Interview by Greg Dropkin and Adie Nistelrooy Published: 15/02/10
Latifa: This painting is about the beginning of the First Intifada. I liked the sight of these young girls and boys, carrying the flag. It was the first time they could do this during the Israeli occupation. At first I called it “Palestinian disco”, because there are no discos, this is their disco – on the street!
Greg: I like how it mixes representation and abstraction. I’m also very fond of this next picture.
Latifa: I love it too. This postcard came to Bethlehem from outside Palestine, in February 1948 before Palestine was divided. I decided to make a group of paintings. I collected old stamps, documents, postcards, to incorporate materials to tell people about Palestine as it existed before 1948. The original painting, from 1994, is now with Dr Labib Kamhawi in Amman. He has three of my paintings in his office, and as he is quite famous I get to see some of my work when he is interviewed on TV!
Adie: Did it take long to do?
No, with every exhibition I prepare the materials and the idea, put on some music which I think is suitable, and let myself paint. The idea can be the same, but the difference is how I am feeling when I paint.
This one was two sessions. At first I paint by pallet knife, then I place the collage and treat it to be compatible with the paint, using whatever colour or technique is appropriate for this. I think that I am not from any school or system of painting. I was taught how to use the pallet knife, but the ideas come from inside myself, from thinking, from noticing. I tried to document this date, this history.
Greg: How did you start to become an artist?
Since primary school I liked to draw things about our life, flowers, fish, I like landscape. Usually when my grandmother told me about their life before, I imagined where we will be if Palestine were still as Palestine. My first drawing showed myself, from the back as a child, walking between many trees, and on the other side flowers with the sea, and a small house. But the house was drawn as a tent, because I could only imagine my house in Khan Younis refugee camp. I was born in Ashdod on 28 August 1948, and I grew up at first in Khan Younis city. But after 2 years, I don’t know, because I was a child, we were living in Khan Younis camp.
your house in the camp was near the sea?
No, maybe 5 or 6 kilometres, but I enjoyed going, usually with my father, and with my neighbours, refugee children, boys and girls, women and men, everyone went to the sea because this was all we had.
I remember sitting in the sand on either side of a cinema screen to watch films. We would see houses and people with cars, many things we did not have. I saw a chair in the film, but all we had was a small chair, from wood. In the winter, the wind opened everything, we were very cold and snow fell right on our heads! I often asked my family “why we are living like this? why we can’t sit on a chair, or why is my bed, my dress, like this?” They told me “we are refugees now. Before, life was very nice, there were gardens, trees, we could eat anything, we could see the sea, go to Jaffa, Gaza, many cities, we could have a party, but now we have no money and the Egyptian and Israeli governments have enclosed the area. What we can do? We have no passport to travel.”
The other day you said that when your father would tell you this, you didn’t really believe him, you thought there must be some other reason why you didn’t have any chairs.
yes, yes, I didn’t believe it at first, but as I kept talking with my father, and my aunts, then I began to trust what they were telling me. My eyes opened in 1956. I can’t forget, because I was very small, and I’m the oldest of my family, one boy only, my mother was very young but she took us with my brother. An Egyptian soldier who was a friend of my father, came to us and changed his clothes because he wanted to escape to Egypt.
he had a uniform on?
yes, and because of this we left our home to go with him to the sea, until he could go with his group. We walked to the sea without shoes, because there was no time to dress or anything.
you heard the stories, the bombs
yes from the sea, everything, like now with the Gaza war, only the bombs are different. We walked through this area without shoes, without anything, I could feel everything in the road and my feet were bloody. I didn’t forget this. After the soldier left with his group, we went to Rafah and returned to Khan Younis. I saw all the young men fallen in the road. I asked my mother “why are they asleep here?” Mother told me “come, come, come” then she told me the Israelis killed them. As a child I had thought the Israelis were made of iron, or some strange material, but later I saw them entering houses, searching for men. The soldiers were from Israel, France, and Britain. I don’t say this because you are from Britain, and maybe everyone in Gaza can tell the same stories, but the English soldiers were usually kinder with people. If Israelis took men to kill them, the English would say “stop, stop, why are you killing these people?” We saw this directly, I can say this as history, it’s true. But the French were very difficult.
Adie: This is Joe Sacco’s book Footnotes in Gaza. He’s a cartoonist, a journalist and a researcher, and he wrote the story of Khan Younis from 1956. He did investigation work with some good people, talking to old people who remembered the attacks in Khan Younis and Rafah. He starts the story with Nasser. A lot of different people who were there in 1956, said the Fedayeen was not really supported by Egypt, sometimes Nasser used it for his own political advantage and prestige in front of the Arab world. This image shows Joe Sacco meeting a Palestinian, and then this is him in the past. He says that his new Palestinian unit began to take over border guard duties from regular Egyptian soldiers. He hated the Egyptian soldiers. Did you feel this in Khan Younis, was there an anger at Egyptian soldiers, because they used to smoke hashish…?
and loud music and everything at night, not like our habits.
So the Fedayeen just voluntarily took over guard patrols, instead of the Egyptians.
But one of the Egyptians, called Mustafa Hafez, a General, was leading the Fedayeen in Gaza
Yes, I drew it! They made a documentary film about Mustafa Hafez, and asked me to draw his portrait. I can’t forget this man – this one is Abdel Nasser – and Abdel Nasser sent General Hafez to work with the Palestinians, to make something for them, he was a very good leader. The Israelis sent him a parcel, when he opened it, he died.
This is the story here “now the story of Mustafa Hafez begins” – this Fedayeen, he’s old now, he’s telling the story.“This is a secret, and this is the first time I’ve told it. I discovered that the Egyptian aim was to get rid of all of us, because they considered us troublemakers, causes of problems, and Nasser may have had no interest in making too potent a Palestinian guerilla force whose loyalties were not ultimately to Egypt. Israeli army vehicles used to chase us, we requested anti-tank rifles, we were rejected, rejected, rejected, Egypt would not give the protection, we had the Carl Gustav rifle, it was useless against those vehicles. Mustafa Hafez told us ‘I’m with you, but I can’t do anything about your request, I receive my orders from Egypt’. Sometimes Mustafa Hafez got upset, he would locate positions that could be attacked, but Egypt told him “no”. Whether or not Hafez felt caught between his Egyptian superiors and his mostly Palestinian cadres, was of little concern to the Israelis. The Israelis assassinated him with a package bomb July 11th 1956.”
Here are the soldiers taking off their uniforms, running to the beach and the sea. This is the people walking, leaving the houses, and this is where they went to the houses to ask for young men
I saw it, the same.
“I was watching them, taking the people out of the houses”. This man survived because he was behind the bodies. The women would move the bodies because the men were hiding.
yes, they say maybe the Palestinian woman is strong because so many troubles happened during her life, because of this, she must be strong. Sometimes she has to do everything, because the man is nothing, in prison, or killed
or hiding. Here the women went out to bring the bodies because the remaining men were scared.
yes, I saw this.
Greg: as a child you saw that?
yes, I saw this. And often we would go to where they put the dead
yes, often. Where is the castle? In 1956 there were struggles in the castle between the Egyptian Army with Palestinian Fedayeen, again the Israeli and other armies.
Adie: This is Faris Barbak, he was 14 years old, during this time, living near Khan Younis, Mamluk Castle, he remembers how Israeli soldiers burst into his home, broke the door, entered shooting, the men were hiding in the rooms “get out, get out”, they lined them up and took them to the Castle
and killed them
exactly. He followed them, this is the Castle, this is how they killed them. This is the Castle now.
Greg: and you saw this, as a child?
I saw some of this, not exactly, I saw the same but in another place, not at the Castle, because we were in a refugee camp, it was the same in Khan Younis city and the camp, but in the refugee camp even more than in the Castle. The Israelis thought that all the people in the camp wanted to kill any Israeli, because they want to return, go back to Palestine. In the city, they were not afraid of these people, but they feared the refugee camp. Because of this, the Palestinian revolution began from the refugee camps.
When the United Nations came we were very happy, they gave us chocolate, many things, and our families told us “don’t take anything, because maybe the Israelis put something in it” but, at first, I took chocolate from the soldier, from his hand, not from the earth, I didn’t like to pick it up, I liked to say “ok, shukran”. They were from Canada, Brazil, India, wearing this blue helmet. During this time, from 1956 to 1965 I finished secondary school, my father wanted me to be a doctor but I liked to draw. I told my father “no, I can’t”. He told me I must, for my job, my father wanted to see me as a doctor, and I refused.
I went to Ramallah to learn drawing and painting, art, and then to teach after learning it. I was A1 in my class. We were 8 in my class, and I was the first. The others didn’t know what they wanted, they were not clever in Arabic or English or mathematics, they only studied painting because it’s very easy and after this they would go to teach it in primary school. But I was very happy because my teacher Samia Alzarow was clever in drawing and a very nice person, she often took me with her to decorate the YMCA in Jerusalem and many schools in Ramallah. My training was direct in many things, graphic, painting, we used many materials. She was like me also, sometimes we would slip away from college without anyone seeing me, we would sleep and learn in the same place.
Greg: You were aware of the political situation because you were growing up in a refugee camp, and then the war took place, you saw young men dead in the road, that was very much part of your life, but you had this ability as an artist. At that time, did you see these two things as being related or without any connection between them?
no no no, there are connections, sure
I know there is a connection, but at that time, did you feel it?
At that time, I felt happy because I was living in Ramallah, it was a very very good place, no high buildings, the flowers, the trees, the stones were clean, everything nice, as I imagined before how we could live, and we lived in this village very well. The people there were fresher than Gaza, because Gaza was enclosed, everything was surrounding it, there was only the sea. In Ramallah there was no sea, but you could see all the way to the horizon. Also I began to be thinking about what we could do for our country, because I met many friends from many countries, they came from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, Palestinian girls. UNRWA arranged this for us. I asked girls from Lebanon what do you do, how are you living, how are your family, about your father, mother. Also in Jordan, West Bank. They couldn’t speak about it. In Syria it was better, they could talk about our Palestinian culture. Then I asked many of them what we can do for our country. We began to make a small group, 3 or 4 girls, we would sit together, beginning to discuss what we could do. We could educate ourselves.
How old were you?
So this was at the time when the PLO was being formed?
Before. During this time, it was the beginning of PLO. And I was very happy because Ahmed Shukairy, the first President of PLO, he was a strong man with charisma, I didn’t know him exactly but I felt he was a very good man, not as Arafat. This was 1964. I finished my secondary school in 1965. I went to Ramallah to study there from early 1965 until 1967. I finished in 1967, my education was 2 years continuous, without holiday, without anything. Then we went to Jordan, but I still kept in touch with the people in the group
Adie: what kind of discussions were you having as a group, in 1965, this was before the Occupation in 1967, what ideas were you having?
for all Palestine to be free
what did that mean?
to return, to work, to our countries, but not to see, this, believe me, we were thinking about it, I don’t imagine myself, I never thought about killing Jews or, no, ok, we and them can live in the same place
that’s what you thought when you were 16, 17
yes, we can live with them. ok. Some of the leaders, the Palestinian leaders before, they spoke about Jews, Muslims and Christians, live together in Palestine, one Parliament, and we can live good, because all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, there were only 8 million, they can live in this place very well, and not see Hamas, not see anything. But what we can do now? Everything grew, the hate grew, we and the Israelis grew in hate together. And many things help Hamas or anyone to grow up
Greg: but at that stage, Hamas didn’t exist at all in 1965
no! The roots of Hamas were in Egypt and in many countries, the Islamic parties were working in secret. But they couldn’t grow if the society was good and everything was ok, they will still be working underground.
So how did you decide that you would use your artistic talent? You were becoming politically aware, you had a vision of what kind of society you would like to have, and then you had this artistic talent which was developing anyway, how did you decide to bring these two parts of your life together?
I chose my party, I spoke about the leader, but this is nothing for me, but the idea of my party is still the same, that is why I chose it and was happy in this until now. I think generally that it is not good to speak about “I must make, I must do”. No, I can see, or show, other people my problem about my country in another way, through my paintings, helping other people by my paintings as well. I was working as a teacher in Bahrain, working with many groups from Bahrain, to work for poor people, I see the way of my ideology to work amongst the people and help them, not only asking them to see about our own problem.
So your perspective was already internationalist, even as a young person you saw things in an international way within the Arab world?
Yes, I think that came from cinema and from when the United Nations, UNWRA, came to visit our schools to give us small gifts, toothbrushes, anything, something for drawing as I was clever in drawing and painting. Usually when I saw an old woman I would ask her where she came from, she told me “I am from Canada”. There was a translator between us. I asked her “Is Canada like Khan Younis?” She told me “different”. I was always reading small books, many small stories.
when was this?
when I was in preparatory school. Then all the visitors would magazines to our school library, I liked to read, I would read about the world, about everything, about habits, famous people. I even liked Frank Sinatra, I liked the sound very much, maybe he is not the same ideology, I know, but I asked about everything! I can’t hate him, his sound is good.
Greg: Now Latifa, this painting is the story of your life?
yes, this, from when I was born until the end of this history, the end of my marriage, and the beginning of the Palestinian Authority inside Palestine. Because this was in 1995, maybe I remembered that old time, when I lived in refugee camps and school and college and working in Bahrain and Qatar, after working with the PLO in Tunis then coming back to Palestine in 1994. I didn’t forget myself in Palestine, because it became something else, not Palestine.
I feel that it will return as Palestine in the future when the Palestinian Authority will work as a democratic system. I didn’t find myself there because I saw many things, there are big problems there, not from Israel only, no, from our people. And I know that I will not be in my home, never, I will live as a stranger in my country. Thus I prefer to live as a stranger outside, rather than in my country. After I came back to Tunis to see what happened with my family, I didn’t find my family either.
I think that the Oslo Agreement put the end of history from my birth until my return from Palestine to Tunis, and the end of my marriage also. Then I began to think about what can I do after, I think that I am here at the end of this painting.
I think I understand what you are saying, but can you describe how the painting shows that?
Sometimes I feel light from inside to speak with myself, maybe I will keep within myself until things will be better.
so this here is you inside this complex history?
and how would you describe this part of the painting?
this here is the end, but I decide to create, I decide to have a new life through here, with no colours, light only, as a graphic.
and this here, on the left?
Latifa: my country!