The Key and the Return – Palestine as a metaphor
Palestinian poet , and indeed, Palestine’s national poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish, saw Palestine as a homeland but also as a metaphor – for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and and of exile, for the diminishing power of the Arab world in its relationship with the west (Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine as Metaphor)
Palestinian Australian author and academic Nejmeh Khalil-Habib – and my Arabic teacher for many semesters at the University of Sydney – published a paper in Nebula magazine in 2008 examining how the “Return” – al ‘awda العودة – a recurring theme in contemporary Arabic literature – has been dealt with in Arabic fiction, and how it depicted those who live the dream of “Return” and those who actually returned to Palestine after the 1967 war or after the Oslo Accords.
She writes: “The concept of “Return” throughout this literature manifests itself in various ways including the spiritual return (as manifested in dreams and aspirations); the literal, physical return; an individual’s return (a “Return” on the basis of family reunions); the “Return” as a result of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank after the war of 1967; and the “Return” as a result of the peace process after the “Oslo Accords.”
Al Muftah, المفتاح, the key is an enduring symbol of al ‘awda. It is present in street art and in signs and posters throughout Palestine and in the refugee camps. It is a symbol, of a memory, of one day returning – to lost homes, villages, suburbs, towns, lives and livelihoods. As Nejmeh writes,“The Return” (Al-Awda) is deeply implanted in the Palestinian collective memory. It is rooted in their conscience like a faith that could not be denied, because denying it would mean uprooting the lynch-pin upon which modern Palestinian history and identity depends”.
But for many, it is something more than that. Nejmeh writes: “Whether exile happens voluntarily or under oppressive circumstances, the dream of returning home stays alive in the mind of the exiled person. It flares or fades from person to person and from one circumstance to another; however, the concept of “return” ceases to be about its basic meaning, but comes to be seen as a means of resistance and challenging oppression”.
She notes American-Palestinian author and activist Fawaz Turky assertion that “the right and dream of Return is the rock upon which our nation was established and the social balance that unites the nation in this wretched world”.
It is the dream, the hope that enabled tens of thousands of refugeess in camps throughout the Levant to perceive their situation as temporary and to resist the allure of assimilation and mainstreaming in their host countries – if this was indeed possible given that most hosts have steadfastly resisted granting Palestinians rights and privileges enjoyed by their own citizens. Whilst being much of the diaspora in the West has accepted inclusion and naturalization, these Palestinians connect with their people and their culture in Palestine, and still celebrate their national holidays.
Between seven and eight hundred thousand Palestinians fled their homes in present day Israel or were expelled during the 1948 war (on the other side of the ledger, a comparable number of Mizrahi or “Eastern Jews” were expelled from Arab countries during and after the conflict). Many Arabs remained in Israel either in their original homes or where they sought refuge. They became Israeli citizens, but even for these, the memories endure and many continue to refer to the towns and villages and localities by the names they had prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.
And yet, al ‘awda, and the Right of Return is a chimera, a dream dangled before their eyes by their leaders like a hypnotist’s show. And UN refugee status, a tired old delusion perpetuated by UNRWA to justify its existence and well-paid salaries, and the Arab League as a fig leaf for their pulsanimity. UNWRA’s definition and establishment was at fault from day one, and whilst creating generational refugeedom, it engendered false hope, unrealisable dreams, and a road-block to subsequent peace efforts There is indeed a whole economy, a living, a lifestyle devoted to and dependent on managing the conflict and the refugee problem rather than solving it. The exile was unreasonable and unjust, but the past will never be undone – and most certainly never by UN resolutions.
The key, therefore, is a forlorn hope, a closed door that no amount of keys can unlock; and the reality is that of a lock-out, out of politics, out of society, out of the jobs and housing market. The refugees are a minority in Palestine. There are no keys for the new houses and apartments that are going up in and around the cities of the West Bank in a property boom that has been going on for several years now and accessible and affordable only for a growing middle class of employees of the PA and foreign NGOs and young professionals.
But for refugees, all this is paradox. They are locked out of the old Palestine of their parents and grandparent and forebears. But they are also locked out the new Palestine that is struggling to be born.
Poets like Darwish and novelists have internalized and reflected al Nakba and al ‘awda in their work. The dream of al ‘awda is reflected in their writing. As it is also do with to graphic artists – none as powerfully and poignantly as ismail Shammout, born in Lydia, Palestine in 1930. When last In Ramallah, de facto administrative “capital” of that part of the West Bank government by the Palestinian Authority – Area A (for Abbas, joke the wits) of ththe Oslo dispensation, we visited the cultural centre Dar Zahran, a beautifully restored Ottoman house just south of the city centre (and its central square festooned with images af al Muftah).
By fortunate serendipity, Dar Zahran was hosting a small exhibition of paintings by the late Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout which told the story of al Nakba and of flight and exile.
I have republished below a concise biography of Shammout by the Palijounrneys blog.
The Art of Ismail Shammout
Ismail Shammout is remembered and celebrated for his depictions of everyday life in Palestinian villages before the Nakba, for his harrowing portrayal of flight and expulsion of much of Mandate Palestine’s Arab population, and his allegorical tableaux of the ensuing diaspora.
His Palestine is a timeless, almost dreamlike place quite out of time and place with its contemporary reality. Nostalgists and artists and poets of an earlier era would have described it as pastorale with its images of everyday life in the countryside, and its vignettes of young folk and old, men and women, children and babies. There are young couples in traditional costumes, young mothers with babes in arms, farmers in fields, and family groups of many generations. They are in lounges and kitchens, in yards and gardens, fields and orchards, and street markets as buyers and sellers. There are musicians and singers and dancers in myriad social settings – at parties and celebrations, marriages and festivals, parades and and processions.
And, celebrating the circle of life from cradle to grave and the rhythm of the seasons, there are scenes of harvest time and the gathering of the fruits of the fields and the orchards. There are grains and vegetable, olives, and water melons, apricots and pomegranates, figs and grapes, and the oranges for which Palestine was long famous.
Such bucolic scenes of a gone world – gone for us all, and not just for Shammout’s country folk- are juxtaposed with graphic images of al Nakba, and of exile, of expulsions and dispossession, of conquest and occupation, and of ongoing protest and resistance. And through, it all, are motifs of hope and of peace – flowers, songbirds and doves – and also, of conflict and resistance – flags and banners, rifles and rocks.
These include Shammout’s famous paintings of the Palestinians’ flight and expulsion, and the long hard road of flight on a trail of tears, the hostile sun beating down. His rendering of the heat, hunger, thirst and exhaustion recall of WH Auden’s harrowing poem The Shield of Achilles, with its contrasting and jarring snapshot images of joy and celebration and of bleak, almost monochrome desolation … “a plain without a feature, bare and brown, no blade of grass, not sign of neighbourhood; nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, but congregated on on its blankness stood an intelligible multitude, a million eyes, a millions boots in line, without expression, waiting for a sign”.
These images, the fair and the foul, reappear within larger paintings that depict the decades that followed, both the immediate – the camps and the scattering – and the contemporary – the occupation, the two Intifadat, ongoing resistance, and the perpetually stuttering peace process. In the background are the symbols and icons of Palestine past and present – particularly of al Quds, Jerusalem the golden, with the holy places that are so precious to many faiths – its mosques and churches, its monasteries and madrasas, including the Haram al Sharif and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
There are images of refugee camps, the crowded tent-cities where the exiles first settled, of Gulf oil fields where expatriates laboured, and of the professions that expatriates entered into all over the world, from labourers to lab workers. There are school children at their desks and office-workers at computers, and crowds, always crowds of numberless, nameless, almost faceless people. There are marches and demonstrations, and clashes with anonymous, faceless soldiers. There are youths throwing stones and facing off against armoured cars and troops bearing weapons. And there are political events like the meeting at Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin facilitated by President Clinton which fired up hopes and expectations rest were never realized.
One painting is a particularly potent and poignant. An elderly woman and her daughter hug their olive tree as a bulldozer approaches. Two young boys endeavour to block its relentless path – a scene that is not at all unusual, as the picture I have paired it with shows. “How shall we find olive branches when all the olive trees are gone?’
Ismail Shammout was born in the town of Lydda on 2 March 1930. His father, Abd al-Qadir Shammout, was a fruit and vegetable merchant. His mother was Aisha al-Hajj Yasin. He had seven siblings: Ibrahim, Kawthar, Jamil, Muyassar, Inam, Jamal, and Tawfiq. His wife was the artist Tamam Arif al-Akhal, who was born in Jaffa in 1935. His children are Yazid, Bashar, and Bilal.
In 1936 he started elementary school, and his artistic talent was spotted at an early age. His teacher, Dawud Zalatimu, took him in charge. Zalatimu served as an art teacher in Lydda from 1930 until 1948, and his drawings of historic events and nature decorated the school walls. Shammut was taught by Zalatimu to draw with pencil and ink, to paint with watercolors, and to sculpt in limestone.
After convincing his religious and conservative father that “art could be a profitable profession,” he started by decorating wedding dresses with flowers and birds and then opened his own shop, which was in fact his first studio. There he painted his first oils depicting natural scenery and portraiture before the Nakba of 1948.
Three days after the fall of Lydda and Ramla to the Zionist forces, on 13 July 1948, Shammout and his family (along with the inhabitants of the two towns) were forced to leave and go on foot to Ramallah and were not allowed to carry water. His young brother Tawfiq died of thirst before they arrived at the village of Nilin, near Ramallah. Shammout documented that march of death, exhaustion, and thirst in several paintings executed in the 1950s. The family continued to move until it settled in the tents that eventually formed the Khan Yunis refugee camp.
Shammout sold pastry for one year and then volunteered to teach drawing at the refugee schools, which were set up in tents. This allowed him to resume his artistic career and to exhibit his paintings in a room in the Khan Yunis government school in 1950. That same year he joined the Fine Art Academy in Cairo and lived off his earnings, drawing movie posters.
Shammout held his first exhibition in 1953, having accumulated enough paintings for a large exhibition “but did not have enough courage” to hold it in Cairo. So he exhibited at the Employees Club in Gaza city jointly with his brother Jamil. At that exhibition Shammout presented some sixty paintings including his now famous Where to? and A Mouthful of Water. That exhibition was regarded as the first contemporary art exhibition in Palestine’s history by a Palestinian artist on Palestinian soil, as judged by its size, the number of works exhibited, the way it was opened, and the mass attendance.
In 1954 he held an exhibition in Cairo called The Palestinian Refugee jointly with an art student at the Fine Arts Academy, Tamam al-Akhal, and the Palestinian artist Nuhad Sabasi. This exhibition was under the auspices of Gamal Abdel Nasser, at that time Egypt’s prime minister, and was attended by Palestinian leaders. His earnings from that exhibition encouraged him to travel to Italy where he soon received a scholarship to study at Rome’s Academia di Belle Arti, and he remained there for two years (1954–56).
Following his graduation he moved to live and work in Beirut with his brother Jamil at the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The brothers set up an office for commercial art and book design; the latter included a pamphlet for the Lebanese army entitled “Human Civic Education.”
In 1959 he married fellow artist Tamam al-Akhal and thereafter they worked closely together, artistically and professionally. They trained art teachers in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip and held joint exhibitions in those localities.
Shammout and al-Akhal followed closely the creation of the PLO at the First Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem in 1964. In 1965 he set up the Artistic Culture Section of the PLO Department of Information and National Guidance (later known as Department of Information and Culture) and directed its activities until 1984. When the offices of the PLO in Jerusalem closed, the couple returned to Beirut in 1966 and resumed work with the PLO there, in addition to their personal work as artists. Shammout completed an innumerable number of posters and literary, political, and traditional projects and with al-Akhal organized tens of political and personal exhibitions in cities around the world, including Gaza, Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Amman, Washington (plus twelve other US cities), Tripoli, Damascus, Kuwait, London, Belgrade, Sofia, Beijing, and Vienna, in addition to murals called The Path in Amman, Ankara, Istanbul, Doha, Sharjah, Dubai, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut. Among his most notable achievements is the hall called Dar al-Karama in Beirut where seasonal exhibitions by young artists from Palestinian refugee camps were displayed, as were other Arab and international solidarity exhibitions.
In 1969, Shammout and other Palestinian artists founded the first General Union of Palestinian Artists; he remained its secretary-general until 1984. He also participated in founding the General Union of Arab Artists in 1971 and was its first secretary-general, a position he held until 1984.
Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the departure of the Palestinian resistance and its leaders, and the closing of the PLO offices, Shammout (who had a heart condition that had worsened) was forced to move with his family to Kuwait in 1983, where they lived through the occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and the second Gulf War. After the liberation of Kuwait, the family was again forced to move in 1992, this time to Germany. In 1994, Shammout and al-Akhal finally settled in Amman, Jordan.
Shammout is generally regarded as a pioneer of contemporary Palestinian art. He was a committed artist whose style was realistic with some symbolistic elements. The Palestinian cause dominated his art, some of which was widely distributed in camps and houses and in solidarity with Palestine campaigns in the Arab countries and beyond. Some of his works can be regarded as iconic for the Palestinian people.
Shammout never ceased to depict the Palestinian exodus from Palestine in paintings that carried titles and meanings very much present in people’s minds and in his own experience; an example is the painting he titled Where to? (1953). His paintings were inspired by camp life (such as Memories and Fire, 1956; We Shall Return, 1954; and Bride and Groom at the Border, 1962) and called for reflection on the meaning of a nation in waiting.
The PLO awarded him the Revolutionary Shield for Arts and Literature, the Jerusalem Medal for Culture, Arts and Literature, and The Palestine Prize for the Arts. The Arab Thought Forum awarded him The Creative Prize for Arab Painting. An annual prize in his name is awarded for excellent Palestinian painting. His works have been acquired by several Arab and international museums.
His heart condition forced him to undergo three critical operations, the third of which was performed in Leipzig, Germany; he died on 3 July 2006 and was buried in Amman.
In addition to his paintings, he wrote histories of Palestinian painting and crafts and produced a number of films, which were influenced by his artistic experiences. These include a film called Memories and Fire (1973), which won the Short Documentary Film Prize at the Leipzig Festival; Urgent Appeal (1973); and On the Road to Palestine (1974). Noura al-Sharif produced a short film called Isma‘il, which dealt with a part of his life during his first period as a refugee in the Khan Yunis camp. A website devoted to his work is available at http://www.ismail-shammout.com
From Palestinian Journeys
Read more about Middle Eastern politics and history in In That Howling Infinite in: A Middle East Miscellany
As a COVID-19 lock-down diversion, In That Howling Infinite has translated the story of the life and art of Ismail Shammout into Arabic. It will be published very shortly.