In January 2015, Christie’s announced that a painting by the Palestinian Suleiman Mansour, Camel of Burdens II (Jamal al-Mahamil), would be the highlight of its annual auction of modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art held in Dubai. The piece was listed as the second version of the 1973 original, which was thought to have belonged to Muammar al-Qaddafi, the long-time Libyan dictator, and to have been destroyed in the US bombing of his Tripoli military compound in 1986. An iconic portrayal of Palestinian steadfastness (sumud) in the struggle for a homeland, it was expected to sell for somewhere between
$200,000 and $300,000.

But the piece’s authenticity was called into question when a London-based collector who saw the auction catalogue objected that he owned the original 1973 artwork. Upon investigation, Christie’s was able to verify the collector’s claim and further reveal that Mansour had in fact produced not two but three versions of the painting. [1] The second, 1975 version, it now appears, was the one that burned up in Qaddafi’s stronghold. On display in Dubai was Camel of Burdens III (2005), the result of Mansour’s eventual decision to recreate his painting, which he had been thinking about doing since hearing news of the bombing. Version three ultimately sold for $257,000 to Ramzi Dalloul, a Palestinian economist and investor who has the largest private collection of Arab art with over 3,300 works.

Still another incarnation of Camel of Burdens had popped up before the public eye several months before the auction, in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. This rendition, not by Mansour, refashioned the visual paean to Palestinian resistance into a poster backing the candidacy of Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt’s May 2014 presidential election. Dozens of other iterations of pro-Sisi graphic design took well-known images out of context, and it is hardly a novelty in Arab politics to appropriate the Palestinian struggle for partisan advantage, as this particular poster did. But the Sisi poster is indicative of something else as well: The mutation of Camel of Burdens on its travels from the West Bank to Libya, Dubai and Egypt also endows the image itself with a different set of meanings, often in tension with the original message. The transformations of this painting are inextricable from the transformations of the region’s political geography.

Traveling Camels

Camel of Burdens, also known in English as Camel of Hardships, began its life in Suleiman Mansour’s West Bank hometown of Birzeit. Mansour, a key figure in Palestinian art since the 1970s, was first trained in portraiture. He studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Especially early in his career, he was central to the development of an iconography of the Palestinian struggle. [2] Key images that recur in his paintings have emerged as quintessential symbols of resistance to dispossession and Israeli rule: The orange tree and olive tree, respectively, represent the nakba, the military defeat and mass displacement of 1948, and the naksa, the Israeli occupation of the remainder of historical Palestine in 1967. Scenes of village life figure prominently in Mansour’s oeuvre, as does traditional Palestinian embroidery, in vivid detail. The Palestinian woman, the mother who both births and protects the nation, is likewise a main protagonist. [3] Within this rich repertoire, Camel of Burdens, which was given its original Arabic title by the novelist Emile Habibi, is not only one of Mansour’s most famous works, but also the focus of much critical analysis.

In the original 1973 oil painting, an elderly porter, facing right, dominates the canvas. He bends under a heavy load, a large sack ocular in shape and strapped to his forehead with a thick, braided rope. Inside the bundle is the dream of a Palestinian homeland, with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem shining at the center. The image of Palestine inside an eye appears repeatedly in Mansour’s paintings, and commentators have suggested it refers to the Arabic idiom that describes the beloved as the “pupil of one’s eye.” [4] In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Jerusalem, the fractured and lost capital of Mansour’s student years, is like a boulder on the porter’s back. And yet he stoically bears his burden; he is old, he is tired, his journey has been long, but he perseveres, slowly, doggedly, the very essence of sumud. Most striking to the viewer is the exaggerated size of the porter’s hands and feet; both are strong and steady, and there is a reassuring tautness in the muscles of his forearms, despite his otherwise worn features. The background, the road he has come down, is undefined; beyond the horizon, little else is distinguishable. His gaze is determined; he looks straight ahead to the future, uninterested in what lies behind him. He is a wanderer, an exile, destined to carry the dream of his homeland wherever he goes.

Shortly after Mansour painted Camel of Burdens, prints began to circulate. It became a hugely popular image of resistance in the 1970s and 1980s; that it was reproduced on posters, postcards, stickers and t-shirts shows “the extent to which the painting has entered the popular vernacular and the collective imagination.” [5] Mansour himself was surprised that he had created an “icon” when he intended only to “express the relationship of the Palestinian to Jerusalem.” [6] In his ethnography of Palestinian resistance, Nasser Abufarha points to the ways in which viewers have attached significance to the artwork that far exceed the artist’s intent; the reproduction of the painting in these varied forms is “a cultural performance that has taken on a life of its own.” [7] Indeed prints were hung in both homes and public spaces, and traveled far beyond the borders of the Occupied Territories, gaining in both audience and meaning. [8]

Camel of Burdens III, the 2005 version that sold in Dubai, is larger and more colorful than its forebears. In the updated piece, Mansour made a few alterations. First, after porters from Jerusalem brought it to his attention that the braided ropes were not suitable for lugging such a heavy load, he replaced them with flat ropes that would cause less slippage. Second, Mansour developed the cityscape of Jerusalem so as to include Christian landmarks, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which he had previously ignored.

The fact that several versions of Camel of Burdens exist, one rediscovered only in 2015, and that the artist revised his work, demonstrates its fluidity as an image. For Mansour the painting’s originality or “aura” is not threatened by its reproduction, and may even be enhanced. Camel of Burdens is a living, evolving artwork, much like the struggle it represents: The struggle of 1973 was very different from the struggle of today, shaped as it is by the first intifada, the 1993 Oslo accords, the formation of the Palestinian Authority, the 2000 uprising and all that ensued. During this period, Mansour’s relationship to the cityscape of Jerusalem has changed, as the situation of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem has become increasingly precarious. His additions, aimed at accentuating the city’s neglected Christian history, demonstrate a more complex understanding of Jerusalem that extends beyond its symbolic political significance as capital of an envisioned independent Palestine.

Equally important is that as Mansour’s painting itself travels, in its multiple versions, it becomes part of regional developments. It is a victim of the US airstrike on Libya and a beneficiary of the booming art market initiated in the United Arab Emirates. At each point Arab audiences experience the artwork through both their local context as well as the worsening occupation of Palestine. The more it travels, the heavier and more fraught the porter’s burden becomes. He does not merely carry a changing Jerusalem, but is weighed down as well by all that the Palestinian struggle has come to represent in the region, the weight of an increasingly symbolic solidarity, often intended to fend off local dissent.

The Camel-General

But it seems there is a straw that can break the camel’s back. The posters imitating Camel of Burdens and plastering the Egyptian public sphere in the months leading up to the 2014 election were part of the wave of “Sisi-mania” in which the field marshal’s face was put on everything from birthday cakes to lingerie. [9] These items often were not official campaign products but gestures of support by individuals, sometimes unidentified, and they were largely minimal in terms of original design, involving little more than the superimposition of Sisi’s face upon existing images. Placing the presidential candidate in unlikely or even fictitious situations, many of these paraphernalia emphasized what they imagined to be his sheer physical strength, often that of a lion.

By contrast, the rendition of Camel of Burdens is a rather humble portrayal of Sisi. Here he is the everyman, the simple small farmer or fallah who does what he needs to do, with unassuming endurance. The poster brings to mind Sisi’s own words, in an interview with the Washington Post shortly after the coup, during which he insisted: “I am not a hero. I’m just a person who loves his people and country and felt hurt that Egyptians were treated in such a way.” [10]

The provenance of the poster is uncertain but it appears to exist in at least two versions. One is titled “Memorabilia” and carries the endorsement of an individual, “Hajj Amin’s son.” Another is targeted at the presidential election as indicated by the number “one” and the symbol “star” in the bottom right-hand corner, directing voters to the candidate of choice. In a video interview posted on May 7, 2015 the presenter asks Mahmoud Muhammad Mahmoud, an older man, about the poster hanging in his small store. [11] Mahmoud starts by saying that he and Sisi come from the same Cairo neighborhood and then explains that he chose this image because whoever governs Egypt must carry all of its many problems on his head and shoulders. It is not entirely clear in the video or the accompanying text that Mahmoud produced the poster; both refer to him as drawing it but he never claims credit.

In a brief commentary for the Palestine Poster Project, Adel Iskander suggests that since most Egyptians do not know Mansour’s painting, the poster can be passed off as “a novel piece of art.” [12] Indeed, in the above interview the presenter at least seems to think Mahmoud is the creator of the image. But the poster’s success is dependent on the fact that there is something familiar about it. In the appropriation of Camel of Burdens, the Sisi supporter might not have been aware of its importance in Palestinian and Arab art history, and those who saw it might not have identified it as manipulation of Mansour’s painting. The image, however, draws on a representational history of sumud that is rooted in the Palestinian struggle but is legible across the region. Rather than start from scratch the designer built upon a preexisting mythology. But in Egypt, the porter is transformed into the fallah, a figure with an equally long history as a symbol of national resilience. At a moment when Sisi supporters perceived Egypt as under attack by foreigners determined to bring down the state, the appropriation of this image of perseverance was particularly fitting.

The Sisi poster features several additions to Mansour’s painting aside from the most obvious—the insertion of his face in place of the porter’s—as well as some omissions. Perhaps less immediately noticeable is that the porter’s distinct large feet are shod in black boots, presumably because it is inappropriate for a national leader to walk barefoot. He is modest but not needy. The boots are also a reminder of the return of the military—into which most Egyptian men are conscripted—to its rightful position at the center of the national project following the 2013 coup. While the feet are a striking part of the original painting, they attract no attention in this appropriation. More eye-catching is that Sisi’s load seems heavier, his eye-shaped bundle being more laden with portentous landmarks. The Dome of the Rock no longer glows in the middle, but is pushed to one side to make room for the Pyramids and the Citadel, two distinctly Egyptian rather than pan-Arab or Muslim sites. Now it is the grandeur of Egyptian civilization that is on display. The inclusion of the Citadel, part of the medieval fortification of Cairo against Crusaders, is particularly appropriate for this inward-looking moment in Egypt’s history. The surroundings are also altered to resemble Cairo’s shantytowns rather than neighborhoods of old Jerusalem.

There is something uncomfortable about this vision. In contrast to Mansour’s original dreamscape—clear, focused, serene—here the imagined future is cluttered by the past, with symbols piled on top of each other. The sense of crowdedness spills out of the sack as the Sisi character is engulfed in text. Above his head, in bold black type, is the caption, “Sisi is the hope of the nation.” And in case the magnitude of his task is not evident from the image, another slogan appears on the right-hand side of the poster, printed over strips of red, white and black, the colors of the Egyptian flag: “It is not easy to shoulder this responsibility.” The field marshal, it seems, does not shoulder his burden with the same quiet patience of the porter. Instead, the poster entreats the viewer to show the appropriate gratitude for Sisi’s sacrifice. The ocular shape of the bundle no longer calls to mind the saying about the “pupil of one’s eye,” but rather evokes Sisi’s own unnerving refrain about the Egyptian military’s supposed love for the citizenry: “Don’t you know that you are the light of our eyes?”

Palestine, But Not Palestinian

The decision to keep the Dome of the Rock in the Sisi poster is important, even if the monument is pushed to one side. Sisi will continue to champion the cause of Palestine, the Dome’s presence says; Egypt will continue to play its historical role in Arab affairs. The Palestinian, however, is absent. The erasure of the porter, combined with the continued inclusion of Jerusalem in the eye-shaped baggage, the dream of past and future Egyptian glory, highlights the ways in which the Palestinian cause can and does exist independent of the Palestinians. Within the logic of this image, there is nothing that inevitably places the Palestinian porter (and the people he represents) at the center of the struggle for Palestine. In fact, the two are easily separated. Palestine is a symbol removed from the reality of Palestinian lives under Israeli occupation and Egyptian complicity therein.

This divorcing of Palestinians from the fight for Palestine has been a part of Egyptian authorities’ approach to regional politics for decades, arguably since the decision of President Anwar al-Sadat to conclude a bilateral treaty with Israel in 1979. In the last years of his reign, Sadat’s successor, Husni Mubarak, thawed out the “cold peace” with Israel by enforcing the total blockade of the Gaza Strip following the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. The siege, punctuated by four major
Israeli military assaults, has devastated the livelihoods of Palestinians in Gaza.

After Mubarak fell and the Muslim Brother Muhammad Mursi won the presidency, the forces of the ancien regime stoked constant public outrage over the Brothers’ connection to Hamas. But the Brothers did not depart significantly from Mubarak-era policies toward Palestine and Gaza in particular. In opposition, the Brothers had backed the Hamas government’s argument that the tunnels dug underneath the Gaza-Egypt border were lifelines bringing consumer goods and fuel into the coastal enclave. But once in power the Brothers did nothing to refute the long-standing rationale for destroying the tunnels and closing the border. The tunnels are used not only for essential supplies but also for weapons and fighters eager to join the Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula. The Mursi government endorsed the Egyptian military’s flooding of the tunnels with sewage in February 2013.

The siege of Gaza, including the most aggressive tunnel demolitions, continued after the 2013 coup. By this point, however, Egyptian public opinion had shifted strongly in favor of such measures following a media campaign scapegoating Palestinians and Syrian refugees living in Egypt, repeating accusations made by the military and security agencies that the Muslim Brothers had hired them to shoot anti-Mursi protesters. One of the most horrifying articulations of this xenophobia was former parliamentarian Mustafa al-Gindi’s call on the privately owned satellite channel ONTV for the execution of Palestinians and Syrians caught at checkpoints. Certainly the Sisi government has adopted an increasingly pro-Israeli position as Egypt tries to reinsert itself into regional affairs once more. Israel’s seven-week ravaging of Gaza in the summer of 2014 elicited scant condemnation from the Egyptian authorities. In the summer of 2016, Foreign Minister Samih Shukri went to Jerusalem (not Tel Aviv), the first such visit by someone of his rank since 2007, during which he watched the Euro Cup competition with Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a public declaration of the “warmer peace” that Sisi wants, and one which found an echo in the Donald Trump administration’s threat to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

On its last stop to date in its pan-Arab travels, the image in Suleiman Mansour’s Camel of Burdens is not merely an example of appropriation, modification and mutation. Instead, with the man who is now Egypt’s president replacing the porter, it has been transformed from an icon of resistance into a manifestation of counter-revolution. Jerusalem remains Sisi’s burden to bear, not as a part of dream of a Palestinian homeland, but as a place where his top diplomat can enjoy a soccer match with the Israeli prime minister.


[1] The National (Abu Dhabi), March 17, 2016.
[2] For a detailed discussion of Suleiman Mansour’s life and career, see Gannit Ankori, Palestinian Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), pp. 60-92.
[3] Find reproductions of Mansour’s work here and here.
[4] Ankori, p. 70.
[5] Tina Sherwell, “City of Dreams,” Jerusalem Quarterly 49 (Spring 2012).
[6] Nasser Abufarha, The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 100.
[7] Ibid.
[8] For a catalogue of posters based on Mansour’s work, visit the Palestine Poster Project Archives.
[9] See Leila Zaki Chakravarti, “From Strongman to Superman: Sisi, the Savior of Egypt,” Open Democracy, April 28, 2014.
[10] Washington Post, August 5, 2013.
[11] The interview is online here.
[12] The commentary is online here.

How to cite this article:

Dina Ramadan "The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back," Middle East Report 280 (Fall 2016).

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