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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

It's Only Art, Right?!
January 19, 2000

Map
Why?

"Just before your worlds turns to be all black and the rain of dreams start knocking on your brain's window, You find those few minutes to ask yourself over and over again.

WHY?

Why do we have to shut up?

Why do we have to go on with our lives ignoring what is happening in the world or even your own neighborhood?

WHY?"

These are the words that accompanied 18 year-old Salma Samara's art installation, words that have stirred quite a controversy here in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. These words are being used as a reason to justify censorship.... "WHY?" you may ask? "Why do people feel so threatened by the words of an 18 year-old girl?"

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A closer look reveals a reality built upon conflict
Caption
Salma grew up in the town of Tira. About 45 minutes north of Tel Aviv, with a population of around 80,000, Tira is not exactly your typical Israeli suburb. Tira is an Arab-Israeli town. You've heard of the Israelis, and the Arabs, but who are the Arab-Israelis you ask? Well, as we've been attempting to portray during our stay here in Israel and Palestine, there are many different parties that play a role in the relations and conflict here. In addition to the broad classifications of Palestinians and Jews, there is another distinct group of people known as Arab-Israelis. Arab-Israelis are Arab people, primarily Muslim, who are Israeli citizens. BUT, although they are recognized as citizens by the Israeli government they are far from being treated equal under the law.

Although Arab-Israelis are Israeli citizens, they are far from being considered equal citizens. They do not receive the same social services, healthcare, or aid that is available to Jewish Israeli citizens. Some argue that this is justified because the Arab-Israelis do not serve in the Israeli army, but this argument only goes so far when it is realized that the orthodox religious Jews, who also don't serve in the army, receive a great deal of aid from the government. The Arab-Israeli towns are not treated equally in terms of municipal spending either. This means their schools, hospitals, roads, and community centers are of poorer quality than those of the neighboring Jewish towns.

Not only are the Arab-Israelis treated like second-rate citizens by the Israeli's, but they are also sometimes resented by their Palestinian neighbors. As Salma put it, "They are our relatives. We are one people, one blood, only a line separates us." Unfortunately, some Palestinian people do not see it that way, and feel as though the Arabs who remained and became Israeli citizens are traitors. Thus the Arab-Israelis are caught in between, and are a third party that are often overlooked in the peace process.

My new friend Adi showed me around Tira for the first time yesterday. As we drove through the modern and flashy city streets of Tel Aviv and out into the suburbs, we passed large neighborhoods and strip malls, but then we turned off the main route towards the sign leading to Tira. There is no physical border or gate separating Tira from the Jewish neighborhoods that surround it, but you can instantly feel the difference. The streets were not as clean or marked with new lights or municipal trash cans. There were signs in Arabic and veiled women crossing the streets-- all of which were strangely comforting and familiar... it reminded me of Egypt!

Adi is an artist who has devoted his life to trying to achieve a mutual peace here in Israel and Palestine. A Jewish Israeli, he stands out driving through the streets of Tira. "I have so many friends who talk about peace, but they want peace that's 'over there',"he explains, pointing out the window of the car. "Most of them have never even been to an Arab-Israeli town, much less the West Bank. They are scared of their own neighbors."

Unlike the vast majority of the country who mostly talk about peace, Adi is actually doing something about it - through collaboration. By using what he does best, art, Adi is breaking new ground. He hopes that getting people to collaborate together on art projects will dispel the fears and misconceptions they have of each other. And who better to realize the simplicity of this message than youth?

The town of Tira, like most Arab towns in Israel, is neglected in many aspects. Budgets are limited for schools and the one community center, so art is a luxury the town cannot afford. Seeing art as an important tool for expression, Adi started the first art workshop in Tira. For the past three years he has been working with youth from Tira, and the results have been extraordinary.

Vocabulary:
incite - to create
schemes - plan of action
Intifadah - "The shaking off" The Palestinian uprisings that occurred in the late 1980's. The conflicts over land between the Israeli's and the Palestinians brought on the Intifadah and brought these issues into the international spotlight.
dispel - to destroy
confrontational - to be so aggressive that it makes people uncomfortable

Kids who had no prior exposure or even notion of art are now creating works worthy of the finest art schools. But, what is so moving about their works of art is that they are expressive and revealing of the lives they lead. No, these are not your ordinary 16, 17 and 18 year olds. They are youth who have grown up under a system of discrimination. By the young age of 5 or 6, they were living through the stormy years of the intifadah. I remember seeing horrifying images of Israeli soldiers pointing guns at children armed with stones, of bombings and beatings, of terrorist attacks and terrified people on the T.V. when I was growing up. To think that Salma and her friends actually lived on those very smoke-filled streets, that they could have been the very kids I saw running from the soldiers was quite a wakeup call for me.

After years of working together, Adi and the core group of students realized that it was time to share their works. What better place to start than with their neighbors?! They approached the community center of Kohav Yair, one of Tel Aviv's most affluent (Jewish) suburbs and a close neighbor to Tira. An idea evolved that would be a joint venture between the community centers of Tira and Kohav Yair. The young artists from Tira would set up an exhibit in Kohav Yair's community center. In addition to it being open to the community, schools would take field trips to visit the exhibit, and youth from Kohav Yair would begin working with the youth from Tira in joint art projects.

What an exciting idea! The youth from Tira had received such wonderful reviews from all the critics and reporters that had seen the art, that the community center in Kohav Yair couldn't possibly deny the offer. Adi and his crew quickly set the ball in motion and began the long process of installing the exhibit. Salma and the five other artists who have been working with Adi since the beginning of the workshop were ecstatic and full of hope. Finally after weeks of long, hard work, the exhibit was ready to be opened.

Oct. 28, 1999...the day of the big opening. An opening ceremony was scheduled for that evening and hundreds of people were expected from both communities. It was an exciting time for all involved. Five minutes before the opening was to begin, the gallery was already at maximum standing room capacity, all the excitement and hope surrounding the much anticipated event came crashing down on Adi, Salma, and the others. The director of Kohav Yair's community center approached 18 year- old Mohammed and asked him not to perform the piece he was planning for the opening ceremony, an integral part of his exhibit.

What? Five minutes before the opening?!!! And now the tricky and oppressive schemes of censorship come in to play?!

You might be wondering why Mohammed's piece was so controversial? The piece entitled, "Beside the House", looks harmless enough. He had constructed a 6-foot tall cinderblock wall. On the wall was painted the image of a mother and child in a home environment. This cinderblock wall was placed a few feet in front of the actual wall of the gallery, on which was drawn a black and white outline of the same scene. During the opening Mohammed had planned on breaking the wall, leaving nothing but broken bricks in front of the outlined image of what once stood. Three months later, the wall still stands.

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Is this too controversial for the public to see?
Caption
The destruction of the wall was symbolic of the controversial Israeli government practice of housing demolition. The card Mohammed wrote to describe his exhibit explains that the wall represents the house of an actual Arab family living in the West Bank. The government has announced that they plan to destroy it for not having a proper license for the building. The house is eventually destroyed and a new settlement is built in its place. This is one way in which some Israeli's have been trying to populate the West Bank, so that they can claim proper ownership of the land. Mohammed questions how the government can sit for peace talks while destroying homes..."Where's the peace?"

The director of Kohav Yair's community center feared that the piece was too controversial and that it would incite anger amongst the residents. Confronted with this opposition just minutes before he was supposed to open the exhibit, Mohammed was confused about what to do.

"We didn't come here to destroy,"Mohammed began in his speech. "We are a new generation and we are here to build a new future."Salma, Adi, and the others were unaware of the director's request and looked at each other in confusion. They were anxiously awaiting the moment when Mohammed would break the wall. When he didn't, chaos erupted. Residents from both communities objected to the censorship and questioned the last minute decision.

From there, a downward spiral has progressed, slowly squashing the hopes and inspirations that once motivated this group of insightful youth from Tira. The initial request for one modification of the opening presentation has grown into numerous restrictions and obstacles. Now, the community center claims they had agreed to the artwork, but not the text. Now the cards the youth had prepared describing their works are considered too controversial. The work is okay as long as nobody understands what it is about! The debate has grown and become more heated, and unfortunately this attempt at collaboration has ended in conflict! Now both the Kohav Yair community center and the community center in Tira have turned their backs on the youth and have canceled the exchange between the two communities, as well as funding for Adi's workshop.

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Salma and Kavitha checking out the off-limits artwork
Caption
The beautiful artwork these six teenagers worked so hard to create and to share sits behind closed doors. No schools come to visit; no understanding is realized. Adi and I had to call ahead to get someone to unlock the door so that he and Salma could show me their art. As I walked through the exhibit, I was amazed at its beauty. The thought and feeling that went into each piece could really be felt. I couldn't believe that these students had no prior experience with art just a few years ago.

Salma walked me around the exhibit and translated the words accompanying each piece. She told me that they used materials they found abandoned on the streets or in the trash. They had such high hopes for working with Israeli Jews and beginning a dialogue based on their original plans. What Salma and her friends are trying to do is revolutionary, and more and more they are realizing that true revolutionaries are often alone. The adults in Tira unfortunately have become accustomed to accepting discrimination and have a non-confrontational attitude towards it. Whereas, the younger generation is realizing that discrimination must be acknowledged.

When describing her feelings about censorship and the exhibit's closing, Salma says, "It makes you more stubborn. You don't want us to talk, okay, we'll shout!"

I learned so much from these teenagers and their art, it's so sad to think that more people won't have the chance to learn from them too. Why must their works remain behind closed doors? Why does what needs to be discussed remain unsaid? WHY?

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

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