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Peace Through Art

"Made in Palestine" humanizes the Middle East conflict

Emily Jacir's work appears again but this time as a video documenting her daily crossing of the militarized Surda checkpoint as she commutes from home to work. Jacir had originally walked the checkpoint holding the camera but was detained by Israeli soldiers for three hours and had her tape confiscated. She then shot images by hiding a camera in her purse. The low-angle video of bare ground, empty buildings, rubble and passersby conveys the sense of furtiveness and danger in a daily routine.

The found object used in Tyseer Barakat's work Father (1997) embodies a sad irony. It is a musty-smelling wood file cabinet with flat drawers, a cast-off of the Israeli army. Prior to 1948 it contained the files of Jewish refugees fleeing the holocaust and its aftermath -- refugees being resettled in cities like Haifa, Majdal, Jaffa and Safad. Images burned into the bottom panels of the drawers record the story of the artist's father "from his happy childhood days in Majdal to his forceful deportation to Jabalya refugee camp to his toil in his old age to support us to his sickness and death." The original labels for the file drawers ("Jews coming to Majdal," etc.) were torn off by Israeli tax officials who confiscated the box for three months, preventing its inclusion in an art biennial.

A secular, liberal, Jordanian friend of mine has a cartoon taped to his kitchen cabinet. It shows two soldiers knocking on Mrs. Mitchell's door as a guilty Dennis the Menace stands next to them. The text reads, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but your son was caught throwing stones. We are going to have to bulldoze your home." You see the blade of the dozer sharing the picture plane with the tidy home and white picket fence.

My friend, who was educated in the United States, appreciates the way that little drawing uses characters from American pop culture to deftly make its point. As Americans we are stereotyped as uninformed about world history and politics, but that stereotype is truest when it comes to the Middle East. Imagine the U.S. Marine stationed at the American embassy in Amman who earnestly asked my friend to help explain Middle East politics to him. His first question: "So tell me, is Yasir Arafat Jewish?"

Misunderstanding about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not helped by the fact that extremists on both sides control most of the dialogue. But as "Made in Palestine" demonstrates, art can sometimes make a point or convey an experience far more effectively than politicians or the media. While some of the works wander into the territory of craftsy polemics, this is by and large a strong show.

The Palestinian-Israeli situation is a far more complex and multidimensional thing than any display of art could ever hope to deal with, and coming to a clear conclusion is by no means the goal of this exhibition. The suffering of the Jews prior to the creation of the state of Israel and the Israelis' subsequent experiences of terrorism have engendered their own artistic expression. But this show presents artistic voices not often heard. When you view objects and images created by someone, they become humanized. The road to peace begins with understanding the suffering and the point of view of the other. Art can help.

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