A Virtual Exhibition in the Making
Ezzeddine Qalaq was born in 1936, in a village near Jaffa. With the Nakba, his family was displaced to a refugee camp in Syria, near Damascus. He studied chemistry at the University of Damascus, joined the Communist Party and was jailed briefly for subversive activities. He traveled to Saudi Arabia and worked for nearly two years as a teacher. He left in order to pursue a doctoral degree in letters, his true passion, at the University of Poitiers, in France. Whilst there, he joined the local branch of the General Union of Palestinian Students there, and shone, a natural born leader. Yasser Arafat appointed him as the PLO’s representative in France after he graduated, and he moved to Paris in 1973. On August 3, 1978, Qalaq was killed with his colleague, Adnan Hammad, when a bomb exploded in their office in Paris. This, in brief, is his “wiki-style” biography.
On May 14, 1948, the British colonial mandate was officially ended and the last of its administration staff and army corps evacuated, but war between armed Zionist groups, factions, militias and armed Palestinians resistance fighters, seconded by Arab armies, had broken out much earlier. An armistice was brokered in 1949, defining the boundaries of the state of Israel and territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which was administered by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies respectively. During the war of 1948, an estimated 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, villages and cities located in the territory of what would become internationally recognized as Israel. These refugees were settled in camps within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also in neighboring Arab countries, namely Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
While Nakba refers to the shock and horror of military defeat and loss of homeland in 1948, it also marks the protracted lived experience of humiliation, dispossession and hardship in the decade that followed. In 1952, the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) was established, and spread very quickly across university campuses in the Arab world, Europe and the United States. Shattered and disenfranchised political representation, dispersal and destitution, the right for Palestine to exist, the ability for Palestinians to return home, the entitlement to
self-determination and sovereignty were each indeed at the risk of being absented, eluded and silenced. The GUPS was actively invested in defending these basic rights in any and all of the public spheres to which they had access.
By 1964, at the Arab League meeting in Cairo, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed and mandated to liberate Palestine through armed struggle. It was premised on the existence of Palestine and the rights of Palestinians for self-determination. Endowed with a charter, it encompassed all of the political movements that had emerged until then in the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora, as well as some leaders or figures that prevailed before the Nakba. A decade later, the PLO’s chairman, Yasser Arafat (whose chairmanship lasted from 1969 until 2004) was hosted at the UN General Assembly, thus recognizing the organization as the official political body representing Palestinians worldwide.
The overall outcome of the 1967 war between Arab states and Israel was a defeat that Arab populations experienced as a humiliation that eventually mitigated into a long-lasting, deep and widespread disenchantment. The PLO could not afford to bear that load, however. From the middle of the 1960s, it set up military training camps in Jordan and launched commando operations in Israel. By 1969, conflicts between the Jordanian monarchy and the PLO command escalated to full-scale armed clashes that resulted in the PLO’s relocation of its headquarters to Lebanon, the country host to the second largest refugee population and sharing borders with Israel.
A few influential cadres among the PLO’s intelligentsia had understood early on that the political struggle was as much a military as it was a discursive one. Qalaq was one of the most eloquent and inspiring of such high-ranking militants. The PLO was structured to operate like a government in exile, replete with executive and legislative bodies, a constitutional
text, a higher command, as well as both military and civilian leadership. In lieu of ministries, it instituted departments. The principal challenge was to represent and communicate with its own constituency, which was scattered across territories in refugee camps, in cities and under Israeli occupation. The second challenge was to communicate with the world the legitimacy of their narrative and mobilize support.
In 1965, the department of Arts and National Culture was both established and headed by Ismael Shammout, a Palestinian artist who had studied art in Cairo and Rome, and who had moved to Beirut in 1965. In addition to his position in the PLO, he was elected the first president of the Union of Palestinian Artists (1969) and of the Union of Arab Artists (1971). Shammout’s wife, Tamam al-Akhal, also an artist, headed the Arts and Heritage Section that organized an exhibition of traditional Palestinian clothing and crafts, which toured in seventeen cities in Europe in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1970s, Shammout and al-Akhhal organized different exhibitions in the Al-Karama Gallery, a space supported by the PLO to exhibit art. In addition, the Department of Unified Information and Culture was remarkably active in the production and support of cultural and artistic activities. Its Graphic Arts section instigated the production of posters; the Palestinian Cinema Institute produced documentary films; other arts included Folk Dance, Theater and Popular Arts. The Plastic Arts Section provided Palestinian artists with stipends and supplies, and organized exhibitions in Beirut, Arab cities and the rest of the world: The Exhibition of Palestinian Posters 1967–1979 in Beirut Palestinian Artists exhibition in Oslo, Norway, 1980, as well as the Art Exhibition of the Palestinian Resistance at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, 1980. And last but not least, The International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine, in Beirut in 1978.
The new political class as well as intelligentsia that emerged within the PLO was culled from refugees and the diaspora. Both its political universe and its aspirations were as much informed through their lived experience of humiliation as they were informed through the liberationist revolutionary fervor that swept the region (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, etc.) and the rest of the world (Cuba, Chile, Vietnam). From the middle of the 1960s until about the early 1980s, the question of Palestine and the struggle for liberation were enounced as revolutionary projects that intended to defeat the settler-colonial Israeli state, and to upheave comprador Arab regimes complacent to the prevailing order. Thus the Palestinian revolution was perceived and experienced as a profoundly transformative project that sought to restore justice, dignity, equality and sovereignty in the Arab world. In other words, Palestine became a metaphor that crystallized the aspirations for a life with dignity for young militants in the Arab world.
Soon, the PLO would attract a nebula of dissident, gifted and innovative artists and intellectuals to Beirut. Artists and poets contributed to the production of posters (the roster is impressive and comprises some of the most well-known names of modern artists and poets of the time). In their turn, artists discovered the institutional realm as well as the resources to innovate and experiment. The “red lines” were remarkably loose (to the contrary of several other revolutions) and there was a world / mass audience to conquer. The array of experimentation, diversity and creativity of Palestinian posters is bewildering. It has remained unprecedented in the Arab world, and remarkable on a worldwide scale.
Qalaq’s genial feat is to have regarded representation and agency as cornerstones of political and artistic practice at once. He mobilized artists and intellectuals to shape a representation and narrative of Palestinians that crystallized their aspirations and image of themselves. He also inspired European artists to see in Palestine a mirror of the world’s injustice. He had realized that the most effective means to counter the traumatic dispersal of Palestinians in safeguarding their sense of peoplehood was also through culture and the arts. If homes were lost, the poetic record of having had a home would remain alive; if the land was too far removed from sight, its visual imagining would remain visible and in myriad forms; if citizenship were denied, then being-in-the-world as Palestinian would thrive.
“Without him, this collective would have never seen the light of day; he helped us with obtaining accreditations, [he] encouraged our initiatives, facilitated events and actions and provided us with whatever we needed. He advised us, while respecting each one’s personal research. He did not hesitate to criticize stereotypical and banal imagery and was strict on the political significance of our work. For example, he had once asked me to produce a poster on the theme “Zionism is a form of racism and discrimination”, and I had rendered the star of David from barbed wire; he explained to me that using these elements could lead to misinterpretation, [as] he was against the use of religious symbols to refer to Zionism.”
Qalaq was also one of the most active PLO cadres in the production, dissemination and circulation of posters. If the body of Palestinian poster art is regarded as a political movement’s propaganda machine, its most astonishing feature is the extent to which its production was unshackled from dogma and its articulations close to the everyday lived experience of refugees as well as to collective memory. One of the reasons for this was that artists and propagandists were themselves children of refugee camps and not an elite intelligentsia socially disconnected from the “people”. Posters were an interpellative platform for the revolution’s constituency. They were produced in an era when television broadcast was the exclusive purview of nation-states and was not beyond the means of the PLO’s extra-territorial framework. Posters were lightweight, cost-efficient, easy to disseminate and fantastically communicative.
First was the imperative to provide generations of refugees dispersed across countries that could not physically see Palestine with images of their homeland. Second, was the imperative to debunk the prevailing Zionist claim that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”, put forth by Golda Meir (who was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974). That statement or “representation” denied Palestinians the right to be. The Israeli state systematically referred to Palestinians as the “Arab” population of Palestine, with the explicit purpose of “normalizing” the melting of Palestinian refugees into host Arab societies, undercutting discourse and action of rights of return and reclaiming homeland. Posters explicitly depicted the people of Palestine and the myriad ways in which they belonged to the land. So for instance, Jaffa oranges branded worldwide as an “Israeli” product were reclaimed as a native symbol of Palestine; so were the Galilee’s olive groves. The Palestinian traditional folk dress was reproduced in its plural versions as a national symbol hallmark of Palestinian identity.
Revolutions invent the world as well as its people anew. Palestinians transformed from peasants to revolutionaries, from helpless victims to fearless men and women who were shaping their own destiny against the insuperable odds stacked against them.
Posters were instrumental in disseminating Palestine’s national history, countering the Zionist claim that it had never existed, or that it was “stillborn” in 1948. At the same time, the posters recorded orally-transmitted collective memory and minted important events as milestones that refugees had lived first-hand. May 15th, the day that Israel celebrates its independence, was christened alternately as the “Day of the Martyr” and the “Day of the Palestinian Struggle”, a gesture that celebrated the courage and steadfastness of Palestinians in spite of their catastrophe and attempted to reverse the burdensome defeatist sense of loss and humiliation.
One of the notable landmarks of the Palestinian revolution is an armed confrontation between a Palestinian commando and the Israeli army in the village of al-Karama in the occupied West Bank, in 1968. While the Palestinians fought to the last man and suffered losses, the battle was noteworthy because the Israeli army battalion had also lost a great deal and had in turn retreated, leaving a battlefield with charred tanks and dead soldiers. The morning after, newspapers published images that ignited shockwaves across the Arab world: for the first time since the humiliating defeat of 1967, hope and dignity was restored to the Palestinian revolution. Thousands were galvanized to volunteer and fight alongside Palestinians. Furthermore, by a strange twist of fate, in Arabic, al-karama means “dignity”: the battle and its double signification in fact became a foundational myth in the Palestinian revolution. A large number of posters were produced for years thereafter, commemorating the al-Karama battle.
Another noteworthy date was marked on March 30, 1976, when Palestinians living in Israel were protesting confiscation of their land in Sakhnin, in the Galilee, and were shot at by the Israeli army. Six were killed and others severely injured. News spread and sparked more protests among Palestinians worldwide. The PLO coined March 30th as “Land Day” and produced posters at every commemoration.
Posters were also used to denounce massacres, attacks and war crimes that had been perpetrated against Palestinians from the beginning of their struggle against the Jewish colonization of Palestine under British colonial rule. To inscribe acts of violence into a serial record, and to publicly identify them as crimes, was a remarkable counter to the media’s indifference towards the Palestinian’s plight as well as a manifestation of the reclaiming of agency.
Every revolution has heroes. The Palestinian revolution identified fallen fighters, assassinated intellectuals and leaders as its heroes-martyrs; they were integrated in popular history, iconicized, but rarely idolized. Martyr posters very quickly became a genre in itself, evolving from a straightforward photo portrait of the martyr, with name, date of death and political slogan, to complex visual expressionist or abstract compositions with a poetic verse replacing the slogan.
The Palestinian freedom fighter was known in Arabic as “fida’i” (plural fida’iyyin or fidayyin). He traded his life for the defense of his people and land, for the recovery from the humiliation of passive victimhood, for the overturn of the historic injustice he was subjected to. Semiologically, the word was originally attributed to Christ, the quintessential martyr. The modern use of the term to designate Palestinian insurgents was consecrated in a poem published during the Great Revolt of 1936, the popular uprising against British colonial mandate rule. The Palestinian revolution was also a people’s war, and the fedayyin were everyday folk. Intrepid and steadfast, the fida’i was at once anonymous and epic. He covered his head with a kuffiyyah to infiltrate enemy lines without revealing his individual identity. Posters celebrating the fidayyin were intended to debunk negative representations of fighters as terrorists, and to mobilize generations to the call of battlefield.
Palestinian political organizations were also faced with the tremendous challenge of the changing perception of their revolution in the West. In mainstream media, Palestinians were at best helpless refugees and at worst, unrepentant terrorists. The Palestinian cause found a friendly terrain of solidarity among anti-colonial, anti-imperialist liberation movements. Generally, they articulated two motifs: denunciation of Israeli crimes committed against Palestinians (military occupation, arbitrary expulsions, detentions, assassinations, massacres, bombardment, et cetera) and the righteousness of the revolution.
The Palestinian revolution captivated the hearts and minds of the progressive and militant intelligentsia in the Arab world, and Palestine became a metaphor for a just, democratic, free and sovereign Arab world. As regimes across the region became more and more autocratic and intolerant of dissent and critique, artists and intellectuals found a friendly haven in their engagement with the Palestinian revolution. Cultural production was prolific: exhibitions, film screenings, publications, and concerts abounded.
One of the tragedies of statelessness is the impossibility of establishing and administering proper archives. Qalaq had the visionary foresight to collect posters produced in Beirut, Damascus and Europe.
His collection represents a unique and vibrant record of how Palestinians once saw themselves: dignified, sovereign and beautiful; men and women in color and in verse defying a world that denied the simplest fact of their existence. Who could believe that from the pallid squalor of mud-drenched, tin-roofed refugee camps that so much radiance, lyricism, valor and inventiveness could rise to reverse the course of history?