Gaza artist going to Ireland ends up trapped in Rafah by Israeli bombs

Almadhoun was to fly to Ireland for his art, but has been stuck at Gaza’s Rafah border for almost as long as the war.

Mohammed Almadhoun (L) at the Rafah border crossing and his 2016 painting titled "Cry
Mohammed Almadhoun, left, at the Rafah border crossing with his 2016 painting, titled Cry [Courtesy of Mohammed Almadhoun]

If everything had gone to plan, Mohammed Almadhoun would have spent the last month painting landscapes in blues and greens and portraits in browns and reds somewhere thousands of miles from home.

The 44-year-old visual artist from the Gaza Strip was to fly to Ireland’s Burren College of Art for a monthlong artist residency. Instead, he finds himself languishing in a warzone, stuck at a border at the behest of an occupying state.

His flight was scheduled for October 7 – the same day Hamas launched its surprise incursion on Israel, which began a retaliatory bombardment of Gaza immediately.

Now Almadhoun has been at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt – the only way out of the besieged enclave – for nearly as long as the war itself.

For the last 45 days, the artist, who received his visa to travel to Ireland in September, has been waiting to see if he can leave. But foreign nationals and critically wounded Palestinians remain the majority of the people allowed out.

“So tired. We are in an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe,” Almadhoun told Al Jazeera wearily.

Almadhoun's 2013 art titled "Badia"
Almadhoun’s 2013 work titled Badia [Courtesy of Mohammed Almadhoun]

A visa as lifeline

Ireland has been one of few Western countries criticising Israel’s assault, owing to a long history of solidarity in support of Palestinian rights due to a shared history of occupation.

Officials at Burren College of Art have been trying to aid the artist for weeks, contacting several embassies in Egypt, Israel and Ireland, according to its admissions director, Lisa Newman.

“We have become an important lifeline for him through our connection to his Irish visa and are doing everything within our ability to help him,” Newman told Al Jazeera.

Almadhoun is well aware of this solidarity, his stay at the Irish college meant to link “the heritage and culture between the two countries”, he said.

“The [Irish] people, the Irish government, are among the first to support and show solidarity with the Palestinian cause, materially and morally,” Almadhoun added.

Thousands are sheltering at the Rafah border
Thousands are sheltering at the Rafah border [Courtesy of Mohammed Almadhoun]

‘A tragic life inside’

The artist, who hails from northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, left for the Rafah border crossing on October 9, paying a large sum to hire a car to take him south over roads made unsafe by Israeli shelling, he said.

He left his family behind. He cannot return to be with them again and they also cannot leave due to the relentless bombing.

His studio, with all his paintings spanning 25 years, was also destroyed in the bombings, now reduced to rubble, he said.

“It’s besiegement from everywhere, aircraft and tanks, bombing and destroying around the clock,” Almadhoun said.

The internationally recognised artist, who was also scheduled to participate in an international art festival and another artistic residency in Portugal, remains in limbo.

Almadhoun has been sheltering in a United Nations school at the border, which he describes as “a tragic life” with thousands sleeping in stairwells, corridors and even bathrooms.

Accessing food and water is both scarce and expensive, he said, adding: “The tragic situation is unimaginable.”

Almadhoun's 2017 art titled "The desert Bedouins"
Almadhoun’s 2017 work, titled The Desert Bedouins [Courtesy of Mohammed Almadhoun]

Artists as ambassadors

Still, Almadhoun remains hopeful he will soon be able to travel and represent Palestinians through his art, the reason he became an artist.

“I decided to become an artist to convey a message through art to the world about the painful events, about the suffering of our Palestinian people from persecution, injustice, killing, displacement and siege over many years,” he said.

Artists are ambassadors of their countries, Almadhoun said, and he hopes he can be one voice putting pressure on authorities to end Israel’s assault on Gaza.

“My future hopes are that the unjust siege will be lifted, and [our] people will have sovereignty over their land, and there will be freedom to travel … and deliver the message of Palestine’s love of life and beauty,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera