Of Dreamers, Ezzeddine Qalaq and Palestine’s Revolutionary Posters

Rasha Salti

A Virtual Exhibition in the Making

Ezzeddin Qalaq in France, image courtesy of Claude Lazar.
 

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.

Commemoration of the twelfth year of the Palestinian revolution, by Ismail Shammout, 1977. Produced by the Unified Information Office of the PLO, Berlin. From the Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Palestinian Cinema, An Essential Front in our Struggle, artist unknown. Produced by the Unified Information Office of the PLO, Beirut. From the Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
 

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.

Fat’h. The Revolution Continues, by artist Kemal Boullata. Produced by Fat’h. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. Kemal Boullata is very well established Palestinian artist and intellectual. This poster was conceived on the occasion of the twelfth anniversary of the revolution. It is remarkable because it conjugates calligraphy, an art considered traditional, within a modernist style of expression.

War starts in Palestine and Peace Is Born in Palestine. Produced by the Unified Information Office of the PLO. From the Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. The poster marks the first speech Yasser Arafat gave at the UN General Assembly in 1974, and the formal recognition of the PLO by the world community as the official and legitimate representing Palestinians.
No Peace without the Palestinians by artist Claude Lazar, circa 1975. From the Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
 

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.

Revolution until Victory, artist unidentified. Produced by Fat’h. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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 two posters are described as “mural newspapers for young adults”, titled al-Fata al-Arabi or “the Young Arab”. They are the work of Muhieddine el-Labbad, a pioneering Egyptian graphic designer, illustrator, and a foundational figure in revolutionizing graphic arts as well as pedagogy with regards to graphic novels, comics, children’s books and literature for young adults in the Arab world. The first mural newspaper features two very short stories The Most Beautiful Place in the World (by celebrated Syrian author Zakariyya Tamer) and The Fisherman’s Fingers, as well as an article titled Our Arab Oil. The second mural newspaper features the lyrics of The Camel’s Song, and a funny educational game titled “What are the Similarities between the Life of Ibn Khaldun and a Day in the Life of Oussama?”. From the Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Vietnam. Palestine. Rhodesia. South Africa. Latin America, artist unidentified. Produced by the GUPS. From the Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

Artist unidentified, circa 1974. From the Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. This poster was made to promote the film, L’Olivier. Qui sont les palestiniens? (The Olive Tree. Who Are the Palestinians?), directed by a group of filmmakers from the Cahiers du Cinéma in France.
Poster for the Moroccan association in support of the Palestinian people’s struggle, artist unidentified.

“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.

Jerusalem, by artist Jumana al-Husseini. Produced by The June 5th Collective. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Struggle is the Only Path to Jerusalem, artist unknown. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

Jaffa oranges, the al- Aqsa mosque, the traditional folk dress, and Palestine embodied as a woman.
Poster commemorating the seventh anniversary of the founding of the DFLP, in which tribute is paid to women more generally and to their commitment to the revolution more specifically, by artist Hilmi al- Touni. Produced by the DFLP. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. In this poster, al-Touni represents a woman—who also “embodies” Palestine—, carrying Jaffa oranges and donning the traditional folk dress; behind her is a rainbow in the colors of the Palestinian flag and in the corner of the poster the Dome of the Rock. All are visual codes that iconicize Palestine.
We Will Return, artist unknown. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
The Land Belongs to those who Liberate It, by artist Abdel-Rahman al-Muzayyen. Produced by Fat’h (Palestine Liberation Movement, or PLM). Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

Poster for the film Victory in their Eyes by Samir Nasr. Produced by the Palestinian Cinema Institute. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Ten Years on the Palestinian Revolution. 1965–1975, by artist Hilmi al-Touni. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Women’s Struggle Constitutes one of the Essential Pillars of the Struggle for Freedom, artist unidentified. Produced by Fat’h. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Palestinian Women Fight for Liberation, by artist Burhan Karkoutly. Produced by Fat’h. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. Karkoutly was a Syrian artist exiled in Germany whose style was distinctive. He attempted to weave together traditional folk graphics and a modernist expression. The poster illustrates the transformation of Palestinians from peasants to revolutionaries, and obviously celebrates gender equality.

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.

May 15th. The Day of Palestinian Struggle. Glory to our Martyrs, by an unidentified artist. Produced by the PFLP. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. The poster illustrates literally how from the ashen squalor of refugee camps, fighters—fidayyeen—rise, almost “larger than life”.
Unity is the Objective, by an unidentified artist. Produced by the PFLP-General Command. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

The al-Karama Generation, artist unidentified, 1977. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Al-Karama Battle commemoration, artist unidentified, 1971. Produced by the GUPS, Paris. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Al-Karama by artist Samir Salameh. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Hommage to the al-Karama Battle, artist unidentified. Produced by the June 5th Collective. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

Land Day. Our Roots, by artist Suleiman Mansour, with a poem by Munib Makhoul. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Suleiman Mansur is a leading Palestinian painter who now lives and works in the West Bank. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

Land Day. 30 March 1976, by artist Claude Lazar. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Land Day by Galilee’s School Children, artist unidentified. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

Deir Yassin massacre commemoration, artist unidentified. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Look… They Are Three Thousand. They Were Killed in Tall el-Zaatar, by artist V. Domenici. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. The poster was produced to denounce one of the most cruel and violent massacres in refugee camps in Lebanon, namely, Tall el-Zaatar, located in the eastern suburbs of Beirut, it was one of the most important camps. The death toll amounted to 3,000 deaths.

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.

Abdel-Qader el-Husseini, Martyr or the al-Qastal Battle, 1948, artist unidentified. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
January 7th, the Day of the Palestinian Martyr. You Will Not Be Forgotten, artist unidentified. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
We Write our Revolution with our Blood. Assassinated Palestinian Intellectuals, artist unidentified. Produced by the Union of Palestinian Writers. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Poster commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Count Bernadotte at the hands of Zionist militias, by Dhia al-Azzawi. Produced by the June 5th Collective. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. Dhia al-Azzawi is a leading Iraqi artist who was exiled from Iraq in the 1970s, lived in Beirut before settling in London.

Because the storm promised me… (a verse from poet Mahmud Darwish), artist unidentified. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

Twelve Years on the Palestinian Revolution. 1965–1977, by artist Ismail Shammout. Produced by the Unified Information Office, PLO. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
This poster was actually the result of a competition, the artist is Jumana al-Husseini. Produced by the Unified Information Office in The Netherlands. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. Jumana al-Husseini is a leading Palestinian artist who lives in Paris.
Artist unidentified. Produced by the Unified Information Office in Spain. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

Artist unidentified. Produced by the Unified Information Office in The Netherlands. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Revolution until Victory, artist unidentified. Produced by the Unified Information Office in Paris. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Artist unidentified. Produced by the Unified Information Office. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.

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.

The International Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine, 1978, by Dhia al-Azzawi. Produced by the Unified Information Office, Beirut. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. The International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine was inaugurated on March 21st, 1978, in Beirut and open to the public until April 5th of that year. It included approximately 200 works by 197 international artists from approximately twenty- nine countries. The initiative was inspired from the Salvador Allende Resistance Museum in Exile, which was undertaken by Chilean artists in Paris in 1973 after the Pinochet coup. The works were donated with the aim of constituting a seed collection for a museum of international modern art in solidarity with Palestine, in exile.
The International Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine, 1978, by Mohammad el-Mellihi. Produced by the Unified Information Office, Beirut. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection. Mohammad el-Mellihi is a leading Moroccan artist who saught exile in Beirut during the 1970s.

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?

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Poster for a Palestinian film week in Rabat, Morocco, artist unidentified, 1978. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
Poster for a Palestinian film week in Valence, France, artist unidentified, 1978. Ezzeddin Qalaq collection.
serene, self-assured and reassuring. Her gun is visible, but it rests against the wall, unthreatening. There is no celebration of violence; the composition of the poster is all about the young fida’iyyeh’s attractiveness.

This virtual projection was inspired by an exhibition I was invited to curate in 2008, entitled "Posters of the Palestinian Revolution. The Ezzeddin Kalak Collection". It was part of MASARAT Palestine, an artistic and cultural season in the French Community of Wallonie-Bruxelles, an initiative of the Commissariat Général aux Relations Internationales and the Palestinian General Delegation at the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg, under the high patronage of the International Relations Ministry in the French Community, Mahmoud Darwich, and with support of the Ministry of Culture. Conception and Execution: Les Halles de Schaerbeek, Brussels. Posters of the Palestinian Revolution. The Ezzeddin Kalak Collection was hosted at The Mundaneum, an archive center and exhibition space in Mons, Belgium (www.mundaneum.be), from November 7 until December 21, 2008. The exhibition sponsored by the Commissariat Général aux Relations Internationales (CGRI) and the Palestinian General Delegation at the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg.