Drawing the Kafr Qasem Massacre
An important contribution to the preservation of Palestinian memory, Drawing the Kafr Qasem Massacre confronts Israel’s efforts to consign it to oblivion through the dimensions of textual narrative and art. Palestinian artist Samia Halaby describes her work in this book as “documentary drawing”; she has produced a work of immense importance which highlights the psychological repercussions experienced by Palestinians through her sketches and drawings depicting innocent victims of Israel’s murderous brutality.
Progressing though a compelling foreword by Raja Shehadeh, an impeccable historical analysis by Salman Abu Sitta and the core of the book itself — which is a skilful weaving of testimonies, narratives, historical documents and compelling art — one notes a strong depiction of the divide between Palestinian memory and the network of oblivion imposed upon the people who have consistently struggled against disappearance. Halaby exhibits a profound consciousness of such contrasts, portrayed through her decision to eliminate or limit the presence of Israeli police officers in her artistic depictions. Given that the Israeli colonial narrative has functioned by eliminating Palestinians from the wider picture, focusing upon the colonial entity in any form would diminish the importance of Palestinian remembrance. In most drawings and paintings within the book, the aggressors are indicated through the presence of their rifles aimed at the Palestinian victims of their violence.
The Kafr Qasem Massacre is an example of how Israel utilised an international diversion to extend further its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. On 29 October 1956, the same day that it launched a surprise attack on Egypt’s Suez Canal along with the French and British (the so-called “Suez Crisis”), a curfew was imposed by Israel upon eight Palestinian villages, including Kafr Qasem. The late communication of the curfew to the villagers, which occurred between 4:30pm and 4:45pm, ensured that Palestinians returning home from work at 5pm, which was the imposed restriction time, would be slaughtered. The book includes testimony by an officer present during the curfew briefing which indicates premeditated murder: “It would be desirable to have a few people killed in each village.”
Another chilling — and very telling — quote by one of the Israeli killers involved in the massacre exhibits the absence of remorse: “We were like the Germans. They stopped trucks, took the Jews out and shot them. Same with us. No difference.” Except that those being shot, of course, were Palestinian Arabs, and the killers on this occasion were Jews.
The attack on Egypt instigated by Israel ensured a considerable delay in news of the massacre leaking out, as did the curfew. Halaby notes that the first report was published on 11 November while the international community heard of the massacre after 25 days, through a press release by Tawfik Toubi. A year later, Israel attempted to enforce a “Day of Reconciliation” upon the Kafr Qasem survivors, which prompted the village mayor to declare, 44 years later: “The martyrs were slaughtered twice, once on the day of the massacre and once on the ‘Day of Reconciliation’.”
The nine waves of killing depicted by Halaby stand as a narrative on their own. Nevertheless, the artist explains her meticulous approach to creating such images by gathering several testimonies of the same wave of killing to ensure compatibility between historical memory and art. Each wave is represented by large finished drawings in several mediums. The book also includes Halaby’s sketches, which provide further visual understanding of how the artist employed her understanding and loyalty towards the Palestinian villagers of Kafr Qasem, as well as a nuanced journey towards the final artistic representations, which evoke many emotions in those who see them.
Perhaps the most striking element throughout the book, imparted so skilfully through Halaby’s art, is the speed at which the massacre unfolded and how that same urgency mellowed into an apprehensive waiting in which a few survivors sought to return to the scene only a few hours later. The macabre, relentless murder asserted its dominance again, as the Israeli soldiers engaged in another round of killing with the intent of eliminating any possible survivors.
In this regard, Tawfik Toubi’s detailed press release includes gruesome observations regarding the horrendous massacre: “In some cases, the police stomped on the heads of the dead and sunk their bayonets into the bodies of the women.”
In Halaby’s art, the fluctuation of emotions is by no means temporary. Rather, the varying degrees of surprise, terror, resignation, the will to survive and the tenacity towards preserving the memory all contribute towards building the metaphor and embodiment of resilience.
One notable and striking aspect of Halaby’s renditions is the near-absence of colour. Most drawings and paintings are in shades of black and grey. Halaby’s use of blue is so sparse that it provides a resonating contrast, accentuating detail in sketches and inviting additional scrutiny. The few instances in which colour is used — such as “The Return of Abu Fareed” who escaped the seventh wave of killing and returned later only to be murdered; as well as “Death of the Shepherd Boy Fathi”, murdered by Israeli soldiers in the third wave of killing — inscribe a poignant reflection of the humanity embodied by Palestinians in the face of imminent death.
There is one particular drawing in pencil titled “Embrace in Death”, which is related to the ninth wave of killing, that portrays a grace that is not usually associated with murder. A group of women returning home from work, at first oblivious to what had transpired, suddenly became aware of dead bodies in the street. The women were rounded up by the Israeli soldiers. As the women huddled close together, the soldiers opened fire, killing all but a 15 year old who was in the middle of the circle. Quoting Emile Habiby, the book describes the scene thus: “The women began to rotate slowly as they were all holding onto each other. The circle turned a dance of death challenging any great artist to express it.”
Halaby adds a thought-provoking observation with regard to this drawing: “A channel seems to open between my eyes and theirs and all else recedes. But what remains during such creative moments is unclear, a visual impulse, a sensation of knowledge outside the realm of words.”
The artist has managed to create an incredible collection, one that sears itself on the memory permanently. Art, in this exceptional case, has added to the importance of Palestinian collective memory through both talent and awareness. The reason such value has been imparted in this book is the artist’s deep understanding of remembrance, which allows her to present a direct confrontation against Israel’s penchant for oblivion.