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How Arab American Artists are Addressing Gaza Tragedy

posted on: Aug 6, 2014

BY: Suzanne Manneh/Contributing Writer

Nearly 2000 Palestinians have died in Gaza since the Israel Defense Forces began the current military campaign on July 8. Approximately 25 percent of those killed are children. The devastating violence and destruction affecting Gaza has led to severe power loss and water shortages of clean water. Among the damaged, if not destroyed, infrastructure, are 142 schools—89 run by the United Nations, as well as mosques, churches, and hospitals. Most recently, the conflict and the several lives it has claimed, has compelled American music artists, comedians and other celebrities to assert and transmit their disapproval of violence via social media, with hashtags such as #ceasefire and #Gaza. And internationally, actors, such as Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, have issued statements condemning the attacks, calling for a swift resolution.

Arab America spoke with Arab American artists early this week about their views of the situation, as well how they are addressing it in their work and publicly.

Dr. Sam Hamod; Ph.D; Professor; Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize Nominated Poet;
Editor Princeton, NJ

I began writing about it in the 1980’s, and have published 15 books and appeared in over 100 anthologies worldwide, but [the violence] has been going on since 1948. It has been in my heart and in my words since then, when I was not yet a young man.

I have been writing poems daily. I am compelled. I publish them on Facebook, where they reach thousands, as well as eight or nine websites, including Contemporary World Literature. I am going to start on a book [of poetry] called ‘Gaza.’ As a poet, I give a voice to the voiceless. These poems are documenting the Israeli genocide on Gaza. We want people to know what happened 100 years from now, and not be summarized in one sentence in a history book. We want people to ask, ‘how did the world leaders allow that to happen?’ I am discussing Arab leaders, Muslim leaders—who have done nothing— as well as US Congress and Senate, who voted unanimously to support these war crimes. History books are ‘his story…’ whoever won. But it’s not about winning here, it’s about stopping this violence. If Israel continues this way, it is a matter of time that the world wakes up and realizes that Israel is a terrorist state, not a Democratic state.

Doris Bittar
Multidisciplinary artist, Organizer, Writer, curator and educator; San Diego, Calif.

It is just so painful to watch. I’m not pro-Hamas or pro-Abbas or pro-Israel. I’m pro-freedom. I have a humanist view. I am currently working on a piece called, “To Be Free.” I made it thinking about the Arab Spring, but it relates to the whole region, inclusive of Palestine. There is a golden yellow part from a Eugene Delacroix print of Lion Devouring a Horse. The other part, red, green, white is my design of a horse spelled with the word “freedom” in Arabic. Gaza is right there. It’s a prison. They can’t get out of the cycle of colonial racism.

I hope to grab people on an emotional level, but also [convey] that yearning and aspiration for freedom, and the understanding that hope can get stuck. I remember hearing an interview with Haitian poets a few years ago; it was during the last attack on Gaza.

I remember suddenly feeling so jealous. I thought to myself, as I am thinking now, ‘Why don’t we hear the poetic voices in Gaza?’ The voices of children, mothers, artists?’ I wish the [U.S. media] would flesh out the humanity. There is more to Gaza than violence.

Mo Amer
Comedian; Writer; Producer; Houston, Tex.

Texas Gaza Protest by Charlie Pearce, August 2014

Two weeks ago, I made a guest appearance at the comedy club. I was telling a story I’ve told before, about coming from Kuwait as a refugee to the US. The audience loves it every time, but I stopped. I wasn’t being genuine to how I felt in that moment. Who I am as a human being affects my stand up. I have to be honest to the art form and talk about what’s on my mind. Afterwards, I shared my frustrations with my colleagues. It’s a multitude of feelings [about Gaza]. Pain, sadness, anger.

I am starting my tour next week, and I am writing new sketches. I am also in pre-production for a stand-up special in DC due to be released internationally in 2015. It’s important to address [Palestine], but to be humorous yet serious.

If I share myself, who I am as a Palestinian, a Muslim, a refugee, a human, this is something most Americans have not experienced, especially in a comedy club. They may look at events differently and say ‘I had an interaction with a Palestinian, who shared a completely different perspective.’ Bill Cosby told me something when I explained to him my difficulties articulating this message. He said, ‘teach them while they are laughing.’ In other words just be hilarious.

Helen Zughaib
Artist; Washington, D.C.

In March of 2008, I was sent as Cultural Envoy to Palestine through the US Department of State. I was there for one month, working with women artists. I witnessed the oppression they face on a daily basis, that, let’s face it, hasn’t changed. But I felt their perseverance, their solidarity. This inspired my piece Women Against the Night. The women are facing a black wall, standing shoulder to shoulder, holding strong. They are the glue and fabric of society.

I went to a protest on Saturday, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘how can I illuminate the situation [in Palestine] to open someone’s mind to someone else’s plight?’ It’s not that others don’t care—many just don’t know. But how can I make them empathize, and on a human level? That is the way we reach people.

I am currently working on a piece called Generations Lost, inspired by a black and white photograph I saw of women in Gaza holding up photos of their lost sons. It was demanding, ‘look at me, look at what I’ve lost.” I don’t care what you are talking about, that is universal, and when we are at that level, we get a voice.

Jackie Salloum
Filmmaker; New York, NY

Americans in New York Protest the Israeli assault on Gaza on August 2, 2014

In 2004, I was in Gaza, working on my film Sling Shot Hip Hop that was before Hamas— and there would be areas completely wiped out. This devastation has been happening for decades. The infrastructure is completely demolished.

Growing up [in the U.S.] I was not proud of being Arab because when you are young, you are influenced by what you see on TV. In college, I decided I wanted to make work that challenged these stereotypes, and I made Planet of the Arabs. Arabs, Palestinians especially, are so dehumanized. Sadly, people in general, who get their information from U.S. media and Hollywood, don’t see Palestinians as human. Once, at a film festival, a woman came up to me and apologized to me. She said, ‘I let my children watch these films and never tried to tell them that this is not what Arabs are.

I am feeling waves of frustration, anger, helplessness. You want do something, but you don’t know what to do. I am collaborating with other artists on projects addressing Gaza and I recently edited a video, Gaza Names made by Jewish Voice for Peace and Institute for Middle East Understanding. Celebrities are holding up names of all who have died in Gaza. It’s so upsetting seeing all those names, and the unfortunate thing is that there are now thousands more.