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Grappling with Identity

The art of HaMidrasha alumna Ala Haytham creates a prism reflecting three generations of women.

Ala, a talented young artist, would never have pursued a career in art without the intensive support and encouragement of her teachers at Beit Berl. "There were times when I didn't think I could do it. Thank God I had professors who cared and urged me to continue," she admits, adding that the Beit Berl community has been like a second family for her.

After graduating with honors from the Art and Education track of Beit Berl's Faculty of Arts-HaMidrasha, the 23-year-old from the Arab town of Tayibe decided to continue on to graduate studies at Beit Berl College and is now a 2nd-year Master's student in the Art Therapy program.

Ala's thought-provoking art is currently being showcased in her first solo exhibition, called "Dowry," at the HaMidrasha Gallery in Tel Aviv. The exhibition, which was curated by Avi Lubin, addresses her complex identity from a cultural, national and political perspective, as viewed through the prism of three generations of women in Ala's family: her beloved late grandmother, her mother and herself.

"I define myself as a '1948 Arab,' not as a Palestinian or an Israeli," she insists. "The Palestinian community in Israel has changed a lot since 1948. My grandmother saw herself as being first of all Palestinian. I am simply Arab and nothing else."

The exhibition includes video art, photography, drawings and installations. Ala uses symbols from Palestinian culture, such as the traditional Dabke dance, an olive tree, and the process of preparing bandura during which the family spends 24 hours together on the grandmother's land and prepares the traditional tomato-based dish. Haytham presents the dialogue between the three generations of women in her family in a sensitive manner, highlighting the transformation of Israel's Palestinian community since 1948, and focusing on the changing role of Palestinian culture – language, texts and traditions.

"Although people think that my drawing of an olive tree symbolizes peace, for me it represents my grandmother," she explains. "I also have a video installation showing a Dabke lesson where the dancers step in ink and create paintings with their feet. Even though Dabke is supposed to be part of my identity, I don't know how to dance it and that is what I showed."

One of the most intriguing elements in her exhibition is the production of 'State of 1948' passports. Visitors are invited to fill out a form, take their picture using a phone app, and order a passport from the country where Ala feels she is a citizen – '1948.'

Today, Ala's family is proud of her accomplishments and supports her career choice, but that was not always the case. Until recently, they wished she had chosen a more predictable profession, like her twin sister, who is a pharmacist. "Arabs don't realize that art can be a career since it is not considered stable. I was always seen as different by my family and my community, but in the past year things have changed. They see that I am maturing and that I am developing as an artist, and now people encourage and support me – even those who don't know me!"

In addition to her studies, Ala is busy creating art in her home studio in Tayibe and interns as an art therapist. She has also recently began guiding bilingual tours of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, hosting mixed groups of Arab and Jewish schoolchildren taking part in a program that promotes shared society.



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