Palestinian artist gives voice to unrecognized villages

GAZA STRIP, Gaza City — Six children sit amid the leafless branches of a tree in an arid, barren landscape, a small weary-looking shed in the distance. The image, a photograph by Mohamed Badarne, is part of “Unrecognized Games,” a series featuring children from the 45 unrecognized villages in Israel’s Negev Desert, where more than 75,000 Bedouin live. Badarne told Al-Monitor that he wants to pose one key question through his work on the Bedouin: “Why is Israel destroying Negev villages?” Answering his own question, he replied, “Israel wants to eliminate the Palestinian presence from the pre-1948 territories.”

The term “unrecognized village” stems from Israel’s refusal to recognize Bedouin ownership of the land on which they have settled in the Negev, where they have had a presence since the seventh century, well before Israel’s establishment. As the Bedouin lack deeds or documentation of ownership, Israel refuses to provide their settlements with public services — that is, water, electricity, waste disposal and education and health facilities. In addition, the Bedouins’ homes are under the constant threat of demolition, because Israel considers them to have been illegally built. For instance, on Aug. 31, Israeli authorities used bulldozers to destroy containers used for storage as well as olive trees in several villages.

In 2011, the Israeli government approved the Prawer Plan, which aimed to move thousands of Bedouins, against their will, from their villages and resettle them in urban communities. The Bedouin, who live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, opposed the plan, emphasizing their historical ownership of the land. The United Nations has been calling on Israel to “recognize and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims.”

Life in the Negev, given the absence of public services and the state’s destruction of personal property, is insecure and tough, but the children Badarne has photographed have nonetheless managed to turn their surroundings into a playground: They climb trees; they play with the remains of broken or discarded objects; they run around on the sandy stretches of land and amuse themselves in front of a broken television set.

“Children make toys out of nothing. They create their own heaven among the rubble,” Badarne remarked. “I watched children playing atop power generators, knowing that they have no electricity to begin with.”

Badarne visited the Negev on numerous occasions between 2013 and 2015 and built relationships with the people he photographed. “The photos focus on Negev children and aim to show the struggle to survive despite the difficult living [conditions],” Badarne said. “These candid shots are to try to create local and global awareness about the situation in the Negev.”

“Unrecognized Games” was shown in Gaza City in March 2015, shortly after Badarne finished working on the series. “The same Israeli hand is destroying Gaza and Negev,” is how he described the aim of the exhibit there. In June 2016, the work was mounted in Berlin as part of the opening of Palestinian Days, an annual festival organized by the Committee for Solidarity with Palestinians. The artist also displayed the photographs this April during Israeli Apartheid Week in Doha. The series will travel to Belgium for an exhibition, beginning Oct. 2, organized by the Committee for Solidarity of Palestinians and the Municipality of Brussels.

Badarne was born in 1978 in the village of Arraba, in the Galilee. He has volunteered in refugee camps in the West Bank, where he organized a human rights movement with the young Palestinians living there. Until 2012, he earned a living as a high school teacher and as a project coordinator for a nongovernmental organization in the region. He then decided to devote his time to photography, offering workshops to aspiring photographers as well as taking photos of his own.

Badarne has assembled a large portfolio of images of the many aspects of Palestinian life, from children who work on the streets to the daily life of construction workers. Badarne remarked, “My aim is not to [just] take photos, but to create a narrative with them and use photography to cast an eye on the unseen, under the slogan of ‘art for change.’”

Displaying his photographs abroad, Badarne said, has helped raise awareness of the Palestinian cause, and he hopes that it has increased support for it. “This is what it means to mobilize art and use it to serve national interests,” he said, adding that such shows inform people that the Palestinians are not only concentrated in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also living in Israel, including the Negev. “My aim is to ensure that humanity, rather than injustice, dominates Palestinian lands.”

Hussam Salem, a Palestinian photographer from Gaza who has worked with Badarne, praised his work in “depicting reality through his photos and helping Palestine.” He told al-Monitor, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Salem believes that Badarne’s images, like those of other Palestinian photographers, show that life is worthwhile despite all its attendant difficulties. “A simple photo with a human touch satisfies you and reflects the concerns, happiness and sadness of that forgotten person in an unrecognized village. It gives them a voice.”



How this West Bank village became a writers’ retreat

Feb. 1 marked the end of the winter vacation for Jordanian storyteller Sally Shalabi, who spent most of her time off in the Kafr Rumman village retreat, near the city of Tulkarm in the northern West Bank. As part of a cultural retreat program, Shalabi spent most of her time in an old house that was restored by the owner to receive intellectuals and artists.

Shalabi learned about the Kafr Rumman residency program from a friend’s Facebook page, and decided to visit the place and write about the retreat and the artists and writers who spend their time there.

Abed Rahman Othman is a local journalist and editor in chief at the German radio station DW (Deutsche Welle). He restored his family’s house along with other old houses he bought in the old town of the village at his own expense, to host writers and artists as part of a retreat program that he dubbed the Dooz Artists Residency, which started receiving guests at the beginning of 2017.

In return for free accommodation, the guests provide public services to the village, such as painting, drawing, writing and reading workshops for women and children.

Shalabi is Palestinian and hails from Tulkarm, located 7 miles west of Kafr Rumman. She visits her relatives in Palestine once a year, but this year decided to stay at the retreat center where she was able to focus on her research project.

She told Al-Monitor that after contacting Othman, she did not hesitate to travel to the West Bank to spend her vacation there. “I need my own space in a quiet or secluded place to be able to concentrate on storytelling performance. The Kafr Rumman residency was the ideal place for this,” Shalabi said.

She noted that during her stay, she helped the team make the last touches to the place, working with Othman, to fit the rugs, carpets and furniture. “I consider myself to be part of this magical place. I spent hours inside this house and never felt alone. I feel at home, as if I’m one of the locals and the owners of the house,” she said.

As per the retreat’s regulations, Shalabi made sure to interact with the children in the village. She said, “I work as a storyteller and this is what I did during the time I spent in the village. I would meet children randomly and tell them stories under a tree in the street. Many would gather around.”

Othman, who took an unpaid leave from his job in Germany to return to Palestine to restore the house, told Al-Monitor, “The main goal of this retreat is to encourage creativity in Palestine.”

“The house is open to all intellectuals, writers and artists who wish to spend time at a cultural retreat. It is a place for them to write, draw, paint or play music in return for spending half a day once a week teaching the children in the village — each in his or her field of specialty,” he said.

Othman, who has lived in Germany for 37 years, said that in the past he interviewed Arab writers who used to spend their vacations at the home of writer Heinrich Theodor Boll, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. Boll’s house turned into a retreat for many writers.

“I had the idea, but I made up my mind when I heard people talking in the village that the owners of some old traditional houses were considering demolishing them to build modern ones instead,” he said.

Othman bought eight houses (at a price he did not disclose) near his family’s residence and started his new project, in the hope that some cultural and official institutions would show interest.

“All institutions are welcome to take part in the restoration works, so the houses could be used as public facilities later on — perhaps operating under the name of the institutions that contribute to the project,” Othman said.

The house that has turned into a retreat is located in the old part of the village. The furniture was renovated and some new pieces were added, in addition to kitchen utensils for visitors to use. The house also has a small library and a garden surrounding it.

Othman is seeking to revive the heritage of traditional Palestinian houses. The restoration of the buildings he bought was done along the lines of the Palestinian traditional construction style, with natural stone exteriors. This style is vanishing in light of the wave of modern buildings and urbanism. He hopes that Kafr Rumman turns into a cultural beacon in this marginalized area in the West Bank.

According to Saeed Abu Mahla, the project coordinator at Abdul Mohsen al-Qattan Foundation in the nearby city of Jenin, this marginalization further contributed to getting the word out about the Kafr Rumman residency program and to promoting cultural projects in the area.

“Providing education, awareness and entertainment sources to a small marginalized town is of paramount significance. This would consolidate the connection of children and citizens to their heritage and tradition, which are fading away in our modern life. There should be more efforts to turn these projects into large cultural centers,” Abu Mahla told Al-Monitor.

He said, “The Kafr Rumman residency program is proof that sometimes individual efforts and initiatives are better than that of official and civil institutions, despite the fact that they require pressing need for sustainability and development.”

Abu Mahla noted that the biggest challenge for the Kafr Rumman retreat center is sustainability and permanency. “I believe this project needs joint social effort to be able to continue,” he said.

The Kafr Rumman residency program does not only bring the village to the attention of the public, but it could also be a cultural opportunity for the entire northern West Bank, which remains sidelined in the media and culturally, as the cultural focus is on the city of Ramallah in the central West Bank.




The dolls that defend Palestinian culture

By Dalia Hatuqa

Despite having her toy factory raided by Israeli forces, Hilana Abu Sharifeh will not give up on Yasser and Zeina.

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – In the dead of a cold December night, Israeli soldiers came for Yasser.


Yasser resembles the late President Yasser Arafat, while Zeina is the ‘Palestinian girl next door’

They rummaged through the shelves and behind the looms of a darkened factory, searching for the little man, only half a metre tall. They knew he would be easy to spot, wearing his signature black-and-white keffiyeh and olive-coloured military fatigues. Finally, they found him, expressionless and hiding in plain sight, along with a dozen other plush clones.

The brainchild of Hilana Abu Sharifeh, a 32-year-old mother of four, Yasser is among the dozens of toys she designs and manufactures at her small, Tulkarem-based business. His confiscation, along with about 1,700 other toys, baffles Abu Sharifeh to this day.

“The soldiers ransacked the whole place, seized fabric and damaged some of the products in the process,” she said of the toy factory that her husband first opened in their garage more than two decades ago.

“They especially went after Yasser, in his military fatigues, and the keffiyeh looms,” Abu Sharifeh told Al Jazeera. “They said it’s because the toys incited violence. The dolls are meant to reflect our culture and heritage, nothing else. In the case of Yasser, he resembles the late President Yasser Arafat.”

Rotem Toys, named after a plant that grows in the Mediterranean, had just started to pick up steam when Israeli forces raided the factory. Abu Sharifeh had recently re-branded the toy line, which her husband had to discontinue during the second Intifada. With new designs inspired by Palestinian culture, she was about to kick off a fresh line of high-quality dolls.

The plush toys, made from cotton cloth woven in Hebron, have a signature trademark: They wear clothing made from recycled thobes (traditional Palestinian dresses) and intricate embroidery.

“I didn’t understand why something like a keffiyeh would incite hatred,” she said. “For children, these toys are a means to understand and be proud of where they are from. Perhaps the Israelis thought we were selling toys similar to the ones seized a few days prior.”

Abu Sharifeh was referring to a shipment of toys confiscated at the Haifa port on December 9. Israeli customs authorities banned the dolls, which sported keffiyehs and clutched stones, from reaching areas administered by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely even accused Palestinians of trying “to poison the minds of innocent young children” with the toys.

In the last quarter of 2015, a new bout of violence erupted, leading to the highest number of casualties since 2005 among West Bank Palestinians, as well as Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians, according to a recent UN report. Israeli officials blamed the deaths on a Palestinian “culture of hate” bred by incitement.

Some experts believe that Israel, embarking on its 50th year of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, no longer tolerates even the most innocuous of Palestinian symbols. The Knesset recently passed an anti-terror law – which applies in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem – that could criminalise flag-waving or slogan-chanting.

“The moment symbols are connected to anti-colonial practice, they immediately become a threat,” said Ala al-Azzeh, a professor of cultural anthropology at Birzeit University. “It’s also about controlling the indigenous population – not just physically, but by destroying national identity and collective symbols. The colonial structure is deep enough to go after the seemingly mundane.”

In addition to defying Israeli restrictions, Abu Sharifeh is also challenging a trend in the Palestinian territories, where only 19 percent of women participate in the labour force, one of the lowest participation rates in the world. It is a staggering number, considering that female education rates are high, said Ola Awad, president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

“There are very [few] opportunities for women in the limited labour market we have, and there are few incentives for women to join it,” Awad said.

“Israeli checkpoints between the cities and closures make movement unpredictable, affect women’s mobility and discourage them from leaving their home,” she added. “Couple that with other associated costs, such as daycare for the children, and you can see that the Palestinian woman is paying a high price to work outside of her home.”

To get Rotem Toys back on its feet, Abu Sharifeh’s relatives launched an online crowdfunding campaign to replace what was damaged and confiscated in the Israeli army raid. She also took several training courses on production, leadership and commerce, which helped her to go from selling low-cost toys to manufacturing labour-intensive dolls, many with hand-stitched details.

She upgraded the toy line to meet safety standards, using only non-toxic raw materials and discarding any clipped-on or glued accessories, beads, wires or small objects that could be choking hazards. Because Abu Sharifeh does not own a store, she uses Facebook to promote her products, manage sales and deliver toys in many West Bank cities. She is also planning to ship internationally.

So far, Rotem Toys has sold more than 4,000 dolls, many with removable clothing and accessories that are inspired by different regions and towns in the West Bank. The Zeina collection comprises half of all sales.

“Zeina is the Palestinian girl next door,” Abu Sharifeh explained. “Her jet-black hair is often parted into a braid or a ponytail. Her outfits change, from the traditional, like a thobe, to the modern – a simple T-shirt with an accessory, like a belt or a hair clip, but always with intricate embroidery patterns.

“By contrast, Yasser only has three outfits: military fatigues, pants and a keffiyeh, or a trifecta of a male thobe [a long tunic or shirt], sirwal [a baggy pair of trousers] and qumbaz [a long coat]. He’s also dressed up as Santa during the Christmas holidays.”

Emirates, Holland and Germany. Exporting the toys using the old design, inspired by Disney and Pixar characters, was not possible because of copyright and quality issues. Similar but higher-quality, cheaper goods from China also made it hard to compete on the global market.

To offset some of these challenges, Abu Sharifeh registered Zeina and Yasser as a trademark and started designing the toys herself, turning to a niece and a friend who designs jewellery to help sketch out her ideas.

The factory currently produces 20 toys a day – 10 if hand-made stitching is involved – and employs five people, including three women. Cutting and sewing is done on machines, while wrapping and some of the embroidery is done by hand.

But keeping Rotem Toys up and running has been a struggle. The costs of operating the factory are high, and Israel’s control of border crossings has meant lofty customs fees on the raw materials Abu Sharifeh imports, which are also taxed by the PA.

“I don’t want my target customer to be from the upper class,” she said. “But getting taxed by both Israel and the PA drives up the prices.” Abu Sharifeh accordingly created a two-tiered pricing system: Toys slated for export will sell for between 100 and 150 shekels ($26-$39), while those sold locally are priced between 75 and 80 shekels ($19-$21).

“It’s a bit more expensive if hand-embroidery is involved or if specific requirements are needed,” Abu Sharifeh said. “But at the end of the day, these toys are a small way to support and promote our culture and symbols, which are increasingly facing appropriation.”