One day, and quite unexpectedly as with all nice surprises, a man I barely knew untied a black velvet pouch, to reveal the treasures he’d stashed inside.
Out tumbled a number of fingertip-sized seashells, lovely in their ordinariness, but also in the details which the man had noticed: the smoothness of one, the ridged edges of another, swirls of colour in the next… and one toothlike shell into which he drilled a hole and fastened a clasp for a necklace. Picking up another long, twisted shell, similarly drilled, Samir explained, “I found these at the sea in the north. I walk a lot by the sea.”
From underneath the black velvet, Samir took the black string which had bound the pouch, showing how to attach it to the necklace jewels. “I love to make things. This was perfect for jewellery. “
One might not expect someone who has lived through a hell surpassing previous invasions and a life under occupation to notice the little things in life.
On a visit to Samir’s home another day, his artistic nature further revealed itself, as did its origin. Samir’s father was tending the different vegetables, herbs and trees he’d nurtured in what had been a vacant lot. The family, living nearby, had bought the land and truly made it flourish (not like all that mythology about making a certain ‘desert’ flourish from nothing, you know!?!).
During the heat of the day, the shade of what are now sturdy trees provided some relief, and a chance to see more of Samir’s work.
He is drawn to the sea, and his collection shows this. But his other crafts extend to wood etchings of traditional Palestinian life, and…cartoons.
“I work as a cartoonist. I make posters, stories, and animation films for children,” he said. “I’m employed at a company in Gaza, like a small Walt Disney (but without the insidious side).”
This warranted a visit to his office.
The main production room, where a handful of young artists sat sketching and designing, is an airy, well-lit room, walls plastered with drawings and cartoons: some seem to be whatever has come into the artist’s head, mixtures of Palestinian and Western culture, and others are blatant copies of cartoons loved around the world: Tom and Jerry; the Simpsons; South Park; and Japanese animation style images. These are simply fun art, to decorate.
The work is aimed mostly at children, creating nice images and ideas for them. A boy on a swing surrounded by lush foliage and a shining sun. A child talking with his grandfather—dressed in traditional Palestinian clothes and head scarf –about weddings. In the multi-framed cartoon, the grandfather explains about the music, the dancing…It is a country wedding and tents have been set up (not Nakba tents, but festive ones) in a thriving forest. A tall, elegant flask of tea sits inside one tent. No tanks, no F-16s, no destruction.
Yet the political does come out in the artists’ personal sketchings. One artist draws a girl sitting in a house made of bricks of UN handout packages. Another sketch shows children in crushed buildings, terrified… A cartoon shows a boy, traditionally dressed, holding a key, Right of Return.
We move to another room to watch some of their animations.
The first: kids in space, riding on a star (drawing style reminiscent of the Little Prince), a white dove defying space and physics, flying alongside the kids, and colours. So many colours.
Another, for a TV channel, depicts morning prayer, children waking up in a colourful village, coming out of colourful homes, singing, dancing… There are butterflies, flowers, birds, a forest…It is, for Palestinians, a fantasy world of freedom, happiness, serenity, nature… No bulldozed olive groves or rotting cow corpses, nor rancid piles of chickens in bombed-out farms. No, it is a world of sound and colour and bliss.
But Samir explains this is not deceit, but giving hope. He explains the school-directed drawings and murals he does. “Kids understand things well thru drawing and cartoons. Its a means of communicating ideas to them.”
The UN commissions their work for UN-run schools. Subjects like showing children how to behave well; how to behave with teachers.
The images also make their way onto notebook covers, calendars, mugs, clocks, cell phones, and even baby bottles.
Aside from a determined effort at arts on stage and in studios, what strikes me in Gaza is the prevalence of murals, artistic graffiti, and cartoons on city and camp walls. Although the decimated landscape and lacerated homes first grab the eye, the random artwork in Gaza is one of the very compelling aspects of Gaza’s art.
From grey concrete cities and camps springs an abundance of colour, animated love, determination, and hope for a better tomorrow.
Sometimes it is the extraordinary beauty from ordinary people that amazes.