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Malak Mattar dreamed of studying art abroad, now she is stuck in Gaza

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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.

“Palestinian Woman” by Malak Mattar. (Photo:

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.” 

Malak Mattar’s Tawjihi scores. (Photo: Malak Mattar)

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.

“Serenity” by Malak Mattar, purchased by the author and smuggled out of Gaza. (Photo: Nada Elia)

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. 

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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19 Responses

  1. nada on October 3, 2017, 12:39 pm

    Do you have contacts at an arts school in the US? If so, and if you are interested in helping, please contact [email protected]

    • Misterioso on October 4, 2017, 2:17 pm

      I don’t know if it would be feasible, but perhaps it could be arranged for Ms. Mattar to contact the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, in Vancouver, Canada. I have a friend who attended the university and she raves about it.

      Here’s the link:

  2. Katie Miranda on October 3, 2017, 12:41 pm

    It would be great if she could get a scholarship to study at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where I studied. If anyone “in charge” wants to contact me about this, please do. My contact info can be found on my website: I have worked with Malak before because she submitted art that was included with Palbox:

  3. JosephA on October 3, 2017, 10:42 pm

    Yet another glimpse of the inspiring steadfastness of real human beings living in the sad apartheid prison. Thank you very much for sharing! History will look very unfondly on this time and place. How did we, the rest of the world, sit idly by and allow this to happen?

  4. rhkroell on October 4, 2017, 10:01 pm

    I do not understand how American “Jews” can choose to identify themselves with any notion they are able to construct of a “Jewish people” (or an ethnic/cultural group with a history like that of the Jewish people), much less a rogue/criminal nation-state like that of the state of Israel. I am a gentile/Gentile and have been paranoid all my adult life about ever saying anything that might sound remotely antisemitic chiefly because, I believe, I have been massively conditioned/propagandized/indoctrinated — like all Americans — by what Norman Finkelstein has shrewdly/incisively identified as the “Holocaust Industry.” I sometimes feel like I have only recently been able to understand my bewilderment over this perplexing dilemma then my befuddlement returns with a vengeance! I’ve been working against this indoctrination for many years, and it has been — I believe — an exacting and debilitating experience. Can anyone who chooses to identify him/herself as a “Jew” help me understand this baffling conundrum? Please believe that I am sincere in asking this question.

    • JeffB on October 5, 2017, 12:27 am


      Well assuming you are being sincere…

      How do Irish Americans identify with the history of the Irish? Or Italian Americans identify with the history of Italy? Same process for Jews identifying with Jewish history.

      As for a rogue criminal nation. Jews don’t see it that way. What they see is a glorious country that has accomplished amazing things in a very short period of time. There are few places that have had to create themselves to that extent that quickly. It has done so against amazing odds. The rogue / criminal is seen as grossly unfair ferocious hostility using standards which are simply not applied to other countries. Israel isn’t perfect but it is far better than other countries at the same stage of development either currently or historically.

  5. rhkroell on October 5, 2017, 12:01 am

    To help MW readers better understand the question I posed in my previous post — and to help you believe that I am absolutely sincere in asking this question — it may help if you are familiar with the Ingmar Bergman film, WILD STRAWBERRIES. When I chew over the question posed in my comment above, I feel, at times, more than I’d like to admit, like Professor Borg in the early dream sequence in this film, the one where he is walking in a small town/village/city, sees an analog clock face on a building without a minute hand or second hand on the display, then sees a coffin fall out of an old hearse and approaches the mussed/disheveled coffin only to be grabbed by a doppelgänger figure lying in the coffin. But Professor Borg is much older than me, 78-years-old, and somewhat senile, I would say. I have all my wits about me, I like to believe, but when I reflect on this question it still befuddles me. Any thoughts?

  6. rhkroell on October 5, 2017, 11:15 am

    JeffB: Thank you for responding to my question. MW is, for me, one of the few forums in which thorny topics associated with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict can be debated by people in a civil manner.

    Recent years have seen an explosion of theoretical works on the topic of nationalism which have dramatically changed the way academics discuss this technical term of art. An interdisciplinary debate involving many fields of study, as you probably know, have been the result. Universities have created numerous graduate programs and wealthy patrons have established various policy institutes to study/examine this topic.

    Without attempting to reduce the great body of work produced on this subject to an argumentum ad absurdum, I feel it’s fair to say that the various sides of this debate are currently at loggerheads. Some scholars assert the primordial character of nations, usually based on their belief in sociobiological or cultural universals, while others tend to treat “nationalisms,” today, as fluid and multiple, involving socially-constructed identities which all adults choose (rather than inherit).

    As early as 1813 a French-born Prussian writer, Adelbert von Chamisso, wrote a famous novella, PETER SCHLEMIL, dealing with the conundrum of which I have spoken in my comments above. During the French Revolution in 1790, his parents were driven from their ancestral French estate across Europe, finally settling in Berlin. The son of the Count of Chamisso, Peter Schlemil, entered a Prussian infantry regiment as an ensign to train for a career as an army officer.

    The French Revolution had stripped Peter of his inheritance, national and cultural identity, so the Prussian state provided him with what he saw as a serviceable substitute. After the Peace of Tilsit (1807), his parents returned to France but Peter remained in Prussia.

    Without presenting my MW readers with a lengthy plot summary, or considering the many possible ways of reading this text, I think it is fair to say that the novella is generally considered as a parable. Peter becomes “the Man without a Shadow” and people shun him for his bizarre deficiency. He provokes revulsion.

    Do you honestly believe in the primordial integrity of nations and identities or do you believe that social identities are mixed, multiple and fluid?

    • JeffB on October 5, 2017, 3:21 pm


      To be honest I’m not all that fluid on theories of nationalism. That being said here would be my take on nationalism. Most animals and plants are able to make sacrifices for close genetic kin. We have altruism genes. Cooperation at the gene level makes sense out to about 3rd cousins. Unlike insects humans are strictly limited in how many biological relations they are likely to create. Tribes, packs… are limited in size to the low triple digits for non-insects.

      If you want to go beyond you need a mixture of social contract and social tyranny. The smaller and more homogenous the group the easier it is to form common interests and ideology. The larger the group the more common interest conflict and the less democratic it will be.

      Nations are a particularly neat trick where you get a large number of individuals to attach extreme importance to some combination of language, culture, race, religion, ethnicity… so as to believe they have a greater common interest which allows for a greater common interest. In other words you can capture most of the advantages in terms of homogeneity of a smaller group like a city-state and capture most of the advantages of scale of a larger group like an empire.

      There really are territories. Those territories often have groups that have unique cultural characteristics. So in that sense nations are real. But they are mixed, multiple and fluid. How people identify has to do with the political options available to them.

      Not sure if that answers the question. You might have to be more specific if not.

  7. rhkroell on October 5, 2017, 7:16 pm

    Actually, JeffB, the imagined/supposed genetic link(s) between ancient Judaeans and/or Israelites and Ashkenazi Jews has been definitively refuted by scientists despite what you may have read, seen or heard in the MSM. Shlomo Sand offers a brief overview of recent findings in THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, Trans. Yael Lotan, London, Verso, (2009): pp. 273-279:

    “Like the field of physical anthropology in the late 19th and 20th centuries, which released dubious scientific discoveries to the race-hungry public, the science of molecular genetics at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century feeds fragmentary findings and half-truths to the identity-seeking media. . . . what little is known about the methods of selecting test subjects [in these unreliable studies] seems very questionable. Moreover, the hasty findings are all too often constructed and supported by historical rhetoric unconnected to the research laboratories. The bottom line is that, after all the costly ‘scientific’ endeavors, a Jewish individual cannot be defined by any biological criteria whatsoever” (p. 279).

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my somewhat rambling, at times, comments. I appreciate any feedback I can obtain from MW readers because my research has left me genuinely perplexed.

    • JeffB on October 5, 2017, 8:47 pm


      I never talked about biology I talked about culture. I don’t care about biology at all. Biologically there is no difference between Mizrahi Jews from Palestine and the Muslim Palestinians. The war is over ideology not biology. Were the Palestinians willing to become Israelis the way the Mizrahi did as far as I’m concerned there would be nothing to fight about.

      That being said I find the idea that there is no descent from Judaeans highly unlikely. There is simply no evidence in the historical record of the kind of hard breaks you would see with a 100% population shift. 10% of the Roman Empire were Jews. Why would it be the case that none of those people are my ancestors? I suspect they are also your ancestors too so I’m not saying much. 70 generations is a very long time, essentially everyone in Europe is descended from everyone that far back who lived in their region.

      Shlomo Sand is a believer that all nations are constructions. His rhetoric and book are directed at one particular case because he’s POed at Israel. That book gets abused.

      What are you so perplexed by?

  8. rhkroell on October 5, 2017, 11:40 pm

    On rereading your earlier comment, I can see that I misread/misinterpreted what you wrote in your previous comment, JeffB. I guess I was simply assuming, wrongly, that you were rather obscurely trying to have it both ways while attempting to promote an essentialist ideology of human nature (and espousing a belief in sociobiological universals). While I strongly disagree with the position advanced by Edward O. Wilson in texts like CONSILIENCE: THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE, I find Wilson highly intelligent and am constantly surprised at his ability to frame arguments which seem at first reading quite compelling.

    First, I’m perplexed by the fact that highly intelligent Jewish Americans would choose to identify with the racist ideology of Zionism while claiming to be opposed to racism/antisemitism.

    Second, I also puzzle over why anyone with Jewish ancestry would choose to identify themselves with the “Jewish people” of history, an only mythically coherent race/nation/people/culture in my view. This makes no sense, to me, in a post-Enlightenment world and seems particularly bizarre, I guess, in the 21st century.

    I don’t understand Jewish ethnic/tribal loyalties anymore than I am able to understand any person’s belief in ideologies like pan-Germanism, pan-Slavism or pan-Arabism. Those kind of sentimental loyalties seem, to me, totally bankrupt to be quite honest. The whole idea of feeling “rootless” or “homeless” in the world and thus in need of some sort of tribal/ethnic identity in order to feel “rooted” seems completely illogical, irrational and intellectually vapid in the “climate” of our time (the 21st century). People are no doubt able to find meaning for their lives in the most bizarre ways. I don’t expect to help you understand my confusion because you are not confused, but I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my questions, something other devoted MW readers have avoided.

    • JeffB on October 6, 2017, 3:10 pm


      First, I’m perplexed by the fact that highly intelligent Jewish Americans would choose to identify with the racist ideology of Zionism while claiming to be opposed to racism/antisemitism.

      Zionism isn’t racist. That’s a claim of its opponents which is false. Once you accept that nationality is a social construction not a racial one you don’t have racism. Israel even in practice isn’t racist. Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians are the same race. Their different treatment is not based on race.

      Now there are things that make Israel a little bad on this score. For example religious conversion in Israel is crazy difficult. In which case USA Jews have a 35 year track record of trying to address this issue. There is also some more structural discrimination which Israelis and Americans try and fix.

      Consider the situation in the American south. Places like Mississippi were clearly racist states in the 1950s. The goal was to reform Mississippi not destroy it. There is no inconsistency in opposing the destruction of Mississippi and at the same time working to end Jim Crow laws.

      I don’t understand Jewish ethnic/tribal loyalties anymore than I am able to understand any person’s belief in ideologies like pan-Germanism, pan-Slavism or pan-Arabism.

      A person’s individual well being is enhanced by being part of a nation. The nation is able to give them more than it takes on average by a lot. Successful nations are those that have a strong common identity, and those are the ones that grow because their population is healthy and other groups join. Nationalism is an evolutionarily successful strategy for societies.

      Jews were a tiny people scattered across the world for centuries. Without tribal solidarity they simply wouldn’t have existed. Or to put it another way, the tiny scattered people that survive are those that have strong tribal loyalty. Germans developed a common identity coming out of horrific civil wars. Or to put it another way. Had Germany not developed a common identity there wouldn’t be a German people they would be a family of smaller nations by now. Arabs had spent centuries colonized and look back to a time of common identity with fondness. Or to put it the way Ba’ath thinkers would have: Arabs are aiming for a living standard like Europeans and the best way for them to have gotten it would have been for them to consider Arabs first. The horrors they are experiencing now is that pan-Arabism failed. Finally, consider what’s happening in America right now. America has always had a very weak set of cultural bonds. How much culture shared between Nashville, Miami and Anchorage? When we are put under pressure by deep cultural fissures create an inability to share sacrifice for a common good. Would we have had a Donald Trump if various American factions were less selfish?

  9. rhkroell on October 7, 2017, 1:44 pm

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Don’t tell me Zionism is not a racist ideology/regime. Your reasoning is more specious than the blows delivered in a Punch-and-Judy show and less dangerous. Give me a break.

    • JeffB on October 7, 2017, 4:34 pm


      Guess you don’t want questions answered anymore or “thorny topics associated with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict can be debated by people in a civil manner”.

      Tis a pity.

      • amigo on October 7, 2017, 5:01 pm

        “Guess you don’t want questions answered anymore or “thorny topics associated with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict can be debated by people in a civil manner” jeffyboy

        You have to earn civility first jeffyboy.I do not afford civility to apologists for land theft, colonisation and the myriad of crimes committed by the rogue nation—so called Israel.

        Go pay a visit to a taxidermist.

      • rhkroell on October 7, 2017, 8:26 pm

        It’s not possible to have a civil debate with someone who doesn’t have any grasp of history, much less of social, cultural or political theory. I made every effort to remain polite, JeffB, but you persevered in reciting the most banal falsehoods as if they were authenticated and corroborated facts without offering any scholarly support for your erroneous views of history.

        You have obviously swallowed whole all the lies they teach children in Israeli schools as history. You are like the young Israelis interviewed by Abby Martin of EMPIRE FILES [TeleSUR] posted by Kate in MW in her Oct. 5, 2017 article. You are completely ignorant of the things of which you speak. You refuse to think logically or listen to others who try to school you.

      • JeffB on October 7, 2017, 11:08 pm


        Well then you and Amigo will get along. I stand corrected about you. We don’t have to talk again.

      • Mooser on October 8, 2017, 7:56 pm

        “Well then you and Amigo will get along. I stand corrected about you. We don’t have to talk again.”

        “Jeff b”, will you permit “rhkroel” to go on posting in the comments section of your blog? If his contributions don’t meet your standards, shouldn’t they be removed from MondoJeffb ?

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