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Artist Khaled Jarrar is no stranger to controversy. Just last year, he wasn’t able to attend two New York exhibitions that featured his work because Israel denied him an exit visa. But at noon on June 29, Jarrar traveled to the Israeli-built West Bank Wall to paint part of it the six colors of the “Rainbow flag.” Three hours later the mural near the busy Qalandiya checkpoint was finished, but the controversy was only beginning.
Life in the Palestinian Territories is highly politicized, so any gesture or opinion (even art) is scrutinized through the lens of the independence struggle. Jarrar’s mural — which he painted with a fellow artist who wishes to remain anonymous — sparked a new type of controversy for the artist that has focused attention on LGBTQ visibility in Palestine, the culture of occupation, and freedom of expression.
News of Jarrar’s mural traveled fast. Four hours after it was completed, the artist told Hyperallergic, some young people accompanied by journalists were already whitewashing the rainbow and they had started a campaign against the artist that included a number of slurs and threats.
“For me the colors of the Rainbow are the freedom colors and I love them, so I decide to paint them on the wall in a public space …. These colors are ultimately an expression of freedom. My goal is to send out a message to the whole world, which is still celebrating freedom, about the oppressed people living under military occupation, mainly embodied in the Qalandiya checkpoint and the Apartheid Wall,” he told Hyperallergic after the mural was removed. “Therefore, this work comes in a purely political context to draw the world’s attention of the Palestinian question, the Apartheid Wall, and the Occupation, period!”
Jarrar grew very concerned when people started calling for his abuse, rape, and death on social media, even while others in Palestine were defending his actions, including this commenter:
The idea was to pinpoint the discrimination wall while all the world was busy with the same sex marriage legalization, brilliant idea to express freedom but the street took it literally and by now white has been painted over it.
One journalist, Fadi Aruri, posted a photo of the wall being whitewashed with a message in Arabic that roughly translates as: “Removing the filth, in full swing.” One commenter on Facebook named Husam explained:
most ppl in Palestine against the homosexual nothing regarding religious but it’s our traditions, I’ll not ever accept a homosexual in my neighborhood or my city and I’ll be so annoying from them, I really pray for god not to see any of them when am in Ramallah
The topic of LGBTQ rights in Palestine is a particularly sensitive one considering the history of pinkwashing by Israeli authorities, which normally entails using Israel’s pro-LGBTQ rights record as a mask for other human rights issues as well as a way to garner support for Israel among the global LGBTQ community. One of the most troubling aspects of pinkwashing for Palestinians is the way it pits two oppressed groups against one another. While there are no laws against homosexuality in Palestine, prevailing social attitudes are strongly homophobic.
Rana Abu Diab, a 19-year-old Palestinian student who was born and raised in Jerusalem, first encountered Jarrar’s rainbow mural on Facebook the day it was painted. “I thought, ‘woah, that took courage to do that,’” she told Hyperallergic. “I am a supporter of gay marriage so it wasn’t irritating to me in any sense, specially that I know that this issue is a field for conflict between us and Israel … it was good for Palestine to be part of this global conversation.”
Last week, she watched her Facebook feed fill up with messages from family, friends, and colleagues against and for the mural. “Those I know against gay marriage are saying, ‘we’re so happy that this was erased.’ For them this flag doesn’t represent freedom, but it made me wonder why people are irritated for something posted on this wall … is it part of your house and you want to keep it clean?”
She added: “Some [supporters of the mural] are [responding] … the segregation wall is not our identity and you can draw on it whatever you want, like an open canvas …. We are not ruining it in any way, it is [by its nature] an act of ruining.”
Abu Diab thinks today the majority of Palestinians are against gay marriage, but the mural did spark discussion. “It was the first time I shared a pro-gay post on my wall and I saw some of my friends doing that as well,” she said. “It was probably the first time I saw that.”
For Ahmad, a gay Palestinian man who lives in Ramallah and asked that we not publish his last name, the mural was powerful. “Everyone knew what happened to the wall,” he told Hyperallergic. “This is perfect. People in the West Bank have to acknowledge there are gay people. And one of the main problems we have is that people aren’t proud enough or brave enough to come out to people near them, and that is why homophobia still exists in Palestinian society.”
While he’s not out in Ramallah, one of the most liberal cities in Palestine, he’s hopeful for change. “It is not the society, our society is accepting of change, sure there are hard-line people … what we need here is to stop victimizing ourselves as gay people. We make our own destinies,” he said.
Ahmad pointed out this isn’t the only pro-LGBTQ graffiti to appear in Palestine. Over the last few years a stencil of two same-sex people kissing with the words “Queers Passed Through Here” has been popping up across Ramallah and elsewhere. He also said he has witnessed a great deal of change in his own life, most notably with a childhood friend who became a supportive ally after he recently came out to her. For years the friend, he explained, was strongly homophobic, but the difference, Ahmad says, is that now she knows someone in her life who is gay.
The notion that familiarity is a key to greater acceptance of LGBTQ people is something Western human rights activists have long advocated. It’s a simple psychological concept that is nicknamed the “familiarity breeds liking” effect.
Nouran Abed Alhaq is a 20-year-old college student in Jerusalem, where she was born and raised. She told Hyperallergic she does not know any LGBTQ Palestinians, but she knows they exist and are “in hiding.” She was initially against the mural, but changed her mind after she read Jarrar’s explanation on Facebook.
“Well, as Palestinians, and as a person who live in the Arab world, and as a Muslim or Christian or Jew, homosexuality is forbidden,” she said. “Khaled Jarrar tried to send a hidden message by painting the homosexuality rainbow, to let the world know better about the Palestinians issue, but unfortunately, this message was not received correctly, people thought about it as a Rainbow flag without thinking out of the box. I don’t blame them, in fact, I thought that too! … But most people who just saw the flag live, without checking what social media is saying about it, thought mainly about homosexual rights, which is not acceptable in our country.”
Alhaq personally doesn’t believe in LGBTQ rights, and she explained that “because of all diseases, and future problems [that will] follow … I think they shouldn’t have rights like marriage.”
While personal attitudes may evolve, the challenge for Jarrar was not simply refuting opposition with fact, but also fighting against rumors that spread quickly and influence public perception. Ahmad says he heard from others that Jarrar had painted the rainbow over a mural of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which Ahmad said was not something he would support. The artist vehemently denies he ever destroyed a mural of Arafat, and when pressed about the information Ahmad conceded that it may be a rumor, but it will nevertheless influence people’s attitude toward the artwork.
The artist appears to be telling the truth. In a photograph dated June 26, 2015, which was published on 972mag, and taken just three days before Jarrar’s intervention, there are no signs of an Arafat-related mural in the section that was painted over.
The idea that someone denigrated a national hero in public is something everyone agrees can be a volatile topic in Palestinian society. Abu Diab thinks it also explains why some people consider the wall so important. “Some of the sensitivity [for people against the mural] comes from it [the wall] having images of political leaders, which represents their struggle. So to paint something that they find shameful is considered disgracing their struggle,” she said.
During our interview, Alhaq mentioned she has a friend who herself got numerous threats for sharing a controversial opinion about a Palestinian political leader, but she thinks the people making threats will not act on them. Ahmad agrees, “people like to talk but no one will do that.”
After painting the mural Jarrar found himself incessantly explaining his motivation to everyone who would listen, whether on Facebook or, days later, on Electronic Intifada, an influential publication that focuses on Palestine, where he wrote:
Everywhere, images of rainbows went viral and even the White House was lit up in rainbow colors.
This got me thinking about all these international activists and ordinary citizens who were celebrating freedom for a group of people who have historically been oppressed, and the use of the rainbow as a symbol of freedom and equality and what it could represent for other oppressed groups.
It also made me think of our daily struggles for equality, freedom, and justice here in Palestine. While people in the United States celebrated, and I celebrate with them for their victory, we in Palestine are still divided from our own communities and families because of the racist and bigoted policies of Israel.
This explanation has appeased many people who initially criticized the artist and his intention, and Jarrar no longer fears for his life.
I asked Alhaq what she would want to tell the artist. “I respect you, and your art, your passion, and your care about the Palestinian issue,” she said. “But unfortunately here — where even women didn’t gain their full rights — this sensitive issue about homosexuality is still not a thing to accept or discuss.”
However, she does think Palestinian art has a big role to play in the struggle for independence. “Art has a lot to do with Palestinian struggle,” she said. “It has a big responsibility to reach the world with its own language.”
Abu Diab was more forthcoming about her thoughts on art’s role in the struggle. “He did something daring and courageous and if art isn’t going to challenge us and get us out of our comfort zone, then what will?” she said. “Art leads the way to social change, and I would like to see more challenging and provocative Palestinian art … I thought ultimately [Jarrar’s mural] was good, it was a cultural shock and society needs it.”