The experience of working with adults who have lost family members in conflict, is one of harrowing humility. People who have lost children, parents, family members and friends in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict are at the core of the trauma in this region of the world. This project invited 20 Palestinian women from across the West Bank together to start a canvas mural, painted in the Beit Jalla, The West Bank, and ending the piece in Tel Aviv. The Parents Circle Family Forum brings Palestinian and Israeli Parents together who have lost family members, and have put a recent campaign into action; “ It won’t stop until we talk.” When entering the West Bank, I was guided by Israeli bereaved mother, and spokesperson, Robi Demelin. As we arrived at the Palestinian Parents circle Center, Robi said something that will stick with me for the rest of my life; “ Healing and reconciliation can only happen with a good sense of humor.”
And with that we entered the building. We arrived to a gracious welcome, and set up the canvas. The group of Palestinian women were planned to arrived to participate in a knitting circle. These would be the women to paint and represent the Palestinian side of the dialogue of reconciliation. As they arrived, Robi, the lone Israeli, sat down with all the women garbed in Hijabs and intense faces, for a conversation about the conflict. The women voiced an extreme sadness and anger with their situation, and the life of those in Gaza. The conversation evolved into tears and yells, and with all of it Robi maintained the grace to continue the dialogue. The sorrow in these women’s faces was apparent, and the mood was one of a people who needed to speak their pain. Before the painting began, 2 of the staff were invited to paint their preliminary ideas, and the painting was one of “Palestine”- a map of Israel. A beginning reminder of the underlying current which would follow. As the women’s circle conversation came to a close, I was invited to present the project to the women. As I described the Artolution and the murals of other communities, I was surprised at the excitement and enthusiasm in the faces of these sorrowful women, almost as though I was a creature from a different world.
The women entered the canvas with a tentative enthusiasm. With little instruction the painting began, and the expression grew exponentially. Although political messages of “ Free, Free Palestine” and the name of a killed Palestinian boy came into the picture, so did something else. Something beyond words. A women quietly grabbed a brush and let the brush dance across the canvas, in small marks which rapidly grew across the whole painting, until she was full on making huge slashes full of energy. This caught on, and many of these women let the paint become a medium for translating their pain and frustrations into colorful actions of the hand. From behind, all clad in colorful hijabs, it was almost as though the women were part of the painting themselves.
As all the women got their turn, I start to hear a conversation about one of the stories of the women. She chose to paint a tree divided into two branches. One branch Israeli, one Palestinian, coming from the same base. Both have leaves fallen, as both groups have lost lives, yet come from the same roots. The truth of the image was too powerful to forget. As we began to finish the painting, all of the women came into the room, to pose for a photo. I couldn’t believe the looks on the faces of these bereaved mothers. Looks of simple joy, as though the weight of the world was lifted off each of their shoulders, even if just for a moment. The look of the children they all used to be.
As I said thank you and “ Shukran” to the women, i knew that this was only for a moment. One of the women had been imprisoned in Israel for 5 years for participation in the Intifada, another had lost her husband in a violent riot, and yet another a child in the conflict. Yet this moment was beyond the pain. And as we began to pack up, one of the women firmly grabbed my arm, pulled me to the painting and gave a huge smile looking at me while she painted marks of exuberant oblivion. As everything was packed away, the director of the center made a final statement, of essential importance; “ Thank you for thinking of us, many don’t. This helped these women find themselves.” As the women left the center to return to their lives, we rolled the canvas up to be brought to the land of the “other”; Israel. Imagining the unfathomable impossibility of what was to happen next, the canvas was to become a painting made by “enemies” tuned into fellow artists, painting on the same creation.