On Friday, 12th April, the A.M. Qattan Foundation in London opened doors to a free art exhibition titled '40 Days', created by an Israeli-Palestinian artist, Dor Guez. Guez has used photography archives and documentary film-making as means to capture the history, endurance and presence of the Palestinian-Christian community within the Israeli city of Lod, which was previously known by its Arabic name of Al-Lydd. His mother's family was one of the few Palestinian Christians to remain in Al-Lydd when over 20,000 Palestinians were driven out around the 1948 war, whilst his father's family heritage was that of Jewish-Tunisians who immigrated into the newly formed state of Israel in the 1950's.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, a key belief about death has it that souls of the deceased wander on the Earth for 40 days after death, until the ascension of the soul occurs. Special prayers are offered at the grave-site as well as at the church to mark the end of these 40 days. For the artist to title this exhibition as '40 Days' and given the context of the faded Palestinian-Christian population around 1948, the audience are invited to put together many destroyed, or perhaps 'dead' puzzles of the Palestinian-Christian story in Lod. Even after carefully examining the photographs in the exhibition, we will merely begin to make sense of the extent of unequal rights these people must have lived through for several decades and continue to do so.
The opening space of '40 Days' features two photographs of the first Christian wedding that took place in Lod after 1948. These pictures, where we see the bride surrounded by a noteworthy number of people in the backdrop of shattered buildings, depict Palestinian people determined to carry forward their traditions even after what was their land was now part of Israel having most of their own people driven out. It is important to note that the use of these photographs as the starting point stresses an important message by the artist that Palestinian Christians in Israel are still and will always be wedded to their traditions, history and community.
The main exhibition room features stories of destruction of both Christian and Palestinian identities. On the walls, we have pictures of hate messages against Palestinian Christians in the form of vandalism of their ancestors' graves in a cemetery in Lod to the extent that skulls and bones are visible in open air. Through the medium of these photographs, which were presented to the Israeli police for investigation of the cemetery vandalism, the artist explains how these photographs captured the truth and a message of justice not only in pictorial form, but also in the way these pictures were folded, torn and stored by the police, who failed to find the perpetrators.
It is most admirable that the artist does not choose to draw divisions between different communities in and around Lod or between Israelis or Palestinians, Jewish or Christians; after all, the artist represents all four of these communities. These photographs are merely used in the context of capturing a story and to encourage the audience to question why do the identities of culture, nationalism, religion or beliefs become so strong and divisive that people feel the urge to humiliate death. They also question whether it is human to do so and whether Palestinian Christians or for that matter, any ethnic or religious community deserves to experience this.
On the floor of the main exhibition room, there are several panels on tripods, where each panel displays archives of 'British Passports' held by Palestinians, pre-1948 when they enjoyed easy travel in the Middle East, exhibiting immigration stamps of Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan etc. There was also an exchange of culture and ideas within these countries. It is deplorable that whilst speaking for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, the artist would choose to reminisce the British colonial past. But what comes out of these archives is that the Palestinians in general as well as Palestinian Christians had more rights during the colonial time than what they now have as citizens of Israel.
Further on, this exhibit also features two documentary films of around eight minutes and fifteen minutes in two different theatre rooms. Whilst the second documentary records one woman's recollections of dead family members, their destroyed graves and her resigned acceptance, the first one in particular is bright and inspiring. It tells the story of an Israeli-Palestinian family, who choose to be 'smart' rather than being 'right' in Israel where they represent a minority community. There is certainly an irony in this film because this family cannot be 'right', as they put it, which is to express their Palestinian traditions and beliefs, but it is equally inspiring and beautiful as they trace some Palestinian cultural stories being adapted by the Israeli's into their own interpretation. Therefore, as Israeli-Palestinians they enjoy the paradox of having lost a part of themselves, by using creativity and optimism to re-discover it in a different culture.
The central theme of this exhibition is to contemplate the loss and the future of a minority community in Israel, represented by the artist's mother's lineage. But in his work, Dor Guez simply chooses to question the human nature behind construction and destruction of identities, without any divisive thinking whatsoever. Guez is as Israeli, as Palestinian, as Jew and as Christian as anyone else. He embodies an artist of conscience before being an Israeli-Palestinian artist.