Ahmed Mansour is the curator of “Facing Gaza”, a world premier at the museum of the Palestinian People in Washington DC. This is the story of why he created the exhibit.
War so frightens my American friends.
For us, being from Gaza, war is normal. I have lived through three of them, 2008, 2012, and 2014. Please don’t even begin to feel sorry for me. Please don’t say I was courageous. That only shows you do not even begin to understand.
I did not have to be brave. I did not have to be smart. I just had to be normal. In my younger years, I was that clueless kid that my elders pushed into darkened rooms and told to calm down and wait. “Why can’t I go play soccer?” “Because someone is trying to kill us.” The bombs and the blood made that much clear, but what I had done to deserve it was just another part of the inscrutable adult world that made little sense to a kid.
Then came the most devastating war of 2014. I was graduating from Gaza University with a degree in English translation. My early years at college were- shall we say, not “summa cum laude.” Graduating at the top of my class was a kind of redemption. I remember my Father, who worked at my university, feeling as if he could finally boast about his youngest son. And my mother, she was finally convinced that I would finally make good on all her sacrifices.
In Gazan families, the eldest son is molded in the image of the father, but the
youngest son comes under the spell of the mother. Having 3 older sisters also ensured that. What my mother says goes straight to the heart. You strive never to disappoint her. Irish or Jewish mothers they say are formidable, but they are not a patch on Gazan mothers.
The 2014 war started out like most of the others. Provocations, threats, escalations leading to a kidnapping, and then blame, lies and indiscriminate bombing leading to invasion. It injured hundreds of thousands, killed 3000 including almost 600 children. 600 children” I write it like a math problem. How many kids did they kill today? It is the Gazan part of “normal” that you never get used to, but you switch off because you have to, until you can’t any longer.
When a salvo of Israeli rockets fired from a US built F16 hit my university and obliterated the classrooms that I had spent my last four years in, I could not avoid the
reality. I had to face it. The morning after, as I clambered over the rubble, identifying the wreckage of the desks and the shards of our American English text books, I realized I could have been reading Mark Twain or translating Martin Luther King when American bombs launched by their Israeli allies could have translated me into infinity. The Mark Twain I loved translating insisted ‘one should not let school get in the way of education.’ I wondered did he mean bombing a classroom?
"لا ينبغي لأحد أن يترك المدرسة تقف في طريق التعليم.
And King’s speech at Riverside Baptist in 1967, a year before he was assassinated, a speech I had struggled to translate accurately because I had never heard any American before accuse his government of “being the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” I thought he must be crazy. No wonder they killed him. I even imagined to myself that MLK was born in Gaza because that is exactly what Hamas would do. أعظم ممول للعنف في العالم.
Those American texts that had me all fired me up to tell “the Gaza story” to the world became my inspiration to fight back. No one would destroy my education. I
would undo the devastation by rebuilding these facilities and raise funds through organizing an Arts Festival.
We invited the largest community of young Gazan artists and performers and poets in memory to exhibit their art at my Gaza University. We even had a message in the name. We called it The Peace Exhibit. I got my first real chance to film it and make a video. The festival was so successful that we did a second one and the video led to my being a stringer on visiting Foreign Film units who entranced me with their craft.
From the ashes of that disaster came the seeds of what has now become my flourishing
career in films, one that brought me to the USA and the chance to complete a Masters
at NYU in Journalism- News and Documentaries.
Learning about America from Mark Twain and MLK in a Gaza classroom is no preparation for the shock of its reality. Manhattan was like a dream, but Brooklyn felt not so different from home. Like I had learned in Gaza, I took my camera into the forgotten communities of East NYC and Brooklyn and was spellbound by the Arabic communities of Bay Ridge who spoke my language. Finally I found a place where I did not need to translate anything. I discovered stories there that I felt compelled to tell.
The first major project was “Brooklyn Inshallah” about the first Arab American,
Palestinian, Christian, Lutheran Priest ( try saying that in one breath) to ever run for NY City Council. The film premiered at Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado in May 2019 and will be nationally broadcasted this December 2021 on World Channel and PBS. I then started working on two films, one called “Angel of Gaza” and the second, a feature called “Return to Ramallah.” Shall I say that I was busy and caught up in the business. Some in Gaza choose to shoot with a rocket or gun. I chose to shoot with a camera.
America was never home, but sometimes, I found so much love and acceptance here
that I could forget that. Here, there were no checkpoints and no bombings, and even if
the politics was scary at times, I could see the possibility of building a new life here. I moved to Washington DC, and learned to kayak on the Potomac River at sunset, and loved to walk at night around the monuments to MLK and Lincoln. What a joy to be able to think about the past as past, of wars ended, of people liberated. Most weekends were spent on the phone to Mum and Dad, telling them about my new adventures. Mum used to say ” That America seems to do you good, son”. I was starting to believe it. Until May of this year that is, when the dream evaporated overnight, with another war in Gaza.
For 11 consecutive days, Israel pounded my homeland. American drones and F16s built by General Dynamics led the way. On the TV screen, we were watching mini 9-11’s every day, as multi-storey apartments were leveled. Even the Al Jalaa Tower housing the world media was blown away. So much for this ‘most moral army in the world’ that telephones 5 minutes ahead of time to say, “We are going to demolish your home,” or their much touted precision bombing. Why? Because they could, and no one would care because the world is careless with Gaza. 67 children were massacred. 67? At least it was not 600, I could hear myself start to say, before I caught myself in how absurd that thinking was. When Israel bombed our refugee camp, after hours of hearing nothing, my little sister texted me to say her goodbyes, “Brother Ahmed, I only wish to see your face before I die” If she had seen my face, she would not have recognized me so twisted with rage and grief.
Here I was in Washington DC, living 8 miles from the White House. What could I do? In
Gaza, you just run for cover and wait to live or die. That is normal. Here, I could not stay silent. I had to go to the barricades around the White House and Black Lives Matter Plaza and scream for the life of my people.
There were crowds of us, black and white, Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians. But not only did our protests fall on deaf ears, we had to witness a bloody escalation in the middle of the killing. Right when the rest of the world begged the USA to broker a cease fire, Israel appealed to President Biden for help. Immediately, he signed an extra 735 million arms deal with Israel on top of the 3.5 billion America gives Israel every year. What was it to pay for? Precision Guidance missiles! I remembered MLK’s 1967 Christmas sermon that we translated two weeks before my classroom was blown to bits. “Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam,” King said, “President Johnson talks eloquently about peace.” King, I decided, not only caught America in its own lies, but he had a Gazan soul.
My parents and family caught in the war seemed to watch the same news as I did. When
I managed to speak to my Mum on the 7th day of the attack, she said matter of factly, “Son, I will be very lucky if I survive this one.” Then she added with a bitterness unusual for her, “Thank your Americans for paying for more missiles for Israel to kill our kids more
accurately.” “But Mum, Mum,” I interrupted her, “It’s not the Americans, it’s the US
government.” She would have none of it. “Then Son,” she screamed, “Where in the name of Allah, are the good Americans? Where?”
أين الأمريكيون الطيبون
It felt like she had punched me in the stomach. I could not answer through my tears of
rage and despair. I went for a walk and thought back on the journey that had brought
me to this impasse. I started to revisit my own history.
After the devastation of 2014. I had gathered the artists and poets and made a film to
exhibit to the world that Gaza is a place of peace, that Gazans are caring people who cherish family above all, and are as deserving of a chance for life as anyone else. But no one listened. Israel’s lies, backed by American cover, had made their old victim story erase our victim reality. For the first war in my life, I thought, “Ahmed, you are not in Gaza. You are in the belly of the beast.” Maybe Mum is right. Gazans didn’t need reminding then or now about peace. But to Americans, we are invisible. They have to see us. They have to see our faces. Now I knew what I had to do.
I would mount another Art Exhibit, only this time in Washington DC, and this time, speaking to the Americans and especially the Americans who, without even knowing it, support a government that is hell bent on our destruction. I was going to call it “Peace Exhibit Three” but that would have been as ironic as President Johnson bombing Vietnam into peace.
No, we decided that it was time to challenge Washington DC to face Gaza. As James
Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be
changed until it is faced,”
لكن لا شيء يمكن أن يكون تغيرت حتى يتم مواجهتها ،
In this City where the decisions to bomb my people are made, the city where the military decide to test out their F16s and their white phosphorus bombs on the Gazan people like some latterday Tuskegee experiment, I want to face them so that they have to face us. I want America to look us in the eye, to own the lies and the hatred that long before it began destroying their own nation, has for 75 years been destroying ours.
Three weeks after the bombing had stopped, I told my mother about the exhibit. I confessed that her question had stunned me because I had no answer. Now I did.
“Mum, I will run another exhibit in DC.”
“Yes, here people need to know.”
“Inshallah, I will wait to see.” she said. Then she added, “Send me pictures of every good American that comes. See if I am right.”
“You will see many of them, Mum. Many”
“Promise?” she asked.
“Inshallah, Mum. Inshallah”
“Inshallah” is our favorite Arabic word for covering over our fading hopes. We can blame God for not honoring us, but this time, my Americans, My good friends, my good American friends, the answer is in your hands. Inshallah.
ان شاء الله
Details for FACING GAZA at MPP
The exhibit will feature the work of a collage artist Professor Robert Hardwick-Weston.
His collages tells the story of the Israel military operations against Gaza since 2004.
The exhibit will feature a special screening of “Angel of Gaza”, the story of an 8-year-old
Malak from Gaza who narrates her family journey to reunite with her father, in the USA,
after 7-year of forced separation. The exhibit will also have an open buffet that contains
all the special meals that are indigenous to Gaza city. Details Here.