Gaza / Tel Aviv
This time Hope Box is in the Middle East, starting with Palestine. In Khan Younis, a city in the south of Gaza. Gaza is an area about forty by six kilometers with close to a million inhabitants. Khan Younis was originally a village to which a refugee-camp is built with 75.000 inhabitants and meanwhile is surrounded by Israeli settlements.
For 35 years, the State of Israel has been occupying the Palestinian territories despite the large number of UN resolutions that clearly prohibit it. The occupation has had devastating consequences for both sides and has brought extensive suffering to the Palestinian people.
I am invited by a Dutch Foundation (which coincidentally has the name HOPE) to bring the Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe Art-show in Khan Younis. By request of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) this Foundation has set up an Open Studio for children in the multifunctional centre of the PRCS; Al-Amal City. Here the Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe Art-show will take place. I travel to Khan Younis with one of the founders of this Open Studio, artist Ingrid Rollema.
Three days before our departure a double suicide attack in Tel Aviv takes the life of twenty people. The already tense situation in the area is being put under even more pressure.
Already from the El-Al Gate in Schiphol-airport (the Netherlands) we are submitted to thorough inspection. All kites are unrolled, every little tool unpacked. In Tel Aviv-airport we are put through our paces about the reason for our visit.
Due to shelling we have to wait at the Gaza frontier station while the sun goes down behind the fence. Because it has become dark we stay this first night in Gaza city. The next morning on our way to Khan Younis we pass checkpoints where there are often traffic blocks. This time because there has to be a minimum of three persons in one car because of the risk of suicide bombers. Many drivers have to drum up co-riders, which takes time. In view of strategic the Israeli tank-bulldozers have trampled down the originally scenic landscape around us leaving behind a wasteland. At the horizon you can see the Israeli settlements connected with hyper-modern highways with a single car on it.
On our way you can see an unbroken thread of colourful Arabic texts. In the odd translation you can read a political statement.
The impressive building of the PRCS, Al-Amal City, is situated in the centre of Khan Younis. Around its entrance a wreath of bullet-holes, whose trail reaches far inside the building. Even on the ceiling of my room on the fifth floor there are a couple of bullet-holes. On a stage next to the Open Studio we set up the Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe-tent together with the local team of the Open Studio: Shadi Nayif Jarbue, Ahmed Hassan Alfaghawi, Nehad Aittya en Jamila Hamoda. The first group of children is already on its way! The next couple of days heaps of children, artists and storytellers will take part in the show.
Doctor Jean Calder is one of the driving forces behind the Al-amal city. Before she worked in a hospital in Lebanon. After a bombardment three disabled children, Hamoudi, Dalal and Bad'r, were left behind. Jean took them up and now, years later, all four live together right across the Al-Amal City building.
Dalal is a translator and during all the shows she stands by me. With her swift translations she enriches the interaction between the children and myself.
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After a successful first day we are on our way to Gaza City for an opening of an overview exhibition of the artists of Gaza. To me that is a gift from heaven since I would like to initiate Weather Report and Cadavre Exquis here as well.
In Khan Younis artist Moh'd Al Farra, Naser El Majada and Jamal Abu Shamala have already started with a Cadavre Exquis Art-Kite. Now we have taken the kite with us to be continued in Gaza City.
On the exhibition I see a lot of illustrations of the stories people have been telling me here. The paintings of Hazem Harb stand out. (See Spotlight
). We have a good conversation after which I show him the Weather Report. He is very enthusiastic and wants to join in so I include him in the project. Meanwhile a group of artists wants to continue the Cadavre Exquis Art-kite. Quickly I explain the concept because we have to go back to Khan Younis as in Gaza it's difficult and unsafe to drive at night. We leave the Cadavre Exquis-kite behind with the artists Abdel Al Nasser Amer, Mohammed Al-Hawagry, Rayid Essa, Mohammed Abu Sali, Sohil Salem and Abed Al Raufe-a.
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This first night in Khan Younis I start my drawings for Weather Report while outside a pandemonium is loose. Helicopters, explosions and big fireballs, which light up the sky. While looking outside I ask myself if this is 'normal'. Just minutes later doctor Jean calls. She explains to me that we have to leave the building because the Israeli army has invaded the city and the Al Amal City may become a target. We are moved to the hospital around the corner where at one point it seems the facade is being blown up, the force of an explosion further down. For our security they bring us to the operation-room where at that moment a boy is brought in who has been shot through his leg. That night one person is killed and others are wounded. The army-tanks shoot many shops to rags and damage several public buildings in order to intimidate.
The next day
The next morning a group of mentally and physically disabled children arrives for the show. It is unimaginable how they get through a night like last night. Most children hang on the storytellers lips except three girls with their heads bowed tucked away in the back of the tent. As usual after storytelling we continue with philosophy. When closing this part of the show I ask the children to close their eyes and describe what they see. These children start describing the most frightening images and commotion arises in the group. I start asking about the happy end of the story, the wedding. Fortunately the children pick it up and the atmosphere turns cheerful as the children describe what everything and everybody looks like at the wedding. At one point two boys start to dance imitating the dance of both the tiger-guests and that of the ordinary guests.
During the drawing-session most children start off enthusiastically. The three girls sit motionless behind the big white cloth. The team manage to inspire the girls and it is really wonderful to see them flourish. When at the end they present themselves and their drawings in front of the video camera they appear confident and proud.
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During the lunch-break we drive through town to witness the damage that the Israeli tanks have caused last night.
The city looks battered and people are cleaning up the mess and setting bricks to close the enormous holes in the facades of the buildings. Although it is very crowded on the street it is notably calm. An atmosphere difficult to describe might be caused by contempt for this unjust fate. On the square we see people carrying flags gathering for a procession for last night's victim. Many of the children of our afternoon-group walk in this procession. Nevertheless the storytelling-carpet is packed with children and adults that afternoon.
That night we have dinner in the house of Jean, Dalal, Bad'r and Hamoudi. We first pay a visit to Hamoudi. Due to a congenital desease Hamoudi is unable to move. During the bombardment in Lebanon he also lost an eye, part of his nose and the muscles in his throat were damaged so he can't talk and can hardly swallow. Communicating with Hamoudi is almost impossible. Only Jean seems to know what he wants through the smallest signs. Jean says Hamoudi can be seen as a symbol for the Palestinian struggle as he has been through so much misery and is still alive.
When we return home after a lovely dinner we notice how quiet it is outside. It remains quiet until late that night prayers from all directions burst out of the loudspeakers. It does not sound like common prayers. The voices sound heavy and sometimes even imminent.
Next morning it turns out another two people have been killed.
The loudspeakers announced it and said prayers for the victims.
"The day after the night incursion and bombing raid by the Israeli army into Khan Younis, leaving a pattern of great destruction, two Israeli helicopters attempted to assassinate two men who were riding in a car on the road between Khan Younis and Rafah. The two men became aware of the helicopter, left the car, and ran off across open paddocks. The helicopters chased them, firing at them. The men escaped, but two people in a nearby house were killed and a third wounded. One of the people killed was 15 year old Abdel Rahman Mohammed Ahmed Najar. Abdel Rahman was physically disabled - hemiplegic.
Abdel Rahman is the fourth disabled youth from the PRCS Rehabilitation Department programs at Al Amal City Khan Younis to be killed by the Israeli army. (...)
The same depressing pattern continues - house demolitions; land clearances; killing of people - men, women & children; closures; etc - it has become a daily pattern to expect any situation at any time; and in-between to try to keep up standards in the work place. The abnormal has become the normal."
The storytellers are diverse and very good: Ziyad Badauiy, Ahlam Abed, Kaled Abu Mostafa, Jamila Hamoda and Maher Kalaf.
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The children are concentrated during the storytelling and very eager to philosophise about the story. They seem to find many connections to their own social reality. During the drawing sessions most children create their fantasy inspired by the story. Some use the tank as metaphor for the monster in the story.
The last group to join the show are boys in the age of 13 years old. During storytelling and philosophy the boys are sharp and concentrated. During drawing there is some difference. Where most children seem to use the story to go by, most of them are absorbed by their social reality: Stars of David and swastika's, machine-guns and tanks. A big greedy monster named Sharon. One of the boys has lost most of his fingers. After outlining his hand (a part of the show; the children write their name in it) he points at it. We tell him it is an unique print and a special symbol. The boys start talking their mind at the end of the kite tail and I show understanding. A positive and special atmosphere arises. We close the show with applause and take the kite downstairs to exhibit it in the sky. (due to the present situation it is too dangerous to find a good spot to fly the kite so we fly it at a small area next to the building)
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In the evaluation conversation with the team, the co-operators want to know if I will bring the Hope Box to Israel as well. They say they are very curious about the expressions of the Israeli children and artists. I tell them I am curious too and that I will let them know.
In the late afternoon of my last day in Khan Younis I look over the city from the open window in my room. Next to me sits a white dove doing the same. For minutes we gaze over the grey city and the settlements on the background. Thoughts about the reality of life here pass in revue. It have been impressive days and I have seen and learned a lot. Let's hope the future will bring better times for the people here. And soon, because one thing is for sure, it cannot go on like this any longer.
Moh'd Al Farra, artist from Khan Younis co-operated in both Cadavre Exquis and all Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe shows and just before I leave he brings his first & fair Weather Report!
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I have only just arrived in Gaza city when Hazem Harb comes by with his first & bright Weather Report. Meanwhile the car of Musa Saba is waiting for us as well. Together we visit the YMCA where Musa Saba better known as Abu Isa was General Secretary (and since has been succeeded by his son Isa Saba). The Gaza City YMCA is a wonderful oasis. In it an art-school and exhibition-space and lovely play-area for children. I hope to bring the Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe Artshow to the Gaza City YMCA coming summer and fly the kites at the annual Kite festival.
During our first stay in Gaza city we had a lucid conversation with Abu Isa and dr. Anton Shuhaileer about the Middle East and Palestine in particular. Tonight we are invited to celebrate New Years eve with dr Anton, Abu Isa and their family. A perfect night in good company with a Christmas tree, wine and good food.
The next early morning I visit the house of Hazem where I get to see many of his wonderful paintings.
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After this swift but impressive visit we leave for Jerusalem.
Tina Sherwell and Jawad Al-Malhi live in a Palestinian district which recently has been closed by a wall. The taxi can't get across so we have to walk with our luggage to the other side. Tina is an artist with a Palestinian mother and a British father. She is married to the Palestinian artist Jawad Al-Malhi who spend most of his life in a refugee camp. Tina en Jawad contacted me in January 2002 to find out if I was interested to bring the Hope Box to Palestine. Jawad created 'The Dream of Flying', a workshop with children in refugee-camps in which Art-kites are created. Tina writes about Palestinian artists. A co-operation between us seemed perfect. When the second Intifada began our plans went temporarily up into smoke. Now I am here for the show in Khan Younis, there is an opportunity to pick up where we left of. In between meetings Ingrid and I manage to walk through most of the Via Dolorosa, the traditional way of the Cross. We pass the Wailing Wall and we try to visit Al Aqsa. Israeli soldiers however stop us at the gate, only Muslims are allowed to go in, they say. Because tourists stay away there are hardly any people around which makes the whole tour rather unreal. The view of the city is stunning. A mix of religion and styles and the almost organic way it has grown and deteriorates. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah are places where I hope to initiate Hope Box projects coming summer. Now I leave for Tel Aviv and Ingrid leaves for the Netherlands.
Storm and rain in Tel Aviv. While sheltering from it I find it reflects my state of mind and probably that of city underneath the 'bussiness as usual' facade. The atmosphere in the city is sinking and people seem depressed.
'How can you not be political here' says Israeli artist Marilou Levin. Marilou is like her work, very open-hearted and personal. Marilou says she is scared and nervous and doesn't dare come in places where there are crowds. She also bemoans the economical situation but quickly states it not be in proportion to the bandy attacks. Marilou asks me what Hazem's studio looks like. I tell her that as far as I know he works in his room.
Most artists I meet are interested in their colleagues in Palestine and show understanding for the situation in Palestine. However I sometimes get the feeling they do not fully realize how their reality relates to that of the Palestinians although the media does show images of the battered cities and its poor citizens. Adina Alshech, the manager of the Noga Gallery, asks for the email-address of Hazem whose Weather Report she saw and liked. Artist Gilad Efrat later says he doesn't think Hazem will be interested. Times are too tense for that now. Gilad is loud and clear about the political situation. Where others sigh how complicated the situation is, Gilad says the solution is simple. Gilad's work is evenly clear and strong.
The big problem is hatred which is deeply rooted. According to Gilad it might take more than a generation to kill that hatred. After the second Intifada in such short time people have become numb, desperate even. Gilad tells about co-operations with Palestinian artists after the first Intifada and how everyone was enthusiastic and full of hope than.
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During some get-togethers with artists I find that in first instance most of them seem to feel attacked and condemned when I tell them about my experiences in Palestine. After some time, fortunately, their attitude changes.
Many artists in Tel Aviv, like many of their colleagues in Palestine, illustrate or reflect in their work the story of their social reality. The work of Hazem, Gilad, Moh'd and Marilou I find particularly forceful because they peel of layers, uncover and initiate.
Soon there will be elections in Israel and in the Polls I see that the Likud party might become bigger than before and the Labour Party somewhat smaller. It seems that fear instead of hope is guiding the Israelis.
For updates on the situation with Iraq, I follow the news on BBC World and CNN. Many Israelis think a war against Iraq is inevitable and feel relatively safe since they have the most advanced armoury and defence-system.
The story is reversed for the Palestinians. They are afraid Sharon will take advantage of the situation and will chase them into the sea. The international community has so far done little to improve the situation of the Palestinians and many of the Palestinians now have sympathy for Sadam Houssein who calls the Palestinians his brothers and promises to support them.
This morning on my way to breakfast, the fire-alarm goes of. The breakfast room is filled with smoke; the toaster has run wild. The breakfast room is nearly empty but the odd person there imperturbably eats breakfast. I too walk into the cloud of smoke to the breakfast-buffet.
Gilad en Marilou are the Weather Reporters from Israel.
The Cadavre Exquis kite did not take off in Israel.
Hopefully this will happen next summer.
snapshots: Rienke Enghardt