The Director of Jerusalem's Museum of Islamic Art Never Met a Jew Until He Was 21 - and Then He Married One

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Nadim Sheiban, director of Jerusalem's L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art.
Nadim Sheiban, director of Jerusalem's L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

The first thing Nadim Sheiban did, when he was appointed director of the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem in 2014, was to eliminate the hall of Islamic weapons that greeted visitors on the entry floor. “That was a conscious decision. I am not in favor of weapons. They used to make swords, bows and arrows and rifles in our workshops for children. I also eliminated that. The families were angry at me – they in fact liked it.”

Instead of the weapons hall, Sheiban transformed the space into a hall for temporary exhibitions. At the moment, an exhibition of posters from Iran is on display. He says that this exhibition aims at challenging the classical Israeli discourse that views Iran as a country ruled by an irrational dictatorship and sees it as all cut from the same cloth.

“The exhibition here is an attempt to grapple with this labeling,” he says. “You can see how despite everything a glorious culture exists under an oppressive regime, how they are managing to be creative and to express themselves. And maybe that’s the optimistic point, that an individual has more power than politics and a regime. Not everything is in the hands of regimes. ”

Nadim Sheiban, director of Jerusalem's L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Sheiban is well aware of the symbolism of his decision to distance Muslim culture from associations of weapons and war. “We are dealing with Islamic art over a period of 1,000 years and we are saying that Islam is not just killing but also a culture and a civilization. And it would be great if all of us, all the nations, went back to that. There is too much energy, power and money going into destroying and not enough going into building.”

During the course of his life Sheiban has often opted for symbolic acts. This month he is sharing all those life junctures as part of a project called “Seven Ways to Dissolve Boundaries” at the Mekudeshet Festival in Jerusalem during the month of September. In each of the tours, held nearly every day over the course of three weeks, participants will meet seven Jerusalem figures at various sites (that will only be revealed at the last minute) and hear their life stories, which in the view of the organizers will engender the dissolving of existing boundaries between people.

Sheiban begins his own personal story of dissolving boundaries with his birth in 1951 to a Christian Palestinian family in the village of Rama in the Galilee. “I lived in the village until I was 21 and never met any Jews,” he relates. “All that we knew about Jews was from the radio we listened to, stations from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Until I was 16 years old, there was no electricity or hot water in the village.”

Sheiban studied sociology, political science and international relations at university. In 1972 he met the woman who would become his wife. “She was Jewish,” he relates. “During the Yom Kippur War I was nearly the only male on campus and I went out with a Jewish girl, and most of the Jewish men were in the war. It was weird. My parents and her parents did not accept this relationship. My parents made their peace with it eventually but even in their old age her parents hardly came to terms with it. We have two children. We divorced ... The separation didn’t have anything to do with her being Jewish. My current partner is also a Jewish woman.”

After completing his degree in sociology he went on to study social work and after graduating he worked at the welfare bureau in East Jerusalem. Later he was appointed director of the department at the Jerusalem municipality that looks after the aged population in all parts of the city.

Nadim Sheiban, director of Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art, at the current exhibit of posters from Iran. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“I wanted to prove to myself that there is no glass ceiling above me, even though I am an Arab and from a minority. I was the first Arab to direct a service agency in Jerusalem that was for the entire population, not just the Arab population.”

After 25 years at the municipality and a series of high ranking positions, he decided to retire from there and went to work at the Jerusalem Foundation, where he established the content department. In that capacity he was a member of the board at a number of museums, among them the Museum for Islamic Art. Two years ago he was appointed director of the museum. The fact that he had no formal education in the field of art was not an impediment, he says.

“During the time I was a member of the museum’s board of directors I learned about Islamic art and I grew close to issues of creativity and museology. I learned during the practical work. If you were to bring me a 10th century object right now, I could tell you from which period it is and from where.”

Sheiban says that by the end of the year, some 50,000 people will have visited the museum. He regards this as “a tremendous achievement because there’s a difficulty here. Whenever there are terror attacks in Jerusalem and the political tension soars, the city is deserted and all the cultural institutions suffer. And we suffer doubly, because for the hot-headed part of the population, an Islamic Museum is like a red cape dangled in front of a bull. Then it takes time to rebuild the connection between this museum and the general public.”

He describes the museum as “a place that tries to bring different populations closer to one another, Jews and Arabs. We don’t deal with conflicts and wars or suffering and restrictions. This is like a fantasy, but it’s fun.”

A poster by Shahrzad Changalvaee on display at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem.Credit: Courtesy of Moravian Gallery, Brno, Czech Republic

Sometimes the conflict does figure in the museum’s decisions. Thus, for example, Sheiban relates that he refused to cooperate with the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures that opened about a year ago in Be’er Sheva in a building that had served as a mosque until the establishment of the state. The Islamic Movement demanded that it be restored to its original use and the High Court of Justice ruled as a compromise that the structure would serve as a culture center for the preservation of Islam and thus it was decided to establish the museum.

“I didn’t agree to lend them objects from our collection for exhibition there,” he says, “because I wanted to create a museum that is far removed from politics. I thought that the connection to the mosque and the story of that museum would be detrimental to our museum. Subsequently the board of our museum changed its decision and now it has been decided to lend them objects for their next exhibition.”

Overall, Sheiban says that as a museum director he does not feel subjected to political pressures. The museum’s budget comes mostly from a European foundation established by the family that founded the museum, which provides its financial backing. Support from the municipality and Culture and Sports Ministry barely amounts to 10 percent of the museum’s annual budget. However, according to Sheiban most of the museums in Israel are in a similar situation. Since the state’s part is relatively small, there is not much concern about the reactions of politicians in general and the minister of culture and sports in particular to particular exhibits. “I’m not afraid. With the support of the board of this place, I can allow myself to be for art, pure and simple.”

Sheiban defines himself as someone who is relieved to have gotten rid of the hump of identity, which hardly interests him now at all. “I am devoid of a religious or ethnic identity." He lives in West Jerusalem’s upscale Beit Hakerem neighborhood, which he calls “the last secular bastion in the city.

The Museum of Islamic Art.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“My friends are for the most part secular people for whom religion is meaningless, as is national identity. I have built myself a little world that is beyond identity and beyond affiliation. I know a few people who are like me and we’re fine in the bubble we have made for ourselves. And yet, this is a situation of detachment, of an identity whammy. This is because it is impossible not to belong to anyone. In fact, I haven’t found the model of a just society. But I am fine with what I am and I don’t feel frustrated.

It’s interesting to be in this place and maybe this is happening to me because I am 65 years old now. When I was younger I needed clearer and sharper definitions of where I am and who I am. And today, less so.”

Nonetheless, there is one place where Sheiban always feel his Arab identity most strongly – at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

“Like every Israeli Arab at the security checks I too am examined more closely in a categorical way because of my origin and my name. When they send me back there, it’s as though they are saying 'stop kidding yourself and playing it as though you belong to the big world.' At the airport they say: 'You belong to your Arabness.'

“And when I ride the light rail train, which happens rarely, I hear three adult Ashkenazim telling their children to take their feet off the seats and when the children don’t do that they say 'don’t behave like Arabs and asses.' And then I remember how much hostility towards the other there is in Israeli society.”

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