Interview with Samia Halaby
Samia Halaby was born in Jerusalem in the West Bank of Palestine in 1936, twelve years before the creation of the state of Israel. Ms. Halaby is the curator of Made in Palestine, a group show of Palestinian artists, from both inside Palestine and in the Diaspora. The exhibition is being shown at the Bridge, 521 West 26th St., 3rd Floor, through April 22, 2006.
Samia, when I was on my way here, I didn't know what to expect. I thought of the obvious question, in coming here, makes those questions I had obsolete. I was going to ask you, stuff I can still ask you, like, what are the ages of these people?
The ages of some are as young as, say, their late 20s --
Like this artist Rana Bishara --
Who did art out of chocolate.
Yes. She made photographic plates of images with chocolate as the medium because of how much chocolate resembles dried blood. And also very young is Nida Sinnokrot, the creator of the rubber coated stones, and also Emily Jacir, all in their 20s, early 30s. There are middle of life people like John Halaka, who looks like he's about early 40s, and myself, I'm nearly 70. And this man who did the huge running piece, Mustafa al-Hallaj, he died the day we were taking the airplane back from Palestine. He would have been my age as well. I think we're the oldest in the show, so it ranges two generations.
Are you the only one in the Diaspora?
No, I would say a little less than half are in the Diaspora. Rana lives in northern Palestine, in Galilee. Abdel Rahmen al-Muzaylen lives in Gaza. Mary Tuma lives in the south. The woman of the photographs, Rula Halawani lives in Jerusalem. I live in New York. John Halaka lives in California.
And he is how old?
He's in his early 40s, or mid 40s, I would say. Mustafa lives in Syria, Mansour in Jerusalem. Ashraf Fawakhry, who did the donkey piece, "I Am a Donkey," lives in Haifa under the Israeli government. Rula Halawani lives in Ramalla. There's one who lives in Germany, and one in Damascus. A little more than half live right there in ancient Palestine or under the modern Israeli government, under occupation.
Now, the reason I asked you ages, is I wanted to know how history is reprised here. I know for example you have Mahmoud Darwish in the show, and I know that Darwish, when he asked questions when he went to school in a town that was occupied, he was punished again and again for asking questions which pertained to indigenous Palestinian culture, as it interfaced with the occupation.
The people who are in the show have suffered in different ways. For example, the prisoner artists, there are two -- their pieces are the brightly colored ones in the back -- those two artists spent years -- one 15, one 14 -- in an Israeli prison. Both suffered extreme torture at the beginning and both had life sentences and both were exchanged in a prisoner exchange program in 1984 and both of them live in Damascus right now. There are artists here, for example, Rula Halawani, the only reason she's able to get around and do her work as a photographer at close range is she has international press credentials, so the Israeli government can't stop her. If they wanted to, they really would. And Rana Bishara, and all those who live under the Israeli government, have had a very hard time relating to the rest of the Arab world. In other words, if they were invited to be in a show in Syria or Iraq they would be put in jail because they're not supposed to have interaction. They live in isolation as Arabs under the Israeli government until 1967, under horrendous conditions. They could not move, their lives are very similar to what African Americans suffer here in the USA.
My thoughts exactly. That's what you get for being Hagar's child.
Then in 1967 it opened up a little bit more and I know I took a small group of young Palestinian kids from a village under the Israeli government to the West Bank and they couldn't believe it, they were asking questions like, 'Palestinians run this organization?' They had never seen Palestinians in charge of anything.
Children. Eight or nine or ten years old that I have taken to visit Ramalla from a Palestinian village. They had no idea that Arabs were anything but slaves of the Jews.
So you were about twelve or thirteen years old in 1948?
Yes. These children I took recently. In 1948, I was almost twelve, eleven really, and we were forced out.
So you remember a lot of what life was like prior to the creation of Israel?
Absolutely, yes. It was Palestine, it was an all Arab society, I did not notice that the British had pretty much completed their disgusting plan to turn over the country to the Jews. They were Jews, they weren't Israeli yet, they were Zionist Jews. And the British had organized their government, organized their military, had trained them and given them all of the contracts for building infrastructure, helped them with all kinds of laws against the economic development of the Palestinians. They really throttled the Palestinian development and encouraged Jewish development so by 1936 the Palestinians were really fed up with it and had a huge uprising. But the Palestinians were only 1.5 million people in 1930 and the British Empire was huge and they had 25 percent of their military in Palestine at that time to quash the uprising and in 1948, exhausted from the uprising and the British turned over the land to the Zionist Jews and it became Israel, but the Palestinians still put up a big fight in 1948.
Did the creation of the United Nations have anything to do with that?
The United Nations was under American rule basically, so yes, it helped, because nobody wanted to mention --
The United States was the first to recognize Israel.
The British and the U.S. Where this show in history is very important is, we're showing our history from our point of view, our experiences, here in this show. And every piece here has to do with Palestine and the history of Palestine. Like Rana Bishara's piece here is called "Blindfolded History." There are 52 glass pieces, and there are photographs silk-screened onto glass, painted with chocolate, because chocolate resembles dried blood. And they are each for one year of the tragedy, since the tragedy, which was in 1948 but continues year in and year out. There is killing of Palestinians by Israelis all the time.
Samia, which is your piece?
Mine is this colored piece. When I was making it for this show, I realized I had never titled one of my major pieces after Palestine.
Has your art changed since living in Palestine?
I was a child when I lived in Palestine and I wasn't making art. So when I made this piece I titled it "Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River," and because the center section was very much above the mountains of Palestine and the extreme right was above the coast, I decided to make it a map of Palestine in textures. So the extreme right is the sea coast of Palestine, and the plain by the seacoast there is a lot of flora, wildflowers, gardens and stuff like that. And my memory of them, especially from the town of Yaffa, which was a famous port city. It's abstract of course, and as an abstraction it describes different things at the same time. So there are stones, the feeling of the distribution of stones, the roughness of the fig tree, the shape of olive trees, and on the extreme left there are hints of the towns and cities, towards the desert, and then the desert. So it's a map of Palestine, so I called it a very political title, indicating that I don't think Israel should exist as a fascist, undemocratic, patriarchal state because it does not believe in equality, and it does not have a separation of church and state. So I believe in a Palestine that is democratic with equality for everybody, which is why I called it "Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River," which includes all occupied territories, old and new occupations.
What does being Muslim have to do with this show?
Israel is all based on a very backwards concept of the state being one religion. We are in the 21st century and that idea is so ridiculous, but that is how the ruling class in America is able to entice Jews to become involved and commit themselves to this Zionist idea. And they keep talking of Muslims as being terrorists, and they keep talking about us as being backward and involved with religion, and when you look at the show, the show gives the lie to the Western media, completely, without wanting to or even trying. Many of the artists are Muslim, but they are not so hypnotized by their religion that all they can think about is their religion.
I was struck by the fact that some Jewish people didn't want to move out of the West Bank because they had been there for 30 years and felt that it was theirs. And I want to know how they squared that with the fact that the Palestinians had lived there since it was Canaan.
They can only square it with the fact that they have all the guns. That is not the truth talking, that is not their brain talking, that is their firepower talking. They have the guns to our head and they can say "We've been here 30 years, get out, even though you've been here 2,000 years."
I was struck by the piece "A Time to Cast Stones," by Rajie Cook (a military ammunition box filled with stones). The idea of calling people that throw stones at occupiers with tanks and whatnot, or even the idea of suicide bombers, terrorists, seems a bit absurd on the face of it.
The fact that you, as a person here in America who has experienced what Palestinians experienced, can see through the rhetoric tells me a whole volume, whereas those people who are comfortable cannot see beyond what the media tells them. It tells me that somewhere, instinctively, they understand that it is to their benefit to keep supporting Israel.
The very first question I wanted to ask you -- and then when I got here, the art threw me off -- was, is "Made in Palestine" a metaphor for the conditions under which the Palestinians live or is it the art?
Both. One of the things about the "Made in Palestine" title that is deceptive is that people think it is a products show. They don't think it's art. The subject of Palestine permeates every Palestinians' thoughts, the artists, the poets, it's such a huge tragedy and nobody wants to talk about it.
If I said "Made in America," I was "made in America," what would that mean to you?
That you've been oppressed by America and that oppression has shaped you.
That's what I wanted to know.
It's the same for Palestinians. They're made by the Palestinians. The art and the subject matter, even the guy behind you, he's referred back to the goddess of the Canaanites because he wants to remind the world that the Palestinians have their ancestry in the Canaanites. And many of our towns and people's names are ancient Canaanite names that they have carried forward. And he's dressed her in a modern Palestinian village dress because he's noticed that this village dress also has its ancestry in the ancient Canaanite art. And because he believes that we should show children everything about our history, but we shouldn't scare them, and we shouldn't be scared to tell them about massacre, but we shouldn't do it in a way to frighten them. And he's shown the massacre in Janin as an image in her dress.
Can you see the disadvantage you're at? You're talking about people who have a massive propaganda campaign that has gone 6,000 years. It's in the Old Testament, talking about what to do with Canaanites. Israel is predicated on that. What dangers do you face in mounting a show like this, I mean, considering the Patriot Act and all that?
There is nothing here that contradicts the Patriot Act, so we're not in danger from that. But certainly they don't like us, and if they find an excuse to close us down, they might. Another danger is from crazies who want to throw paint or break the glass or destroy the artwork. We face that danger, and we also could get inundated from the conservative Jewish press, and they start making phone calls against the exhibition, and lose us our lease, or make the police demand that people be searched before they come in the show. These are dangers we face that we do not want to happen. Other than that we have huge support from people. People love this show.
How often do you go to Palestine?
This year I've gone once, and I'll be going soon again, but usually in the past ten years it's been two or three times a year.
Is it difficult to do that?
It's difficult to travel, yes. Always looking at Israelis with guns, and settlers with guns, and you never know when they're going to aim one at you. And there are a million checkpoints, and with an American passport I can get through okay, but the Palestinians have a nightmare condition to deal with.
One thinks of art as a tool for communication. For example, I just saw a group of people walk in and look around. Do you think a dialogue was opened by this presentation?
Many people will come in here with different reactions. Some are coming here to look at the space they rented, and they don't care what the art is. You never know how people are going to react. Some come and spend many hours and then forget, art is a silent thing, you don't know how it's working.
What gave you the idea for the show?
This show started with a museum in Texas called the Station Museum, and they're the ones who spent a bundle to organize it. And it opened in their museum for six months, and it went to San Francisco and Vermont, and we are the third group to travel the show. And I had a hand in it from the very beginning, they wanted to do a show about Palestine, and I said "How about a show of Palestinian artists instead?" And we talked about it, and I agreed.
Thank you, Samia.