I went to Ramallah to see a work of art by Randa Mdah. I admit that I went to see the piece, and the 26-year-old artist, after art historian John Berger urged me to go. It is a work that will disquiet you, he said. So powerful is its manner of confronting the substantial. He was right.
We - my friend Yigal and I - entered the huge cage via the urban debacle known as the Qalandiyah checkpoint. There we met Mdah and her friend Yasser Hanjar. Experts in Arab names undoubtedly will note they are Druze, and more particularly from Majdal Shams, in the Golan Heights. Both have chosen to live in Ramallah, even though they certainly could have resided on the easier side of the Green Line. Hanjar is studying Assyriology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Why? Well, during his time in jail (he spent seven and a half years in prison, mostly in the Shatta facility, as a "security prisoner"), he read the exploits of Gilgamesh in Arabic and fell in love with the ancient civilization, whose remnants still exist in countries that are closed to him: his homeland Syria, and Iraq.
In the taxi we switch to English. An Israeli is the last thing I wanted to be in Ramallah on that cold day, even before the events that began last weekend, in an environment that was hurtling into privation and destruction. The photographs on the front pages of the daily papers showed a man carrying a girl wounded by Israeli fire. We go to the Al-Mahata Gallery, where an exhibition of oil paintings is on display. One of the paintings shows a generic settler family returning home from shopping, Mom and Dad carrying full bags and leading a child, two M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders. The vast separation fence looms in the background.
Our hosts show us Mdah's work, "Puppet Theater," which is in a back room of the gallery. Photos cannot convey its full power. The wall bears a 2- by 3-meter polyester relief, next to three full-sized figures representing Arabs, bound by ropes to the ceiling. Mdah says Berger thought the thick ropes supporting the marionettes were unnecessary. She insisted; he was persuaded, she says. Why did she insist? Because human beings are bound here to a routine, she explains, and gradually lose their identity amid the power game between the occupation, the poverty, the religious and the political - among other forces.
We return to her apartment in A-Ram, equipped with Taibeh beer. Something in that tremendous work creates tension between blood and mud and pain, and the rough, dry material from which it is made. It is easy to flinch from the sight of people wallowing in mud and blood. Commercial art cannot cope with this. Even the sketches she made for the work deserve an exhibition of their own.
Mdah studied art in Damascus, where her teacher was the Syrian sculptor Abdullah al-Sayed. She was 18 when she went to Syria, which she calls her homeland, after being born and raised under the Israeli occupation in the Golan Heights. Her graduation project at the University of Damascus was also a three-dimensional work. She has several others in the works, in draft form. She spent six years in Damascus; the maximum permitted is eight. Asked if she misses her friends in Damascus, she says she does very much, and repeats this more than once.
I glance at my friend Yigal. We met at Tel Aviv University 37 years ago and we still hang out. Ramallah was already occupied ("temporarily") then. Haim Ramon was already a politico. And the debates in the Israeli art world were already about "What happens beyond the abstract?"
This is not the first time an encounter with people from Damascus has infused me with more than curiosity. Some months ago I spent a few riveting hours with a couple from Damascus - a theater actress and her poet-physician husband. A year earlier I met a Syrian violinist from Daniel Barenboim's orchestra, who told me about music studies at the Damascus conservatory. What interested me most was the traditional division between Western and Arab music: Some go to study Arab or oriental music at the conservatory, and all their courses are about Arab (and Kurdish) instruments and music; other students go to learn about Western music.
That conversation helped me resolve a certain conundrum about the orchestra, and in particular, about Arab musicians' tremendous enthusiasm to play music that is "not theirs." Of course, the music is theirs as much as it is "ours."
The conversation with the violinist led me to ask Mdah whether a similar division exists in the study of the plastic arts. No, she explains: Art studies at the University of Damascus are steeped in the tradition of Muslim and Syrian art. For example, her work - the relief and the marionettes - shows the influence of Muslim miniatures and icons in mosques, as well as of cuneiform tablets from more ancient sites. All are elements of the cultural heritage found in most modern Syrian art. She ticks off names of Syrian artists, some of them known in the West, most of them not, as is the case with Israeli artists.
But I admit that my feeling during these conversations, as in previous ones with poets from the Arab world, is always one of standing firmly on two legs, one planted in the continuum of a very rich Arab tradition, and the other - initially through learning and afterward through acquired sensitivity - in the Western cultural tradition. For example, Mdah says the hanging decorations in mosques play a very meaningful role in what she is creating now.
The conversation moves to the role of the Italian Renaissance in her studies, both practical and theoretical, and then entirely by chance, to the subject of painting human models. This is not done at the university, she notes, "because of the religious people." On the other hand, the lecturers tell their students that such work is absolutely vital. So what do they do? Paint at home. Who does the modeling? Every man for himself. And what's Damascus like? Even Mdah's rather expressionless face reveals the longing for that center of culture, television, cinema, theater, plastic arts, intellectual life.
I am already thinking about writing this article. How can I persuade readers that Damascus is an important Arab cultural center? I will not try to persuade, I tell myself, I will bring the photographs of the works to the newspaper.
Mdah returned in 2007 with a bachelor's degree from the University of Damascus. She does not know whether Israeli institutions - such as the Bezalel art academy in Jerusalem - will recognize her degree if she wants to do a master's. She does not say a word about Israeli superciliousness. Maybe she hasn't yet encountered it. She is only 26. But why go to Bezalel, I ask. It would be a possibility, she explains, if she can't manage to go abroad to study. In any event, in her village on the Golan Heights, she did not find an atmosphere conducive to painting, hence the move to Ramallah.
"It was only after the experience of Damascus that I grasped the meaning of the statement, 'We the Syrian citizens who live under occupation.' We have an Arab culture, customs that resemble those of the Palestinians and inthimaa [affiliation] not only in consciousness, but also in our way of life. That is what led me, after my coerced return from Damascus to the Golan, to look for a place where I would be able to live without a feeling of alienation and loneliness.
"Here in Ramallah," she continues, "there are art exhibitions, there is a rich theater scene, films, two international dance festivals. And it is all mixed with the closure that Israel imposes on the West Bank. It is not easy to be active and to create art and culture when you are threatened by checkpoints and closure and occupation."
What do people in the village say about her decision to live as an artist in Ramallah? In saying that, I have betrayed my prejudices: Say "Druze village" to me and images of colorful clerics pop into my head. Mdah doesn't chide me, but identifies the place from which the question sprang. Most of the village's young women, as well as most of the young men, are not religious, she explains, adding that her parents at first objected to her decision to leave and study art, of all things, but since then have supported and are proud of her. She has already taken part in several group exhibitions in Damascus and the West Bank. And she is waiting - eagerly - to sell something somewhere, and to be able to go on creating art.
We set out for home. The curse of Beit El, the "House of God," gazes at us. From the outset I had intended to quote Randa and Yasser lines from a poem by Tsivia Barkai, a Tel Aviv poet who was born and raised in Beit El, whose language is suffused with Jewish tradition: "In the place where I was born idols are worshiped."