By Maniza Naqvi
While Israeli F-18s created sonic booms and closed the open skies above; and the barbed wiring for the fences and the pre-fabricated planks for the wall surrounding Gaza steadily settled down as the facts on the ground; and while Colin Powell droned on about the “roadmap for peace” on CNN; and the searing heat of the day closed in; I made my way through the streets of the crowded city to the Arts and Crafts Village at the Gaza Municipality. It was the June of 2002.
I hated being in Gaza. Even though it was for a short time with the date for departure certain and with the ease of getting out assured, even then, I hated being there. I couldn't breath. The fear of the Israelis with their killing machines, overhead and all around, created an uncontrollable feeling of illness. I was eager and relieved to leave Gaza which I was going to do in a few hours and I was feeling guilty because my colleagues would stay on in this pressure cooker atmosphere. I was anxious about the upcoming ordeal at the check point for entering and leaving Gaza. Here insolent, battle geared and almost to the last one, oversexed and beautiful Israeli, boys and girls maybe no more then eighteen or nineteen years old, heavily armed and in military uniforms did mandatory time in the Israeli Defense Force as prison guards of the concentration camp of Gaza. Every young Israeli citizen does service in the military. This is how Israel has raised and trained its young. It has made them golden, muscular and cruel. Their job it seemed was to insult, humiliate, harass and terrorize anyone going in or out of Gaza. Any reference or suggestion to their being prison guards of a concentration camp with one and a half million inmates was only met with a cold almost vacant eyed stare of contempt, guffaws and a longer wait.
Weary, sweat soaked Palestinian men, women, the elderly, the sick, and children all waited outside in long lines of desperate people making futile attempts at getting out to their menial jobs as farm hands and construction workers on the now Israel owned land and settlements. They waited alongside the checkpoint barricades and in the crosshair of sharp shooters’ weapons trained on them. The foreigners, like me, trying to get in and who waited inside the checkpoint seemed merely to be essential menial workers too, who were part of a bigger more complex establishment which enabled the occupation to continue. Officials, bureaucrats, aid workers of international agencies took on the task and responsibility from the occupier of feeding and keeping alive an interned population of over 1.5 million people.
That day in Gaza, was a normal day of imprisonment, there were F-16s flying overhead incessantly—and the IDF was posted at the parameters with guns trained on anyone going in or out. Outside those parameters where the Israeli settlements had been built—citizens of Israel went about daily life freely—filling up on gas for their sports utility vehicles and trucks; doing their groceries, sitting in cafes all the while with submachine guns slung casually over their shoulders like a fashion accessory.
That day in Gaza I went to see an art exhibit. It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do just as it would be to duck when a loud noise went off. I don’t know how to judge when a noise is just a loud noise or when it’s a gun going off or a bomb. And I don’t know how to judge art. But I do know how to judge my own feelings and responses to both. One evokes abject fear the other courage. In those moments, that afternoon, in the art gallery the sounds of the sonic booms disappeared and so did my anxiety and sense of claustrophobia and fear. On display was the act of resistance by Shehda Durgham.
Shehda Durgham was not there but a pamphlet which introduced his work was available. The pamphlet says that Shehda Durgham was born in Al Bureij Camp in 1967. He has a post graduate diploma in Plastic Art. He has received a number of prestigious awards in Gaza. He has undertaken work as a lecturer in the Applied Art Department at the Science and Technology College in Khan Younis, Gaza. I have the pamphlet with me along with five of his paintings which I bought that day in June. They are displayed on the walls in my office. I look at them every day as do many of the people who come in. Everyone, who enters my office, first comments on the paintings. Many times people who are just passing by stop in their tracks and come in to check out the paintings and inquire about them. Some times a person will walk in saying Wow! These are great! I immediately respond yes “Aren’t they? What do you make of them?” Then, it is likely that the comments range from how stunning they are and how bright, how strong—or how they can’t put their finger on what it is they want to say. And, then invariably of course, I’m asked about their provenance. I start with the artist after that I tell them he is Palestinian—they either continue with the praise, ask me whether I would be willing to sell one or all or immediately they recoil. Most are attracted to the paintings I suspect because of their vibrant colors and it is only on closer examination that they see the context. Those who recoil or manage to suppress their reaction follow up with a polite question as to whether I know of any Israeli artists or whether I also bought Israeli paintings or mention an Israeli artist that I should consider as well. I am tempted at these times to reply, “But Israel is much represented here!” Or, “This is the work of Israel!” In the same spirit of that famous quote: when a German Gestapo officer who saw a photo of the painting Guernica asked Picasso “Did you do that?” The artist replied, “No, you did.”
This work of expression by Shehda Durgham, on my walls, changes from moment to moment depending on the beholder. It can go from being art to being a threat. I have not changed the original frames of the paintings although they could be better displayed—in better quality matting and reflection resistant glass. And of course the frames, a bit battered could be changed. But I want to keep them as they arrived, in their Gaza made frames.
The title of the pamphlet is “Under Siege.” The pamphlet lists his solo and communal exhibitions from 1999-2000 as follows.
2000 The French cultural Center-Gaza
1999 Sequence Exhibition-Imail Tuma Gallery-Akko
1994 Gaza Exhibition for Plastic Arts-Al Azhar University-Gaza
Selective Communal Exhibitions:
2001 Intifada Shadow Exhibition-The Art and Craft Village-Gaza
2001 We will be Exhibition-Palestinian Red Crescent Society-Gaza
2000: Plastic Art memory Exhibition (Thakera Tashkeliah)-Gaza
2000: The Spring Exhibition (Al Rabeea)-Dar Al Wehda Hall, Gaza.
2000 Jerusalem (Al Quds) Through the Eyes of The Artists-Dar Al Karama-Ramallah
1999- The first of June Plastic Exhibition Gaza Municipality
The pamphlet shows a photograph of Shehda—it is the same one that I found on a website for Palestinian artists. Till recently there was no information whatsoever for him on internet when I repeatedly tried to do a search for him, but more recently I found this:
The pamphlet includes a quote by Shehda A. Durgham. I see that in the Arabic version his full name is spelt out Shehda Ahmed Durgham. I hope that the English translation of what he has to say has not been similarly abbreviated. One thing about paintings is that nothing is lost in translation:
“Art work is and always has been a channel through which the artist expresses his inner self with relative ease, reflecting the experiences he is living with all their contrasts, facilitating others being influenced by it. The observer will not feel this intrinsic artistic value, if the artist is not living a kind of conflict with the milieu of which he is a part. Therefore, my art work is a reflection of this intrinsic value, of this inner essence, a searching process in which I have used tools, raw materials and methods which have enabled me to crystallize this inner essence, to confront the changes in real life. It has enabled me to strengthen and consolidate the observers’ memories and facilitate the transition between what is censored and what is acceptable, using a very skilled and very clear system to reach a kind of concentration, a kind of absolute inner depth and meaning and to give the essence of what we are living, in immense detail. My art work in this exhibition is the culmination of a constant exploration of a variety of techniques and raw materials. It is the result of a dialogue, an animated debate between life and eternity, culture and the destruction of culture. Out of this exploration my art work is born.”