Londoners will soon be able to get off the tube at King’s Cross and walk into a Palestinian refugee camp.
They will be able to meet some of the 12,000 descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homeland in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The people of Shatila camp are squeezed into one square kilometre. The labyrinthine alleyways are plastered with posters and inscribed with graffiti and street art.
You enter the home of Mariam, a 90-year-old woman who is propped up in bed. She tells her family’s story, part of the story of the Nakba (The Catastrophe – the Palestinian displacement).
You can call in on Hassan, sitting in his shrine contemplating the history that has brought him here, fingering a string of blue prayer beads as he explains his eclectic collection of objects – Muslim and Christian, secular and religious, prayer beads, crucifixes, icons, clay pots and seashells, all illuminated by fairy lights.
Or you can meet three generations of the Al-Awwal family: Rasheed, 42, his mother, sitting regally in her armchair, and his son, Abdul.
All this is possible through an interactive touch-screen tour of Shatila soon to be unveiled at Europe’s first Palestinian gallery, which opens in October.
“Palestinian artists are not widely recognised,” says the gallery’s communications and events officer, Sami Metwasi. “They are isolated. This gallery will give them a chance to be presented to the world.”
He says the Palestinian image “has been polluted during the years of struggle and conflict”, and the exhibitions and activities will help highlight its people’s rich, diverse culture.
“It is always after others see the high quality of our art and culture that their respect for Palestine grows. We Palestinians are not just victims of injustice but a living culture worthy of admiration and respect.
“What is wonderful about it and about our people is that even under the most terrible circumstances of occupation, exile and war we have not only kept our cultural heritage alive but created new cultural output of such high quality to earn its place among world class modern art and culture.”
Another aim, he says, is to communicate with British culture, to build bridges and to give an opportunity to British people to explore Palestinian culture.
“We are not a traditional gallery with traditional divides and barriers between installations and users,” notes Metwasi. “Rather, we aim to use this modern space to bring people together and to bridge gaps between Palestinians and locals.”
It will also be a centre for Britain’s Palestinian community, estimated at 75,000.
The gallery’s original sponsor was the Prince of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan al-Qassimi, who funded it through the London-based Palestine Return Centre. It is now an independent entity.
The gallery has already started work, with activities that include creative workshops for teenagers and, on 26-27 June, performances by a group of youngsters from a camp in Bethlehem who tell their stories through photographs, images and dance, “proving that talent can bloom in the most difficult conditions of life in exile and under occupation”.
* The Palestine Gallery, 21-27 Chalton Street, NW1. Tel: 0207 121 6190
Original article appeared here