A Refugee's Rendering

Marwat Isa took an interest in her family's expulsion from the upper Galilee village of Biram only after her father's death in 1991.

Marwat Isa took an interest in her family's expulsion from the upper Galilee village of Biram only after her father's death in 1991.

"We always lived with a sense of belonging to that place," says Isa. "To this day, people in Gush Halav live in unfinished homes, because they believe it will all be over in a little while, and we'll be able to return. The state lets us visit the village on two occasions: to hold ceremonies in the church and to bury our dead in the cemetery. After I buried my father, I began visiting on Easter, putting flowers [on his grave] and feeling a part of the place. That's when all the questions began. What do I identify with? Why do I say that I am a Biram evacuee if I never lived there? What is the source of my memories? Only then did I begin to ask questions and delve into my family's past - including why my father, who was eight years old when he was kicked out, worked as a policeman for the very people who expelled him from his home."

Did your father have an answer?

Isa: "Yes. I did not ask from a position of blame, I just wanted to know. He replied that they had no choice. They wanted to live and needed a livelihood. Incidentally, he was not the only one. A lot of Biram exiles became policemen. I know, because I see them in my village."

Did he find it difficult?

"No. I had difficulty with it, and still find it hard. When I read the book, 'Good Arabs,' by Dr. Hillel Cohen, I get upset. I see the story of the evacuees in it. All the people in Biram tried to show they had nothing against the state, that they were 'good' Arabs, and they were still not allowed to return. This attitude has returned now. I teach in the Druze village of Yarka, whose residents serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Now a Jewish [local] council head has been appointed over them [Arieh Tal, appointed by the Interior Ministry], and the first thing they say is, 'how can you do this to us, we are part of you.'"

Isa's preoccupation with her family's past is expressed in clay sculptures of sackcloth bundles, textured kerchiefs imprinted with faces, immobile carts and pitas and loaves of different kinds of bread piled on a cart, which look like they just came out of the oven. All these are now on display in her "Pat Yomeinu" ("Our Daily Bread") exhibit at the Wilfrid Israel Museum at Kibbutz Hazorea.

Isa sculpts kerchiefs and fabrics from clay, imparting a flexibility and softness that do not typically characterize the art form. Her decision to use clay as her crafting material was well-considered.

"First of all, clay is from the earth. It is that foundation to which I refer when I relate to the village we left," she says. "For me, clay is the most therapeutic substance. It is soft and I touch it with my body. There is something very intimate in this."

Each of the objects in the room symbolizes something from the cultural memory and trauma that has been passed on as heritage. These are the motifs that express the story that is retold again and again. These are the bundles in which the exiles gathered their belongings in 1948; these are the carts they used during their move; these are the kerchiefs that symbolize the only two sites former Biram residents are allowed to enter: the church, where rituals and weddings are held, and the cemetery. A disturbing sense of death, departure and isolation permeates the air in the exhibition space.

How do you explain your continued dedication to a story that essentially belongs to your parents' generation?

"First of all, it is impossible to separate it from the current situation in Israel, because the uprooting is still here. This is not something that was and is over and people go on with their lives. True, for me it began as a need to tell their story, but the moment I touched it, it became my story, too. I, like the carts, am in an immobile state. I am neither here nor there. We are living in a state of waiting. This is a painful place. I am 37 years old and am dealing with harsh issues. I want to sit with a vase and contemplate which color to paint it - red or blue - but I can't."

This feeling of uncertainty and confusion also typifies the way Isa defines her identity. The process Arab Israelis have undergone to identify themselves also finds expression in the way Arab artists define themselves. Some insistently call themselves Palestinian artists, and a few even refuse to exhibit and collaborate with the Israeli art scene. Isa has no problem showing in Israeli exhibition spaces.

"I will exhibit wherever I can," she says, and defines herself as a Palestinian Israeli Arab with an blue ID.

What is the significance of this definition?

"This is a way of preserving our threatened identity, the Palestinian identity. We therefore constantly repeat it. I am not a Muslim Arab or a Christian Arab, but rather a Palestinian Arab."

Is there no contradiction between Palestinian and Israeli?

"I live this contradiction. I did not choose it. I am not Jewish, so I am not Israeli, but I live here and I have this identity card. I have no answers to such things, but this is the situation in which I live."

The situation of the here and there, of this impossible duality, is most radically expressed in the Biram cemetery. A diagram of the cemetery is also displayed in the exhibition, on one of the clay pita hung on the wall. Isa has been studying the cemetery for the past few years and has made some fascinating discoveries. Some of the graves are mausoleums built like houses with red-tiled roofs. The facade of each such structure, which is made of concrete, has a number of extractable graves, a bit like drawers, whose openings resemble windows. The front of each structure bears the sign, "This is the home of the - family," and above each drawer is the name of the person buried there. Whole families are buried in these structures, one next to the other.

Grass, plants and pathways greet visitors. Almost like a new neighborhood designed for living people.

"No other Christian Maronite cemetery in Israel looks like this," says Isa. "I think it wasn't always like that here, either. People built the graves like this because they could not come back and build their own homes. This was our way of coping with the ban. We cannot live here, but can be buried here. Our graves effectively became our homes, and that, no one can destroy."