Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be in exile in your homeland, in your own house, in your room.
Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet, (1941-2008)
Malak Mattar, now just nineteen years old, is still what many would call a "naive artist," mostly untrained desipite the mentorship of her uncle, Mohammed Musallum, who teaches art in the only art school in Gaza. So I will begin there, in Gaza, during a 51-day Israeli bombing siege, in a household where a girl of 14 who has never drawn or painted before, is trying to stay sane during the Second Intifada against the brutal Israeli occupation. Watercolor and paper on the kitchen table, Malak starts to paint, mostly portraits of the women in her family and her community. She is gifted.
I had the good fortune to hear about Malak through a Palestinian friend who went to see her recent art exhibition in New York. Sponsored by the Palestine Museum US in Woodbridge, Ct., Malak was granted a two-week visa to show her work in three locations— Connecticut, DC, and New York, before her return to Istanbul to continue her studies on a full scholarship in political science and international relations at the Istanbul Aydin University. She misses her family in Gaza but cannot return during holidays as there is no guarantee she can get out in time to travel back to Turkey before classes begin. Though Gaza has been administered by Hamas since 2007, it is still under "indirect" Israeli occupation; Israel controls its electricity, telecommunications and borders.
I try to imagine this pressure, not as an ordinary American student worried about grades and financing, but as a student in exile from her beleaguered homeland, worried about her family and friends. How brave she has been, truly exemplary. She has had to learn both Turkish and English as her classes are in English, and struggles to maintain her bank account and grade point average. She travels wherever she is invited to show her work. "I will never stop painting," she told me with confidence. "Life is not easy in Gaza. This is what I portray in my work. I want the world to understand."
For more of Malak's story:
Malak on Facebook:
For more about Palestine and Israel:
Human Rights Watch Report
Yousef Bashir, "Words of My Father"
Mahmoud Darwish Poems
Palestine Museum, Woodbridge, Ct.