Palestinian Artist Embroiders 'Inshallah' in Hebrew on Islamic Prayer Rugs

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Embroidered prayer rugs by artist Nawal Arafat.
Embroidered prayer rugs by artist Nawal Arafat.Credit: Elad Sarig
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias

Six years ago, while studying at the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, visual designer Nawal Arafat took Muslim prayer rugs from her family’s home in Ramle, frayed the edges and then delicately embroidered words onto them. The texts – Arabic words transliterated into Hebrew – were answers that she would generally give her parents when they asked her questions like, So when are you getting married? When will you go back to being religious? One answer, for example, was simply “inshallah” (God willing).

“I took these answers and turned them into typographic images that represent the gap between some of these deeds and how I practice my faith in my everyday life,” according to Arafat’s website.

Now the artist’s complex and intimate works are on display at Beit Hagefen, the Arab-Jewish cultural center in Haifa, where they are engendering a fascinating discussion about the relationship between Arabic and Hebrew, and about women in the Palestinian community in Israel.

“I deliberated a lot as to whether to have this work put on show,” says Arafat, 28. “But in the end I decided to go ahead. There was a lot of negative criticism from Palestinians since, essentially, I had ‘ruined’ the prayer rugs, dismantled something. That act deterred some people. It’s hard to accept such a work. When they showed it to the docents at Beit Hagefen, they didn’t know what to do: Some rejected it and preferred not to include it in the visitors’ tour. But after I got a chance to explain, there was an understanding.”

Nawal Arafat.Credit: Tamar Bar Dayan

The untitled work at the Beit Hagefen show, curated by Yael Messar and Hadas Zemer Ben-Ari, was created during Arafat’s third year at Shenkar, while she was becoming increasingly critical of Palestinian society in Israel as part of a process she underwent regarding her own identity, her language and her family relationships. One expression of this criticism was a poem she wrote and read out at an event sponsored by the Israeli poetry collective Ars Poetica, in 2014.

“Write down that I’m among those Arabs that have questions … that I’m one of those Arabs who want more / Who want to choose how to conduct their lives / Write down that I’m one of those Arabs who has other plans for the future,” she wrote, referencing a well-known poem by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Arafat began studying visual communications at Shenkar, which is located in Ramat Gan, when she was only 19; she and one other student were the only Arab women there, among both the student body and the faculty. “I felt an enormous social gap,” she recalls. “I didn’t have anything in common with the people there. I didn’t know what to talk to them about. My life had been so different. I was still living in my parents’ home.”

She is very well aware of what’s expected from women in Palestinian society in Israel and the pressure not to deviate from the path expected of them. That could be why, after finishing her degree, she felt the need to leave home to develop herself professionally and personally. Today she is herself teaching at Shenkar.

Detail of embroidered prayer rug by artist Nawal Arafat. Credit: Elad Sarig

Arafat: “I didn’t understand at first how to move forward, how one lives independently, how to work. It took me a few years, but in the end I succeeded in supporting myself financially, to grow, to develop and to get to a place where things happen – to meet new people.”

For the past three years she’s been living in Jaffa, which for her is home both in terms of language and community, while at the same time allowing her to be anonymous – “to control what to reveal and how much,” as she puts it.

All of her works deal with the tension between the Hebrew and Arabic languages, a tension that has played a central part of her life.

“Until I was 18 I barely spoke Hebrew,” she says. “When I started to work at a clothing store and the boss didn’t let us speak Arabic, I understood that Arabic bothers people. I really didn’t grasp why it wasn’t okay, but it influenced me. I started to pay attention to the issue of languages to think about whom I speak to in Hebrew.”

Arafat’s final project at Shenkar, a magazine called “48,” included nine folios with texts, graphics and other works focusing on the three generations of Palestinian society in Israel.

“In my works I was critical of the three generations, but particularly of the parents’ generation, the ‘survivor’ generation, which did everything it could to integrate into society [after 1948],” she explains. “I expressed the complexity of identity and my opinions and perceptions through graphic interventions in the text in Arabic and Hebrew – erasing, omitting, assembling, cutting. I got an excellent response, but none of the reviewers knew Arabic. They didn’t read the texts or understand much of the work. The critique was relevant primarily from a visual but not a content-related perspective.”

Throughout her studies, Arafat says she spoke only Hebrew and produced work using only Hebrew, even as she was struggling to further develop her Arabic: “My friends from the north said to me, ‘What’s with you? Why are you speaking to us in Hebrew?’ I didn’t know how to respond. The Palestinians of the north and south speak more Arabic. In the center of the country and in Jaffa, people stick Hebrew into almost every sentence.

“I tried to blend in with the gangs from the south and the north because I felt that they were ‘more Palestinian.’ I thought that maybe I wasn’t ‘Palestinian enough’ because I don’t speak enough Arabic and I’m not [politically] active. But it was exhausting because I felt it was forced. I found that I didn’t always have enough of a vocabulary in Arabic – sometimes it was just easier to use Hebrew. But that doesn’t define how Palestinian I am and I’m not interested in defining it.

“A friend once asked me how I define an Arab. I said, it’s someone who was born to Arab parents. ‘And who speaks Arabic?’ he asked. And I said, not necessarily. The level of fluency in a particular language doesn’t define the sense of belonging you have vis-à-vis your identity and your society or your people. I grew up in a mixed city, and the languages also were mixed; the whole issue of half-Arabic and half-Hebrew is part of me. I never felt that the Hebrew language was foreign or exceptional; I heard it all the time.

“Now I’m in a more ‘whole’ place. Both languages have been mixed with each other since I was young and the balance of power between them changes from time to time, but that doesn’t cause confusion or doubts about my identity. There’s a hybridism within that identity.”

‘A sensitive issue’

Despite her youth, Arafat has already managed to complete her degree at Shenkar, where she won a prize for excellence; to work a few years on bilingual and trilingual projects at the TamarBD design studio in Tel Aviv, and on her own; to conduct lectures and workshops at Jerusalem Design Week; and to take part in five exhibitions.

Arafat: “Since the subject of languages is a sensitive issue for me, I’ve conducted an in-depth study in recent years on the presence of Arabic in the public domain and the way it is displayed. Today there are many places where Arabic is omitted, and places where there are errors that do not allow one to read the text properly. The dialogue and relationships between the languages and the absence of errors can be found primarily in art that isn’t policed – like graffiti.”

As to her work as a lecturer at Shenkar today, she says that “along with a basic course called ‘Graphic Design,’ I also give a workshop entitled, “Arabic for the Hebrew-speaking Designer’ for third-year students. It includes lectures on the history of written Arabic and the current situation of the Arabic language in the public domain, in addition to studio exercises that expose students to an unfamiliar language and will help them cope with it in the future, in the hope that this will prevent design errors that are common in public and in design discourse in Israel.”

Helping Arafat behind the scenes with translations and with coping with the complexities of the languages is her mother, Dr. Safieh Hassonah-Arafat, a lecturer in early childhood education at Beit Berl Teachers Training College.

“She essentially teaches first-grade teachers how to teach Arabic,” her daughter says. “She’s the person I turn to for correct translations. We talk a lot about the lack of respect for Arabic in Israel and how this can be changed. There is something very wrong about the approach to the language. If you don’t know Arabic, consult with someone who does. Go to a translator, an editor – don’t go to your Arab friend. It’s a language that you don’t know, so take it seriously.

“It happens in many established places, in museums: I simply walk in and I can see the improper Arabic. It really bothers me,” she says. “On the roads it can also be dangerous. Residents of East Jerusalem, for example, don’t know Hebrew, so you have to make sure that the Arabic [on signs] is correct. Everyone should know Arabic, speak Arabic, write Arabic, so that you can really get to know people, know what they’re talking about. But if not, then at least people should know a little more about this language, to learn about it from a different place. Not from the media, the army or from high school.

“I do these things,” Arafat stresses, “so that the attitude toward the language and toward the Arabs who live here will be less rigid and judgmental and come more from a place of understanding and acceptance of someone who is different from you but not threatening.”

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