A strip apart

The cover of the brochure, a Persian mask from the exhibit and Byzantine oil lamps.

Ahram Weekly
May 27, 2007

Geneva brings Dina Ezzat in contact with a Gaza never seen on the news

Yesterday at Geneva’s Musee d’art et d’histoire, Roman Gaza was the subject of a gathering of scholars and archaeologists from Palestine, Switzerland and elsewhere in the world.

Examining the yield of recent excavations, the seminar was part of the six-month exhibit “Gaza at the crossroads of civilisation” (27 April-7 October), inaugurated by both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Swiss President Micheline Calmay-Ray, who announced that it is but one in a series of joint efforts shedding light on Palestinian cultural heritage.

According to Calmay-Ray, this “symbolic exposition” not only underlines Gaza’s peaceful past, a time when the strip’s location connecting Africa and Asia turned it into a cultural hub, but equally to honour the courage of those who found and carried back the artefacts. Abbas stressed “the rich heritage” of the Palestinians, of which few people are aware.

And sure enough, the Musee’s brochure, citing excavations carried out since 1879, testified to the depth and diversity of the presidents heirlooms: “from the Pharaonic bastion of the fourth millennium BC to the flourishing Byzantine metropolis and then the Muslim place of pilgrimage, Gaza adopted the successive civilisations without ever forgetting its Arabic roots. The Nabatean masters of the Arabian Peninsula made the city of Gaza the end destination for their caravans travelling along the Incense Road…”

On display were pottery, oil lamps, vases, masks, statuettes and ceramics spanning the Byzantine, Roman, Graeco-Roman, Persian and Ottoman periods. According to the organisers, the collection should eventually find its way to a Gaza Archaeological Museum — a project to which the Swiss are committed to contributing.

Other aspects of Gaza culture are being dealt with in the framework of the event. “Paintings from Gaza” (9-18 May) showcases work produced by local artists in 2006- 07, which reflects the fears and aspirations of contemporary life in the Strip and in so doing afford a uniquely human perspective on the present situation.

For many viewers, however, it was the photographs that proved most touching, with Olivier Coret and Taysir Batniji offering a realistic view of the lives of those otherwise seen only being shot at by Israelis, marching in funeral processions or fighting against themselves.

Here are the modest houses with the walls decorated around bullet holes, groceries selling everyday items, crowds surging through checkpoints, only to be pushed back by Israelis, weddings, sickness, Intifada — all are movingly captured in the still image.

Overall, the exhibition raises questions about the link between art and politics, and leaves the viewer wondering whether it was curated in sympathy with the Palestinians living in Gaza — a question almost impossible to answer. The one message that comes through with force is that Gaza needs not be the slum into which Israelis have turned it, nor does it deserve to be.

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