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The Palestinian Struggle in San Francisco

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 26.03.2008:

Identity and Expression

By Jennifer Mogannam

The San Francisco Bay Area has a legacy of being one of the most progressive metropolitan regions in the United States. Even with this advantage, the Palestinian community and advocates for the Palestinian cause still face strong opposition, censorship, and marginalisation especially among university academics and activists as well as in the general social arena.

For decades there has been a strong Palestinian activist presence on the campus of San Francisco State University (SFSU). The Palestinian voice on campus was amplified with the formation of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) in 1979 as part of a trans-national grassroots movement to enlighten the international community about the history of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and freedom.

Though historically the core values of GUPS were always threatened by the discriminatory environmental and administrative practices on campus, the relationship between Palestinian students and the university’s administration was heavily strained through a series of controversial and impassioned events during the second Intifada. During the last few years, the new generation of Palestinian-American students has begun to formulate new, creative ways to mobilize and educate about the Palestinian struggle. The idea to represent Palestinian culture, history, belonging, and identity emerged with the thought of portraying a significant community leader in an artistic mural displayed on the exterior of the university’s Student Center. The idea was suggested by a member of the Student Kouncil for Inter-Tribal Nations (SKINS), a Native American student group on campus whose members have largely allied themselves with the Palestinian struggle for freedom as they too are a displaced, occupied, indigenous people. Both GUPS and SKINS began mural projects at the same time – April 2005 – modelled after the other murals featured on the exterior of the Student Center, including the Malcolm X mural and the Cesar Chavez mural.

The mural process began with a concept layout of what the mural was intended to embody and which images would best signify the meaning. GUPS chose their lead artists to be Fayeq Oweis, PhD, a Palestinian artist and professor of Arabic language at Santa Clara University, and Susan Greene, PhD, a Jewish-American artist who frequents Palestine to paint inspirational murals on the apartheid Wall.

After various renditions of the mural, several town hall meetings reviewing the proposed images with no opposition or concerns from the general public, and weekly meetings with the formulated committee, the mural was approved by the student government, the ruling body of the Student Center, on July 12, 2006. Two hours after the approval, the president of the university put a moratorium on all mural processes and expressed his deep discontent with the student government without explaining his decision. Later statements issued by the president’s office indicated that the administration believed that the images of Handala – the refugee cartoon character of revolutionary artist, Naji Al-Ali – along with the right-of-return key featuring Arabic calligraphy of the word Al-Awda, constituted a representation of a “culture of violence” and not the representation of “pride in one’s own heritage.”

The Palestinian students on campus launched a full-fledged campaign aimed to mobilise the Palestinian and academic community to support freedom of expression and identity. The campaign included several community meetings, an online petition, and the sending of letters to the president by members of the community. As the students began to research legal options to file a lawsuit against the administration for violating constitutional freedom-of-speech rights, they realized that the direction in which they were headed was a replica of previous cycles between Palestinians and Zionists. The university administration knew that the Palestinian students would not give up the images of Handala and the key. Ultimately they took the chance that we would file a lawsuit against the administration that could potentially last up to eight or nine years; by that time, the current student group that began the mural initiative would be graduates – so exhausted and deeply disheartened that the fight for this mural of self-expression and identity would be nothing more than a vague and defeated memory in the typical dynamics of Zionist-Palestinian relations.

The Palestinian students, in one of the most difficult and agonizing moments of their student activist careers, decided to remove the images of Handala and the key, so as not to lose their chance to unveil a Palestinian mural. The featured books of Dr. Edward Said as well as every element that remained in the mural embodied the spirit of Handala and the key; the spirit of social justice, equity, liberation, and the Palestinian desire and human and legal right to return to their homeland.

On November 2, 2007, the Palestinian cultural mural honouring Dr. Edward Said was inaugurated by GUPS, the Student Center, and many supporting community organizations. The day-long celebration featured keynote addresses by Hatem Bazian, PhD, professor of Arabic language and Islamic studies at UC Berkeley, and Sonia Nimr, PhD, professor of history at Birzeit University. The day also consisted of many performances by local Palestinian and Arab poets, hip-hop artists, debka troupes, classical Arab musicians, and lots of Arabic food and sweets. About 600 community members attended the day’s festivities to witness this historical landmark in Palestinian-American activism. The mural remains the only Palestinian mural on any public academic institution in the United States.

Jennifer Mogannam is a 21-year-old Palestinian born and raised in Berkeley, California, where she is currently a senior in the Middle Eastern Studies programme at University of California, Berkeley. She started her college career at San Francisco State University where she immediately became an active member of the General Union of Palestine Students. She works actively at various university campuses as an advocate for human rights and justice for Palestine. She has also recently received grants from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Associated Students of UC Berkeley to conduct research in Ramallah.

This Week in Palestine

March 2008

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