The Palestinian Trail of Fish: Artist's Graffiti Dives Into Heart of Refugee Struggle

Albaba leaves behind familiar Palestinian symbols, opting instead for his 'trail of fish,' a metaphor for refugees as fish out of water

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Alaa Albaba's graffiti, in Ajami, Jaffa: 'Keep in a cold and dry place'
Alaa Albaba's graffiti, in Ajami, Jaffa: 'Keep in a cold and dry place'Credit: Marian Zis
daniel monterescu
Daniel Monterescu
daniel monterescu
Daniel Monterescu

Anyone wandering the streets of Jaffa these days will encounter some unique graffiti in the Ajami neighborhood: On a wall on Hasneh Street there’s a painting of a fish with an open can in its stomach, resembling a tin of sardines. Accompanying it is an inscription in Arabic: “Keep in a dry and cool place far from the sun’s rays,” and below it is a comment in smaller letters: “Date of manufacture – 1948.”

I came across the artwork after publishing the first post in a blog on the subject of the absence of Palestinian political graffiti in Jaffa. This unsigned painting is an exception on the landscape of this city, located south of Tel Aviv but officially a part of it, since it deals directly with the Palestinian Nakba (or “catastrophe,” when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence) and the refugee experience. It also differs from the vast majority of Palestinian political art inasmuch as it deviates from the usual nationalist iconography with its familiar symbols, such as the key, the sabra (prickly pear cactus), the olive tree, Jerusalem and the land.

After making inquiries I found the artist, Alaa Albaba, a resident of the Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, scion of a family from Lydda and the grandson of a fisherman. The work is part of a series called the “Route of the Fish,” which depicts the tragedy of the Palestinian people in this country not through the traditional association with the land, but rather via the experience of being cut off from the sea. The Palestinian refugees who long to return are represented as fish out of water, hung up to dry, or squeezed into a can of sardines like those that were distributed by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees after 1948.

The project began as a graffiti series in refugee camps and gradually spread to cities and villages in the West Bank (bordering Israeli settlements in the South Hebron Hills, Ramallah, Jericho and Bil’in), Israel proper (Jaffa, Haifa, Acre), Jordan (Amman) and Lebanon (Beirut). In order to carry out the work in Israel, Albaba illegally crossed the Green Line, the border between Israel and the occupied territories, completed his task and returned to his studio in Amari. His work made waves among Palestinian artists, and after several failed attempts by Albaba to enter the besieged Gaza Strip in the context of last year’s “This Sea is Mine” collaborative art project, artist Diana Alhosary continued the “Route of the Fish” as part of the Gaza event.

From sea to hills

During our first conversation, Albaba described himself as the third generation of the Nakba. He was born in 1984, is a graduate of the International Academy of Art in Ramallah, which operates in cooperation with the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, and engages himself in community-oriented art.

Despite the difficulties, he has succeeded in creating a place engendering work and creativity in Amari, in an effort to encourage the development of a local art scene. Although art is not a top priority among camp residents, who are preoccupied with the problems of survival and earning a living, the artists says that over time, a demand for art has developed. After making initial contact I suggested an interview. It was conducted in Arabic in a conversation conducted between Budapest and Ramallah.

What is the subject of your work [in Jaffa]?

Albaba: “The work deals with being a refugee and with life in the camp, which is compared to a fish out of water. The idea is that the refugee who lived in the coastal cities until 1948 had a direct connection with the sea before being transferred to the hilly region. For him the sea is the source of his livelihood and his life. And suddenly after the war he moved to a camp and his connection with the sea became limited and forbidden. Like a fish removed from the water, he is suffocating and about to die, but he always aspires to return to the sea.

“I was influenced by Salim Tamari’s book ‘Mountain Against the Sea: Essays on Palestinian Society and Culture,’ in which he talks about the alienation of the Palestinian refugees in the new, hilly surroundings.

“A very important point regarding the refugees is that one of the first things that UNRWA distributed was a can of sardines, and the graffiti represents that. And it’s very similar to the way in which a refugee is closed inside a camp. I drew a map of Palestine depicting places where I have worked. The fish appear to be swimming in the marked areas and constantly want to return to them. For me, personally, the fish symbolizes freedom that was denied. And also my freedom to go to Jaffa and Haifa.”

How did you get to Jaffa?

“It was very hard for me to enter Jaffa. After doing work in Acre I decided to do something – and entered illegally. I didn’t want to come with a permit and funding. This is the closest to my original idea – to work in a dangerous place. I knew that there’s a risk of being caught. That’s part of the artistic process. I heard about the Ajami neighborhood and about the problems there, the racism and the hardships of the Palestinian population. I stayed in Jaffa for about 10 days. This was my first time, the first time I’d experienced life there. Until then I had a romanticized idea of Jaffa.

“I was looking for a site that serves the work. I found a house that looked abandoned, with a sealed door. Maybe it was designated for demolition. I wanted to finish quickly, and you can really see that on the inscription that was done hastily. The police passed through the area twice. I was afraid. I worked quickly, finished within an hour and a half [each time], left the paints at the site and left. I worked alone so in case I was caught I wouldn’t put anyone in danger.”

Al-Amari Refugee Camp, 2015Credit: Alaa Albaba

Do you conduct a dialogue with Palestinian artists inside Israel?

“I haven’t worked in cooperation with artists, but I have friends who are 1948 Arabs [Palestinians who are Israeli citizens] and I follow their work. Every artist expresses his connection with the struggle in his own way. Artists inside [Israel’s borders] are freer to move around. I have great difficulty entering. When I did the project in Haifa and Acre, I always felt threatened because I had entered illegally: I didn’t have an opportunity to meet people and to see work and to conduct a dialogue with Palestinian artists from inside.

“The meetings are held here in the West Bank at exhibitions and in cafes, and in general it seems that Palestinian artists from inside are more connected to Ramallah. I’m in contact with [artist] Karim Abu Shakra from Umm al-Fahm, who also uses the motif of fish and Palestinian symbolism. His work helped me because I was looking for other artists who deal with fish in the context of the national issue.”

When did you start working on the “Route of the Fish”?

“The project began in 2013 and continued until the end of 2016. I started working in several camps and cities in the West Bank and continued in Jordan and Beirut. I did graffiti and participated in workshops. The work never ends. In every place I adapted the type of fish and the text to the situation. I wanted there to be a story of the refugee experience and about displacement in every place I exhibit, and [about] our connection to the land as Palestinians. Only in Jaffa and Haifa did I add a text, and it was important to me that it be in Arabic, because of the language issue there. In Jaffa there isn’t really Palestinian graffiti, and it was important to me to show that the fish went into exile and now it’s returning to its place of birth.”

Why don’t you sign your work – as opposed to the tradition with graffiti artists?

“I’m not interested in adding my name. I don’t feel it’s important. The work speaks for itself. The moment I’ve completed the project, as far as I’m concerned the project is finished. Banksy, the most famous artist in the field, doesn’t sign his name either; there are many who do sign their names but I don’t know who they are. As far as I’m concerned, a powerful work arouses questions and stays with the observer. The measure of success is that even after two or three years people continue to talk about the work, even if it’s on a remote wall in a place that’s far away from me.

“When I was working in Jaffa I was very afraid, because friends warned me how sensitive the subject is. When passersby questioned me, I said that I was doing a project for the municipality. They thought at first that I was a foreigner, until they saw the inscription in Arabic. I was sure that the work would be erased after a week or a month, and I’m happy that each time someone else rediscovers it. In Haifa I drew two works in Wadi Salib in an area designated for demolition.”

‘Unending refugee situation’

Do you also plan to paint in Lod, from which your family was exiled?

“I think that the work in Lod will be the last fish in the project. But I’m hesitant about declaring the end of the project, which began here and ends there. I don’t know when the end will come. I want to leave it open, like the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations...Maybe it will never happen in Lod, like the unending refugee situation. It’s symbolic. It isn’t over. Maybe the son of my son will draw the last graffiti. I plan to continue working in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria and to get to Palestinian neighborhoods in Europe, too.”

How do you see your work in relation to Palestinian political art?

“In a religious context, the fish is of great importance in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Among the Shi’ites in Iraq there’s an accursed fish, because Ali [cousin of the Prophet Mohammed] cursed it when it stopped him from purifying himself before his prayer in the Euphrates River. In the Palestinian context, political art deals with national symbols like the key, the tent and the sabra, which I tried to stay away from, and to remain on the personal plane.

“I wanted to arouse questions that deviate from the general direction in Palestinian society. Personal issues that disturb me, as someone who comes from the plains and grew up in a camp in the hills. I wanted to provide a visual illustration of my connection to the coastal cities and to questions of freedom of movement and return.

“In Palestinian discourse the right of return sometimes comes up allegorically. I don’t want to leave my life in Ramallah, but I want to visit Haifa and Acre without interference. My connection with the fish is one of freedom – not a connection of place.”

Albaba’s work corresponds with a long series of Palestinian artists who paint fish and fishermen (among others Asad Azi, Issam Badr, Tamam Al-Akhal and Ismail Shammout). In the Jaffa context, Albaba’s work adds yet another layer to local art like that of Sami Bukhari, who represents Jaffa as a zombie city – dead and alive at one and the same time.

Map of Alaa Albaba's graffiti by cityCredit: Daliya Bukhairi / HaAman Facebook Page

In Bukhari’s photographs the city resembles a cemetery located in an imaginary, idyllic spot on the coast of the Mediterranean, which erodes the nearby mountain range. Bukhari’s work was first exhibited in the Hagar Art Gallery in Jaffa, established by curator Tal Ben Zvi in 2001, and was the first venue to display Palestinian art in the city. The work shows a dead-end city trapped between the treacherous sea and the municipal noose that is strangling it.

The fish as a personal as well as a national symbol also arouses thoughts about the life-and-death struggle being waged in the Mediterranean between local fish and various invasive species that originate from the Red Sea and are changing the demography of the fish population. A fish, like the human beings nourished by it, is a wandering creature, migrant and colonial. Albaba’s “Route of the Fish” offers a secular and poetic perspective that touches the heart of the Palestinian issue – freedom of choice, movement and control over space.

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