Tear down this wall: Khaled Jarrar at the Ayyam Gallery

Khaled Jarrar has made playful sculptures from fragments chipped from the eight metre high wall which runs through the West Bank. Is this trivialising or accepting the wall's existence?

The looming grey wall confronts you as soon as you step into the gallery. It is claustrophobic and you have two options: walk all the way around the length of the wall, or squeeze through the chiselled opening in the shape of historic Palestine.

Khaled Jarrar’s provocative installation is a piece of the West Bank in the heart of London. Earlier this year I travelled to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and was intrigued to see how the wall, a symbol of division, would be integrated to express freedom and unity. The Jenin-born artist combines video, photography and sculpture to reflect life in the shadow of the separation wall.

We are introduced to Jarrar in a short film, as he chips away at the eight metre high wall, working quickly with a chisel, hammer and red plastic bag. As you walk along the installed barrier, you come across a heap of concrete rocks in a corner of the gallery. It is the crushed and recycled sediment of the wall that acts as a base and links all of the sculptures in the gallery.

A football, table tennis rackets and a basketball are seated on plinths. They are sculptures made of concrete. The heaviness of the items contrasts with their usual lightness. Jarrar also makes international parallels, and a concrete figure of Buddy Bear, which was first exhibited at the site of the fallen Berlin Wall, stands in the gallery’s shadows.

We also encounter a short film featuring a surreal badminton match over the wall, in which a split screen shows the Israeli side of the wall painted bright, and the Palestinian side grey and dusty. The only thing unifying the uncanny scene is the blue sky and the ball going from one side to the other. It is a reflection that dark humour can be found in the most absurd situations.

Then there is the poignant film of an elderly woman who travels to the wall to talk through the gaps to her daughter, who was forced to live on the other side when the village was divided. It is heartrending to see her searching for her daughter’s voice, seeking her eyes through the gaps, touching her daughter’s fingers under the wall with her frail hands. “What can I tell you. It’s hard,” she says to the camera. You can feel the love they have for each other, but at the same time you feel helpless.

Jarrar’s sculpture of a halved olive tree, with a half-concrete branch is particularly powerful. The traditional significance of the olive tree to Palestinians, as a symbol of peace, resistance, life and growth, contrasts with the dead concrete. Yet at the same time, both sides are needed to make the branch whole. The lighting in the gallery creates a sombre mood, and all is still and quiet in the shadows aside from the distant sound of chiselling.

Eleven years have passed since the first slabs were erected separating the West Bank from the rest of Israel. Referred to as the ‘Apartheid Wall’ or ‘Security Wall’ depending on which side of the fence you are on, is it right that this Wall is already being memorialised in a bourgeois gallery space, moving from active resistance to the realm of grieving, of history and acceptance of the status quo?

Jarrar is clear that his art is not an attempt to beautify the separation wall. Far from it – especially as he moulds his sculptures from its destruction and emphasises how the concrete could be used for a much better cause. But this debate has been raised before: there is a story that an old man confronted Banksy as was putting up his street art in Bethlehem, telling him to go home and not make the wall he hates beautiful.

Whether it is the old woman who communicates with her daughter through a crevice in the wall, a student who feels like she is living in an open-air prison, or a farmer separated from his olive groves by an electric fence, Khaled Jarrar’s work is fresh and at times eccentric. Although he could be bolder in exploring some themes in greater depth, Jarrar doesn’t use clichéd images and certainly helps to unpack and re-contextualise the wall. He is keeping the issue on our conscience.

Whole in the Wall is at the Ayyam Gallery London 20 June – 3 August 2013

Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar with a football sculpted from pieces of the Israeli separation wall in Qalandia. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images.
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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the chief victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser