Damascus exhibition


Everywhere in Syria we were harrassed by officials who forbade us to photograph or film in museums - with one exception. They were very pleased to allow me to film the art exhibition in the foyer of the National Museum in Damascus.

The large canvasses which lined the room were by a Palestinian artist of whom I had never heard, a man called Ismail Shamout. The style, which was impressionistic rather than realistic, was not one which I normally enjoy, but I was impressed by the overall spirit of the exhibition.

On a previous visit to Syria we found nothing but anger and hate - blood-curdling slogans painted on rocks by the roadside, on the sides of buildings, on banners stretched across the road. Palestinians themselves have, to me at least, come across as violent, irrational people. Here, however, there was an entirely different spirit - a longing for home, fond memories of a vanished past, determination to build a better future.

(Incidentally, although there was anti-Israeli propaganda around, it was nowhere near as violent and unreasonable as before. I think I approve of Syria's new president.)

The tragic events of 1948 are best known to the West through the book and film Exodus, where the heroism of the Jews who reclaimed their ancestral homeland is dramatically portrayed.

There has been no such portrayal of the Arab cause and there are several reasons for this: they lost, and no one loves a loser; they were stronger (on paper, at least) and everyone is pleased when the underdog wins against expectations; their propaganda - and, to be truthful, their attitude - has been filled with hate, and that is never attractive.

All this hides the fact that they have suffered a very real injustice, for their claims to Palestine are at least as valid as those of the Jews - how would you like to be driven out of your home and land by what amounts to a band of illegal immigrants? Something of their feelings for the land is portrayed in the art of the Palestinian painter Ismail Shamout.

These enormous canvases - I would guess about 4' x 6' - show the romantic memories the displaced Palestinians have for their lost homeland. There are, inevitably, dark overtones of violence, but the central theme is longing - something that we Welsh call hiraeth, the longing for home.