Historical turning points that affected my life
By: Tamam Al Akhal
It is common that any people who lived on the same land consistently and continuously through thousands of years create for themselves a system of customs, traditions, costumes, dancing and singing styles, literature, arts, sculpture, architecture, etc. They become one people, and the land becomes a homeland for them, they fight for it, they die for it. This is exactly the case of our Palestinian people after the loss of their homeland.
And when civilizations were measured by the legacy of their art, culture and the kind of life style they leave behind reflects their history, it is thus deemed important that the nations should live the reality and events that make up their history and define their past and present. Only then nations will have a history and civilization that is unique to the characteristics of their culture
But since the time we are living in is characterized by the swollen hearts torn by the brutal acts practiced against humanity at large. The brutal acts are manifested in the robbery of wealth, resources and the bountiful goods of others, thus inflicting misery, injustice, oppression upon them, stepping down on their feelings and degrading them by the force of power. They intentionally oppress people with civilizations, long-lived traditions, and authenticity under false claims and duplicitous slogans such as democracy, human rights, and modernity, and … words emptied from their content by the greed of the new usurpers and colonizers.
This is when I decided to tell the story of my life and artistic experience. Fifty years back in history, when I started my journey which was rich with all the private and public events and influences that are reflected in my art.
The year 1948 was the year of the “Nakbah” (catastrophe) that befell Palestine . The land and the people suffered the ramifications of the Nakbeh. The event remains the major concern of the world today. That year I was cheated out of my childhood, I was thrown out of my home and my homeland Palestine to a world of dispossession and exile, on the board of a ship that carried me together with thousands others over the waves of the Mediterranean from Jafa to the unknown.
I am the daughter of Aref Al Akhal, a man who was unlucky in terms of receiving school education during his childhood, but who was passionate about knowing the events that were happening around him. I was 9 years old when he first asked me to read to him the daily newspapers or the revolutionary publications. I read the news regularly before and after the 1948 Nakbah., this instilled in me the passion for reading and following up closely on events and understanding them. This eventful experience affected my life and allowed me to be aware of the political events that were taking place. I became more aware of the concept of political movements and developments, the injustice of the British colonizers ad their oppression of our Arab Palestinian people.
Names that became famous and well known during the Second World War registered in my memory, names of individuals who could be called “ inventors and geniuses” of man destruction and oppression with the tools and instruments of lying and fraud in order to achieve their own interests. Those who provided all means, excuses, financial, military, and political support to the Zionist enemy; the enemy that wove with all its supporters all kinds of tricks and false promises in order to establish the Zionist entity on the land of Palestine. They belied religions, history, and geography, and continue to do so….
My dad would explain some vague matters, and explain to me everything about the revolution and its objectives. He himself was one of its soldiers, which subjected him to detention by the British military governor more than once, just like all people of Jaffa and Palestine .
The history repeats itself today in Palestine at the hands of the Israeli occupation, history recreates another of its forms in our modern times and in our own days now, but in a more vicious and barbaric manner under the slogan of modernity and the contemporary.
Those events and accompanying images are deeply entrenched in the Palestinian memory, and in my memory and feelings in particular.
I will never forget the day when the famous Palestinian leader, Haj Ameen Al Husseini returned to Palestine from his exile. Joy overwhelmed everyone, the streets were beautifully decorated as an expression of joy and happiness for his return in 1947.
I was extremely touched by this popular joy that I painted my first painting using crayons and another one using watercolors as an expression of my partaking in the people’s joy.
Suddenly this beautiful life of Jaffa , with its orchids, oranges, and sea changed, the sanctity of our country turned into hell, with dark days, and smoke covering its skies. Life transformed into extreme panic and fear. That day I went with my mother to visit my cousin Said Siksik, with whom the joy of the sea had always a special different flavor. He was shot in the head by a hateful Zionist sniper. We had to carry some drinking water to him because water was very scarce and was rare to find. I sneaked with my mother to the English hospital through the narrow alleys of Jaffa , trying to avoid the barbaric shelling of the Zionist gangs using the British weapons. We passed through the moans of wounded lying around in the corridors of the hospital until we reached my mother’s wounded cousin. He looked so pale, and I held his hand. He looked at me and then his hand fell from mine. I can still see his final farewell stare. He was the first close and dear martyr to leave. He was seventeen and I was twelve years old.
Uprooting from Jaffa :
It was the dawn of 28 April 1948. We had to sleep with our full clothes on that night, including our shoes, for fear of the random shelling of the several Zionist gangs that were the worst in terms of committing crimes and massacres, gangs notorious for their crimes such as the “Hagana”, “Stern”, “Irgun” and others. They had cut off the Palestinian villages and cities of water and electricity for two weeks. Suddenly, we were shaking and panicking from the noise of bangs with guns and military boots on our doors. They were terrifying creatures with full military gear designed to kill humans. With the repeated words of “Barra” “Barra” (Arabic for out) we, the unarmed, were forced to surrender and leave the house without being allowed to carry anything precious or valuable. At the Jaffa harbour, thousands of people were stacking, searching for safety. The tumultuous sea raging in front of us and the enemy with all its weapons and British tanks behind us, trying to speed up the process of dumping us into the sea, they started shooting DumDum bullets, an internationally prohibited kind of bullets, sending panic, fear, screams, and crying. People were killed, injured, or drowned in the sea. These events continue to haunt me till this day. From the small boat we moved to the Greek ship “Delores”. I bid Jaffa farewell with tearful eyes and a broken heart. The ship docked in Beirut , Lebanon .
One and a half years of loss passed by without schooling or any kind of income. My intense desire to draw led me to fix one streak of my hair onto a pencil, and to use the colors of detergents designed to die the old clothes that my mother used for fixing the faded colors of our clothes; clothes that European institutions gave to us under the pretext of humanitarian charity. We were aware that the clothes given to us from their surplus stock, those who usurped our land, our homeland, our identity, and our lives using one hand, now offer us their crumbs with the other, as is the case with many countries nowadays. During this period, I drew our people as they line up to get milk for their children. Then I painted another painting about the crowdedness that would take place around filling small containers with water brought by transport cars to Palestinian refugee camps. I painted these two scenes with a sense of awareness of what was taking place.
Enrollment in school:
I found myself, by mere coincidence, a student at Al Maqased Girls School in Beirut , where I completed my secondary schooling and graduated with great joy.
In autumn of 1951 in Beirut , the first exhibition for visual arts was organized under the title of “The first autumn exhibition” at the UNESCO headquarters. All Lebanese artists as well as artists residing in Lebanon were invited to participate. I was overwhelmed with joy when the jury accepted my two paintings (the milk and the water) in the exhibition. Consequently the school administration presented me with a valuable gift, namely, watercolors and drawing papers in appreciation and recognition of my talent. Then I received my study scholarship to pursue art studies in Cairo , Egypt .
In Cairo I met my colleague and later my husband the Palestinian artist Ismael Shammout. He was in his graduation year, and I was in my first year of studies. I was able to participate in his exhibition, held in Cairo on 21/7/1954, which was inaugurated by the late President Jamal Abdel Nasser. The exhibition played a crucial role in consolidating our first steps towards establishing art and its expressive capacity as a creative, resistant, human tool with genuine experience and suffering.
In Cairo , my concepts of homeland, and my sense of belonging to the great Arab nation with the ancient civilization was deepened and was solidified, and I participated in many artistic and cultural activities particularly following the trilateral aggression against Egypt and Gaza Strip in 1956.
In 1954, Ismaeel Shammout traveled to Rome to complete his studies there. In 1957, I went back to Beirut after receiving my “Fine Arts Diploma” and “Teaching Arts Certificate”.
In 1959, Ismaeel and I got married in Beirut . We have three children, and we worked hard, thank God, to teach them and introduce them to the Arab society, in the best manner that parents would wish for. Trying to combine married life and all motherhood and family requirements and tasks never posed an obstacle to the artistic production. Ismaeel and I were able to fulfill our artistic and social duties in the best way possible, particularly in our artistic production that continued without any kind of obstruction. We exhibited our works ever since until this day in most of the Arab and foreign capitals.
In 1997, we had the opportunity to visit our country Palestine for the first time after being uprooted from it, with a visa issued by the Israeli occupation. I went to visit my house in the old city of Jaffa . It is my family’s heritage occupied by a Zionist German painter, who still keeps our furniture, and sleeps on our beds. She transformed the house into a gallery and denied my entrance to it. She shut the door in my face when she realized I was the owner of that house. I wandered in the streets of Jaffa . There’s my school…. This is our orange orchid, … from this port I was forced to leave Jaffa . We left the city with feelings I cannot even start to describe.
Then we visited all around occupied Palestine . The visit had great impact on us, that in four years we painted 19 murals with oil colors, in which we expressed the Palestinian situation starting from those happy days, going through the Nakbah and the tragedy, and then to the on-going struggle of our people over the last five decades to regain its legitimate rights. These murals were featured in a special exhibition under the name of “ Palestine - the life and the journey) which was organized in museums upon official invitations from 10 different capitals so far.
Since our artistic goal meant “that the most honorable goals are the ones that are built around the human beings, working towards eliminating injustice and rendering life around them more beautiful, and opening prospects of hope for them” our commitment had to be enrooted in our awareness of the reality of our existence attached to the history and the civilization, that form our roots in our Arab world. An awareness that experiences the realities of today and looks forward towards the future, thus we had to be committed to expressing our Palestinian cause, the cause of the region as a whole.
Since it is common that art should express the spirit of the age that the artist is living in, whether the theme is derived from home or the heritage or from an event that goes back to thousands of years, or an event that took place hours ago. Art will never be the art of the past or the present, but remains always art for all times and places, as long as it is genuine and emanating from honest feelings, inspired by the event without fabricated imitation for the art to become immortal and not fall into oblivion. We should also be aware that art has a certain level, and has fixed limits and components that do not change and that are difficult to break out of, otherwise, why would we in our present times be studying and admiring the immortal beautiful creations of our ancestors, the works of creative artists who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago, trying to learn about their eternal civilizations and cultures.
Therefore, I am not forced or obliged to run and paint what we learn from modern European schools that turn human beings into color splashes. I cannot run from the influences that surround me or try to hide them, in order to hide the crimes of a vicious violent enemy that has occupied my land and my people. I always wanted and continue to want honesty and sincerity in expressing events I lived and continue to live, events that my Palestinian people are living under in trying to confront the injustice and misery. I express these events without any shyness or attempts to run away. I don’t see any reason why a contemporary artist should deny his feelings under the slogan of modernity. But because my heart is full with love for human beings and hate to enemies of humanity and usurpers of legitimate rights, I find myself under no obligation to imitate the imported modern schools of art, neither obliged to express a reality outside my own. My visual expression is about getting out all my feelings and sentiments ignited previously as result of uniting with what happened and continues to happen in my daily life and expressing them in my painting, as if it becomes a piece of me and not something separate from my environment and whatever is happening around me.
Tamam Al Akhal (Shammout)