No Drawing: Art, Politics, and Gaza

Gaza Cover

The sales of this art book will go toward further projects like Let the Children Play and Heal.

Edited by Howard Levine
Pacific View Press, 2011

Back in 1969, Carol Hanisch wrote her famous essay “The Personal Is Political” in response to the criticism that feminist consciousness-raising efforts were just “therapy.” In 2011, an exhibit of art by Palestinian children was faced with the inverse criticism: accusations that the art, which came out of a therapy program, had an inherent political agenda. In the resulting controversy, many have lost sight of the deeply personal process that led to the art’s creation. A new book on the planned exhibit at Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art, A Child’s View From Gaza, chronicles the art project’s trajectory from personal to political, from healing to struggle.

The Gazan students whose works make up A Child’s View From Gaza were not part of a political protest or advocacy group. Nor did they even have an intended audience for their work. Rather, they were participants in a healing-oriented project aimed at helping children in Gaza deal with the overwhelming physical and psychological stress left over from the 2008-2009 Gaza War. The vast majority of Gazan children witnessed and experienced the war’s devastation firsthand, and three out of four are still dealing with psychological trauma, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Rafeeq Omar Isalami

"The power projected from these pictures comes not only from the images themselves but from the events that provoked them," writes MECA Executive Director Barbara Lubin in an essay that appears in the book. As in this image by fourth grader Rafeeq Omar Isalami, "children drew what they had seen, felt, and survived." Credit: MECA.

So in the months following the conflict, the California-based Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) teamed up with Afaq Jadeeda (New Horizons) to provide art supplies and space for young victims to express themselves through dance, story-telling, and visual art. The program, called Let the Children Play and Heal, also provided training for parents to help their children cope with trauma, as well as toys and school supplies. The idea, MECA Executive Director Barbara Lubin writes in the book’s introduction, was to let them “have fun and just be children.”

In American political culture, as in Israel, a project like this was bound to have deterrents. Noting the power and depth of the children’s artwork, MECA began speaking with Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art about showing the images in the fall of 2011. But the well-publicized controversy that erupted as a result was actually not the first roadblock Let the Children Play and Heal encountered. From the beginning, MECA and Afaq Jadeeda faced myriad challenges, from electricity shortages at Gazan schools to an ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza that sees school supplies as “non-essential” goods.

Despite these setbacks, the program was and is by most definitions a success. Tens of thousands of Palestinian children participated in Let the Children Play and Heal, finding news ways of dealing with unimaginable stress and trauma. And despite the Museum’s decision, the exhibit opened at an alternative venue in Oakland less than a block from MOCHA, and began traveling in December.

The book that came out of this struggle—another measurable success—contains dozens of hand-drawn images from Gaza, some depicting the war with Israel, some pleading for peace, some imagining what that peace might look like. In one image, drawn with crayon by a fourth-grader named Rafeeq Omar Islami, a young child kneels in a corner with his hands to his ears as an Israeli soldier stands over him. In another, by Ibrahim Rami Qishta, a ninth-grader, ambulances and fire trucks struggle to contend with fires engulfing a large village. The drawings are accompanied by essays by Barbara Lubin, Susan Johnson, and Alice Walker, which tell the story of Let the Children Play and Heal and the artwork that came out of it. In addition, the book contains an appendix with a collection of letters and press releases to and from MOCHA that paint a revealing picture of the controversy.

Ali Atasalmi

"It was important for these children to know that their voices were going to be heard in Oakland," writes MECA's Associate Director, Ziad Abbas Shamrouch. Images like this one by Ali Atasalim can be viewed on MECA's Facebook page. Credit: MECA.

There is no doubt that the images are violent. In several pictures, Israeli soldiers shoot at unarmed civilians and the drawings are frequently graphic in their honesty, depicting bloodied victims, firestorms, and cities reduced to rubble. But several drawings make no obvious reference to the conflict. In one image called “Knowledge and Strength” by an unidentified artist, a young boy awkwardly approaches an older, bearded man under a tree, as if to ask advice. In another, by Fatima Inimir, a smiling sun shines down on a peaceful riverbed populated by ducks and flowers. It is possibly these pictures that speak most powerfully about the experiences of the students at Let the Children Play and Heal. In spite of unthinkable trauma and loss, these images show a remarkable resilience and unwillingness to allow conflict to take away the children’s basic humanity.

Even though the public display of these drawings became a contentious political issue, it is important to remember that the artistic process that led to their creation was one aimed at healing, not politics: it was a tool to help young people comprehend and come to terms with a conflict that shaped their lives and their communities. And it is this view from Gaza—this yearning for healing—that is most vital to our understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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