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Organization Tries to Improve US-Arab Relations Through Arab Art - 2002-11-13

A U.S. based Arab-American organization wants to promote better relationships among Americans, Arabs and Arab-Americans through the use of art. The group "Al Jisser" hopes to help bridge the cultural gap, Arab nation by Arab nation, with its first major show of works from more than 50 artists of Palestinian origin.

Many of the artists in the exhibition express a feeling of alienation. Reem Hussein, a Palestinian-American living in the United States, says her work is not necessarily political, but does grow out of the frustration she feels being who and what she is.

"I think it is more spiritually inspired and the way that came about was just through a lot of the frustration that I have towards the issues that we are involved in," Ms. Hussein said. "Me being an Arab-American woman living in the United States, being born here, raised here and not being really accepted by the people, the country of my birth, or the people in it."

Ms. Hussein's paintings include scriptures from the Koran written with Arabic calligraphy on a simply painted background. But not all the works in the show are overtly religious or Palestinian or Arab.

Exhibition organizer Renda Dabit is the director of "Al Jisser", which means "The Bridge" in Arabic. She says she hopes to use art not only to showcase the works of Arab artists from all over the world to U.S. audiences, but to bring Arabs and Americans together in a different way.

"Artists are an under-acknowledged group in the Arab and Arab-American community and this is a new voice for us," she said. "Doing things through art, it brings a new audience where they may not be interested in going to a demonstration or political presentation."

Ms. Dabit wants to provide a peaceful forum in which understanding and appreciation of Arab culture and identity can take place on an artistic level, whether the art showcased is film, poetry, dance, music or painting.

The current exhibition at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn displays Palestinian works from 1960 to the present.

Hasan Hourani has a playful quality to his paintings that feature a character, also named Hasan, in various adventures. His piece called "Hasan Kissing the Fish" shows a fish under the Brooklyn Bridge with the Manhattan skyline in the back and Hasan giving it a kiss in the water.

"It is my reaction to the city because I feel sad about fish because all the fish in New York have a hard time, especially between Manhattan and Brooklyn," he said. "If you are sensitive, you feel with the fish how dirty, noisy, people coming and going, bridges crossing everywhere, the water."

A poetry reading held in conjunction with the exhibition featured Arab and American writers reading the works of well-known Palestinian poets.

One participant read a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an acclaimed Palestinian-American writer, who lives in Texas and has just been nominated for a U.S. National Book Award, a prestigious literary prize.

"I call my father. We talk around the news.
It is too much for him. Neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows, to plead with the air.
Who calls anyone civilized? Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?"

While many of the works in the exhibition are from Palestinian artists living in the United States or Europe, some pieces have come from the West Bank and Gaza. Curator Zeina Al Khalil says it was not easy making contact and finding those artists.

"Over there in the corner are two collages of submissions we received," she said. "They live in Ghezze (Gaza). They sent me out their submissions in June and I received them in September. Forty-nine days in transit, held by Israelis, so there was no way we could even bring their work in."

Ms. Dabit says the submissions of the two young men from Gaza were important because they came from a place where art schools do not exist. Yet, she says, these men found a way to create their art and wanted to send their work to the United States to be shown.

But regardless of their geographical origins, Ms. Dabit says the works in the exhibit reveal the human face of a people whose identity has been scarred by conflict in the Middle East and negative media reports. She says the show could not come at a more crucial time.

"There is more of a need for us as Arabs and Arab-Americans to come forth, to present our diversity as Arab people and a lot of Americans need to see this," Ms. Dabit said. "They want to know, and we need to create avenues where they can walk into a gallery and look at the artwork and listen to the poetry and get information on who we are."

Ms. Dabit says that if art is an imitation of life, then the works in this exhibit present another side of Palestinians that is often forgotten in the news