The people of Gaza have been dehumanized. This was the overarching message at the Cairo launch of Swedish journalist Mia Grondahl’s book “Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics.” Organized by the Embassy of Sweden in Cairo and the American University in Cairo Press, Monday’s event drew a large crowd that included dignitaries and what appeared to be the entire Swedish community in Cairo.
Swedish Ambassador Malin Kärre explained the embassy’s involvement. “Firstly, there’s the Swedish-Egyptian connection. Mia is Swedish, currently living in Cairo. Secondly, freedom of expression is embedded in the Swedish Constitution. The people of Gaza have a right to speak up and have their stories heard.”
A panel discussion entitled “Gaza Today: What’s happening behind the closed borders?” opened the evening. Renowned Egyptian journalist Amira Howeidy moderated the session with Swedish journalists Cecilia Udden, Lotta Schullerqvist and Grondahl. Palestinian journalist Sami Abu Salem, the only male, completed the quartet.
The discussion began on a personal note, with Salem relating incidents from his daily life. He last left Gaza in 2005, and was only able to travel to Egypt with the assistance of the Swedish embassy. Salem wryly mentioned how even his desire to sleep with his wife is curtailed by Israel. “If there’s no water we can’t shower afterwards,” he remarked.
When asked by Howeidy if they feel their work has influenced Western public opinion, the Swedes were uncertain. “It’s important to break through the anonymity of victimhood, to tell the stories of individuals,” said Udden. “Gazans don’t want to be seen as beggars and victims. They want to be seen as real people. Despite their suffering, they are able to laugh at their misery, and this spirit must be captured.”
Schullerqvist was vocal about the Rafah border crossing. “Israel’s so called easing of the blockade is not true. Essential goods are still not being let in. UNRWA cannot build urgently needed classrooms, because of a lack of building materials, so 40,000 children cannot go to school annually. We have to spread this information,” she emphasized.
“The problem is the European Union not speaking to Hamas,” added Udden. “The people suffer, not Hamas. Western powers should have put a warning, like on cigarette packs, that voting for Hamas would result in a siege on Gaza.”
Graffiti of resistance
Grondahl was fascinated by the unique graffiti she saw in Gaza. Works of art adorned grey walls which would otherwise look desolate. Graffiti of resistance was born during the first Intifada of 1987. In the absence of Palestinian run television, radio and newspapers, graffiti became an important means of communication.
In her book, Grondahl writes, “In graffiti, the Intifada’s activists had found a way to inform Gaza residents about what was happening: the walls told them who had fallen in battle, summoned them to take part in new protest actions, and encouraged them to continue resisting.
“The occupying power was well aware of the graffiti’s explosive potential. The Israeli military often invaded a refugee camp at dawn and forced the inhabitants out of their graffiti-covered houses with the order: ‘Wash the walls clean!’ But as soon as the soldiers had disappeared in their jeeps, the graffiti activists returned with their battery of paint cans and sprayed new slogans in the fight for a free Palestine.”
Following Arafat’s signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority sought a new beginning. They attempted to whitewash the graffitied walls, and failed. In the words of one graffiti artist: “Suddenly all these naked white surfaces were all over Gaza, as if the walls had been prepared especially for us. All we had to do was to start spraying!”
Today it acts as both a tool of resistance and a form of healing. One artist lost both his legs and his family in an Israeli raid. From his wheelchair, he paints a mural depicting his painful experience.
Salem’s brother was killed by Israeli soldiers while painting graffiti, protesting the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
Graffiti in Gaza is not about rebellious youth vandalizing property. Artists are trained, and commissioned to write political slogans. Hamas offers the best training, and has the best calligraphers. They believe Arabic is the language of God, and thus the script must be beautiful.
Howeida asked the panelists their perceptions of resistance. Udden answered, “We have a problem defining resistance. For Palestinian rappers, their music is resistance, but others see it as imperialism.” All agreed the resistance must continue.
The El Warsha Theater Company also presented a mosaic of songs and readings of the “Gaza Monologues,” stories of youth’s individual experiences, their dreams, fears and hopes. “The Gaza Monologues” first opened on October 17, 2010 around the world. On November 29, each participating country will send a representative to the UN where “Gaza Monologues” will be recited in a multitude of languages.
A stirring rendition of the song “The Most Beautiful of Mothers: Mother of the Martyr” instilled silent rapture in the audience. The evening ended with Palestinian music producer Said Murad’s song of resistance, which had the crowd erupt into an encore of applause.
“Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics” is available in bookstores across the country.