When the question of traveling to the Gaza Strip and West Bank to help paint murals last summer arose, John Halaka was intrigued, but hesitant. After all, he had other plans, and jetting off on short notice to visit the most disputed strip of land on the planet was not among them. Then he changed his mind.
It all started last April, when the professor of visual arts went to San Francisco for the opening of a group exhibit, called “Made in Palestine,” which featured his artwork. A few months later, exhibit organizer Susan Greene — an artist, clinical psychologist and coordinator of the “Break the Silence” project — invited him to come to the war-torn region and help paint a series of murals.
It turned out to be an offer Halaka couldn’t refuse. After two weeks of soul-searching, the self-described “informed activist” decided the opportunity was too rare to pass up. After a whirlwind of preparations, he found himself plunked down in the sticky heat of August in Palestine, where tensions were simmering even more than usual on the eve of the impending pullout of Israeli settlements from Gaza.
Still, his group was ready to get to work. All they needed were official permits to move on to Gaza. Oh, and some paint. Although they’d been assured that art supplies were readily available at their first stop, the town of Rafah, on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, they ended up making do with house paint.
It was important to Halaka — who is of Palestinian descent and whose own artwork touches on the struggles of the dispossessed — not to impose Western ideas on the murals, a set of heavy canvas banners that are now displayed on the exterior of the city’s Health Center.
“We didn’t have any specific images in mind,” he says. “We wanted to hear what the people wanted.” Paramount among their goals was to remain sensitive to the Palestinian history of image- making and to reflect the people’s own stories. “The mural shows different scenes of life in Rafah: Their desires, their hopes, fears, resistance, plight.”
Halaka explains that one of the main raisons d’etre for the murals was to honor the memory of International Solidarity Movement volunteer Rachel Corrie, who was killed by a bulldozer while protecting a Palestinian home from demolition in 2003, and to commemorate her relationship with the people of Rafah.
The project was truly collaborative. “It was a remarkable situation,” recalls Halaka, still moved by the response. “One person made a phone call, and an hour later, an artist showed up. Three hours later, 10 artists joined us. ”
The whole experience went by in a blur, Halaka says, in part due to the extreme volatility of the region. Leaving Rafah for the town of Mas’ha on the West Bank, the group intended to
finish a mural that Greene and others had begun the summer before. There they worked on a painting on the surface of a recently constructed 24-foot-high concrete wall. Halaka explains the wall was built by the Israeli army to punish the Hani Aamer family by separating the Palestinian farmer from both his village and his own farmland.
“We enlisted a lot of kids and made do with what we had. The military harassed us.”
Nonetheless, Halaka says it was worth it. “Art did provide hope,” he says. During the project’s genesis the previous summer, the youngest children were afraid to even leave the house to see it. “But this year they came and helped us. It’s art as therapy.” Which isn’t to paint too rosy a picture: “Finally the Israelis told us that unless we left immediately, they’d confiscate (Hani Aamer’s) key to the only gate in or out of his property. So we never got to finish. “
Halaka plans to continue drawing attention to the conflict. “I’m working on a documentary about the Nasserallah family of Rafah. They hosted us during our time there.” They are also the family whose home volunteer Corrie was trying to protect when she was killed.
But for now, Halaka must content himself by working half a world away on the film, which he hopes to complete this year. “I think this work fits in well with the mission of the university,” he muses. “And now I’ve tasted their life, and not just on an intellectual level.”