Drawings on Walls (Extract)

Graffiti chronicle changes in Palestinian society

19grafi224 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Extract from a story in Issue 19, January 5, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. ON A BLACK BACKGROUND, A YELLOW LION with gigantic fangs is attacking a large bleeding white dove. The words "hypocrisy" and "money," in English and Hebrew, are written on and under the lion, signifying occupation, the wall, and money as violently attacking and wounding the dove of peace. The historical entrance to Bethlehem on the road from Jerusalem, between two hills and framed by olive trees, is now blocked by the eight-meter (25 ft.) high gray concrete security wall erected by Israel in its attempt to seal off Bethlehem and prevent terrorist infiltrations. The image of the lion and the dove is painted on the Palestinian side of the wall near the new entrance, an opening in the wall guarded by half a dozen young soldiers and state-of-the-art monitoring equipment. Countless such pictures adorn the Palestinian side of the wall. But though pleading the Palestinian case, many were not drawn by Palestinians. The lion mural and two others were painted back in 2004 by three Mexican artists, Alberto Aragon Reyes, Gustavo Chavez Pavon, and Erasto Molina Urbina, who were the first to make their marks on the wall. Right beside the lion mural is another, also by a Mexican artist, Omar Tesdell, in which the big brown eyes of a young boy with thick dark eyebrows protrude beneath the checkered design of the keffiyeh that covers the rest of the boy's face. Underneath the long stretch of the keffiyeh is the slogan, in red, "to exist is to resist" - a reference back to the first intifada, when young boys, their faces covered with keffiyehs, would take to the streets in resistance to Israeli power. Some of the more striking drawings are by famous British street artist Banksy, who, during visits in 2005 and 2007, created more than a dozen satirical images on the wall and on the sides of nearby buildings. One shows a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak and outfitted with a bullet-proof vest, while a sniper aims his rifle at its chest. And in June 2006, Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd wrote, "Tear Down the Wall" in red paint and a magic marker. Graffiti has always been a defiant statement, a signal to the oppressor that it cannot fully censor life, voice and history. Throughout the world, in conflict zones, inner cities and areas of ethnic tension, graffiti serves as a means for individuals and groups to give voice to political dissidence and social alienation. Anonymous and ubiquitous, the authorities can almost never censor it, since it surreptitiously appears almost as fast as they try to erase it. From its initial appearance during the first Palestinian intifada, which broke out in 1987, graffiti has been a means for the Palestinians to express their nationalism and opposition to the Israeli occupation. But as Palestinian society, and its means of expression and opposition, have changed, so, too, has the use of of graffiti. During the days of the First Intifada, there was scarcely a single bare wall or façade in all of the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians referred to the graffiti as their "newspaper." "Young men would typically spray paint on the most visible and public surfaces, with the aim of reaching the largest number of people possible," says Jamal Juma, 48, project director of the "Stop the Wall" campaign based in Ramallah. Indeed, graffiti became so central to the fueling of the intifada that "the Israeli military prohibited it and would often shoot, arrest or imprison anyone caught doing it. And so the act itself became symbolic of resistance," Juma tells The Report. Juma, 48, who was an activist who frequently spray painted walls during the first intifada, says, "Most Palestinian graffiti at the time consisted of phrases and slogans, but there were a number of images that appeared repeatedly and can be viewed as key symbols: the clenched fist, the V-sign, the rifle, the Palestinian flag, the key [emblematic of homes abandoned or evicted in 1948], and the map of mandatory Palestine." Palestinian society is highly factious, divided into numerous, often warring groups. During the uprising, each faction used a different color of spray paint. "Hamas used the traditional color of Islam, green, while Fatah used black. The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Communist Party most often used red," Juma recalls. Often, messages were announcements of upcoming strikes and "would be written along with the exact times and dates," explains Khalil Shokeh, 53, a researcher of history and a member of the Bethlehem city council, "and people read and abided by that announcement." Another type of message were admonitions such as, "Don't buy Israeli products." In Bethlehem, the PFLP and the Communist Party were the two most active factions and a popular graffiti message was, "'Bullets don't distinguish between Muslim and Christian,' a message attempted at unifying," says Shokeh. "The signature of the message was important," states Shokeh. "A message was not viewed as binding or legitimate if it was not signed with the signature of the faction with an employment of one of their symbols." Fatah for instance, generally signed the words utilizing the letters of fatah in a V-for-victory sign. Another signature variation was the gun motif, with the word fatah in the shape of a rifle. This practice, which has its roots in traditional Arabic calligraphy, creates an internal equation between the object and the word. In Arabic, fatah means "the opening." Hamas would often employ religious symbols in its graffiti, such as drawings of the Al-Aqsa mosque with a one-way sign (to heaven) painted over a map of mandatory Palestine. Here, too, the melding of the word and the object was employed, with the Dome of the Rock formed from the Arabic letters of Hamas. The PFLP, in Arabic, al-jabha a- shabeeya li tahrir filistin or simply Jabha, "signed their messages with an acronym, with 'JS' and an arrow drawn at the end of the word, giving the two letters the shape of Mandatory Palestine, the arrow pointing to the left, emphasizing the PFLP's leftist orientation," explains Shokeh. But all Palestinian groups, both secular and religious, used the flag or its colors frequently and prominently in their graffiti. "It was the single most unifying symbol of the first intifada in light of the fact that the flag or its raising was prohibited by Israeli soldiers," Shokeh recalls. During the Al-Aqsa intifada, which erupted in 2000, graffiti did not reappear. Shokeh suggests, "The use of weapons in the second intifada gave it a different character from the first one, and graffiti automatically disappeared." Moreover the abundance of cell phones, e-mail, television, radio and newspapers, much more widespread than in the 1980s, provided more effective means of disseminating news and instructions. Graffiti began taking on a new and different character with the construction of the separation barrier, which provided not only additional grievances for the Palestinians to protest against, but also in some places a perfect location for registering their protest. Some stretches of the barrier consist of a broad system of fences and patrol paths but in others it is the graffiti artists' dream - a 25-foot-high bare concrete wall. As demarcated, it cuts through Palestinian cities and villages and lands. In some areas of the West Bank, the Palestinian residents, joined by Israeli sympathizers, have violently tried to halt the construction. But in Bethlehem the protests have been graphic. Extract from a story in Issue 19, January 5, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.