GAZA CITY, Gaza – For the vast majority of Palestinians, the holy city of Jerusalem remains out of bounds. For Gazans it is the forbidden city.
Trapped as they are in the besieged Gaza Strip, getting out is already extremely difficult, but making it into Jerusalem has never been harder.
Yet even as the West Bank and Gaza seem drifting further apart, the Old City remains in the hearts and minds of Palestinians across all sectors of society. And under siege, Gazan artists have decided to pay tribute to Jerusalem.
In Gaza City, a group of 12 artists are currently exhibiting their personal tribute to the Old City. Through their diverse perspectives they depict images of nostalgia, resistance, despair, longing, calm and conflict. In all cases, they are images based on the memory of the city that is so close and yet so far.
For Shareef Sarhan, who last went to Jerusalem 16 years ago, what he misses most are the little, ordinary details of life in Jerusalem. Like having tea with friends on a pavement, walking in the labyrinthine cobbled streets, or buying a souvenir.
“We can’t move out of here, definitely not to go to Jerusalem,” Sarhan says. “Our idea behind the exhibition is to say ‘hello, I’m here’ to Jerusalem. It’s our way to tell Jerusalem that it’s still in our hearts, that we’re thinking of it all the time.”
“We have never forgotten Jerusalem, and we never will,” says Bassel Al Maqoussi, who speaks of it as “the unreachable city”. “Jerusalem is in us, it is in our hearts, it is about our culture, our religion, our heritage, even when it is so far from us. Whatever the situation, it remains within us.
“As artists we are greeting the city that has been taken away from us,” he said.
Al Maqoussi last visited Jerusalem in 2007, before the civil war between Fatah and Hamas and the ensuing blockade. But even on that occasion, he could only see the Old City from the outside.
“I was with my friends at the gates of Jerusalem, at Damascus Gate, and we were prevented from entering by Israeli police, specifically because we are from Gaza,” he says. “I couldn’t even take a photo of the Old City. We could only see Jerusalem from outside the fortress walls.”
Another artist from Gaza exhibiting her works is Maha Daya, whose colourful landscapes with domed buildings and arched doorways give one a glimpse of her dream of Jerusalem.
“In the past we could go to visit Jerusalem but now it’s totally forbidden. Last I went there was in 1996” she says. “My paintings are based on what I remember of Jerusalem; Damascus Gate, the Dome of the Rock... whenever I went inside the city I felt something mysterious taking me through the old streets.”
Daya is fully aware of the ongoing transformation of Jerusalem under the Israeli occupation.
“I heard that a lot of changes are happening in Jerusalem and, from what I’m told, if I had to go there again I’m sure I’d find that a lot has changed. It’s not just the landscape and the buildings, but also the people – there are much fewer Palestinians living there now.”
Controlled by Israel since the annexation of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, the old city remains a flash-point between the two sides. For Muslims, it is home to Al Aqsa Mosque – considered the third holiest site in Islam – and Al Haram Al Sharif – the Noble Sanctuary. For Jews, it is home to Temple Mount and the Western Wall.
At the end of September 2000 it was the stage for the second Intifada, also known as the Al Aqsa Intifada, when Ariel Sharon set foot inside Haram al Sharif sparking the bloody uprisings lasting years and that left an estimated 5,500 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis killed.
Clashes in the Old City erupted in the last weeks, lifting the led on the buried tensions that remain as Palestinians witness more of their designated capital becoming, as they put it, “Judaized”.
The exhibition ‘Tribute to Jerusalem’ in Gaza City coincides with the year-long celebrations of Jerusalem as the 2009 Capital of Arab Culture, as designated by the Arab League.
It is organised by Windows From Gaza, a group of contemporary artists set up to support modern art in the besieged strip.
“Windows from Gaza is our window of self-expression through which we portray the images we see in this narrows strip using the universal language of art,” Sarhan said. “The siege and closure are a force daily suffering for people in Gaza, leading to a full paralysis of life in all its aspects.”
Even art itself suffers under siege with the scarcity of raw material. Photos can only be printed in low quality due to the lack of printing facilities, and paint is extremely scarce.
“We depend on material coming through the tunnels from Egypt,” Sarhan said. “Sometimes we have to ask anyone coming from Israel or Jerusalem or Ramallah to bring us material. I have some friends working with UNRWA, but not everyone is so lucky.”
Gaza does not have dedicated exhibition spaces, making it an even bigger challenge for artists to show their works. Sarhan’s organisation has just opened a studio and exhibition space in central Gaza City, where the Tribute to Jerusalem is being held.
Besides a tribute to Jerusalem, the exhibition is a tribute to Gazan artists themselves; a reminder that even under the ruins of the last war, Gazans are craving for life, and despite the destruction, they are also daring to dream.