(the art gallery)
The house was filled with light. It was early evening and I was at a party in the East end of Jerusalem—on the Palestinian side. The guests were in tight urgent conversations with one another. Most people were smoking; no one seemed to be eating although a table along one wall of the room displayed small dishes with shiny olives, stacks of Arabic bread, smooth-surfaced dips, and rounds of crisp-looking cucumber. I held a ginger ale and introduced myself to no one, just ambled around, glancing at a painting of an old Moroccan market, running my finger along the mother of pearl shaped into a diamond on the lid of a mosaic box. Many of the things on the shelves were familiar: etched brass plates, blue glass bottles, a brass incense burner. This could be a house in Jordan or Lebanon with its stone exterior, cold floors, and brocade furniture. But it was not. In Palestine, where I couldn't sleep, where I couldn't write; where my thinking became frantic. My starling wings were stilled and immobile. I counted my steps, closed my ears, ruffled my feathers.
The party was for a consulate official who was retiring. It had nothing to do with my visit and I was relieved. My country host, Dena, bought me along and my presence here was unexpected and a little insignificant. I assured her I was fine alone taking everything in, the room, the guests. She offered me more to drink and introduced me to some people whose names I didn't remember a few seconds later. We spoke for a minute about the party, my impressions of Palestine, and went our separate ways—they to friends, me to walking along the tile of the house, drifting in and out of small groups.
I wandered into the small enclosed porch where several men were speaking in Arabic. Two were looking out the window at the approaching twilight. A man with a beard greeted me in Arabic, asking the question that prompted me to give my name and to apologize that I didn't speak Arabic.
The only man in a suit responded, "Yes, the writer, Dena told us you would be here." He introduced himself as Nabeel and presented his three companions.
Their names passed in a small breeze above my head but I stayed there caught in their solace, the meditative mood that filled the air. Nabeel pointed to the other men who were standing together. "These are the greatest Palestinian artists and we're talking about their new show."
I turned to them, one bearded with romantic eyes, the other quite tall and almost sandy-haired, and the last was bald and older than the other two. "It's such a pleasure to meet you. I feel this is great luck for me to be here now." I was not sure they understood me but my body was lifting toward them. "Tell me about your work."
The bearded one turned to his friends and translated. He shifted his eyes back to me and spoke quite quickly but softly. "I used to paint with oils and do some sculptures, but the three of us agreed to only use materials that comes from here." He poked two fingers toward the ground. "Here from Palestine."
I looked at the floor, the flat ceramic tile in a sandy shade. My inner voice repeated what he said, using Palestine in their work. Using their country to create art, their country, occupied and invaded. There was a life under this floor, I remembered, a land that was perpetual even in the midst of the battle. Under my feet as I walked from one end of Jerusalem to another were the grains of multiple histories, stones of many memories; earth that grew hate, anger, protection, and possession. I toured Jerusalem with my head lifted, examining the architecture of the past, the icons of each legacy that built this city. This artist traveled head down targeting materials among the scrub of Palestine. I tried to imagine his hands scooping up the dirt underneath.
"Do you mean you make clay from the earth of Palestine?"
He rubbed his forefinger and thumb together then pulled them back quickly. "We do. We takes plants and makes colors." His arms opened. "And, and..." His gaze fogged a little.
"Just natural things or salvage too?"
He turned toward Nabeel who shrugged his shoulders, moved a hand side to side.
Nabeel asked, "Explain again."
"I understand how natural things from the plants and dirt of Palestine are used. I was asking if there are other things, like old things, thrown away things."
Nabeel nodded and interpreted for the artist. What piece of Palestine constructed the canvas or the figure and form? Whose footprints were in the colors of his paintings?
"Not me, no. He indicated the taller artist. "He use pipes and wires and bombs pieces and bullet.... things."
"Shells." I offered.
The sculptor pantomimed wire bending with his hands.
"How big are the sculptures?" I flattened my hand beside me as if I was describing the height of a child.
He raised it until it was above my head.
The sculptor spoke to the painter and then left the room.
"Yes, we use nothing artificial at all. Not for color, not for frame."
I pictured his hands plucking leaves from bushes growing from the gravelly earth, smelling them, putting them in a pot. The reds were pushed from flowers and extracted from seeds; the greens from grasses and stems; the yellows swiped from bushes and weeds. He offered me a filterless cigarette, took one himself and in the glow of the flame, his eyes burned too. The artist picked a piece of tobacco from his tongue. The fingers that scooped up the earth. This was ownership; this was distilling the land of occupation. Transforming it. Grain by grain he was gathering Palestine in a way it could not be taken from him.
"May I see your work?"
"It is very close by," he threw his hand toward the window. " At a very good gallery."
I mentally reviewed my schedule. I could borrow a driver and maybe go some afternoon when I was not booked. Perhaps he could explain the construction of his pieces, show me how he created his colors, describe his themes. I imagined taking pictures of the artists beside their pieces and learning their stories to take back with me. This would be a great gift to receive while I was here—rather than another book, another manuscript, a promise to try and translate someone's work, I could carry the sense of Palestine through the eyes of this painter. The other guests were a low hum and seemed to be far away. I was excited. Grey air was quiet outside the porch, rows of houses marched up the hill. Where could the gallery be?
"I would love to come to the gallery, but I would like to come when you are there. When could that be?"
He dropped the cigarette onto the floor and stomped on it while he translated to his friends. They snorted some response that involved hands and head shakes.
The bearded artist stared out the window, his face now in profile. "I cannot join you."
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to impose." My hands were sweaty and I watched a small white car climb the stone street. "You must be very busy and in high demand."
"You see, the gallery is on the other side of the border."
"But I thought you said it was nearby."
Every place I traveled, short or long distances, I was surprised by the number of checkpoints, the inspections and the interrogations of my driver or of me. The borders became familiar, and when I saw a group of soldiers standing along the road, I automatically pulled out my passport.
"Yes," he nodded and pointed up the street. I followed his fingers to the top of the hill. The road crested next to a jumble of a children's park with a slide and some swings. "The border is there."
Suddenly near the playground next to houses that resembled the house where we were standing, I could make out, as plain as the moon, a small guard house. Sitting in the entrance, a sentry was smoking and blowing long streams that were caught by the street light. His M-16 was on his lap angled toward the sky.
Although I spent most of the night watching the dusk arrive, the street turn from white to gray, I missed this detail—this signpost reminding me that the mosaic boxes in this living room weren't the ones on my coffee table in California, or the brass plates weren't the set hanging on the walls of my mother's family house in Lebanon. The artist understood this. He recognized the intangible lines in the dark, the ones that divided standing at a dinner party from being handcuffed on the roadside. I did not have the eyes of the Palestinian who knew where he could step and move, whose foot on one block that resembled another block that could be home was across the parallel of safety, was over the DMZ, was forever in prison, was suspicion of terrorism, was the end to a house, or school or the wholeness of his family.
I stepped away from the window as if I had crossed the line. I was so lucky. My writing was portable, could be folded and tucked in my back pocket. My books could be printed and copied, distributed and read. His paintings were confined not only to the small audience that viewed them but from the artist as well, from their fatherland. The water around my heart was rising, the tide was in.
I turned back to the artist. Sifting through the words that would say…the sorrow I wanted to express, I found myself muted. We stood in silence and kept our eyes on the road. I was anxious seeing a playground, a border, a rifle. This was occupation. This was everyday for the artist, his family, his friends, his town. But I imagined he was not seeing this—he was staring at the gallery where his paintings hung—just out of his reach.