“I call my series ‘We Breathe Freedom’ because that is the deepest and most basic desire of every Palestinian,” says Mahmoud Alkurd, over the sounds of the street below pouring into his room through the open window.
Prints of his artworks plaster the wall behind him as he speaks with me on Skype from his home in Gaza. Now 23, Alkurd bought a camera and began taking photographs as he was finishing his undergraduate degree in English literature at Al-Azhar University. Shortly after, at the end of summer 2014, Israel began bombing Hamas-ruled Gaza in ‘Operation Protective Edge’. Alkurd continued to take photos whenever he could. When a ceasefire was finally announced in August, after 51 days, he found he had a focus, and his journey as an artist began. Over the next three years, he taught himself photography and digital art through YouTube and online tutorials and developed his style.
Alkurd is now part of a festival called GAZA51, which showcases the works of young artists from Gaza in eight different Indian cities. In Delhi, the festival will be held in the first week of October in five different venues – Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ambedkar University, Khoj, Studio Safdar and Jamia Millia University. It will include art exhibitions, film showings, readings, plays, concerts and talks on topics relevant to Palestine.
Drama therapist Mahnoor Yar Khan, from Hyderabad, is curating the festival. Khan has been conducting theatre workshops in Gaza for the past twenty-five years, in collaboration with international and local NGOs and human rights organisations that are working to help children and youth cope with post-war trauma through the arts. Through her workshops, Khan hopes participants will be able to “find emotional space”, in a world where there is very little ‘space’ of any kind, particularly through connecting with their bodies.
A feeling of ‘success’ is not exactly what she takes away from the workshops, but after each visit, she has found herself planning the next and returning. The workshops always prove to be a great challenge, for both the participants and her, marked by both hope and despair, as is life itself in Gaza. Khan tells me how a great source of strength and solace for the people of Gaza is the sea, and the beach. During the 2014 war, the sewage treatment plants were bombed and untreated sewage began to flow into the sea, making it unsafe for swimming. But those who had the little bit of open space created their own beaches at home and would sit out under their umbrellas just like always.
At the same time, she tells me that her last visit after the 2014 war was the most difficult. “I felt that the Palestinians have no sense of hope left,” she says.
Khan explains that Indian media coverage is Israeli-centric and, largely as a result, what most Indians pay attention to are India-Israel ties, not the lives of the Palestinian people. The dominant narrative is also of Israel striking back against ‘terrorists’.
Following the BJP’s win in 2014, India has signed several important defence deals with Israel and continues to strengthen its ties with the country to develop hi-tech weaponry.
Many claim that the BJP’s coveting of Israel is ideologically grounded: in line with its hostile rhetoric against Pakistan and the Islamic world as a whole and building on a longer history of support for Zionism and Israel by members of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and by Narendra Modi himself, through his encouragement of Israeli investment in Gujarat as chief minister of the state.
The ideological enthusiasm has not been one-sided. After the September 11, 2003, attacks on the World Trade Center, Brajesh Mishra, then national security adviser under the BJP government, addressed the American Jewish Community in Washington, DC, and called for a trilateral alliance between India, Israel and the US to “jointly face the same ugly face of modern-day terrorism”. He stated that such an alliance would “have the political will and moral authority to take bold decisions in extreme cases of terrorist provocation”.
Most recently, Daniel Carmon, Israel’s envoy to India, condemned the attack on India’s army base in Uri, saying that both India and Israel have been fighting terror together and will continue to do so.
GAZA51 aims to shatter Indian people’s ignorance and complacency about the oppression Palestinians continue to suffer in the hands of the Israeli State. And, according to the festival’s concept note, it aims to create this “shift in perspectives towards proactively lobby[ing] the Indian government toward the boycott, disinvestment and sanction of Israel”.
According to a UN report, between July 7 and August 26, Israel carried out more than 6,000 airstrikes in Gaza. The 2014 war claimed 2,251 lives, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 551 were children and 299 women. More than 1,500 Palestinian children were orphaned. Over 500,000 thousand people were displaced, or 28% of the population of Gaza, with approximately 18,000 housing units destroyed in whole or part.
In addition, thousands were injured and an entire population traumatised. The UN estimates that nearly 400,000 children require some form of mental health support to cope with the events they experienced over the summer of 2014.
The works of Alkurd and the other young participants of GAZA51 make powerfully real the pain of individual Palestinians that, in a sense, these statistics make unreal for most of us elsewhere.
As Judith Butler writes in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable, the discourse of human rights “may well establish our legitimacy within a legal framework ensconced in liberal versions of human ontology”. But “it does not do justice to passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, implicate us in lives that are not our own, irreversibly, if not fatally”. Butler argues that it is not “a matter of simple entry of the excluded into an established ontology, but an insurrection at the level of ontology, a critical opening up of the questions, What is real? Whose lives are real?”
This kind of justice that transcends numbers, labels, borders and contexts is perhaps what art, and an event like GAZA51, can achieve. As Khan reflects, there are many points of connection between Palestine and situations in India – Manipur, Chhattisgarh and Kashmir, for example.
In Alkurd’s ‘I Breathe Freedom’ series, it is the particularly vulnerable body of a child that gives shape, weight and texture to the suffering of Palestinians for us, making the suffering of others elsewhere close and real – ours.
His little sister Rawan serves as his model. Alkurd says that in composing his images he often lets her ‘lead’ rather than directing her – and is usually surprised and delighted by the results. He also lets her look at the images he has taken or is in the process of composing digitally and listens to her suggestions.
He says that he is amazed by the reactions and ideas of children. Rawan is only eight but has already lived through three wars. “She is very tough,” he says, “But of course she has been deeply affected by the wars. She is full of fear. When a plane goes by overhead, she gets frightened.”
Through his ‘I Breathe Freedom’ series, he says he wants to contribute towards making sure Palestinian children don’t have to live through another war.
Alkurd now spends all his free time on his photography, when he isn’t working as an Arabic-English translator. There are other young people like him who are expressing themselves through art, particularly painting, but Alkurd says that his art is different because it is overtly political. The youth of Gaza are primarily trying to survive, he says. There are few jobs, so people have a lot of free time. In the six or seven hours they do have electrical supply, they spend most of their time on Facebook, since that is the only way they can connect to the world.
Alkurd has already been a part of several exhibitions in Europe featuring young Palestinian artists. But he does not see himself as a spokesperson or activist, just as a young person, and a young artist. He says, “Right now my work is about peace and justice. But I want to travel, to Europe, to India. I have never been able to travel because of border control, although I have been issued visas. But I have hope that I will. I want to take photographs in India – there is so much colour and life there. And when I do that, my work will change and I will change, I will make art about other things.”
He adds, “There must be a solution to this situation. I don’t know what it is, but there must be one.”