by Mike Linaweaver (with contextual assistance and translations by Jess Martin)
This interview was conducted in March 2013 and originally appeared in Strike #3
The 1948 invasion of Palestine is remembered by Israelis as the Milkhemet Ha’atzma’ut, War of Independence. For Palestinians it represents al-Nakba, The Catastrophe.
Following the conflict, 600,000 to 800,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from homelands which they had occupied for centuries, effectively becoming refugees. Many Palestinian refugees found themselves remanded to small parcels of land known as the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank on the banks of the Jordan River.
Today Gaza is confined behind barrier walls and miles of fences. Here, behind the wire, artists like Islam Ashour struggle to give voice to the grievances and hopes of Palestinian people separated from their homeland and their families in the occupied territories of former Palestine.
Mike Linaweaver: Tell us about your background and where you are from.
Islam Ashour: My name is Islam Ashour. I am a Palestinian refugee living in the Gaza Strip. Originally, I am from Ashqelon, a city in Southern Israel just North of Gaza. Ashqelon has been under Israeli occupation since 1948. I studied fine arts at the University of Gaza.
Mike Linaweaver: What motivated you to create art?
Islam Ashour: I’ve always had an interest in art and drawing. My uncle, Ismail Ashour, is an artist. After my studies I began to receive a great deal of encouragement for my work. My cartoons have appeared in a number of Arab electronic sites and magazines. I’m doing my best to be well known among the supporters of Palestinian resistance.
ML: We have seen recently that Palestinian artists in the occupied territories have been under attack by Israeli security forces. What has that experience been like?
IA: It’s enough to say that the Israelis terrorize Palestinian artists, poets, singers, musicians and actors a great deal. Many young men who are active in the struggle against the occupation and against racism have been arrested. By doing this the Israelis believe they can suppress our ability to express ourselves and our free opinions against the occupation.
ML: On Febuary 16 Palestinian artist and cartoonist Mohamed Shaba’aneh was arrested by Israeli Defense Forces at the Karemeh border. Subsequently he was sentenced to five months in prison by Isreali authorities. How have Palestinian artists reacted to his detention and what actions has the art community undertaken to fight for his release?
IA: As a cartoon artist, I can say that the arrest of our colleague Shaba’ana provoked anger and frustration among many of the cartoonists. Shaba’ana is a pioneer in cartoon art, with solid standing in the Palestinian community. We all sympathize with him because we see his arrest as an encroachment on freedom of speech. He has every right to express whatever topic his mind touches upon.
Art is our language and the language of everyone who expresses those things which surpass words. Since his arrest we have exerted our efforts in every way possible in order to try and release him, including by way of our art. Many of us have drawn new cartoons on his behalf in order to raise awareness and to expedite his release to freedom, God willing.
Artists and journalists also organized a number of peaceful sit-ins and solidarity demonstrations in front of the various human rights organizations in the occupied territories.
(A Palestinian woman voices her rage and frustration at the seizure of her lands for illegal settlements by Israeli Defense Forces)
ML: What has your personal experience with the occupation and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) been like?
IA: My own experiences are like those of any Palestinian citizen living in Gaza. We suffer through the sieges by the IDF. Electricity is often cut off, sometimes lasting for hours. I can’t really summarize all the things that have happened, nor do I like to talk about them. In 1987 the occupation forces arrested my oldest brother. He was imprisoned for 5 years. In 1990 the occupation forces violently entered my aunt’s home and arrested all of her children. All of this is in addition to the 2009 war in Gaza. During that incursion the IDF completely devastated Tel al Hawa, the region where I live. They brought wave upon wave of destruction on Gaza. They demolished the home of my wife’s family in the Karameh neighborhood in the northern part of GazaCity. The 2012 war on Gaza took huge psychological toll on me and my family. We expected death at any moment; we waited for the fall of a rocket. Those were very difficult days. I’m still uncomfortable recalling them.
ML: Do you have hope for a free Palestine?
IA: Yes, I do. It is our hope and aim to liberate our country through the efforts of all Palestinians. We intend to do this through a peaceful, popular resistance that will lead to the recognition of our legitimate rights.
ML: Thank you, Islam, for your time and patience in talking with us and answering our questions.
IA: I’m pleased and grateful for your help in sharing my cartoons and drawings. Art is for me a hobby. I’m not a professional artist, but I believe art has a part to play in the liberation of my country. Thank you for supporting and standing alongside the Palestinian people.
The Images (Translations and contextual assistance by Jess Martin)
The two panels in this image are contrasting the relatively economically privileged situation in the West Bank with the dire poverty in the Gaza Strip, and the politically ridiculous demands in the West Bank while people in Gaza don’t have fuel to cook with or heat their homes.
The right panel references Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister of the Palestinian Authority. Like most key PA figures, he is known for passing out bribes for political support. He is also closely aligned with the U.S. and has major policy disagreements with Hamas.
It is at the same time criticizing U.S. capital influence in the West Bank as well as Hamas. “Ana mish Kafir” is a popular song by Ziyad Rahbani throughout the Arab world. It’s a leftist response to Islamist accusations of traitorous behaviour by Islamists. The basic argument is that secularism isn’t the problem; The problem is western consumerism and capital.
In the left panel, the people are protesting high gas prices, poverty and their separation from family and friends in the West Bank as well as the internal political divisions between Hamas, Fatah and other secular Palestinian groups. Elements of Hamas are calling the people traitors and collaborators for protesting the economic situation instead of maintaining a loyal silence in support of Hamas. The weapons pointed at the people demonstrate that Hamas and secular groups within the Palestinian Authority are operating against the interests of the people.
(Translation: “How many times will you have to travel? And to what exile will you return?”)
This image refers to the Yarmouk refuguee camp. Yarmouk camp is a major refugee camp for Palestinians in Damascus, Syria. The situation for Palestinian refugees there has become dire since the outbreak of hostilities in Syria. The image reflects on the fact that Palestinians are not only refugees in Syria but also exiles in their own country.
In this image the red, green and yellow clothing of the people in the front represent the colors of Palestine. The people in the background represent the revolutionary crowds in Egypt and Syria. Represented here is a critique of Palestinian leftist youth. Despite their politics they are paid off by the Palestinian Authority to keep their demands small and not directly challenge the power structure, while, in contrast, Syrians and Egyptians are calling for the ends of their governments.
Islam Ashour is an artist living and working in the Gaza Strip.
Mike Linaweaver is one of the founders of Strike Magazine and serves currently as an editor.
Jess Martin is an Arabic translator and Palestinian solidarity activist