SAN FRANCISCO – After a two and a half year battle with campus administration, San Francisco State University became the first school to showcase a Palestinian cultural mural honoring Dr. Edward Said. But the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS), the group that spearheaded the mural, says achieving it was no easy task. “Let’s be real — a lot of Arabs did not believe that we could achieve this mural,” Nasser Halteh, GUPS member told the crowd at the Nov. 2 mural inauguration. “It was believed that the political environment was too great and discriminatory. It’s true,” he added, smiling, “but culture defeated the politics, and today we are celebrating. So on behalf of GUPS, we welcome you to this victory.”
Former GUPS president Charlie El-Qare explained that the campus administration “did not want a Palestinian mural to have a permanent space.” In the later planning phases, El-Qare said that campus president Robert Corrigan put a moratorium on all murals because of objections to the inclusion of a key and Handala, a Palestinian political cartoon. These two symbols were omitted in order to finally obtain approval.
“The president said that those two symbols did not represent pride in one’s own culture or heritage,” said Loubna Qutami, GUPS member and sociology student. But Qutami said Palestinians “don’t see the symbols as controversial. (It’s a) desire to return to homeland. It’s our international legal right under (U.N.) Resolution H194. H194 was going to be written on the key.”
“Just because the symbols are not physically in the mural does not mean that we are giving up on right of return,” she added. But the mural honoring Edward Said tries to be more a message of reconciliation. Dr. Said was a Christian Palestinian. A Jewish artist and a Muslim artist put the mural together. Muralists Fayeq Oweis and Susan Greene explained the mural’s symbols: “We see Edward Said in the center, wearing the Palestinian headdress on his shoulders, with his dual identity,” Oweis said. “This is the identity of all of us as Arab Americans. We are represented with this identity through Edward Said.”
Said was a Palestinian-American literary theorist, author and political activist. He was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is regarded as a founding figure in postcolonial theory, the author of seminal works like “Orientalism.” He died in 2003 from myelogenous leukemia. Oweis described another important symbol in the mural: “The word peace is written in Arabic calligraphy in the shape of doves over Jerusalem, the city of peace,” he said, “and hopefully Jerusalem will witness a peaceful solution to the conflict and it will live in peace.”
“When I look at that mural, I ask myself, how can a culture and a people have such a strong identity after having withstood so much oppression for so long?” said Qutami. “I am very proud and happy to see third-generation Palestinian students in exile still carrying Palestine in their hearts and going on,” said Dr. Sonia Nimr, professor of history from the University of Beir Zeit in the West Bank. “Palestine is still very much alive. I am very proud of you because I can see that this memorial is not only a tribute to Edward Said, it is a tribute to Palestinian people.”
Ramsey El-Qare, another GUPS member and student, reflected on the mural’s significance. “The mural represents a community that has been unrepresented for a long time. We finally get some representation, some positive light.”
Fayeq Oweis expressed the hope that while Palestine is under siege, the mural is a reason to celebrate in spite of the current situation. “Art is a vehicle that easily comes across to different types of people – much better than politics, for example,” he said. “Through art, we’re hoping that we are representing the Palestinian issue, especially at this time when Palestine is under occupation and the people are suffering in refugee camps. To celebrate a contribution of a Palestinian artist is a victory for us.”