Walls in Israel are rarely polite Graffiti: Whether it's a Palestinian revolutionary slogan or a sad lament for a slain prime minister, spray-painted messages give emotional voice to Israel's deep divisions.

Sun Journal

February 17, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The writing on the wall promised retribution.

Red and menacing, the cursive Arabic script appeared in Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al Amud on a December morning, 24 hours after Israeli officials approved construction of Jewish housing there.

"We will stand together as one man against the ghoul of the settlers," the graffiti said. "Occupation continues settlements continue revolution continues."

The message was the overnight handiwork of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant Palestinian faction opposed to peace with Israel.

At a time when Palestinians can listen to their own television and radio stations and not just the stations of Israel or Jordan, writing on a wall would seem obsolete.

But the peace agreements that gave Palestinians limited self-rule did not guarantee them freedom of expression.

The Palestinian authority, headed by Yasser Arafat, has shut down news media outlets because of coverage it didn't like; its security agents have harassed some journalists for the same reason. So anti-Arafat groups such as the Popular Front have few options but the walls, and graffiti writers continue to produce their cryptic speech.

They were at their peak from 1988 to 1993, the years of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Cinder-block walls, barricades, the sides of houses, metal gates, almost every surface served as message boards. From the Old City of Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip, calls to arm, death threats and anti-Israeli polemics covered seemingly every available space. The graffiti writers of the intifada publicly identified collaborators. They mourned the newest martyr. They promoted their own factions.

"This is political talk," says Palestinian teen-ager Samer Kouttab, as he stood outside a shuttered store in the Old City that bears the graffiti of three militant Palestinian groups. "Every 10 meters you see it."

Miles of walls in the Old City are covered with layer upon layer of fading slogans and symbols, the remnants of the intifada. The red arrow of the Popular Front. Palestinian flags. Sketches of the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest shrines. Verses from the Koran. Green swathes to honor Hamas, the militant Palestinian group. A rifle.

The writers were masked men who, under the cover of darkness, wrote messages drafted by their political committees.

"The power in the graffiti was in its anonymity," says Anne Marie Oliver, a American researcher of street media of the intifada. "There was a connection between anonymity and unanimity. You're not going to find some expression of individuality. The idea was not to elevate yourself."

This is far different from the graffiti of American street gangs. Their writings marked turf, advertised a particular gang or embodied the creation of one artist. The purpose of the intifada sign language was "to nationalize and mobilize the Palestinian public," says Oliver.

The spray-painted messages appealed to the people and incensed the Israeli army. Israeli soldiers would order residents to paint over the offending script.

Invariably, another message would replace it. As the intifada wore on, competing factions used the walls to challenge each other. A medium particular to a culture and a cause turned even more inward.

"Injustice and instability are the mothers of graffiti," says Aliza Olmert, a Jerusalem artist and collector of graffiti for 20 years.

Last fall, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv exhibited Olmert's collection of paintings and photographs. Her "photograffiti" depict what she calls "a violent language of symbols." In her walks through the Muslim quarter of the Old City, Olmert noticed how the graffiti writers incorporated the black "Xs" that appeared on the shops that Israeli authorities planned to shut down.

Olmert looks beyond the literalness of the graffiti. She doesn't read Arabic; she doesn't try to understand the verbal meaning of the words. Rather, she responds to the emotion of the signs -- defiance, longing, struggle, freedom. She refers to the "photograffiti" as "paintings I did not paint."

"The writing on the wall is not always verbal but it does chronicle the spirit of the time," Olmert wrote in an essay for the exhibit. "It pictures the erosion of the continuing war, the weariness in the eyes of the people, the impatience with solutions far off on the horizon, the tide of escalation, the shout for calm and identity."

Graffiti become a kind of a sign language, pictures in opposition.

Olmert's interest took her beyond the walls of the Old City to the narrow streets of Mea Shearim, an enclave where ultra-Orthodox Jews live much in the style of their ancestors in Eastern Europe. They, too, communicate in a public written forum, from handbills tacked to community bulletin boards to graffiti on the walls.

The posters are used to protest violations of religious law and to air debates between factions within the ultra-Orthodox community. And the writers of today are the "nephews" of the poster protesters.

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