I attended a Saving Gaza Children fundraiser on Saturday night, sponsored by Helping Hand. A dear friend was the keynote speaker, and I wanted to support him as well. When he told me to bring books and flyers for my upcoming speaking engagements, I protested that the evening was about Gaza and his talk. He assured me that Leila's story wouldn't interfere with the evening's schedule.
This young Arab Muslim lawyer spoke without notes, was articulate, persuasive and knowledgeable. His thesis: it takes credibility, likability and courage to speak about Gaza, the Palestinians, the refugee camps and the Occupation. He introduced me as an example of credibility and told the audience my book would be for sale at the end of the evening. He introduced a well known Presbyterian minister as an example of likability and, as an example of courage the previous speaker, a teen aged boy who, while visiting Gaza from Florida, suffered a severe beating by Israeli soldiers and whose cousin was burned alive.
Of the approximately 300 people in attendance, I don't know how many were like me - an Irish/English/Scot from the Midwest - but I do know that it was an act of generosity, kindness and friendship that I was mentioned. How lucky I am to have met this young couple and to be acknowledged by his family.
How many of you have an Arab friend? If none, please make one. Your life will be enriched.
Continuing on the in depth interview between my colleague Tarek Abdel-Nabi and his aunt Palestinian artist ,we last left off with Gihan telling us about her inspiration. Let's catch up with them!
Tarek: Do you feel like you've had to sacrifice anything in order to be where you are today?
Gihan: Absolutely! I sacrificed a home, but at the same time it was a home where I was not comfortable, I did not feel safe. I don't think I would feel safe living where I grew up today. At the same time, I am very fortunate that I crossed paths with my husband, it is very rare, especially in the Muslim world, to find a man so willing to give his wife a chance at full freedom.
Tarek: Could you expound on what you mean by full freedom?
Gihan: You know as well as I do that being a woman in Muslim communities requires a certain disenfranchisement in many cases, especially when that community exists somewhere where the Hadith and Koranic law are active. It's not only that I live in Canada where I can go out without a hijab, where I have as much freedom as my husband, where I can vote, it's also that my husband has never questioned any of my decisions as an artist, person and mother. He has been fully supportive of all of my endeavors. I not only have civil liberties I wouldn't be afforded in Palestine or Israel but I have the freedom of time given to me by the financial and emotional support from my husband. If I had to work a 40 hour a week job I wouldn't be able to produce so much art, so I am free to do as I choose and I am incredibly thankful for that. At the same time, I miss my home, I miss the food, the smells in the air, the caucophony of sounds littering the market place where I used to sell my wares but, would I trade the life I have now to go back to peddling,my art on street corners? Absolutely not. I have been graced with kindness and compassion and I try my best to depict those feelings in my art, all the while trying to raise my children to be kind and compassionate. I can give all the kindness and compassion I have to any cause, but I'd rather give it to my three children and increase the amount of soldiers of good will we have in the world today.
Picking up where we left off last, let's get back to the interview between Tarek and his aunt Gihan as she talks about her life as a Palestinian artist.
Tarek: What are your inspirations when you were developing your style and what are they when you've created recently? Also, does the Palestinian struggle influence your art at all?
Gihan: My biggest inspiration believe it or not, was a band from Quebec, you probably know them well, The Talking Heads. When David Byrne creates a new song he does so by writing the instrumental portion, then singing the melody in gibberish as if in tongues. He then goes back and writes the lyrics. My father purchased me the albumas a birthday present when I was 20 years old and it was only then that I was able to find a mode of manifest that I felt truly comfortable with. I remember listening to those songs and feeling empowered, feeling like there was someone who understood that, even when everything appeared to be perfect, we oftentimes struggle to comprehend certain struggles and turmoils that are both new and old. As I grew I learned more about The Talking Heads and I decided to try David Byrne's methods in my ceramics. Ahmed had taught me to start from the center and work outward. I did not like doing that, after all, there are many ways to look at a painting, I was always left wondering why there weren't multiple ways to create one. I felt that the way I created art was me plastering my perspective of the world onto a ceramic tile. It was easy to look at other things and just depict them how they appear but, as a Palestinian living in Israel, and as a woman living in a middle eastern world, I wanted to tell my story. I always felt these different influences out of my control that I never asked for and struggled to accept would attempt to impact and take control over my life, how I should dress, who I should talk to, where I should be walking. I looked at a blank tile and asked why? Because these things are all coming from the outside to play an influence on my life I decided that the best way for me to understand and help others understand my position was to start from the outside and work out. So yes, even today, I would say that the Palestinian struggle influences my art. It is what I am, it is what your cousins are, how can we ever remove ourselves from if not feeling then witnessing these influences? Even today, you look at Palestine. Nobody living there asked for the violence, the occupation, the, dare I say it, genocidal atrocities. People came from elsewhere and want to tell them where to live, where to work, who can be on what roads, all they want is a little control over their own lives without the risk of death. If you asked most people living in the Gaza strip they would tell you they just want an end to the violence and subjugation. Can the latter occur without the former? I do not know, I feel it is my place as an artist to inspire those who struggle to overcome, I feel it is my place as Palestinian artist to promote a message that there can be an end to the bloodshed through compassion, and I can only do that best by attempting to touch others through visual works. So, back to my art in particular. Because these influences come from the outside and are often most difficult to comprehend, I find it is best to do as much of them as I can on the outside of the tiles at the time of inception. As the work progresses to the center, I find that these ideas become clearer and I am able to represent them more objectively and realistically because suddenly I have a thing being acted upon and it is much easier to see the other actors places in the play if they are interacting with each other and the main character. Sometimes I listen to David Byrne, sometimes I work in silence, all I know is that at all times, I am thinking of my home and the people that have not been as fortunate as me to find a new one.
These past few months have been very trying to me personally. For me, these struggles reaffirm the old proposition Plato and Aristotle make when they suggest the health of the body and soul are connected. Amidst a broken nose and a knee injury which has limited my mobility I can't help but feel at times that I'm catching a bad break. But then I think of what these challenges do for us. Would it be possible for us to become stronger in mind and soul without challenges to the body in which those manifest? I think not. Of course the connection between the body and soul is as easy as "when one is happy, the other is happy" but from my experiences with Leila I've learned that happiness is only truly found in the context of true suffering. After all, life is a bit of a roller coaster and one only knows when they've reached an emotional and spiritual high when they've witnessed and experienced rock bottom, only to have that bottom pulled out from underneath them.
I recall a carpenter Leila introduced me to among one of my first outings with her. This man was raised to be the supporter of his entire family, had received an education that would allow him to do so, but as the brightest flames are often the quickest to be blown away, lost the use of his legs in a car accident. Here he was sitting in front of me, a man in suffering that would inevitably become a source of hope not only for those around him, but for me as well. While sitting with him, after receiving a few warning glances from Leila not to inspire too much hope too quickly, as only so much can be done for one person struggling among so many I proposed a set up that would allow him to work as a carpenter. His eyes lit up, an image that will forever live in my mind as one of those few first moments that set me on this path. As the tears began welling in his eyes I couldn't believe the amount of happiness this man had received in being able to put his mind and body at work again. When I met him, stranded in bed being taken care of by what little those around him could offer, it seemed that the suffering of the body and soul went hand in hand. And suddenly, with a way to put his body to work again, to overcome the true suffering that occurs with having not just your livelihood but your means to your livelihood in the context of your physical body taken away it seemed that he had found a happiness that many of us take for granted.
My own struggles recently have reminded me of this man. Amidst broken bones and the hurdles I've had to climb to publish and promote Committee of One I continue to appreciate that only in suffering are we able to understand happiness. It amazed me that I could see children at play, even in the rundown streets with sewage flowing through them, children smiling with what little they had, women simply happy to be able to work, all of these refugees and children of refugees were truly appreciative that they themselves were some way, in control of the lives that had been handed to them. Is it control that we seek among chaos? Is it a break from the suffering? That one chance? I do not believe so. I believe it is the opportunity that Leila provided, the opportunity for these people to flourish among what are by far the greatest odds against them.
This picture is a reminder that while many of us in the West live in brick and mortar homes, thousands of refugees currently live in tents, or out in the elements unprotected from harm. When you see this I hope you will realize that this is not a problem of the past. In 2011 1,934,520 refugees world wide sought asylum according to Wikipedia. Though the problem is large you can make a difference. One way to help is to become informed. Contact your governor's office to learn about the resettlement of refugees in your area. You might find an entire community of refugees in your own neighborhood. You can help by becoming a mentor or donating items for the refugees that come here. Many are forced to leave behind all they own and start afresh. Mentors help newcomers navigate grocery stores and teach them to cook with new ingredients, use a washer and dryer or catch a city bus. You can lend your time to teach a person new to your area about life in your city. If you have ever mentored a refugee family, please share your experience with us.