UAE artist 'paints for Palestine' in search of her roots

Lynne Abdulhadi's search for her roots led her to start 'Painting For Palestine' as a means to heal and reclaim cultural identity

by

Anamika Chatterjee

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KT Photos: Shihab
KT Photos: Shihab

Published: Tue 19 Dec 2023, 9:19 AM

Last updated: Tue 19 Dec 2023, 9:37 AM

Last November, Lynne Abdulhadi “went home” for the first time. Prior to this visit, Palestine was an idea that resided in her head. But being in the land, breathing the air, watching her people all around filled her with a sense of nostalgia about something she’d only heard of in her childhood, but not really experienced. The first thing she did was to head to a beach. Hadn’t she been to one before? “But I wanted to see a beach in my home country,” says the UAE-based artist. “I arrived at 3 in the afternoon and only left by 6pm.”

The exploration of her roots also had Lynne looking for the coordinates of her mother’s village in Haifa. “I changed three modes of transportation in order to get there. The village was completely demolished but I managed to spot my great grandfather’s grave, who happened to be the mukhtar (leader) of the village,” remembers Lynne. Lynne’s great grandfather passed away in 1945, three years before the nakba, but his wife and children had to leave in 1948. The story of their journey to Jordan still haunts Lynne, possibly because they had to walk all the way to Jenin and then to Jordan. “My grandfather was 11 and my grandmother was three years old. Since they lived in the same area, they embarked on this journey together,” says Lynne.

Life, for many in the Palestinian diaspora, has not been the same after October 7. If anything, it has compelled many to reflect on their cultural roots. For the 31-year-old artist, it has meant speaking to the world through her art initiative, Painting For Palestine. As the name suggests, Painting For Palestine spotlights and celebrates different cultural aspects of the country. Just last weekend, Lynne, who holds a degree in visual communication from the American University of Sharjah and has taught art at Sharjah Art Foundation, hosted a keffiyeh painting workshop at The Roost x Lento. She hosts similar workshops in Abu Dhabi every weekend. This week, Lynne plans to host another workshop where the attendees will be painting Carmel beach, close to her maternal village of Haifa, on canvas. “We are going to paint a dream,” says Lynne, who was born in Jordan but raised in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Lynne’s father lived in Hebron till he was 22, following which he took up a scholarship and moved to Montreal, Canada.

Though the passion for the arts took root during her formative years, Lynne decided to pursue a career in social media management and did the job for eight years before realising art was her true calling. “I also realised that there is a cultural gap, where people assume that they know enough about Palestine, but all they know is the history of the conflict. Our culture is rich, and I have been wanting to showcase that through my art.”

Painting For Palestine elevates the idea of an art workshop by looking at itself as a community. No wonder then, in the aftermath of October 7, the workshops have seen many healers voluntarily coming to conduct special sessions for attendees to process what has been going on. “Earlier, the attendees primarily comprised Palestinians. But now there are more than 20 nationalities who attend them.”

The idea of a home comes from a sense of belonging. But when you have visited that home only once in your lifetime, how do you retain a sense of belongingness? Lynne says it comes naturally to many Palestinian families living abroad as they make it a point to teach the younger generation about their customs and culture lest they forget their roots. “We give our children necklaces, we give them stories, films. When I was young, my parents took me to any cultural event related to Palestine. For us, the whole idea was to retain our Palestinian identity through art, food, culture.”

Lynne’s passion for raising awareness on Palestinian culture is born out of the same instinct. A passion that has seen her visiting a refugee camp in Jordan that houses people who had to leave Palestine in 1967. She talks about the young girls she met at the camp with a sense of nostalgia… and survivor’s guilt, because “I could have had the same fate, some of them did not even have passports”.

A striking memory, however, remains of a young girl called Reem. “She lived in a house that had 20 other people living in it. With a chalk in her hand, she would draw symbols of Palestine all over the walls of the house apart from a sketch of a dove, which emphasised on how important peace is to the future of Palestinian youth,” says Lynne.

Come January and Lynne plans to return to the camp to train 30 young girls in creating items of merchandise from scratch. Lynne has already acquired a trade license to be able to sell the merchandise in the UAE and direct the funds generated towards education of these girls. “The 30 girls I am choosing are already inclined towards the arts. I want them to go to a good university.”

As an artist, Lynne is aware of the importance of healing. Soon after October 7, she began to encourage participants to draw and write their feelings on a piece of paper as part of a project called Letters To Gaza. That grief can assume many forms was evident in the varied responses she received. But one she relates to the most is that of a student’s who drew and wrote at length about feeling lost. “She was not connected to her home in the way she is meant to be. There was a sense of helplessness, which is exactly what many of us are feeling today,” says Lynne.

The subsequent sessions of Painting For Palestine have seen sound healing sessions, breathwork techniques, trauma healing in an attempt to address the grief many have been experiencing. Come to think of it, isn’t that the very purpose of art — healing? That is something Lynne is hellbent on preserving in her own little ways. For example, she has been encouraging her students to replicate works of Palestinian artist and educator Heba Zaghout who was killed during an air strike in the early days of the war in Gaza. “Her house was bombed and all her art was gone along with her family. I encourage my students to focus on her works, give them watercolours, so they can create more copies of her work. This way, we get to remember her for the work she has done,” says Lynne. “We don’t want our identity to be erased.”

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