World Cup Dream: A Muslim Artist's Pitched Battle of Identity

Religion and patriotism inspired Safaa Khatib, a devout Muslim whose father is an Islamic Movement leader, in creating her final project at the Bezalel Academy – with the help of some Palestinian soccer stars.

Bezalel Academy graduate Safaa Khatib and her final project, entitled “Palestine World Cup – 2034,” on display at a student exhibition, July 2016.
Emil Salman

In a tour for journalists of the departments of photography and fine arts at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design two weeks ago – a day before the opening of an exhibition of works by graduates – one of the journalists apparently saw fit to play the role of Israel’s Interior Ministry.

In front of every work created by a Palestinian graduate, the identity-conscious journalist demanded to know exactly where this insolent intruder into the "holy of holies" of Israel’s art institutions had come from, albeit not in order to perpetrate an attack. Since all those presenting works come from within Israel’s rather shaky borders, she took pains to note that they were Israeli, not Palestinian. She went even further, stating that the Palestinian identity is basically nothing but a fiction.

The fact that some of the Bezalel graduates define themselves as Palestinians, even though they live in Israel, was of no interest to that journalist, of course. Even works that use every possible means of expression to cry out the threatening name “Palestine” did not persuade her otherwise. Nor did the final project by Safaa Khatib, called “Palestine World Cup – 2034,” by means of which the artist raises the idea of the premier soccer tournament being held in Palestine in 18 years.

Upon our arrival at this part of the exhibition, every journalist received a fancy paper bag containing mineral water, a diary and a notebook for sticking in photos of the potential soccer team of 2034 Palestine. Printed on the products was a list of sponsors of the event as well as a logo: the trophy designed by Khatib, bearing the text "Palestine World Cup – 2034."

Also displayed as part of Khatib's project was a series of photos of soccer players, in which the Palestinian flag's colors are prominent. And there is the trophy itself, made of Hebron marble, with a design inspired by Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque.

At this point, full disclosure is warranted: Khatib, who is 22, was a student in one of the courses I teach at Bezalel. There is no doubt that her presence among the dozens of male and female students was noteworthy and exceptional – first of all, it must be admitted, due to the hijab she wore. She wasn’t the only student wearing one, but in her case it was evident that this was not a means to merely distinguish her from the others: Her meticulous style of dress reflected a religious lifestyle, beyond constituting a show of identity based on defiance.

The whole question of Khatib had more to it – not only is she a religious Muslim but she is also the daughter of Kamal Khatib, who until recently was the deputy leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, before it was outlawed.

Even though she was one of my students and I, like more than 14,000 others, follow her personal national-religious Instagram account – I didn’t know she was “the daughter of” until that tour for journalists.

When I met with her at a cafe on Saladin Street in East Jerusalem for an interview, her national-religious identity and family were actually of more interest to me than her work. She demanded to know, rightfully, why I wanted to interview her, even before I began to speak.

As a good Jew, or perhaps as an interviewer looking for a way to extricate himself from an embarrassing question, I answered her with a question of my own. “Tell me, is there a way of holding this interview without it sounding like or appearing to be ‘Orientalist’?” Khatib smiles: “In this location?” she asked rhetorically. “Not a chance!”

'Third-tier' Israel

Safaa Khatib was born in 1994 and was raised in a religious family with seven children, in the village of Kafr Kana in the lower Galilee. If the road to Bezalel from “second-tier” Israel is rough, the one from “third-tier” Israel isn’t even visible.

A photo of soccer players that is part of the final project of graduate Safaa Khatib at the Bezalel Academy, entitled "Palestine World Cup – 2034," July 2016.
Safaa Khalid

At 15, Khatib volunteered to prepare news items as part of a media project called “Al-Jazeera Talk,” which was designed to encourage youth around the world to engage in media discourse. Even though she wasn’t living in Jerusalem, she chose to focus on that city and on the Al-Aqsa mosque in particular. As a devout Muslim and a Palestinian patriot identified with the Islamic Movement, the mosque plays a key role in Khatib's religious life, as seen in the photos she often posts on her Instagram account and in the trophy she designed for the graduation exhibition.

During her work on the media project she fell in love with the field of photography and cinema, and sought to pursue photography studies at Bezalel.

“It was embarrassing,” she recalled. “The admissions committee asked questions that I don’t know where I found the courage to answer. I was 17 and my Hebrew wasn’t that great. Suddenly someone asked what I’d do if in a sketching class there were nude models. I replied that if they weren’t compulsory classes I would absent myself. And that’s what happened.”

Khatib hadn’t planned to prepare a World Cup-related work for her final project. She only knew that she wanted to present something imaginary. She became acquainted with a group of young Muslim and Christian soccer players from Bethlehem and the adjacent Aida and Deheisheh refugee camps and, she said, “I thought to myself: What could I do for children living in such a large prison such as Bethlehem or the West Bank, who already have a dream?”

Khatib decided to involve the youths in the undertaking, based on her dream that at the 2034 games, Palestinians from the entire diaspora would converge on Jerusalem, where the matches would take place. She starting working with the young players, who accepted her and her idea with enthusiasm.

“They were very nice,” she recalled. “What was interesting was the fact that they believed in this dream and starting acting the part, behaving like stars. I also believe that they will actually end up as soccer stars.”

Symbolic shape

At first Khatib looked for a symbol for the World Cup, and chose a shape for the trophy inspired by the Dome of the Rock mosque, which symbolizes for her the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

Kamal Khatib and Raed Salah, the leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement.
Itzik Ben Malki

“I invented a logo and then I invented the team uniform. Afterward, I looked for sponsors for this project, so they could support it as if they were really sponsoring the games. I chose Israeli Arab companies belonging to Palestinians, especially food companies. I wanted an economic dimension that would accompany this project, in addition to the social and geographic dimension. I prepared their uniforms and purchased all the equipment required for taking photographs, and then we started.”

During the course of creating her project, Khatib said she set aside a whole day in the studio in order to photograph the children for the make-believe marketing campaign associated with the games. On her way there the youths from Bethlehem called her and told her there was no point in her coming since there was trouble at the checkpoint.

Khatib also designed a booklet “in which one sticks photos of the players along with their names and place of residence.” The biography of the players is invented, but the names are those of the boys. Her project also includes a design for the stadium in which the games will be held.

Particularly captivating are four photos that are on display at the Bezalel show, each one different. One shows a young player at a press conference; another shows a beautiful profile of a shirtless player, on whose neck is a tattoo of a map of Palestine; a third shows the youths from Bethlehem playing soccer in the street of what appears to be a refugee camp. The fourth photo is staged, optimistic and particularly amusing: It shows the team in a hotel, on the eve of their big game.

“I know it’s not a perfect project,” Khatib said. “It should be done better.”

She explained that when she started preparing for the final exhibition, her father joined in with full force, even though he’s prohibited from entering Jerusalem. This was the moment in our conversation at which the artist, strong and courageous and always smiling, broke down in tears.

“He can’t attend the opening of the exhibition,” she said. “He of all people, who was so involved and invested in it. He was the one who thought of the mineral water bottles and he arranged the sponsors’ list and he helped with the sculpture of the trophy.”

Khatib allowed the tears to well up in her eyes for a little longer and then wiped them away, returning to her self-confident demeanor. She clarified that she didn’t ask the Israeli Interior Ministry for a special entry permit for her father, because, "I don’t recognize their decisions a priori and that’s the price I have to pay.”

Although her work reflects a stronger national influence than a religious one, Khatib says that Islam is the main source of her inspiration. She’s not interested in name-dropping or mentioning famous photographers she particularly likes.

“There are photographers whose projects I like, but not visual artist Shirin Neshat, who sits in her New York studio taking pictures of Iranian women,” she told me. “The lifestyle of such photographers is different than mine. I don’t want to do what they do. That only encourages me to think of something else, new, my own. My sources of inspiration are prayer. I love its movements, and images of prayer mats serve as a great source of inspiration. Some books inspire me as well, such as ones by [the late Egyptian cleric] Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali, or a dining table at the end of a fast – these are my sources of inspiration.”

Khatib described Islam as a tolerant religion and said she would like to live in a conservative society in a Muslim state, in which there is also room for Jews and Christians. In contrast to her father, who was quoted as describing gay people as “something abnormal, unnatural and unacceptable," and to her brother Maed, who appeared on Arabic TV in a program devoted to the subject and said that homosexuality is “a mental disturbance” – Safaa Khatib doesn’t make such declarations. She knows several homosexual men and lesbian women from her studies.

“One can’t ignore the topic,” she said. “These people were here in the past, they are here now and they’ll still be here in 30 years.”

Baghdad and Paris

Regarding the uniqueness of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a quintessential national Palestinian movement, Khatib commented: “Extremism is met with extremism. If I weren’t under occupation and if people here didn’t object so strenuously to who I am and to my reality, I don’t think it would be so important for me to fight for my national identity. But when you’re under occupation and when you see the exploitation and violence – you have to become part of it. If that weren’t the situation I could easily live in Baghdad. I really love Baghdad.”

Baghdad, at least the one Khatib imagines, is a city of culture and literature, as much as one of photography. A few months ago Khatib took part in a festival of Palestinian art which took place simultaneously in Paris, Ramallah, Haifa and Nazareth. Her project was called “Baghdad Studio.” To create it, she placed photography equipment in five different locations in Jerusalem and invited people to take pictures of themselves – selfies, if you will, but with professional equipment. The project won her 1,000 euros, as well as a young-artist residency at the Cité in Paris.

Three days after the Bezalel exhibition opened, she traveled to Paris. After the three months there, she said she hoped to go on to Berlin.

“I don’t want to only deal with local issues,” she said during the interview. “I’m thinking of something more global, since Islam is global.”

Her father, I imagine, now has new worries regarding his daughter. And yet, for the daughter this is just another trial she has to overcome.