November 8, 2006: Perspective

(Illustration by Tomasz Walenta)

Cultural diplomacy
Viewing loss, conflict, and human connection through Palestinian art

By Jessica Robertson Wright ’99

Jessica Robertson Wright ’99 is a curator at the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development in Washington, D.C.

It never crossed my mind during my undergraduate years in Princeton’s art history department that I would have the job that I do now, and frankly, it is a real conversation killer. I dread Sunday nights the most, when during the meet-and-greet time at the church that my husband and I attend in Washington, D.C., I tell people what I do. My explanation does not quite fit with the usual variations on the theme of “I moved up from the South and am working for Representative/Senator So-and-So.” When the question comes up, I take a deep breath and say, “I work for a Palestinian non-profit organization.” This is usually followed by a head snap from the person asking the question and a narrow-eyed “Hmmm, that’s in-ter-est-ing.”

I know people wonder what a good, Christian, all-American-looking girl is doing joining the ranks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and whether an intervention is needed to save my soul. With reactions ranging from bugged-out eyes to shocked silence, I have started tempering my response to the job question by mumbling that I work for a Middle Eastern nonprofit. However, my husband, who loves to rile people up and dismisses my soft-pedaling, usually leans over when he hears me and chimes in with a hearty “It’s a Palestinian organization.” And there the conversation dies.

I work for the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, a Washington-based organization that was founded in the 1970s by the late Georgetown professor and leading Palestinian intellectual Hisham Sharabi. The Jerusalem Fund is a humanitarian, educational, and cultural organization that strives to relate the Palestinian experience in all its fullness and complexity to a U.S. audience. It was started as a scholarship organization to assist Palestinian students in their quest for higher education. (Incidentally, Palestinians remain the most highly educated people in the Arab world.) The organization’s activities then expanded to include a grants program to assist humanitarian and health organizations in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel; an educational program that provides analysis of the conflict; and a cultural program that showcases traditional and contemporary Palestinian and Palestinian-American art. While the organization is not affiliated with any political or religious group in the Middle East or United States, its being “Palestinian” — a word often synonymous here with terrorism and extremism — means that my choice to work there is loaded. Its inclusion on my résumé likely will raise some red flags in future job interviews.

So why have I chosen to take this risk? I think about Princeton’s motto “In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,” and cannot help but see a direct correlation between that important call and what I do now. I am an American who was born and raised in Jordan and educated in Arab schools, where I received a solid education along with a healthy dose of anti-American rhetoric. I never took the latter to heart because I knew that perceptions and realities could be widely divergent. In my travels back to the United States, I often was confronted with either absurd stereotypes (Did I live in a tent and ride a camel to school?) or complete ignorance (“Jordan? What high school is that?”). From a very young age, I could see that there was a broad chasm between the two worlds that I inhabited, one that has only grown more pronounced in recent years.

In my study of art history at Princeton, it did not occur to me that my love for art could converge with my desire to promote cross-cultural understanding. After a somewhat unfulfilling internship at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, coupled with directives to learn French and German if I wanted to get anywhere in the academic world of art history, I decided that a career in the arts was not for me. It wasn’t until five years after graduation, when I landed my current position as the cultural coordinator and gallery curator at the Jerusalem Fund, that the seemingly random pieces of my interests finally fell together into a coherent job.

My task is to curate exhibits in Washington that showcase contemporary art by Arab and Arab-American artists, with a specific emphasis on Palestinian artists. The goal of these exhibits is to communicate the complexity, creativity, and sophistication of modern Arab and Palestinian culture to an audience that has a fairly limited and monolithic understanding of what that means. I have found that even the most globally inclined Washington folks don’t know that this art even exists. There is a baseline of knowledge about the traditional Islamic arts of calligraphy, textiles, manuscripts, and tile work, but truly no awareness of contemporary artistic production. I also organize a full program of film screenings, musical performances, dance recitals, and literary events. The principle that guides my choices of artists, films, books, and music is this: What messages do the artists communicate about their identities that can advance a greater awareness of and appreciation for an area of the world that often terrifies people?

My job is all the more challenging because the Palestinian question is the most inflammatory and the most profoundly misunderstood of all the issues of the Middle East. Because of that, Palestinian artists are marginalized in the artistic community, and the mere mention of showing their work can mean a flood of negative and misleading publicity. Curators brave enough to move forward with Palestinian-specific shows have had to withstand threats of withdrawal of funding, boycotting of exhibits, demonstrations, and the like. When the exhibits do go forward, the responses are consistently positive, empathetic, and sincere in their appreciation for a body of work that rarely has been seen before. Expectations of seeing hate-filled, extremist exhibits crumble upon encountering works that are profoundly human and draw on universal experiences of loss, exile, and longing for home. Most exhibits feature accompanying talks and events that contextualize the work and allow the public to interact with some of the terribly complex issues exposed by this protracted conflict.

So why do I view my work as I do in light of Princeton’s call to service? Because I believe that I am engaging in cultural diplomacy during a critical time in our country’s history, and am contributing in a meaningful way to a dialogue that often misses the most essential points of connection and understanding. Artists, be they musicians, filmmakers, writers, or painters, have often led the way in questioning narratives and their legitimacy, and have had an important role in shaping social, cultural, and political assumptions. Their work is essential to our understanding not only of ourselves, but also of the world we inhabit. I love what I do because I have seen how artistic expression can disarm the harshest critics, how it can educate in powerful and humane ways about complex conflicts, and how it can tell a personal story that causes change in people, one person at a time. end of article



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