Seeing Jerusalem through Palestinian eyes at the Old City's Levantine Gallery
Take a stroll through the winding streets and bustling markets of occupied East Jerusalem's Old City and you may stumble across a sign for an art gallery selling "pictures by local artists".
"People come in and say, 'Oh, these are Israeli?' And I say, 'No, they're Palestinian,'" Karen Mann, 62, founder and owner of the Levantine Gallery, tells The New Arab. "Because I'm kind of making a point that they are the local artists and not some kind of minority group that we're trying to help here. No, these are the local artists of this place."
The Old City is largely inhabited by Palestinians, though Israeli authorities and settlers seek to change the demographics.
Karen says her shop is the only commercial gallery in the Old City that sells specifically Palestinian art. It is located in the Christian Quarter within metres of the Arch of the Virgin Mary, a bricked-up entrance which previously led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the site of Jesus's resurrection.
The Levantine Gallery, which fully opened in January 2017, sells original paintings, as well as prints – or printed reproductions – and even some sculptures. Given the shop's location, many of its customers are tourists.
'Jerusalem with Palestinian people in the picture'
"Wherever you go in the Old City, you're getting a kind of subliminal message that you are here and here's a postcard of a plate of hummus and an Israeli flag sticking out of it," Karen says. "The images are all of, you know, soldiers crying by the Western Wall – these kinds of messages that you are now in Israel."
Meanwhile, Karen says, "you don't see" the Palestinian population.
"My idea in here is that you can come and see something of Jerusalem with Palestinian people in the picture," she says. "You're seeing… a different view of the city through the eyes of local artists of their own city." Some pictures feature Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, immensely holy places for Muslims and Christians in Palestine and beyond, while others depict everyday life.
The Levantine Gallery was named to help "seduce people to come inside" by avoiding conjuring up any stereotypes in their minds, Karen says.
She also thought that, in time, her gallery might feature art from elsewhere in the Levant – a region which encompasses Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. The shop now includes art from Palestinians living in Jordan as well as a couple of non-Palestinian artists who don't wish to place their work in an Israeli gallery.
"We have some established names in the gallery but also people who have not necessarily had access to some of these institutions but are still extraordinary artists"
Karen is British but has lived in Palestine for many years. She is married to a Palestinian man, Muhammad Salhab, 58, who works in the gallery on weekdays while she is out visiting artists. Muhammad has a jewellery store just a few shops down from the gallery.
Earning a livelihood
Their son Akram Salhab, 34, stresses the importance of the gallery being commercial. "If you're an artist here, you're looking for different opportunities either to get your message to the world and/or to do that through selling your art," Akram says.
He adds that there are opportunities for artists to do this by working with certain Palestinian institutions, winning awards and, if possible, exhibiting their work.
But what's unique about the Levantine Gallery, Akram says, is that it's regularly and permanently open for people to earn a livelihood through their craft.
He adds that the shop specifically tries to work with emerging talent. "We have some established names in the gallery but also people who have not necessarily had access to some of these institutions but are still extraordinary artists," Akram says.
"It's very important that we keep this voice in the Old City because this is a point where it's just slowly diminishing"
Adorning the Levantine Gallery's walls are pieces by masters such as Sliman Mansour and Hosni Radwan as well as lesser-known names like Shaima' Farouki, who has several pictures featuring flowers, trees and cats.
Many of the artists cannot come to Jerusalem given the heavy restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinians' movements. "It's very important that we keep this voice in the Old City because this is a point where it's just slowly diminishing," Karen says.
Cultural, religious, political art
Some of the artwork held in the shop is cultural or religious while other pieces evoke political themes. Prices range from five shekels ($1.45) for an arty postcard to several thousand dollars for bronze sculptures.
One print currently available on the gallery's website for $105 is Sheikh Jarrah by Israa Frehat, who is originally from Nablus but now lives in Bethlehem.
Painted from a photograph available online, it depicts the well-known East Jerusalem neighbourhood where Palestinian families are at risk of expulsion in favour of Israeli settlers. Sheikh Jarrah is home to the famous twins Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd.
Other works reveal less visible pressures Palestinians face that most tourists would otherwise never hear about. Ka'ek by Ahed Izhiman, available online for $4 as a greetings card, shows a green and red cart being pulled through the sky above the Old City by paper airplanes. Palestinians know this iconic three-wheeled vehicle to belong to sellers of ka'ek Al-Quds or "Jerusalem cake", a beloved, ring-shaped type of bread covered in sesame seeds.
Karen and Akram say Izhiman made the piece because the Israeli municipality in Jerusalem wanted to change the colour of the carts and force owners to register by giving the vehicles number plates. Karen adds: "So, this is why it's… flying freely into the air to freedom and away from restrictions. So, it's a fun piece. It's making its statement but in a more subtle and arty way."
For Akram, it also shows how Palestinians experience Jerusalem through "micro forms of oppressions".
"It's simply someone who knows what the ka'ek cart and the ka'ek itself mean to people in Jerusalem and sees how the attempts to restrict and inhibit and contain this very minor thing… is something that they want to speak about to the world," he adds.
Those hoping to experience Jerusalem through Palestinian eyes may find the shopping experience at the Levantine Gallery to be different from other stores in the Old City.
Akram's father Muhammad says Karen told him "she wanted to create a shop to sell in it what she would want to buy and treat her guests or her customers the way she wishes to be treated".
He adds that some local shopkeepers can unintentionally be "a little bit pushy", highlighting the "relaxed hassle-free shopping" sign on the gallery door.
'Outrage' and delight
Even so, some shoppers have become "outraged" and "walked out" when they learnt who made the artwork they were enjoying, Karen says. Others are part of groups led by tour guides who may discourage them from buying in the area, telling them it's dangerous to use your credit card there, Akram and Karen say.
Sometimes armed guards accompany groups, Akram adds, saying these and other issues "create this atmosphere that people that people ought to be cautious".
But a visit to the gallery can lead to real change. One evangelical Christian woman "visibly paled" when she learned the late Mohammed Joulani had made the piece she was admiring. "And then we spoke about him. And I showed her a photograph of him and everything," says Karen.
The woman responded: "You know, I never imagined that I would have in my house a picture by someone called Mohammed!" While Karen says she finds this to be a strange comment, she adds that the woman told her she "loved" the artwork and hearing about its creator. She even bought the piece.
Karen says: "I know it's only a tiny… thing but just to let people understand that Palestinians are so much more than what they've seen on the news – that there's art and all kinds of creativity."
For one American Palestinian woman who visited the Levantine Gallery, learning about the shop's Palestinianness was overwhelming in a different way.
Karen says: "She sat on that seat, and she cried. And she said, 'I can't believe that there's this beautiful place that's for us.'"
Featured image: Karen Mann (left) sits on a desk at the Levantine Gallery while her son Akram Salhab (right) stands beside her [Nick McAlpin]
Nick McAlpin is a journalist who has worked at The New Arab since March 2021. He holds a master's degree in social anthropology and a BA in French and Arabic. He lived in Jordan for a year during his undergraduate studies. Nick started his journalism career as a freelancer in 2019.
Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin