Malak Mattar’s paintings hang on the walls in the homes of her many fans around the world, from India to England to the U.S. With vivid colors and haunting stares, they express, beautifully, as only the greatest art can do, the utter misery of life and death in the besieged Gaza Strip. They were smuggled out of Gaza through the tunnels, featured in exhibitions in Spain and India, with a solo exhibition in Bristol, England, then sold to a few lucky fans, while the artist herself remains trapped in the besieged strip. Mattar is a child prodigy who started painting at the age of 14, in the aftermath of “Operation Cast Lead,” Israel’s 2014 assault on the besieged strip. With government-provided low-quality watercolors and paper, she discovered the euphoric liberating effect of self-expression and soon graduated from aquarelle to acrylic on canvas. Last year, she left the Gaza Strip for the first time in her life, when her art was shown in Jerusalem.
“Life is unbearable,” Mattar explained. “I draw to escape, to create new people.” After a brief tour of Jerusalem, she returned to Gaza, and to her life as a studious high schooler. Most recently, she has also been experimenting with clay.
Mattar’s dream in life, which sustained her during the darkest hours (literally working by candlelight, as electricity is only available for a couple of hours a day) was to leave Gaza and attend art school in the U.S. “That’s everything I need to do in my life,” she once said. “My hope and my dream is to travel abroad freely, with no restrictions.” Under the current circumstances, with the genocidal siege holding the entire strip in a chokehold, her only hope was a scholarship.
The young painter studied long and hard and aced her “Tawjihi” exams, the nationwide, end of high school test. She placed first overall in the Gaza Strip, and second in the entire occupied territories. The Palestinian Ministry of Education awards scholarships for college to study abroad to the top ten students from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mattar’s dreams were about to come true.
Only to be shattered, this time not by Israel, but by the Palestinian Authority.
Now, Mattar wants to share her story, in hopes that something can be done that would somehow make it possible for her to leave, and live freely. This (slightly edited) is what she wrote me, in an email later circulated on social media:
“The high school results were announced two months ago. After a lot of really hard work and many sleepless nights, I placed first among thousands of students in Gaza, and second in Palestine. Being first means receiving a full scholarship to study anywhere outside of Gaza. I applied to a few countries, including Jordan, Turkey, and Tunisia. I was waiting to hear back, about my acceptance. Then the Ministry of Education in Ramallah called me and informed me that I was one of the candidates to study in Turkey, and that they had consequently removed my name from the other countries I had applied to. I waited, and waited, and tried calling, but could get no response. On September 28, I contacted the Palestinian embassy in Turkey and they told me my name isn’t listed among the accepted students. I had scored the highest grades in Gaza, yet my application was cancelled for no reason, with no excuses given. I have now lost my chance to study anywhere.”
As she took to social media to share her bitter disappointment, a handful of Palestinian students replied to her post saying they had had similarly heart-breaking experiences, where they had also been awarded the coveted scholarship, which never materialized. They suspected nepotism, and that the scholarship had been given to someone else, closer to the Palestinian Authority’s inner circle. This would be fully in keeping with the overall actions of the Authority, which is growing more despotic by the day. Someone suggested she enroll in an “online degree,” clearly not understanding the urge to flee, break free, feel alive.
Jewish Voice for Peace launched a petition, “Malak Mattar Should be Granted a Scholarship, not Punished,” which is rapidly gathering signatures. Hopefully, the petition will put pressure on whoever allowed the young painter’s ticket to freedom to fall through the cracks.
Mattar is understandably distraught. The situation in Gaza is dire, bordering on genocide for the two million residents of the Strip. Her well-deserved scholarship would have opened up a world of options for her. And while the catastrophe in Gaza must be addressed as a whole, and is indeed being addressed through BDS and its ongoing campaign to denounce Israel’s violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people, there is something we can do for individuals too, when the opportunity arises. Indeed, BDS, and cultural boycott specifically are not only about boycotting Israeli products and asking international artists not to perform at apartheid venues, they are also about supporting Palestinian culture. Malak Mattar is an outstandingly talented young artist who gives a human face to the devastating effects of life in a toxic open-air prison, and whose art can help denounce Israel’s war crimes and the corruption of the so-called Palestinian “Authority,” more correctly the sub-contractor of the occupation. As she realizes the therapeutic effect of art on her own life, she volunteers with children in Gaza, and hopes to eventually also help children in Lebanon discover art as a form of self-expression and healing for communities torn apart by war and other disasters.
Our challenge now, then, is to help promote her art and do all we can to secure her a scholarship in the country of her choice. When I asked her what that would be, she said her ambition is to come to the U.S. Those of us here who can help make this happen should do our utmost to contact university administrations and inform them of her case. Mattar is articulate, mature, qualified, but with all the odds against her, she would benefit from a sustained campaign here to support her, as she strives to soar above her cage.