Preserving Palestinian identity: Empowering children through art amid conflict and cultural loss

5 min read
03 May, 2024

Muhammad Abu Lihya, a graduate of art education specialising in antiquities and ancient artefacts, has been displaced from his home in Al Qarara, north of Khan Younis.

He has since relocated to the Al-Mawasi area on the outskirts of Rafah City.

Like many other Palestinians, Muhammad has been suffering from hunger, thirst, and the relentless cycle of displacement

"The war has taken a great toll on the mental and physical well-being of human beings. We have lived through many wars, but none like this one. It is beyond anything we have experienced," Muhammad, also an art facilitator for children at the Culture and Free Thought Association, tells The New Arab. 

"I cannot imagine our history being erased and obliterated. I simply cannot imagine it"

Despite being displaced from his home, Muhammad remains committed to preserving history and identity though his passion for antiquities and old objects and continues to contribute personally to this cause despite the challenges he faces.

"I cannot imagine our history being erased and obliterated. I simply cannot imagine it," Muhammad adds. 

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Part of Muhammad's professional journey has involved teaching art to children in tents, focusing on drawing archaeological and historical sites. He explains that this idea came after the Israeli army's deliberate targeting of archaeological sites.

"The Israeli war isn't just about people; it targets trees, stones, and the essence of Palestinian history and identity. It's an existential battle that will endure," Muhammad says. 

Palestinian children at one of Muhammad Abu Lihya's art workshops 

Preserving history and memory  

In early March, Muhammad began hosting art and calligraphy workshops three times a week, each session lasting two hours.

These workshops start with discussions on the stories behind various archaeological sites, their historical timelines, associated eras, and the activities they hosted.

Notably, Muhammad and his artist wife highlight significant locations like the 1,400-year-old Al-Omari Mosque, the historic Pasha Palace from the Mamluk era, the Church of Saint Porphyrius, and several other noteworthy sites.

"It is important to educate children about their history," Muhammad says. 

"It is crucial to instil this knowledge in children by engaging their senses, both through their hands and their minds, so that it remains in their memories for a long time," he adds. 

Muhammad and his wife
Muhammad and his wife took the initiative to establish the Al Qarara Cultural Museum 

Muhammad believes that drawing offers essential psychological relief for children exposed to harsh conditions like war, bombings, loss, and displacement.

Amid such turmoil, art becomes a vital outlet for them to express their emotions, find solace, and regain a sense of control over their lives. 

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“It becomes a therapeutic outlet that alleviates their distress and helps them process their experiences. Furthermore, through drawing archaeological buildings and sites, children's awareness of historical information is enhanced,” Muhammad stressed. 

“I want them to develop a deeper connection to their cultural heritage and gain a renewed appreciation for the significance of preserving history in the face of adversity.”

A Palestinian girl's drawing of the now destroyed Al Omari mosque in Gaza 

Through conversations with the children, Muhammad noticed how deeply attached the children are to the sites they visited before the war. He also noted their memories of every corner and stone of those locations.

Ghazal Abu Musa, a 14-year-old workshop participant displaced from Gaza City’s Old City, said, "At school, we used to go on field trips to visit all the archaeological sites in Gaza. Now, when I draw, I imagine them and remember how they were when I visited."

"It becomes a therapeutic outlet that alleviates their distress and helps them process their experiences"

Destruction of Palestinian architectural heritage

In 2016, prior to the war, Muhammad and his wife took the initiative to establish the Al Qarara Cultural Museum, aiming to showcase the rich archaeology and history of the area. They collected artefacts, as well as items from the community.

"Back then, we hoped to contribute to preserving the culture and identity of our community," Muhammad revealed.

"But now, it's all gone." 

The Qarara Cultural Museum was destroyed by Israeli forces in October 2023, adding to a series of similar incidents.

The Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip has destroyed numerous archaeological sites, each holding significant cultural and historical value spanning centuries.

A study conducted by the 'Heritage for Peace' group revealed that since October 7, Israel's war has led to the loss of over 100 archaeological and historical sites.

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Among the most prominent landmarks that suffered major damage were the afore-mentioned Great Omari Mosque, Church of Saint Porphyrius, a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery in northern Gaza recently excavated last year, and the Rafah Museum in southern Gaza, which was a popular place for students studying the region’s long history and heritage.

Raising awareness and post-war initiatives 

To enhance people’s awareness of history, Muhammad mentioned that they started filling the tents with colours and papers, enabling them to draw inside, which he says led to increased productivity.

“Many children started relaying the stories we share with them to their parents, prompting them to join in the activities we organise, be it storytelling or creating art inspired by archaeological monuments,” said Muhammad.

After the war ends, Muhammad plans to gather a team of volunteers to collect and save whatever is left from the conflict in a safe place.

The overall aim is to protect the Palestinian identity from extinction.

“We should preserve history no matter what. We will continue to build history,” Muhammad stressed.

Ahmed Salama is a journalist from Gaza