The process of creating the mural in the courtyard between four houses in Balata refugee camp involved gaining the support and excitement of key community leadership, especially from the families living around the courtyard. One of the houses belongs to the family of Ibtisam, the director of the women’s programme center explained our project house by house. Ibtisam surveyed her community to find out what images they wanted painted on the walls which is how we came to paint a sea scape. The sea is a powerful symbol of their longing for freedom. The other piece of our organizing strategy is simply being present on the site, full of smiles, paper and markers for the very young children and a mural design that permits everyone to grab a brush and paint and to some extent, contribute to the design process. Jared’s experience as a working artist in the classrooms of Philadelphia was invaluable. He created a design that we were able to translate into a mural in three days.
As we began mixing colors, mostly young men from the neighborhood appeared anxious to be part of the work. By the middle of the first day of painting everyone was sketching their ideas for the other three walls and I helped them design a few mini murals (patterns of flowers, stars and trees) which they then created over the next two days. Somewhat limited by our lack of language skills, we nonetheless communicated. Daily Arabic lessons allowed me to tailor about 100 words of Arabic vocabulary to the needs of handing out colors, brushes, describing the images, learning everyone’s name, and being able to answer the usual questions: where are we from, what we think of Palestine and how old we are. Wearing a Palestinian flag bracelet helped. We felt everyone warm to us.
Of course, during our time in the courtyard, tea, coffee, juice, fruit and more substantial food appeared throughout the days. One of the women literally put pomegranate seeds in my mouth because one hand held a brush, the other a paint cup. These intimate experiences of sharing, kissing cheeks, sitting and playing with children, working with the young men, speaking with the grandmothers, and working hard on the painting forged a very sweet bond. Watching the mural take shape at their hands was exciting for everyone. Kids on the way home from school would emerge from the narrow alleys talking, running, skipping, singing, see the mural, come to a full stop and literally stand with their mouths open and gaze in wonder at the new sea-scape in their midst. One toddler who lives on the second floor of one of the houses stuck his head out the window yelling, “Look! Look! We have fish. We have fish!” Everyone laughed.
On the last day of painting, a woman came into the courtyard screaming at us. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it seems she had a daughter who she considered an artist. This woman asked me to follow her home, which I did, and there I met S who showed me her portfolio and indeed, her work was amazing. I brought her back with me, gave her a set of paints, helped her choose one of her drawings and she painted the fourth wall with a most magnificent painted jar, reminding me of the pottery of New Mexico. (see below) We gave the remaining paint and brushes away that afternoon to the young artists with the hope they would continue designing new murals. Our prayers were quickly answered.
That evening we held a ‘hafla’, a party. About sixty people including dozens of children joined us. Jared’s beautiful lanterns constructed by the girls at the school bordered the courtyard. We brought out the tabla and I played softly for a bit with one eleven year old named Ahmed. I asked him if he knew any songs (in Arabic of course) and he began singing a popular Muslim song, with words from the Qur’an, la ila ha il allah, Mohammed rasul allah: There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet. I began singing with him which drew a crowd of the young men with whom I shared the past several days of painting. Another layer of respect and exchange emerged. Honoring the culture of the people with whom we are working, treating them as equal partners and guides allowed us to complete our project with exactly the results we sought: high community involvement and ownership, and a sense that the work will continue. On the last night, Majdi informed us that the Women’s Programme Center of Balata is opening a new art department and the young woman artist is being invited to paint a mural on the walls of the center. At the final party at the girls school, we learned they were already planning the next mural with plans to involvement more classes. The community wants us to come back, and we will try to come for part of the summer camp season to do some more teaching of techniques (how to hold a brush, mix paint, and of course, to give people more opportunities to create beauty in their living spaces.
Blog written by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb