Interview with Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour

Covert war

Palestinian Sliman Mansour is known as the "artist of the Intifada". Sarah Judith Hofmann spoke to him about 70 years of Israel, the daily passing of checkpoints and the symbolism of the dove of peace

On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was declared. Palestinians commemorate the next day, 15 May, as the day of Nakba, the "catastrophe". How do you feel about that now, 70 years later?

Sliman Mansour: I am sad all the time – not just now. Sad, sometimes angry, sometimes confused, because when you hear the Europeans and the Americans talking about human rights and you look at our situation here, which they do nothing to help change, or even worse, they support Israel, it's confusing.

How would you describe your situation as a Palestinian today? For example, in Jerusalem where you live?

Mansour: In Jerusalem, I feel there is a kind of war against the Palestinians. It's a covert war, not an obvious one with aeroplanes. You always have the feeling you are breaking some law, but you don't know what you are doing wrong. You constantly feel threatened. You are not free. I don't like Jerusalem, anyway. It's a place for tourists. If you go to the old city, everything is just souvenirs or restaurants. It's not vital like it used to be. If I could choose, I would rather live in Ramallah or Birzeit [both in the West Bank]. But I have to live in Jerusalem to keep my ID. So, as a Palestinian, you have to live in a place where you don't feel safe, you don't feel free and that you don't like, just to keep your identity card.

The so called "Jerusalem ID" grants permanent residency to Jerusalemites who were born there or already lived in the city before 1967. It doesn't give you Israeli citizenship, but you can travel to Israel and abroad with it. As long as you continue living there…

Palestinians wait to pass an Israeli checkpoint at the Palestinian town of Bethlehem on the West Bank (photo: Reuters)
From checkpoint to checkpoint: "Everything is complicated here. They want to complicate our lives to the extent that we finally give up and leave. That's why Iʹll never leave, no matter what happens," says Sliman Mansour

Mansour: With the Jerusalem ID, I have some benefits. I can go to the Israeli cities of Jaffa and Haifa, to wherever I want. Were I to lose this status, I would be a nobody. I couldn't go to Europe, not even to Jordan, nowhere.  Even living in Ramallah would be against the law. Everything is complicated here. They want to complicate our lives to the extent that we finally give up and leave. That's why Iʹll never leave, no matter what happens.

You were born in 1947 in Birzeit, not far from Ramallah. What did your parents tell you about 1948?

Mansour: My father and my grandfather died when I was three years old. My father from cancer, my grandfather out of grief from his son's death. We six children were left with my mother. She spent all her time working, sewing clothes to make a living for us. She didn't have the time to talk to us.

So, how did you learn about the history of Palestine?

Mansour: For a long time I didn't know much. We were under Jordanian rule and they taught us as children that we were Jordanian: the Jordanian flag is our flag, Jordanian King Hussein is our king. It was brain-washing

When I became a teenager, I started to read the newspaper and I became a fan of Gamal Abdel Nasser [the pan-Arab nationalist and president of Egypt from 1956-1979]. School friends also told me things. And then after the occupation happened…

…in 1967, you mean, after the Six-Day War, in which Israel conquered the east of Jerusalem and the territory that is now known as the Westbank…

Mansour: Yes, after '67. I met Palestinians from Israel and everyone had their own sad story. It affected me a lot. When I was studying art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, they wanted to teach me abstract expression, the trend at the time. I didn't want to, I wanted to paint more realistic things from life.

Today you are one of the most renowned Palestinian artists and you're often referred to as the "artist of the intifada". Do you consider yourself a political artist?

Mansour: I think people exaggerate with all these titles. They need heroes. So they picked me. I don't like it. As an artist, you don't want to be put in a box. Even when I do things that don't have anything to do with politics, they say it's political. As a human being it might be good for your ego, but as an artist, it's not so easy.

But you were involved in political movements…

Mansour: I am not involved. I reflect in my art the world in which I live. My misfortune is that I live under occupation. I didn't choose that. It would be surreal to live under occupation and paint exquisite flowers and beautiful women. You can't do that. You have to reflect your life. My work tends to be full of symbolism, which people understand.

Painting by the Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour entitled "And the convoy keeps going" (photo: Sliman Mansour)
Political art laden with symbolism: "A free dove is a dove of peace. When there is freedom, then there is peace, “says Mansour. "In my work the woman is both a symbol of homeland and of revolution"

During the first Palestinian uprising against Israel, known as the Intifada, you said you would only use material from Palestine. What was that about?

Mansour: That was the philosophy of the Intifada. It was about boycotting Israeli goods and being self-sufficient. Back then, most people were trying to do that, by farming their own piece of land. As an artist I thought, why don't we do the same? Why don't we search for natural materials to use in our work? The mud came from my childhood memories. As a child I used to work with my grandmother when she was building beehives and even ovens out of mud. And I was always around her, trying to help. So when I thought about material that I could use, mud was the first thing that came to mind. After a while, once I started making figures, I realised that the mud also reflects human fate – cracks form, people who collapse in on themselves and finally disappear.

The second Intifada wasn't about boycotting anymore. It was about fighting. Did you take part in that as well?

Mansour: No, I didn't have a role in the second intifada, nor did I like what took place. I felt it was imposed, not real, made up. The violence also played a role. Israel is so strong militarily. So why are we going to fight Israel in an area at which they excel? That was simply stupid.

What could form the starting point for future reconciliation? What are your thoughts about a two-state solution?

British artist Banksyʹs "Walled Off Hotel" in Bethlehem (photo: Getty Images)
Sliman Mansour, born in Birzeit in 1947, is a leading contemporary Palestinian artist. From 1967 to 1970 he studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. His works have appeared in exhibitions from Jordan, through Moscow, to New York. In Palestine Mansourʹs work is displayed, among other venues, in the British artist Banksyʹs "Walled Off Hotel" in Bethlehem. He lives in Jerusalem and works in Ramallah

Mansour: Not without Jerusalem. In 1994-95 there was a solution on the table that would have been acceptable to people. It said Jerusalem would be one city. West Jerusalem would be run by Israelis – including the Wailing Wall – and the rest of East Jerusalem would be run by Palestinians. But it would be one city. Most people, including me, would accept that.

In this case you would accept the State of Israel alongside a State of Palestine, with special status for Jerusalem?

Mansour: Yes. But I would prefer a one-state solution. Maybe like a confederation or something. Many places have different religions and different languages. They live together and have equal rights. We could even accept the Lebanese model. Even if there were fewer Jews than Palestinians, the prime minister could be one of them. We could reach a conclusion like that. But you have to be willing to try. As long as the other side remains so strong and enjoys so much support, they are unlikely to consider such options.

Interview conducted by Sarah Judith Hofmann

© Deutsche Welle 2018

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