Gimme shelter

“I was one of eight kids, and one of my fantasies was to live in an ark,” admits artist Ellen O’Grady, author of Outside the Ark: An Artist’s Journey in Occupied Palestine.

“The image was of a storm outside, but safety inside.”

These days, she’s probably not the only one who’s looking for a vessel of mythical proportions. But for this author, the symbolism of Noah’s Ark took a serious detour.

“I heard the story in Sunday school,” she related during a recent interview with Xpress. “All the kids were mesmerized, until one kid called out, ‘What about the bodies?'” In other words, those unfortunates who failed to make it aboard Noah’s floating menagerie. The teacher pooh-poohed the subject, but O’Grady had an epiphany: “As a kid, I suddenly saw the flip side.”

Girl meets world

“We’re all part of this Judeo-Christian culture, but we don’t often see all sides of these stories,” the artist imparts. And though right now it’s easy to draw parallels to the flood, what O’Grady wanted to wade through — as a college student in the 1980s — were the Old Testament fables that had moved her as a child. So, she went to Israel and Palestine.

“I was a theology major when I went to Jerusalem,” she notes. “I hardly knew where Palestine was in relation to Israel before I left.” In fact, O’Grady, more interested in Eastern spirituality, had planned a trip to Nepal. However, a travel advisory worried her parents. Hoping to win approval for Nepal by naming a more dangerous trip abroad, the artist suggested Jerusalem. Surprisingly, her parents bit and she was Middle East-bound.

“I became really involved over there. I became more aware of what the occupation [of Palestine] meant,” she says (see sidebar). After college, she returned to Palestine, where she worked and lived for years. Her jobs included teaching art at the Atfaluna School for the Deaf in Gaza City and at the Ramallah Friends School, in the West Bank.

“I felt it was my responsibility to tell people at home [in the U.S.] a little more about what’s going on,” O’Grady says. “[Americans] just don’t get the context. We might hear about a suicide bomber, but we don’t know what it’s like day-to-day for Israeli and Palestinian citizens.

“It’s so cliche[d] — but these are people just like you and me.”

Why a picture is worth so many words

O’Grady confesses she originally intended her book to be an academic tome, not an artistic tapestry of paintings and stories. “What’s now in the book was originally to help me cope,” she says, laughing. “But once I showed this to friends, they made it clear: This was my voice.”

The childish paintings, sometimes collaged with photos, illustrate poignant scenes of daily life in the war-scarred region. “Aseel’s Dream” uses vivid oranges and watery blues to show a young girl’s world of make-believe. In the midst of curfew, while her family sleeps, she flies out the window on the tail of a kite.

“Adnan and Mamoun,” which resembles Monet’s poppy fields, depicts three laborers in the shadow of a mammoth pair of combat boots.

Planning to commit her travels to paper, the author decided first to take another trip back to Gaza. “I knew it was time for me to share my experiences, but it had been six years since I’d been there,” she says. “I went back in 2002, partially as a response to 9/11. [I was] concerned about what would happen next, and afraid of further demonization of Arabs.”

What she found was that the occupation had progressed. Distressed by the situation, she returned home, taking solace in art — the art that would become her book.

Personal politics

Far from sharing the cerebral text she’d envisioned, O’Grady on book tour now shies away from too much CNN-style discussion of the Middle East peace process. “Since I first went [to Palestine] in 1986, I’ve been struggling with these questions and trying to share these stories. Where am I in this, as a U.S. citizen? I’m not innocent.”

She says that audiences, prior to the current disengagement process, asked questions that revealed their hopes for peace. But the new political climate “doesn’t change how I tell stories,” O’Grady insists. “I think there’s a temptation to sometimes answer people’s questions with political analysis I’ve read, but that’s not my voice. I try to bring it back to what the kids [in Palestine] are feeling, or what a friend of mine in Gaza is experiencing.”

For this author, keeping things simple has a profound effect. “Liberation is only going to come to all of us — to me — by understanding the other person is basically like me.

“It’s always the poor people who suffer most. So I tell their stories.”

History on the fly

“Jewish immigration to the Holy Land increased dramatically after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust,” reads a passage on the Time Europe Web site ( This swell of Judaism among the Arab population led to Palestine being placed under U.N. supervision in 1947.

It’s hard to get a good grip on the slippery struggle between Israel and Palestine — some sources claim Palestine never really existed. Propaganda for both sides abounds. And because Muslims and Jews couldn’t reach an agreement on how to divide Palestine — a narrow wedge of sand that both claim as holy land — fighting ensued. For the next six decades.

Highlights include:

• The 1940s mass exodus of Palestinians to neighboring countries, where they lived in refugee camps.

• Israel, with the help of the U.S. and France, nabbed the Egyptian-controlled Gaza strip in 1956 — and was forced to return it.

• Israel in 1967 enacted a preemptive strike and captured the West Bank, along with Old Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

• Egypt and Syria trounced Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, but only managed to capture a small amount of territory.

• In 1979 the Camp David Accord (a peace agreement) was signed.

• In 1980 Israel claimed all of Jerusalem as its “eternal and indivisible” capital, then annexed the Golan Heights, invaded Lebanon and sent settlers to the West Bank — which really peeved the Muslims, thus resulting in the Hezbollah militia.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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