the old Armenian master artisan, he was offered a substantial salary by an Israeli jeweller. Looking forward to establishing an independent life, marrying and settling in a modern apartment outside the Old City, and with the blessing of his old master, George accepted the offer and went to work for the Israeli on the other side of town. After explaining to George that this was to be the beginning of a long business relationship, the Israeli patron asked him to hand-cut a complete set of all the patterns and designs George had learned over the years; these would serve as samples for a worldwide sales network which would bring George an endless stream of orders. George’s dream began to seem possible. One day soon he might own his own business and be able to support his ailing master.

Month after month, George loyally worked to polish every last detail. The day he finished his last piece of hand-made jewelry, George was fired.

Soon after, George began to see his work appearing in the windows of jewellers and souvenir stores throughout East and West Jerusalem. His Israeli patron had mechanically mass-produced each and every one of his delicately hand-cut works. In time, the market was flooded with these items at half the price George had charged for his hand-made work. Now George was not only unemployed but was totally convinced that anything unique and authentic his hands might create would be stolen, forged and mass-produced by Israelis. Few people cared for quality work. Why bother? He gave up his ambitions. A fondness for arak helped him forget what his hands could create but did not.

George and I began meeting in the evenings, in the vaulted courtyard of his modest home. His kids swarmed over us, watched us draw sketches and listened to our stories. His wife made sure nothing was missing from the appetizing maza she had prepared. As he sipped his arak and nibbled on his maza, I began to learn bits and pieces of George’s trade.

I wanted to find out if it was possible for an artist to design works that would be technically impossible to duplicate and mass-produce. I learned that if the thickness of the jewelry design was less than the minimum thickness needed for a mold, then unique items of jewelry could indeed be created. I saw George’s face beam at the thought that I would be willing to design especially for him original works that would resist the mechanics of mass production.

I was curious, too, whether one could create an attractive piece of jewelry that Israeli manufacturers would not dare imitate, even if they could. The work had to connote Palestinian nationalism. But how could one make Palestinian “nationalist” jewelry that was not banal and coarse like the flat, unimaginative Palestinian map pendant so popular among young Palestinian men and women?

One day I overheard Mubarak Awad, a childhood friend, in his one-room office in the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence, in deep discussion over means to help former prisoners from Israeli jails. My own contacts with ex-prisoners were few and coincidental. One I was particularly impressed with was a young man known as ‘Antar, of the Old City, who for 18 years had been shoved from one Israeli prison to the other. He was one of thousands of Palestinian prisoners eventually freed in exchange for a couple of Israeli captives. ‘Antar was fluent in English and French. While doing time, he also taught himself Hebrew.

One night ‘Antar appeared unannounced at my doorstep. In his soft-spoken and straightforward manner, ‘Antar explained his problem. He was finding it difficult to ask for financial help to solve a personal problem. But since his release from jail, his father had been urging him to get married. ‘Antar could not afford the financial burden, nor did he know any prospective bride. ‘Antar’s younger brother had been engaged to a young woman from the neighborhood for a long time, unable to hold the wedding partly for lack of money, but mainly, his father told him, because ‘Antar, the older son, was not yet married. To fulfill their father’s lifetime wish “to lay his eyes upon the faces of his grandchildren” before he died, ‘Antar and his brother agreed to the father’s suggestion of a joint wedding ceremony. The father even offered to pay for all the costs of the ceremony out of his own savings. ‘Antar in no time located a proper bride from the poorest neighborhood in the Old City of Acre. The joint ceremony was announced. Only days before the wedding, the brothers found out that their father had no savings whatsoever. ‘Antar and his brother were now borrowing money and raising funds wherever possible to pay the bills that were coming in.

If only I could sell someone a work of art, I thought, I could rent two buses for the round-trip between Acre and Jerusalem to bring the bride, her family, relatives, neighbors and school friends to the wedding. This would be my gift to ‘Antar and his bride. The promise was made, but the work of art was not even conceived and, worse, no client for it was in sight.

That night in my hotel room, I thought back to the conversation with Mubarak about ways to keep the issue of prisoners alive in people’s minds. Mubarak had reminded me of the ways devised by American peace groups during the Vietnam war to keep in touch with prisoners-of-war; the thin copper bracelets inscribed with the name and date of capture of each prisoner. Wearers pledged to correspond with the prisoner on their bracelet.

Could I sell Mubarak the idea of designing a special bracelet for Palestinian prisoners and use the design fee to pay for the buses? And could this bracelet be an affordable piece of jewelry George might execute which Mubarak could sell to raise funds for his rehabilitation project? Could it be the piece of jewelry we had dreamt of that Israeli manufacturers would not want to imitate and mass-produce?

It did not take long to reach an agreement with Mubarak. When I returned to Washington, DC, I was to create the design and mail it to Mubarak, who now advanced to ‘Antar the sum needed for the buses.

My design was inspired by the Arabic word al-sabur, one of the 99 attributes of God in Islam, meaning “The Patient One.” A variation of the design is based on the derivative colloquial expression ana sabir, “I am the patient one.” The patterns of Arabic lettering were to be cut into four pieces of jewelry: a bracelet inspired by the traditional mabrumeh, the twisted strands of gold which used to be a central item in the wedding trousseau; a necklace in which the Islamic words take the shape of a Byzantine crucifix; a flat amulet and a pendant for a key-chain popular among young men. George would execute all the models.

Wedding

On my last evening in Jerusalem, I walked to Orient House where ‘Antar and his brother’s party was being held. From a distance I could hear the festive music. The pine trees around the courtyard were decorated with colored lights. The wedding party of the brothers from the Old City had begun in the cobbled courtyard long before I arrived. Busloads of people had arrived that afternoon, apparently from every corner of the country. Young and old, Christian and Muslim, black and brown men, women and children all turned up for the joyful occasion. Many of the young men present had, like ‘Antar, been political prisoners. Mothers whose sons had been released ululated in encouraging response to singing mothers whose sons were still in jail. Unchoked by their tears, all the women later joined in singing for the two brides as each was lifted in her wooden chair and carried on the shoulders of the men. Around them young men and women joined hands with the two bridegrooms in a group dance. On the fringes of the expanding circle of perspiring men and women, little children tried to follow the step. Over and over, in endless variations, the songs addressed the bride, likened her beauty to that of the beloved land.

It was late when I headed back to my hotel. I could see the moon almost full, now high in the sky as the wedding music began to fade in the distance. Suddenly, I remembered the words of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, written after three of his young friends were assassinated in Beirut by Israeli agents:

This is the wedding without an end
In a boundless courtyard
on an endless night.
This is the Palestinian Wedding
Never will lover reach lover
except as martyr or fugitive

It was in the early hours of dawn the next day when my belongings were x-rayed at Ben-Gurion International Airport and I was body-searched by an Israeli security man. The routine checking and thorough interrogation in the neon-lit hallways lasted a little over four hours before I, like others, was allowed to pass through the final metal-detector door. As I was urged to rush towards the plane, I could feel that beyond that checkpoint, a whole nation may have been left behind bars, but in my head I could hear only the rhythm of their wedding songs.

Endnotes

[1] See his book with Nabil Anani, al-Fann al-tashkili al-falastini, 1984, p. 60.

How to cite this article:

Kamal Boullata "Palestinian Expression Inside a Cultural Ghetto," Middle East Report 159 ( ).
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