Randa Abu Rahmeh’s mural references the Palestinian struggle for the right to return. A line from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish states, “I come from there and I have memories.” The border of the mural is inspired by Palestinian embroidery. Photo by the author.

During the spring and summer of 2021, street artists in Amman, Jordan participated in worldwide demonstrations against Israel’s brutal eviction and dispossession of Palestinians in Jerusalem and bombing campaign of the besieged Gaza Strip. In addition to daily protests in front of the Israeli embassy in Amman and at the Israeli border during this time, many local street artists responded to the constant stream of headlines about Palestine by producing pro-Palestine graffiti and murals. Many street art practitioners and influencers also posted announcements on social media that offered free paint to artists expressing solidarity with Palestinians enduring violence and resisting Israeli settler colonialism.

What seemed like a concerted movement of art activism in a country where more than half the population identify as Palestinian was a sharp departure from the usual dynamics of public art in Amman. Up until the events of May and June 2021, a vast majority of young street artists, primarily between 20–30 years old, staunchly rejected any association of their work with politics despite their personal frustrations with the ruling order and structural issues such as rampant unemployment. They also avoided controversy or arrest by not crossing the country’s “red lines”—criticism of the government (especially the Hashemite monarchy and King Abdallah II) and its political allies, references to religion aside from abstract celebrations of coexistence between Muslims and Christians, references to social justice issues such as class inequality or the status of LGBTQ communities and expressions of non-Jordanian nationalism. Many artists instead endeavor to enhance positive communal relations and daily life by facilitating group painting sessions and by adding color to what many describe as a boring monochromatic city.[1] In their attempts to build careers, street artists also regularly collaborate with municipal authorities, non-governmental organizations and international governments on commissioned murals in the service of these institutions’ urban development, humanitarian and diplomatic agendas. These agendas include urban beautification, boosting cultural tourism, encouraging water conservation and preventing youth from joining fundamentalist political movements.

When public murals breach the red lines, authorities swiftly delete them. Their method of haphazardly covering the work with black spray paint so that it remains partially visible makes an example out of the offending street art for passersby rather than concealing it outright. While some artists say that it is possible to make street art about Palestine if the work does not advocate violence, state policing tells a slightly different story. Throughout my fieldwork, I encountered numerous instances of the police and intelligence services harassing people who produce pro-Palestine art. One street artist placed works about Palestine across the city between 2015 and 2016. Much of it commented on the experiences of children living under occupation and criticized Israel’s practice of child detentions by satirically depicting a toddler being photographed for a mugshot. Other pieces consisted of portraits of Palestinian elders juxtaposed with the Jerusalem cityscape and the word Palestine in Arabic. These works were all erased or defaced by state authorities. When I last spoke to the artist in 2018, they were still facing harassment from Jordan’s intelligence services and police despite not painting anything on a wall in years. According to this artist, authorities accused them of filling Amman’s walls with “visual pollution” and attempting to politicize Jordan’s youth.[2]

While most artists are careful not to attract the attention of the authorities, the events of 2021 united many people around shared feelings of anger and responsibility to act. The atmosphere of the time helped reduce artists’ fears of state retribution and mobilized some to temporarily abandon their positions as self-described apolitical cultural producers. As a muralist in her mid-twenties commented to me in mid-May 2021: “There’s energy around Palestine right now. It’s less scary to make art about these things when you’re not alone.”[3] Once headlines about Palestine tapered off in mid-summer, however, prior concerns about Jordanian state censorship, the agendas of fund-granting institutions and the aspirations of making a career from street art once again took precedence and artists largely returned to the highly institutionalized and regulated street art scene and its market.

The brief pivot away from what many describe as Amman’s depoliticized street art scene illuminates the role of art in 2021’s global expressions of solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The temporary change in artists’ practices also sheds light on the increased entanglements between artists, the state and institutional art patrons, which are shifting the dynamics of political expression in contemporary cities of the Middle East. In the past decade there has been a major uptick in scholarly and journalistic appreciation for Middle East arts and cultural production as a constitutive element of politics and political economy. This welcome change is in no small part due to the important role of protest art such as graffiti, music, dance and poetry in bolstering collective energies of dissent and political reimagination during the 2011 regional uprisings. With notable exceptions, such as Sonali Pahwa and Jessica Winegar’s 2012 Middle East Report essay, “Culture, State, and Revolution,” much of the scholarship in the immediate wake of 2011 emphasized the youthfully antagonistic and anti-regime qualities of Middle East arts and culture. More recent research from Hanan Toukan, Rayya El Zein and others seeks to challenge assumptions about art as inherently grassroots and oppositional to the high politics of the state and its allies while also avoiding binary thinking about art as either resistant to or complicit with the status quo. This approach to studying art worlds is critical for tracing how Amman’s street artists creatively work within and outside state institutions and regulations in ways that both reveal and constitute new dynamics of political expression in the post-2011 period.

 

Spatialized Aesthetics

 

An artist who goes by the name wawi9_1 painted an electrical box with a tribute to the late British-American rapper MF Doom. The other half contains a line from the Palestinian rapper Muqata‘a that reads, “tuck your shirt into your pants,” referring to Palestinians showing Israeli soldiers they are not hiding a weapon. Photo by the author.

Artists in Amman expressed solidarity with Palestine during the spring and summer of 2021 through several different genres. One prominent mode consisted of simple messages and slogans that transgressed regulations on public aesthetics through the defacement of state and private property. For example, residents painted Israeli flags on the sides of garbage cans and on the ground in front of entrances to express easily legible sentiments of anger at the Israeli government by linking its national symbol with trash and the dirt from one’s shoes. Pro-Palestine slogans written quickly and covertly with a single can of spray paint were also prevalent. One street artist who usually paints commissioned murals snuck into a building under construction in the city’s Abdali district and wrote “until the last beat in our veins, we will resist,” a line inspired by Palestinian Druze poet Samih al-Qasim.

Most artists, however, publicly created medium-scale murals in the artist-friendly and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Jabal Amman and Jabal al-Weibdeh—the locus of the city’s street art scene. These murals typically drew on popular symbols of pan-Palestinian identity and nationalism that were much less likely to appear on the walls of these neighborhoods even a few months earlier. Randa Abu Rahmeh created a work inspired by the famous British street artist Banksy’s stencil art on Israel’s separation wall, which restricts the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank. Her mural depicts a cherub wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh and holding a key. The key represents the struggle for Palestinians’ right to return to the homes from which Israel displaced them in 1948 and 1967, as does the line from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish on the mural stating, “I come from there and I have memories.” The border of the mural is inspired by the Palestinian cross-stitching or tatreez embroidery created by the artist’s grandmother. Artworks celebrating Palestinian identity and culture are part of Palestinian resistance to the Zionist project that downplays or denies their existence as a people. These murals are, however, distinct from the quick graffiti works since they are not produced on surfaces marked off-limits by state authorities or property owners and they do not emphasize Israel as a perpetrator of anti-Palestinian violence or announce a duty to resist that violence. This genre of solidarity murals points to a shift in the political expressions of Amman’s street artists and their sustained care to avoid the consequences of more overt aesthetic and political transgressions.

Some street artists subtly highlighted Palestinian struggles against Israeli occupation by adopting art practices that convey messages legible to a select audience but illegible to state authorities, a technique that anthropologist Elizabeth Derderian terms “conspicuous omission.”[4] An artist who goes by the name wawi9_1 painted an electrical box with a tribute to the late British-American rapper MF Doom, who passed away in 2020. Half of the box depicts MF Doom’s iconic mask. The other half contains a line from the Palestinian rapper Muqata‘a (boycott in English) that reads, “tuck your shirt into your pants,” referring to Palestinians tucking in their shirts before crossing Israeli checkpoints to show soldiers they are not hiding a weapon. The artist did not utilize colors associated with Palestine, and the words do not on their own bear any explicit references to Palestine or Israel. The artist thus forces audiences to do substantial interpretation to understand the work as a reference to Palestinian life under Israeli occupation and is less likely to catch the eyes of Jordanian authorities or disapproving residents.

In a different piece, an artist and calligraffiti writer (someone who blends Arabic calligraphy and graffiti) painted late Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali’s iconic character representing the plight of Palestinian refugees, Handala. The mural is accompanied by the Arabic words for love, peace, freedom and an Arabic transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning chaos. This Hebrew word gained widespread popular use in the Arabic-speaking Middle East after it was featured in the song “Inn Ann” by Palestinian rappers Daboor and Shabjdeed. The artists originally intended to write resistance as the fourth word but were concerned that doing so might get them into trouble.[5] Like wawi9_1, their strategy was to draw inspiration from the lyrics of Palestinian rappers to simultaneously address their work to a select audience familiar with this musical genre and to limit the legibility of their art for the Jordanian authorities.

 

Competing State Agendas and Inconsistent Censorship

 

Palestinian solidarity art in 2021 underscored how state officials struggle to maintain a public image of Jordan’s capital city as modern, culturally rich and progressive while at the same time curtailing expressions of dissent. During an interview in summer 2021, an official of the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) complained that people painting Israeli flags on trash cans tarnish Jordan’s image for visitors and political allies and remarked:

We sponsor public art to fulfill our two goals of highlighting our traditions and heritage and becoming a smart city. There is the vision of the government and the vision of the people, and sometimes these are different. However, the government gets to decide how to represent the country. We can’t have aljabha as-shabiyya running things.[6]

Al-jabha as-shabiyya refers to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian political movement that engaged in armed struggle against the Jordanian government in the 1970 conflict known as Black September. The conflict culminated in the expulsion of Palestinian political groups from Jordan and an intensified mistreatment of Palestinians as an internal threat to security and national identity. Currently, Jordanians’ attitudes about the government’s policies on Palestine are conflicted. While many praised King Abdallah’s rejection of the so-called Deal of the Century proposed by former US President Donald Trump’s administration that caved to Israeli demands, the government’s plan to buy 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from Israel over 15 years draws accusations that Jordan is normalizing relations. In regular demonstrations against this deal, protesters chant a slogan originating from the country’s chapter of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement: “The enemy’s gas is occupation.”

The Jordanian government also works hard to fashion an international reputation as an oasis of stability and hospitality amidst regional unrest to, among other things, bolster the country’s tourist economy, attract foreign investment and maintain good relations with diplomatic allies. Amman’s street art scene is one arena where the government’s goals of asserting the Hashemite regime’s dominance and boosting Jordan’s international image intersect. Street art can help energize mass mobilizations against the state and ruling elites. At the same time, public art also helps the city brand itself as a hub for cultural tourism. Thus, state agencies such as GAM provide material and symbolic support for public art initiatives while the state works to prevent and censor street art perceived as threatening to the social and political orders.

During the spring and summer of 2021, however, the state had at times relatively muted and other times confounding reactions to pro-Palestine street art. In May, a group of youth volunteers with a local community organization painted the Jordanian and Palestinian flags side-by-side on a shipping container in a public park. The next day, GAM contacted the head of the organization, told her that it is prohibited to display flags other than Jordan’s in public parks, and demanded she place a white star in the red triangle of the Palestinian flag to turn it into a Jordanian flag. The official called the center a second time when one of the youth volunteers repainted the Palestinian flag. After a short back-and-forth, the white star remained.

A government banner in Amman depicts Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock Mosque along with the words, “Jerusalem is a personal issue for the Hashemites” and “Palestine is in the heart of every Jordanian,” with a Palestinian flag interlinked with a Jordanian one. On the tunnel wall is spray painted, “All of Palestine is ours from the river to the sea.” Photo by the author.

Near the park, the government placed a banner on an overpass with the image of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock Mosque and the words, “Jerusalem is a personal issue for the Hashemites” and “Palestine is in the heart of every Jordanian.” In the center of the banner is a Palestinian flag interlinked with a Jordanian one—an identical expression of solidarity and unity that the volunteers painted in the park. In other words, one of the few incidents of state censorship during this time was of a work that mirrored abstract state positions on Israel and Palestine, which suggests that authorities are not solely focused on questions of content, but also authorship and how to monopolize control over when and where such content is displayed.

While the state censored general expressions of solidarity, they also permitted street art that celebrated popular revolution. In Jabal al-Weibdeh, a muralist and calligraffiti artist painted a masked person holding a Palestinian flag in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other—aesthetic qualities that evoke iconic images of young Palestinians using simple handmade weapons against the heavily armed Israeli military forces. After finishing the mural, the artist—who is from one of Amman’s Palestinian refugee camps—told me he had never painted any “political” works and was nervous the mural would bring him problems.[7] Yet, the mural remained untouched even after it was widely circulated by fans on social media. Furthermore, an artist of a different mural with a similar message told me that the day after he finished his piece, municipal authorities called him to ask why he did not obtain official permission for the painting.[8] Rather than deface the work like they had so many others, GAM requested a photograph of it and retroactively granted the artist official permission.

The disparity in these state responses could be due to a number of factors. The popularity of the artist and their relationship to municipal authorities could help them subvert those rules around public artistic expression that apply to them. The figure within the municipality who demanded the removal of the Palestinian flag in the park perhaps did so independently after randomly encountering the mural, a reminder that state governance is sometimes messy and unmethodical. Much of the politics of public art, however, derive from the responses it generates in those with power, and in this instance, the state asserted its authority by flipping the script about what does and does not count as resistance against its rule. These government responses underline the ways street art complicates the state’s attempts to implement several political agendas that are in contradiction with one another: showing public support for Palestine without doing so in a way that could threaten its dominance internally and supporting the expressions of young artists while tightly regulating what they can and cannot say.

Artists may try to work creatively within the limits of permissible speech only to find authorities treating mundane messages of solidarity as acts of transgression while officially sanctioning artworks crossing widely recognized red lines.
This inconsistent state censorship also calls into question common-sense notions of artistic agency. Like one’s art practices and aspirations, finished artworks are also entangled in a web of state power and institutional regimes of evaluation that shift their meanings across contexts. Artists may try to work creatively within the limits of permissible speech only to find authorities treating mundane messages of solidarity as acts of transgression while officially sanctioning artworks crossing widely recognized red lines. Ambiguous censorship also illuminates a shifting political landscape in which the limits of permissible speech are constantly in flux.

Throughout my fieldwork artists explained how this ambiguity shapes an atmosphere of anxiety. The uncertainty about which seemingly innocuous art practices could have consequences later is one reason many artists focus on the communal joys of painting non-controversial street art while pursuing artistic careers. Rather than paint covertly and at risk of arrest, many artists cultivate an ambivalence about politics, choosing instead to paint for fun during all-day sessions among friends and take on commissions from the state and other institutions to make some income in a country with a near 50 percent youth unemployment rate. In other words, artists’ practices and aspirations in Amman take form in relation to the authoritarian governance of public aesthetics as well as their own goals and the opportunities, albeit minimal, provided by commissioned art.

 

Co-optation and its Discontents

 

Dalal Mitwally’s mural for an arts festival in Amman. According to Mitwally’s Instagram, the mural honors the stories passed down from older generations and, along with them, a sense of identity and “revolutionary resistance.” Photo by the author.

One of the final murals produced in response to the spring and summer 2021 protests brings the interconnected power relations between street artists, the state and institutional art patrons further into focus. In August, Dalal Mitwally, an early-career artist, created the mural for Baladk (a bespoke transliteration of “Your Country” in Arabic), an annual street art festival sponsored by GAM and various non-governmental organizations and international embassies. By this time, most artists had stopped creating Palestine solidarity art. Other artists I spoke with at the beginning of this period never got around to painting their planned solidarity murals because income-generating and career-boosting work took precedence. Located in Jabal al-Weibdeh, Mitwally’s mural is based on a photograph of Halimeh al-Dajani, a Palestinian woman from Jaffa who was displaced to al-Hussein refugee camp in Jordan in 1948. The work—produced in collaboration with Tiraz Centre, a museum and educational institution in Amman dedicated to the clothing of the Levant—depicts Halimeh’s torso wearing a Palestinian dress or thobe adorned with tatreez cross-stitching. According to Mitwally’s Instagram, the mural honors the stories passed down from older generations and, along with them, a sense of identity and “revolutionary resistance.”

Audiences widely celebrated Mitwallly’s mural as an act of rebellion, not always for its pro-Palestine message, but for containing aesthetic qualities that represent “our society” when much Amman street art consists of images like cartoon characters and graffiti-style lettering that many residents malign as “foreign.” The head of GAM’s cultural department, Shima Al Tal, stopped by the mural for a photo-op. The GAM official I mentioned earlier, who expressed anxieties about the PFLP dictating the city’s public aesthetics, said this mural is an exemplary representation of “our heritage” while eliding the work’s connection to Palestine and Palestinians. While Mitwally’s mural is not as direct as an Israeli flag on a trash can or a line from Samih al-Qasim’s resistance poetry, it—along with the artist’s commentary about the work—offers multiple avenues of reflection and discussion about the forced displacements of 1948 and 1967 and the experiences of Palestinian refugees in Jordan. This mural is one example of how artists’ efforts to work within the limits of the system while building careers comes with the risk of the state and other prominent institutions co-opting their aspirations and practices. The more they work within the limits of expression enforced by the government, the easier it is for art to serve as tools for smoothing out the contradictions between the state’s public image as forward-thinking and actual state restrictions on political participation in practice.

Mitwally’s mural is one example of how artists’ efforts to work within the limits of the system while building careers comes with the risk of the state and other prominent institutions co-opting their aspirations and practices.

At the same time, state attempts to control narratives about art are often frustrated when artworks circulate to diverse audiences. On March 7, 2022, GAM posted a photo of Mitwally’s mural on its social media pages in recognition of “Amman City Day.” The text accompanying the posts describes the mural as an “expression of pride” in tatreez as a form of heritage without mentioning Palestine or the background of the artwork. The post sparked a controversy online, with dozens of people commenting “this is not our heritage” and accusing GAM of “degrading Jordan’s identity” and attempting to turn Jordan into the alternative Palestinian homeland. Many respondents made jokes that the Greater Ramallah or Greater Jaffa Municipality controls Amman’s street art scene. People also responded to GAM’s posts with the hashtag #erase_the_mural. In this instance, anger at the presence of Palestinian aesthetics on Amman’s walls was augmented by the municipality’s promotion of the mural as an official representation of the city, despite (or due to) efforts to downplay its connection to Palestine and Palestinians. This episode demonstrates that there is no singular actor or entity that draws the boundaries of political struggles waged through art practices and objects.

 

Deepening Entanglements

 

Since the events of the spring and summer of 2021, there have been numerous protests against the Israeli government’s policies of settler colonialism and apartheid, as well as against ties between Jordan and Israel. In November, hundreds took to the streets of Amman to voice their opposition to an agreement for Jordan to provide Israel with 600 megawatts of electricity generated from a UAE-funded solar energy plant in Jordan in exchange for 200 cubic meters of desalinated water from Israel. The continuously growing and institutionalized street art scene, however, has not responded to headlines about Palestine or participated in these protests as they did a few months earlier, in the same way that mobilizations in Palestine and globally have also not reached the scale of May and June.

This brief period of Palestine solidarity in Amman’s street art scene is not so much emblematic of opportunistic or inauthentic art activism, but rather underlines what many scholars of protest movements in the Middle East and beyond have long argued: predicting when and how popular mobilizations occur is difficult and usually undertaken by those who seek to quash struggles for liberation and freedom. The spring and summer 2021 events in Amman do, however, provide a unique window into the strategies and cultural policies that artists, states and their allied institutions are adopting in the post-2011 Middle East. Indeed, local and international politics continue to pose “major challenges as well as unprecedented opportunities to the culture industries” in the region.[9] Closely following the nuances in networks of art production and circulation is essential for seeing how those politics play out on the ground in everyday contexts.

 

[Kyle Benedict Craig is a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at Northwestern University.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Between 2015–2021 I conducted a combined 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Amman for my doctoral dissertation. I also conducted remote fieldwork during this time, particularly since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout my fieldwork, I attended art exhibitions; observed graffiti and street art painting sessions; conducted neighborhood walks and spoke with people living near street art; participated in walking tours of Amman’s public art scene and conducted semiformal interviews with artists, curators, NGO and embassy employees, and figures within the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). This essay mostly draws from three months of fieldwork I conducted in Amman from May to August 2021.

[2] Interview in Amman, Jordan, July 19, 2018.

[3] Interview in Amman, Jordan, May 20, 2021.

[4] Elizabeth Derderian, “The Art of Critique: Contemporary Artists and Conspicuous Omission in the UAE” (unpublished manuscript, September 17, 2021), typescript.

[5] Interview in Amman, Jordan, June 18, 2021.

[6] Interview in Amman, Jordan, August 5, 2021.

[7] Interview in Amman, Jordan, June 25, 2021.

[8] Interview in Amman, Jordan, July 1, 2021.

[9] Sonali Pahwa, Jessica Winegar, “Culture, State and Revolution,” Middle East Report 263 (Summer 2012).

 

How to cite this article:

Kyle Benedict Craig "The Challenges of Palestinian Solidarity in Amman’s Street Art Scene," Middle East Report Online, March 30, 2022.

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