BEIRUT: Oranges are imbued with symbolism in Palestine. In one of Ghassan Kanafani’s more powerful short stories, the country is called “the land of the sad oranges.” It is fitting, then, that a citrus tree should be the subject of the mural completed Sunday in the Burj al-Shemali Palestinian camp in Tyre, erected in memory of the civilians killed in the Houla shelter on July 7, 1982, by an Israeli phosphorus bomb. A collaboration between the locally based group Jana Encounter for Contemporary Arts and the Break the Silence Mural and Arts Project (founded by U.S. muralist and clinical psychologist Susan Greene), the artwork was completed over nine days by artists from the U.S., Italy, Guatemala and Germany working alongside Palestinian artists from Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank.
“The idea is to have Palestinian artists from the homeland and from the Diaspora coming together with international artists to work on community projects in the camps in Lebanon,” explains Moataz Dajani, Jana Encounter for Contemporary Arts’ coordinator.
“For the last 10 days we’ve been working with people, listening to their stories, trying to get symbols [and] listening to what they would like the mural to include and [trying] to incorporate all of these in an organic way. We chose the orange because the Palestinians are known to the world for Jaffa oranges and when they came over to Lebanon, the Palestinians planted the big orchards of citrus fruits ... so it’s like they brought the oranges from Palestine and they’re still growing.”
Greene, who has been working in the Middle East on-and-off since 1989, collaborated with Dajani’s team last year on a series of murals in Shatila and returned this year to work in Burj al-Shemali.
The mural is located on the memorial created to honor the dead. “It’s over the shelter where people have died and the corpses are still in the shelter,” Dajani explains. “They couldn’t get them out because they were mangled and they were burnt by phosphorus bombs, so it became a sanctuary.”
“It really changes the way the space looks,” says Greene. “The sheikh is a calligrapher and he came and wrote the names of the victims on each of the oranges, and then there’s a sun and sunrays and corn. Inside of all the ears of corn are faces, in each of the kernels, and then there’s ... flamingoes that are flying in a circle.
“This really is a way to honor the victims and to change the psychology of the space and how it feels to be in there. From my point of view we’ve come as witnesses from elsewhere and the most important thing is what we do with the story.”
Greene emphasizes the importance of collaborating with the local community. The team worked closely with Abu Fadi, five of whose children were killed in the attack, but the final design ignited some controversy.
“There were all these teenagers that came in and they didn’t like the project,” she says. “They were mad. They wanted Yasser Arafat’s portrait to be in the mural and Abu Fadi and the people organizing it didn’t want that ... then there was a meeting [and] after that in the ensuing days they all came and painted with us. They became very integrated into the project. All of those struggles are really important and part of the work.”
Greene says that her aim is not only to organize and direct community art projects, such as the murals in Shatila and Burj al-Shemali, but to ensure that these projects are documented and disseminated abroad.
“It’s a project of international solidarity,” she says. “The idea is to work in these local ways and then find venues to amplify the projects so that they’re not only located here, because from my perspective that’s not doing enough ... the idea is to communicate the stories that we hear here and our experiences to a broader audience, mostly in the United States.
“We feel that the degree to which the U.S. supports Israel is part of the problem, so it’s a way to struggle against U.S. foreign policy.”
Greene is working with Guatemalan-American media artist and muralist Frederick Alvarado and U.S. documentary maker Hillary Hacker to record film footage of the projects in Lebanon’s camps.
“There’s a way in which – I’m speaking mostly for the U.S. – people just don’t know what’s happened,” she says. “I’m trying to reach people in a way that catches them unawares. That’s what art can be useful for ... Listing facts for people often doesn’t really touch them emotionally and so it’s easy to tune it out, and it’s really uncomfortable stuff to think about and that’s understandable because it’s so horrible.
“What I’m really trying to do is do research on art and creativity and resilience and trauma and how all of that intersects and how people use art to cope. It’s amazing – Palestinians and all the refugees that are in these camps suffer so much and yet they’re very excited about art and very welcoming. The warmth that we are greeted with is incredible.”
To find out more about the project visit www.breakthesilencearts.org