Palestinian Markets as Walking Museums
Ahmad Daghlas for Jerusalem Story
“Souq Stories” Photo Exhibition Takes Off in Seven Cities
It all started with an idea: to assemble images of various Palestinian locales, currently unreachable by almost all Palestinians, and to display them as part of a single artistic vision simultaneously in seven cities, thereby creating an experience that, in turn, transcends the imposed restrictions and fragmentation.
Depending on where they live, Palestinians find that most parts of the country are beyond their reach. Israel’s system of permanent, temporary, and random checkpoints and barriers, together with the Separation Wall and color-coded identification cards, make it impossible for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to move freely within the country. In practical terms, this means that a Palestinian in Nablus is not able to stroll through the Jerusalem market; a Hebron resident cannot drive to Acre to have lunch in a seafood restaurant; and the besieged and blockaded Gaza Strip is off limits to everyone except Gazans.
With these unnatural restrictions of movement in mind, a group of young Palestinians in disparate locations decided to collaborate on a project that would allow them collectively to artistically transport themselves into one visual space, transcending such imposed separations. The theme: daily life in the souq in seven cities—Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Jaffa, Nablus, Hebron, and Gaza. Souqs are ancient open-air markets found in Middle Eastern and African towns and cities, and in the narrow streets and alleys of the Palestinian souq, shops and stands sell wide assortments of handmade crafts, garments, ceramics, spices, coffee, fresh juices, pastries, delicious meals, and other items for every taste and budget. No visit to a Palestinian city would be complete without a visit to its traditional commercial and social hub.
And thus, “Souq Stories,” a unique and innovative exhibit in the Palestinian art arena, came to life, opening simultaneously June 24—July 2 in the seven cities depicted in the photos.
The organizers of the exhibit were 17 young Palestinians from the seven cities, all volunteers. They set up a selection committee of six talented individuals from the different areas, supervised by artist and Gaza curator Shareef Sarhan. The committee was tasked with selecting the most aesthetically pleasing submissions that most reflect the spirit and the everyday tales and stories of the seven souqs as experienced by local residents. More than two dozen young photographers submitted their work. The work of about 20 photographers was selected; for many, this was their first public exhibition.
Creating a Shared Space through Photography
The Souq Stories project was initiated by Insaniyyat, a society of Palestinian anthropologists “devoted to promoting anthropological inquiry among Palestinians and about Palestine and the rest of the world.”1 Funding was provided by Ta‘awon for Youth Foundation; Drosos; The Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds and The Nakba Archive, both at McGill University; and crowdfunding from local Palestinians.
In preparing for this project, the organizers knew that even if the photographers and attendees could not physically go to other locations, their photos would nevertheless be displayed and appreciated simultaneously in the different cities.
The committee ensured that a complete set of photographs was displayed in each city, so that the audiences could view the same images simultaneously. In this sense, everyone attended the same exhibit. However, the photos were displayed differently in each city. The Souq Stories Instagram page showed the different settings chosen for the exhibition in each city.
Organizing teams in each city determined how the photos would be displayed. In the Old City of Hebron, for example, the photos were displayed outside—across the alleyways of the old market and in front of the Old Municipality Building. In Nablus, the exhibition launched with a musical performance by a local scout group at the Manara Clock Tower. In Acre, too, the event was launched outside, near the historic al-Jazzar Mosque and included a music night and folkloric dance.
In Nazareth, the exhibition was presented across from Sibat al-Sheikh, not far from the White Mosque in the souq itself. In Jaffa, the exhibition was displayed indoors at deYaffa, a guest house in the lively flea market inside an ancient stone building. In Jerusalem, the exhibition was held at the African Community Society in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile in Gaza City, the launch started with a moment of silence for the 256 Palestinians who were killed and the 2,000 who were injured during the Israeli attack on Gaza in May 2021. The exhibit was held in the building that houses Shababeek, just off Omar Mukhtar Street, the main avenue in the city. Shababeek is an organization that champions the art movement in the Gaza Strip and provides space for young and emerging Palestinian artists to introduce the world to Gaza’s untold stories through art.
The photos themselves reflected intriguing uses of color and styles. Some of them were subtle portraits of merchants who are known in their cities. Others focused on the spaces themselves, while a few captured the products of the souqs. For example, they favored spots such as the al-Aqsa knafeh place in Nablus, and Jerusalem’s famous shop with the za‘atar pyramid.
Transformation of the Public Sphere into a Dynamic Space
“In the midst of the geographic fragmentation and internal distractions, we mulled over transforming the public sphere into a lively and dynamic shared space,” Amir Marshi explains. Amir is a researcher, independent activist, and cofounder of the project from Nazareth. “The story of the Palestinian souq is a blended yet unique story,” he notes. “It defies the incessant attempts of the Israeli occupation to separate the cities’ deep connections.”
Souq Stories has created space for aspiring Palestinian photographers to share the stories captured through their lenses. The young photographers as well as organizers were given free rein to select their themes, without being restricted by funding or other requirements.
The intriguing element in this process, Amir notes, is that “depicting community architecture hardly requires effort for Palestinians.” After all, the comprehensive image is already there: It is alive, harmonious, and does not necessitate adding any layers or generating foreign symbols. “The mere presence of ‘what is’ is more than enough for the seven cities to tell one collective story.”
This connection between the Palestinian markets became visible to viewers. In Nablus, a boy who had never been to Jerusalem stared at the exhibition’s photos and saw the similarities between the cities. Upon reflecting on the images, he reminisced about the possibilities and shared with Amir his “dream to go to Jerusalem one day.” Jerusalem, only 63 kilometers south of Nablus, has been off-limits to most Palestinians for years (see Jerusalem: A Closed City).
“The power of the exhibition is in its unity,” Areej Ashhab, 26, stresses. “This unity is the main treasure for the people who have grown to recognize it. We are all part and parcel of one another.” Areej is an architect from Jerusalem who personifies the connectedness that the project aims to reveal; she is originally from Hebron, was born and raised in Jerusalem, and has lived and worked in Jaffa; she worked as the main curator for the exhibit in all three cities. “Sometimes it is difficult to tell the location of one photo from another, architecturally speaking,” she notes. “There are lots of similarities, but of course also many differences.” She elaborates on how each of these cities is under either Palestinian or Israeli administration, with the exception of Jerusalem.
Reflections on the Exhibit
Generally speaking, the project aimed to strengthen Palestinian national unity; support Palestinian economy and revive the local markets; and activate Palestinian youth networks and movements.
“Such a project challenges our own conceptualization of art,” explains Abed al-Rahman Shabaneh, who helped curate the Jerusalem part of the exhibition. “Much of our understanding of art had been nudged by cultural institutions, which often have their own guidelines, expectations, or agendas. But this project has made us consider what has become of the abstract concept of ‘what is Palestine.’” In this regard, the project challenges the disconnect between Palestinians due to the fragmentation of their homeland and displacement of the people. “Such a project is able to solidify connections without being bothered so much with the titles or political details. It does this through opening up the space for creative connections,” Abed al-Rahman clarifies. That this project started as a voluntary initiative might explain its implementation, which comes across as natural and genuine.
Hazar Zughaier, who attended the exhibition at the African Community Society in the Old City of Jerusalem, shares her reflections on the mystifying energy of the souq of Jerusalem. “This is almost impossible to explain,” she says, “but I have come to believe that being in Jerusalem takes away negative energy. Whenever I’m going through a difficult time, stopping by the Old City of Jerusalem and walking by its lively markets somehow makes everything better.”
Moaz Ahmad al-Dissi (aka Moaz DC), a young talented photographer from Jerusalem whose photos were admired at the exhibition, speaks about the “visual nourishment” that Jerusalem as a city provides for thirsty photographers. A resident of Jerusalem who lives close to Jaffa Gate, Moaz expresses how Jerusalem, in its entirety, is what he describes as home. “Outside of Jerusalem, I am only a tourist. But in Jerusalem, I am at home.”
Jerusalem photographer Faten Jolani, 21, observes, “I always find myself discovering new things.” She is inspired by the architectural decorations, mosaics, and patterns she sees in the city as well as its physical dimensions. As a photographer, she finds that the souq and its people are part and parcel of the broader physical space.
Photographer Aref Massalha observes that the ka‘ek (bread) carts in Jerusalem and Nablus are almost identical. Aref is originally from Nazareth but has lived in Jerusalem for several years and now self-identifies as a Maqdisi. As a photographer looking at how the souqs were presented by his fellow artists in different cities, he found similarities between the markets and the correlations in Palestinian spaces.
Beyond the exhibit itself, one of the key achievements expressed by the organizers, photographers, and attendees alike has been networking and building solid connections. The project thus met the goal to activate Palestinian youth networks and movements.
Transcending Physical Boundaries
In addition to displaying the photos simultaneously in each of the seven cities, the Souq Stories team also organized social and cultural events in the different areas during the week, such as Palestinian films and guided tours.
Waed Abbas, 29, from Jerusalem, had a key role in bringing this project to life. She helped plan some of the cultural activities and educational tours that followed the exhibition. “Well-known places and faces of Jerusalem have made their way into the exhibition,” Waed notes, pointing to the photo displaying al-Dawi coffee spot by Damascus Gate. Waed works at Amnesty International as a research, campaigns, and communications assistant. Referring to the Souq Stories team of organizers and photographers, she shares that it has been gratifying to meet and become friends with like-minded individuals from all over Palestine.
This initiative has also instilled a sense of unity among those involved in some way with the exhibit. Despite the fragmentations of their homeland and the restrictions Israel imposes on their freedom of movement, connecting with like-minded Palestinians across the country breaks physical boundaries in unexpected ways.
“This is an experiment of the senses,” Amir notes. Indeed, many Jerusalemites often speak about the “scent” and “feel” of their city, which is not easily describable. “Such a photographic walk gives us the space to see ourselves once again.” The national fabric connecting these cities tells a shared story that challenges the Israeli state’s efforts designed to fragment, separate, and uproot the Palestinian people.