Fathi Ghaben, Great Palestinian Painter

By Hiyam Noir – Gaza
We are walking through the narrow streets and alleys in Jablyia refuge camp, suddenly we make a stop, we stand outside a house full of life and works crowded of art, containing motives of the painful and miserable life of the displaced Palestinian people, refugees in their own homeland. In front of me, stands a man, a Palestinian I have longed to meet for some time now.

The man we will meet is Fathi Ghaben, a proud son of the Jabalya refuge camp, a well known Palestinian painter and art teacher professor, he still live here in Jabaliya, after so many years, together with family. 

From the first look in a mans face you can read many things, if you are observant, Fathi Ghaben’s face is a mirror of Palestinian suffering, and only Fathi Ghaben have the answers to many of our questions. The face of Fathi Ghaben is marked by sadness, the endurance of loss, the sacrifice linger in his eyes. In a few bright moments, you can also see the smile of a man, with a child still inside, and the dignity and statue of the Palestinian man, who is well traveled in life, a man who has seen it all.

We are greeted to sit down and served a cup of sweet tea, in this interview we will focus on Fathi Ghaben’s life. A Palestinian man living under occupation, the father and the artist. Fathi as a small child, an exclusive eye – witness of the events after the Al Nakba, and as a teenager and a mature man, through the years of the first and the second Palestinian Intifada.

After Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from Egypt and Jordan in the wake of 1967, a growing sense of frustration among Palestinians living in the occupied territories had developed. The1st Intifada came at a time when Palestinians were protesting the acts conducted by the Israelis, that was perceived by the Palestinian people, as a brutal repression, which included extra-judicial killings, mass detentions, house demolitions and confiscation of Palestinian land and possessions.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) did not bring solutions to alleviate Palestinian suffering, and in 1982 the PLO was forced to relocate their offices to Tunis. Although all Arab states with the exception of Egypt, maintained an official state of war with the Israelis, the Arab summit in Amman in November 1987 focused on the Iran-Iraq war, and the Palestinian issue was sidelined for the first time in many years.

The Israelis occupation of Southern Lebanon and the continued Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip contributed to a growing discontent with the status quo among the Palestinians. Over the course of the 1st Intifada, an estimated 1,300 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli occupant, and 160 Israelis died in clashes with the Palestinian resistance and from Palestinian retaliation attacks.

According to Fathi Ghabel, the immediate cause of the 1st Intifada came on Dec. 8 1987, when an Israeli army truck ran over a group of Palestinian workers from Jabalyia refuge camp in Gaza Strip, killing four of them and injuring seven..”

PFV: How was the life in Gaza Strip prior to the Israelis occupation of Palestinian lands 1967?”

FG: When I left the primary school I worked as newspaper seller during 15 years at the Kamel Abed Rabu office. I tried to increase my knowledge of culture, by reading newspapers and magazines, and I was drawing small stories for kids containing nice children pictures, I also worked in a citrus orchard, it was a miserable life, but it was advancing in my career because there was no occupation at that time.

PFV: How was the situation in Gaza Strip during the Israeli occupation that began after 1967?”

FG: When the occupation began, there was the massacres of our people, the psychological pressure, the detentions and the strikes. Gaza Strip residents were working in what is now called Israel, and the worker got regular salaries, corresponding to their dignity and their honor imagine our life before the occupation better than after, it was a miserable life, but there was still dignity and honor.

Before the Israeli occupation we lived, however very poor, but it was more calm before, then after the occupation, that began in 1967. Not too many possibilities to support our families, few job openings, but it was more harmony and dignity for us.

PFV: Fathi, how did people travel to work and to school, – did you work in the construction business during that time, and how was the daily interaction with the Jews inside Israel?”

FG: After the Israeli occupation, many people were forced to work inside Israel, to be able to help their families to survive. However there were big problems facing the workers during the time prior to the 1st Intifada, because of our patriotism. It was a big decision to make, if we should work in Israel, or leave our family starving without food. We had to decide between patriotism and to feed our hungry family..

I worked in what is now called Israel, but not for long time, only temporary to feed my family. Until my talent grow and my urge to establish my self as a painter, led me to leave my day-job in Israel, I looked for a new challenge in my life. In the beginning to be able to put food on the table, I was commercial in my art. My paintings were not patriotic in the beginning, because our living conditions were so poor and miserable, in that period of my career. I do not believe that art can ever be commercial anyway, I was forced by my life situation to draw and paint commercial art works, to be able to keep my poor family a live.

After a few years I was able to buy a small house for my family in Jabalyia refuges camp, and I began thinking of how to promote my art. In the period of 1979, my paintings expressed my nations pain and suffering. I felt as if I were a slave when I worked in Israel, and I felt much hate towards Arabian leaders, because from them we did not feel solidarity, and no support for the Palestinian cause. These Arab leaders were not even promoting their own culture heritage. There was no unity not even for one day. These were the main reasons which caused pain and distress among our people.

PFV: You are born in a small village Herbia outside Majdal, from where a large number of refugees came, as the refugees that had to flee their homes in the nearby villages Yebna  and Asdod. Would you tell us about your childhood in Herbia, do you have memories left from this time? Your family was forced to leave from the lands between the years 1947-1948? How old where you then? How many family members were forced to leave their home and land in Herbia. Did your family have time to bring with them documents of ownership of the land and the possessions? Do you know what happened to your relatives, the rest of your family?

FG: I am in a strange way very proud that I was alive during the hell of 1947, and forced to leave our lands with my family – among tens of thousands of other Palestinian families, Our people were violently forced to leave our homes and lands, all that is, are our footprints, that has left permanent marks on the ground. We left behind us our sad olive trees, even the calm in our environment left for the distress and the anger. The Palestinian people left their villages and towns in the fifths-wind of the storm, while Israeli aircrafts roar above us, striking its human targets across the farmlands, the small villages and towns..

I remembered how my mother was hiding me in her arms, patiently standing still behind a large wall of a ruin, inhabited by snakes, until suddenly there was silence. The Israelis returned back in their warplanes, searching for remaining small children, the elderly people and the women. I remember I cried in my mothers arms, because I had intense hunger feelings, a child does not feel fear – but the intense hunger.

We were seven family members including my father and his two wives. No one member of our family remained in Herbia after the intense shelling, targeting of the people in the village. We left in a haste, we were not able to take our belongings with us, everyone had only one thing in mind, to escape the horror. That is why not many families had the time to bring contracts of house and landowner ship, and other legal documents. We eat leaves from the threes, some of us did not even have enough clothes to cover our bodies.”

PFV: How was your life at the time before the first Intifada? How did the Israeli occupant threatened the residents of Jabaliya. Would you tell us about the uprising (the second Intifada) in 2000, and what impact the events have had on you and your family, and the other residents of the camp.”

FG: In the 1987 uprising my feelings were terribly moved. After the Israeli collision with an army truck, driving into a group of workers, killing 4 and wounding seven Palestinians. I was during this period very depressed by the events around me and I suffered daily.

As for the Israeli occupants treatment of the residents in Jabalyia camp, during that time there were many arrests, the beatings and the cracking of bones. Trucks from UNHWR, came loaded with bags of bread and food cans to the refugees in the camp, so that we would not starve to death. Some where looking in the piles of garbage, our lives had become dreadful. The Al-Aqsa Intifada (second Intifada) is not less painful than the previous Intifada of 1987.”

PFV: Being a recognized artist, can you describe for us (in color) the streets of Jabalya refugee camp, during the occupation. The small narrow alleys, the sewer water flushing through the channels, in particular the Block 2. ( this is where the resistance lived during that time.) Can you also make a comment about the coding system, to classify the buildings in the camp, used by the Israeli occupant during that time?

FG: The Jabalyia refuge camp was intact in the aspects of unity between the residents, that’s what makes the refugee camp able to survive, despite of all the pitfalls in our lives. The old and narrow alleys the pollution and diseases spread through the camp. We the residents in the camp worked hard in trying as much as possible to pass through all the difficulties, to continue with our lives in defiance of the occupation and its obstacles. The number coding of our homes, was the classification of the owner of the house and the information were the resistance were to be found. (Similar code systems were used by the German National socialist party to classify the Jews.)

Being a sensitive artist soul, I believe the colors appropriate for our life in Jabaliya and the individual perception of them, are the warm, dark and the earthly colors – with a grasp of hope, maybe half of that dark brown, dark blue, but with orange, yellow and a mixture of white and yellow, these light colors reflects a glimpses of hope in this hell on earth.’

PFV: How many children do you have, boys and girls? Do they work, study, are they all alive? Can you remember the bright moments of fatherhood?

FG: I do not know of how many sons I have, (smiling)- is it punishment or a reward I do not know? I believe I have 10 sons and 6 daughters, I am still the head of a seven member family. Although I exceeded sixty years of age, every day I have to worry for my children.

Four of my children are working in the police and 4 of my daughters are married, the rest of them are still young living at home. All of them are alive except for my son Hossam. When Hossam became ill, I was detained in Israeli prison. When I got out, I found my son Hossam in poor health, he suffered from a serious weakness in his body.

Hossam was transferred by Dr. Abdel Shafi to Maqassed Hospital inside Israel, a specialist hospital. My son was in very poor health, and I accepted the bad news as calm as possible, my son Hossam suffered from intestinal cancer. Hossam died when he was 18 years. I consider my son a Martyr, since he died at such a young age, and suffered from severe pain, that could not be treated at that time.”

FG: Believe me, I never felt the joy of being the captain of the crew, I keep asking  myself wither my children will live under a continued occupation, or will it ever end? How long will they suffer? The forecast of today have began to appear in all its reality, we are all still trapped here inside Gaza Strip.

Even after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip, I did not see it as a good thing, it all became a nightmare for us, and I said, this is the beginning of the full hold on our people.

PFV: You have suffered in Israeli prisons during the time of occupation because of your patriotism, your paintings depicts the Palestinian life under occupation, and the Palestinian culture heritage. The Palestinian flag, the famous Arab Stallion, wedding celebrations and Dabka dancers, women dressed in the special Palestinian folklore dress. There were demonstrations and protests against your detention, in Tel Aviv and East Jerusalem and also outside your home in the Jabalya refugee camp. Would you tell us about this dark period in your life?”

FG: The Israelis detained me more than once. The first time in the beginning of the seventies, several charges was brought against me, without the findings of any wrongdoing. I was release from the prison after seven months.

The second time they arrested me was in 1975, not a piece of evidence against me, I was detained 45 days. In 1984 I was arrested because of a motive in some of my paintings. The paintings depicted the uprising (the Intifada). The Israelis court confiscated 7 artwork, under the pretext that the paintings incited violence, although they were not only reflecting the struggle of our people, but the hard time we are going through every day. Two days after I was detained students from the Bir-Zeit University left the demonstrations, Israeli peace activists and artists demanded protection and respect for freedom of expression in art.

In Gaza Strip the people was threatened by the occupant ruler, when they rallied in protest to the conditions during my arrest. I never created artwork to make PR for my self. The media covered the events and I refused to act pursuant to this arrests. I consider myself a bright light, a burning candle, in regards to the struggle of the Palestinian people. I yearn to express my self through my art, and want the viewer to know that my paintings are reflecting my soul, a mental, social and national deep ocean, of passion and compassion. My paintings are not filled with smiles, they are not loud, gaudy or without a deep thought. I draw the national Palestinian issues and the reality of the Palestinian struggle.”

PFV: Fathi you worked for a time in an elementary school as an art teacher. Do you still give courses in art, do you still work in graphics, and how can you buy the tools, the paint, canvas etc, when the border crossings are blocked for shipment of goods, and it is impossible to travel outside Gaza Strip.

FG: I worked for 13 year at the Al-Naser Islamic school, where I gave private lessons to students to teach them about art. Because of poverty and minimal resources, under siege, and the difficulty to buy material. I am surviving, though I have to buy my working tools, even if it will be at astronomical costs.

True is that I am suffering every day, because I represent in my art work the Palestinian struggle. I believe the Palestinian people are the best, their nobility and their gentle humanity is unique. The events that has taken place has turned me to live my life in solitude, I am walking the alleys and streets here in Jabaliya, a shadow of my self, walking up from the darkest graves.

Some of my artwork has spread internationally, including inside the Arab world. I am waiting for the crossing roads to open, so that I can continue to buy colors and graphic tools needed. I am now retired and my monthly salary is not enough for survival. I am planning to take up technical courses. Life necessities (bring food to the table) has over shadowed my artistic ambitions. I can not really afford to buy paint and tools, therefore I am not able to work with my art, and the children need to have food on the table every day- it has become a big dilemma.

I have serious intentions to expose my artwork to the public. I have produced many paintings, some of my paintings is large enough in booth size and quality, to be displayed at a finer art exhibition, but still, everything depends on when the Gaza Strip border crossings will open.

– Hiyam Noir contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. To contact Fathi Ghaben email HiyamNoir@Gmail.com.

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