x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Business slow for Palestine's spray-painting martyrdom artist

Wahid Iqelam was perhaps the Gaza Strip's most prolific martyrdom artist during the second intifada . Nowadays, his work seems little more than faded memories from another era.

Palestinian Wahid Iqelan, 34, martyrdom/calligraphy artist who works from home in the Shatee refugee camp in Gaza City.nd we will Follow you, Hamas" in the Shatee refugee camp in Gaza City. Naaman Omar / The National
Palestinian Wahid Iqelan, 34, martyrdom/calligraphy artist who works from home in the Shatee refugee camp in Gaza City.nd we will Follow you, Hamas" in the Shatee refugee camp in Gaza City. Naaman Omar / The National

GAZA CITY // There was a time when the fight against Israel put Wahid Iqelam at the artistic forefront of Palestinian resistance.

Wielding cans of spray-paint instead of Kalashnikovs, he was perhaps the Gaza Strip's most prolific istishhad, or martyrdom, artist during the second intifada, or uprising, that erupted over decade ago. His religious inspired tributes to fallen fighters are still plastered across the territory's ubiquitous murals, macabre reminders of a struggle that killed thousands and left many more mired in grief.

Nowadays, Mr Iqelam's work seems little more than faded memories from another era. Because of the development of computer-generated graphics and a lull in armed conflict, demand for his skills and this of others like him has plummeted.

Forced into an eight-to-three office job, his last homage to a Palestinian fighter killed in action was two years ago.

"To be honest, I'm bored," said Mr Iqelam, 34, a father of four who now works for the interior ministry in Gaza City producing pro-Hamas documentaries and commercials.

During the intifada years, he felt anything but.

Mr Iqelam's trade, called "khatat", or handwriting, made him a favourite of Gaza's factions and demanded of him a frantic work schedule of crafting eulogies for the scores of people cut down by helicopter-borne gunfire, mortars and air strikes, or killed while carrying out attacks.

Spray-painted on buildings, homes and banners, his tributes ranged from depictions of fallen fighters, Israel-bound rockets and Quranic versus in Arabic calligraphy to renditions of Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque, Islam's third-holiest site. He made so many that he cannot recall a price number. "Thousands," he estimated.

His best client was Hamas, Gaza's ruling Islamist movement, known then for its suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in cafes and buses.

He oversaw the official eulogising campaigns for the group's assassinated figures, such as Abdel Aziz Al Rantissi,a Hamas leader killed in 2004 by an Israeli-helicopter gunship.

Mr Iqelam, earning a living through his work with the factions as well as freelance painting at weddings and funerals,, also trained dozens of Hamas supporters in the tricks of his trade, he said.

"We painted on everything, wooden murals, walls, anything that you could paint on, " he said. "We were widely admired and so many people would just come and volunteer to do it."

Then, about six years ago, Gaza's armed factions began adopting cost-effective computer-aided graphics to mass-produce their martyrdom artwork.

By the time Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008 and killed his older brother on the first day of the devastating three-week war, Mr Iqelam's services had been rendered nearly obsolete.

But even without the advances in technology, he would not have had much opportunity to employ them since then. Hamas, which conquered Gaza in 2007, has imposed a shaky truce with Israel that has brought down the death toll.

Mr Iqelam's last khatat tribute was two years ago, when he spray-painted religious symbols on the homes of two Hamas members killed in an Israeli air strike. Hamas had the rest of their martyrdom art printed, something Mr Iqelam rues as a virtual end to his trade.

"We've lost creativity, and we lost the respect we once had in society," he said.

Many in Gaza feel uncomfortable with the morbid nature of Mr Iqelam's work and its hewing to Hamas politics - or, for that matter, the politics of any Palestinian faction.

"We can't consider what he does as art because he's doing it at the request of political factions, not on his own," said Majed Shala, a manager of Windows from Gaza,an art studio in Gaza City.

Still, Mr Shala acknowledged the genesis of Mr Iqelam's form of khatat - the first Palestinian intifada that began in 1987 - as a profound moment for Palestinian art.

Back then, a more politically united community fostered a movement of aspiring artists whose work reflected the broader aspirations of a then-revolutionary society. Mr Shala described it as a civic-minded era for artists.

Subverting Israeli restrictions on media and printed pamphlets, masked khatat artists of secular and religious leanings lent their activities to spray-painting the timings and locations of boycotts and demonstrations planned by underground activists.

"The first intifada best reflected the Palestinian struggle more than any moment in our history," he said.

Now, many here criticise their faction for pursuing selfish agendas when it comes to anything fusing resistance with art. Hamas rigidly restricts public displays of the martyrdom art to factions aligned with its agenda, such as Islamic Jihad. Except for senior leaders, the Islamist group recently imposed a virtual ban on painting faces of members killed in action.

Pointing to a wall near his home in Gaza's City's Sheikh Radwan that was covered with spray-painted congratulations to an area resident on his wedding, Ramadan Ghazali explained why he thought khatat had become "only about factional politics these days".

He singled out one spray-painted slogan, which read: "Islamic Jihad would like to congratulate the groom on his wedding."

Mr Ghazali, a 20-year-old mechanic, then asked: "Tell me, does that look like resistance?"

While he too criticises the petty squabbles of Palestinian factions, Mr Iqelam insists his form of khatat is simply artistic expression. Above all, he sees himself as an artist inspired by a freedom struggle.

Raised in a devout home of five brothers and two sisters in Gaza's Al Shati refugee camp, he secretly drew for a local magazine and studied his favourite artists, such Hashemi Baghdadi, an Iraqi known for Arabic calligraphy.

Mr Iqelam said his father discouraged him from art because "he feared Israeli soldiers would arrest us or beat us".

By the onset of second intifada, Mr Iqelam said, it was only natural for him to break with his father's prohibitions and lend his art skills to the Palestinian cause.

Now, he does khatat on his own time, painting murals for weddings and funerals. Even if resistance against Israel has not endured, his love for art has.

"It's all I dream of doing," he said.