Hear in the Holy Land | Ramallah
Art for Thought in Palestine’s de facto Capital
One of my biggest regrets of this trip is not having planned more time in Ramallah. In fact, in my ignorance I hadn’t originally planned any, but folks here kept telling me various versions of “If you want to see Palestinian culture, you have to go to Ramallah.” I was able to carve out some time in my calendar to make a day-trip from Tantur. One measly day.
Ramallah is viewed widely as the Palestinian capital—even if it doesn’t hold that designation officially.* It is, anyway, the administrative center of the Palestine. It’s also where both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Darwish are buried, making it an incredibly important city for Palestinian identity. It’s also the cultural hub of Palestine, and perhaps the most Westernized place I saw during my time in the West Bank.
But still, very few Westerners will ever set foot in this city during their ‘Holy Land’ travels. Even though it’s a modern, fully functioning metropolis; even though it’s a mere 30-minute bus ride from Jerusalem; even though it was originally a Christian city that still boasts a significant Christian population (not that this should matter; but the fact is—whether it’s logical or not—this sort of stat makes the city a little less ‘scary’ in our commonly Islamophobic eyes).
To echo my sentiments regarding Nablus: this is a shame. Ramallah is both worthy of and ready for our attention—though perhaps our prejudices make us unworthy of Ramallah.
- SN: Speaking only anecdotally now: someone I met here in my travels told me that, because such a small number of internationals actually travel to Ramallah, the checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah take on a darker tinge than the one going to Bethlehem. Indeed, during my travels I read of Palestinians being shot at the Qalandia checkpoint (the one I went through) on two separate occasions—and I’ve been told several times that this is a very regular occurrence there. Whether this is because Israeli soldiers feel more trigger-happy without international eyes upon them, or because Palestinians feel more free to express their frustration of Israeli governance, I really don’t know enough to say. Either way, an increased international presence would probably improve the situation.
During my brief time in Ramallah, I took some time to wander through the downtown streets (my favourite thing to do when discovering new cities!), and I was able to visit three important cultural places: the Dar Zahran Heritage Building, Zawyeh Gallery, and the Mahmoud Darwish Museum.
Dar Zahran Heritage Building
Dar Zahran is situated in the Old City of Ramallah, in an old house handed down through one family for generations. It now lay in the hands of Zahran Jaghab.
But the Old City, it seems, no longer serves as a residential area; and as such, many buildings like Zahran’s family home are being gutted and transformed into cafés and restaurants.
So rather than living in it, Zahran has made the building into a heritage site: he has turned it into a display of history and Palestinian identity by hanging up old photos, by creating a museum of old artifacts that hail back to traditional Palestinian life, and by forming a small art gallery of deeply cultural paintings.
The photos and museum were certainly very interesting, but for me the art gallery was by far the most memorable.
Ismail Shammout & Tamam Al-Akhal | Refugee Painters
Unfortunately, the art wasn’t original—the pieces were all high-quality prints (I learned later, however, that the originals are widely known and probably fetch a ridiculously high price). Regardless, I was content to read and learn about Palestine’s story by inspecting what was on display, mere prints though they may have been.
These pieces were all painted by two very important Palestinian painters: Ismail Shammout (1930–2006) and Tamam Al-Akhal (1935-). Both refugees, the former from Lydda and the latter from Yafo, these painters married in 1959 and have since become known for employing distinctly Palestinian symbols into their work, thus expressing Palestine’s life, culture, and story.
The exhibit in Zahran’s home displayed a joint project called Palestine: The Exodus and the Odyssey—a collection of 19 murals that express the plight and journey of the Palestinian people since 1948. I’ve compiled a majority of them below (not in chronological order—sorry!)…
As I slowly drank in the content of each of these paintings, they clearly bespoke an emotional and dramatic saga—and they drew me, piece-by-piece, a little bit closer to the Palestinian story. I can only imagine the effect of seeing them full-scale (the original murals are apparently quite large).
Zahran’s transformation of his home, he told me, had several purposes: first of all, doing so allowed him to keep the home in the family—instead of being pressured to sell it off to a restaurateur or other such small business owner; however, he also wishes to keep the memory and history of his family—and those of Ramallah’s Palestinian Christians in general—alive. This he sees as a valuable part of Ramallah’s—and Palestine’s—history.
Dar Zahran serves these purposes well, and I was thankful for having visited Zahran and his heritage home.
After a very friendly but very awkward language-barrier cab ride (lots of hopeless hand-motions!), I found Zawyeh Gallery—an art gallery recommended to me by a new friend in Tel Aviv (Rutie Atsmon, who runs a peace-building NGO called Windows).
When I walked in, things were, well, basically just a big mess; the walls were completely bare (and some were being painted), tools were lying all over the floor, and paintings were leaning everywhere. Dang, I thought, Bad timing on my part!
This initial judgment proved as far from the truth as can be imagined—for down from a flight of stairs came Ziad Anani.
Ziad is the founder, owner, and gallerist of Zawyeh Gallery. He was dressed in casual wear, though dirty and worn, and I could tell he had been hard at work. A visitor at this ‘in-between stage’ of his gallery couldn’t have been very convenient. I expected to be shown the door—but this didn’t happen.
After shaking my hand, introducing himself with a smile, and grabbing me a glass bottle of Sprite, Ziad gave me an exclusive tour. It was amazing. He not only provided me with an informed explanation of the exhibition he was getting set to hang (I’ll get to to this bit shortly), but he also led me up another floor to see a massive collection of pieces from various Palestinian artists that he was storing. There were some absolutely stunning paintings packed away—and some of them fetch a hefty price (such as a couple from the famed Sliman Mansour).
Along the way, Ziad informed me that Zawyeh was the first art gallery to be established in all of Ramallah—and yet, it was founded only a few years ago (2013). Clearly, though, it filled a need here: after four years of intensely hard work, Ziad has made the gallery very successful. His mission, as stated on his website, is simple:
“In addition to presenting local artists to an international audience, the gallery’s mission is to promote established and emerging artists from Palestine through various thematic exhibitions.”
By my judgment, he is succeeding at this rather well.
Intimate Spaces | Rana Samara
Before I interrupted him by poking my nose in his gallery, Ziad had been working on getting its next exhibit ready. This exhibit, called “Intimate Spaces”, was created by Rana Samara. Samara’s artistic inspiration for this work is certainly political, but she comes at if from a very interesting angle.
Before she set brush to canvas, Samara visited Palestinian refugee camps. She talked to some of the women living there and asked them about when and where they have sex.
I basically needed to physically grab my innocent virgin eyebrows and pull them back down into place, so as not to cause a scene. (And yes, I know some of you who know me best wish so badly that you could have been there.)
Of course, this isn’t (only) because I’m a bit of a prude—it’s also because it came out of nowhere in a society I would have least suspected it. Muslim culture is generally quite a bit more conservative than I am on this matter.
But the more I thought about it (and the more Ziad explained it), the more I realised how clever Samara was being: she was bringing up the serious, sad fact of Palestine’s significant refugee population by using a subject that is somewhat startling for outsiders, but relatively common for the refugees themselves.
The answers in Samara’s paintings are thought-provoking, and they reveal one of the many inconveniences of refugee camps: they’re cramped; private space can be a rather tough find. Samara painted the various places described in the women’s answers; and aside from bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, there were also cars—some of them taxi-cabs!
A little startling for some folks—but it certainly gets the intended message across.
I walked away from Zawyeh once again surprised by, and grateful for, the hospitality of this culture. Ziad generously took time out of his busy day to give me a free tour—a student who he knew couldn’t purchase any work or extend his network in any significant way. In my mind, that’s astounding.
I also took note of the fact that gallery-art may be new here, but it’s catching on—gallery-art: a Western method of fostering the arts in such a way that it actually removes art from the mix of everyday life and sticks it in its own sanitised little category. What will the effects of this Westernization be for Middle Eastern cultures whose art has traditionally been participatory and social rather than curated and isolated? I wonder…
The Mahmoud Darwish Museum
I did not know who Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008) was three weeks ago.
But here, Darwish is probably the most famous artist around (or infamous, depending on what one thinks of him). As I understand it, there is even controversial talk of including his work in the Israeli education program.
Darwish is a Palestinian poet who has been described as “one of the poetic pillars of the Arab world.” His ability with the Arabic language is reportedly masterful and moving, but I’ve only been able to read his work in English (and still I’m enjoying it!).
More than his poetic ability, however, is what he stood for and how he stood for it. Darwish was born in 1942 and thus was only a child during the 1948 Israeli-Arab War that exiled his Galilean family from their home, along with countless other Palestinians.
As he continued to struggle with the obstacles of refugee life, Darwish strove to remember his Palestinian identity and hold it aloft for his people. He did this through evocative poetry that is honest and often full of anguish—and yet he does not seem to harbour hatred for the Israelis who exiled him. The Guardian attests, “In much of his poetry Darwish affirmed his own and his people’s reality yet he did not deny that of the Other.”
“There are two maps of Palestine that politicians will never manage to forfeit: the one kept in the memories of Palestinian refugees, and that which is drawn by Darwish’s poetry.” — Anton Shammas
I won’t go into Darwish’s biography much further, as you’d be better off simply reading his Wikipedia page. I’ll just take the time here to note how massive an impact Darwish’s engagement of art made on his people—on their sense of identity and on their cultural resilience. For the Palestinian people to esteem a poet to a magnitude that seems second only to their iconic leader, Yasser Arafat—this is a testament to Darwish’s work.
I was able to visit Al-Birweh Park, within which lies both Darwish’s grave and a small museum displaying some of his personal belongings and manuscripts. I wasn’t able to glean much from the mainly Arabic-lettered content there, but the visit still carried a weight of significance. I purchased a good English translation of some of his work and am looking forward to reading it through in the months to come.
As I’ve implied above, one day is just not enough to explore Ramallah, and I wish I had set more time aside. Still, I’m grateful for the time I had there, and thoroughly enjoyed this arts-filled day-trip.
Post-Script | The Tamer-Hindi Experience
There was a certain local drink I encountered on the streets of Nablus called Tamer-Hindi. It’s commonly sold by men dressed in snazzy traditional costume who carried it about the streets in ornate vessels. I saw them again in Ramallah:
When you see people all dressed up like this, pouring people drinks out of enamouring spouted receptacles, well, it stirs one’s curiosity. So in Nablus I bought a cup of Tamer-Hindi. And, having been well-raised by a very responsible and considerate mother, I made sure to finish what I was given.
What does it taste like? Well, I’ve been trying very hard to find an accurate description ever since drinking it in Nablus. The best I can come up with is this: it tastes like those Werther’s Original hard candies (you know, those hard caramel-ish candies you break your teeth on as a kid during Christmas?). But in juice form.
So…picture drinking down a lukewarm cup of Werther’s candies (let’s say about 20 of them) that have miraculously just successfully passed through your juicer.
If that sounds like your kind of shtick, you’re either 6 years old or you have a the sort of sweet tooth that good friends should be concerned about. But by all means, if you’re ever in the area, hunt down these flamboyantly dressed juicers and have at it. I, for one, needed to wash my mouth out with hummus.
* What does it mean to have an ‘official-unofficial’ capital? Well, those who know me know I’m mostly politically hopeless — even in terms of Canadian politics (it’s so shameful I can’t believe I’m even admitting it in writing); so don’t ask me to explain the intricacies of politics here!
But to take a tenuous stab at it: I think Jerusalem is its declared capital, but that city lies beyond its current de facto border; thus, Palestine is in a ‘government-in-exile’ sort of situation, and they’ve made Ramallah its in-the-meantime administrative centre.