For more than forty years after emigrating to the United States, Palestinian immigrant Faisal Saleh hunkered down, earning two college degrees and running a successful human resources corporation. About eight years ago, however, that began to change.
“I was not involved in Palestinian activities for many years,” Saleh says in an interview, “but after selling my company in 2010, I felt it was time to do something for my people.”
That something became the Palestine Museum US, the first museum dedicated to Palestinian art, culture, and history in the United States. Located in a building Saleh owns in Woodbridge, Connecticut, the 5,000-square-foot museum is a showcase for paintings, photographs, historical materials, sculpture, and intricately embroidered wall hangings and clothing made by Palestinian artists.
“Palestinians in the U.S. are either ignored by the media or cast in a negative light that dehumanizes us,” Saleh says. “By focusing on violence and terrorism, the idea that we’re human beings, with talents in the arts, has been lost. The museum hopes to change the discourse and give visitors a window into Palestinian life that is not polarizing.”
The museum, which opened in April, addresses the displacement of Palestinian families that occurred when Israel was founded in 1948. It includes photos from the 1850s and early 1900s, most taken by European tourists, which offer black-and-white proof that Palestine was not “a land without people” awaiting development.
Indeed, among the museum’s exhibits is the 1939 passport and business ledger that once belonged to Saleh’s father, illustrating what existed before the Israeli state was created.
“I’m the youngest of eleven children,” Saleh relates. “I was born in 1951, three years after my family became refugees. My parents went from being proud landowners, with orange and banana groves in a village called Salomah, to being nobodies. They lost all of their belongings, but the economic loss pales when compared to the emotional loss, the anguish of being robbed of a national identity.”
Saleh hopes that by viewing the museum’s art, objects, and artist statements, museum visitors will begin to understand who the Palestinians are and draw their own conclusions about the political turmoil that has impacted the region for seventy years.
“We’ve shown what a Palestine museum can look like and have proved that the concept can succeed.”
“Americans like art,” Saleh continues, “and by talking art we can get people’s attention and introduce them to the Palestinian cause.” Moreover, “Palestinians in the U.S. see the museum as a sort of shrine . . . important from a spiritual and identity point of view.” What’s more, he sees the museum as a prototype that will inspire others to open Palestinian museums in other locales. “We’ve shown what a Palestine museum can look like and have proved that the concept can succeed,” he says.
Nonetheless, Saleh concedes that getting the museum off the ground was difficult. He spent more than $500,000 of his own money to design the space and collect the art on display, much of it shipped from Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, or other areas of the Middle East.
The art is not primarily political.
“We didn’t want art with flags or political slogans on it,” Saleh says, “because we feel that it is sufficient to present work—abstract expressionist, landscapes, portraits, mixed media, photos, murals, in a variety of sizes and styles and using a variety of materials—as long as it was created by Palestinians.”
Palestine Museum US currently features work by diverse artists, from eighteen-year-old Gaza-born painter Malak Mattar to eighty-seven-year-old Palestinian-American graphic designer Rajie Cook. Saleh stresses that he also wanted to include art created by artists abroad, in Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, and refugee camps throughout the world.
But there is one exception, Saleh notes: The museum includes work by American Margaret Olin, a non-Palestinian photographer who spent 2014 to 2017 in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in the West Bank, documenting everyday life for the camp’s 13,000 residents.
Other exhibited photographers, such as Najib Joe Hakim, stayed closer to home, creating a series of portraits of Palestinian-Americans living in the San Francisco Bay area. An artist’s statement attests to his dual identity. On one hand, Hakim writes, he has “profound appreciation for what the U.S. has offered in rights and opportunities.” At the same time, he sees the need to change “the harsh and unjust reality of America’s policies toward Palestine.”
Hakim—like virtually every artist showcased in the museum—wants people to appreciate the humanity of people of Palestinian descent. His medium is documentary photography; others use different art forms to spread this basic message.
Painters Mohammad Harb and Samia Halaby use bold, bright colors while artist Omar Najjar uses somber greys, as if the world he inhabits is in deep mourning. Others, including Clotilde Abudi, reprise traditional embroidery, with intricate multi-colored patterns decorating fabric for wall hangings and apparel. Still others use the titles of abstract work to hammer the point: Halaby’s “Our Beautiful Land of Palestine Stolen in the Night of History” is but one example.
Not all of the art is intended to convey a message: Suzan Bushnaq’s “The Never Ending Talk, Musical Track” and “Friends” have a psychedelic quality and depict women bathed in pink, orange, blue, and green. Similarly, Sana Tahboub’s “Streets of Jerusalem” series shows the physical beauty of this urban enclave.
“There are a lot of groups that work on political issues facing Palestine, but from a cultural and artistic point of view, there was a vacuum,” Saleh says. “The idea of the museum is to show people who the Palestinians really are in terms of artistic expression. Showing original art by emerging and established Palestinian artists establishes our community’s creativity.”
So far, it seems to be working. “We’re a shoestring operation but interest in the museum is growing and we have thousands of Facebook and Instagram followers,” Saleh says. “I am really pleased with how this has unfolded.”
Palestine Museum US, located at 1764 Litchfield Turnpike in Woodbridge, Connecticut, is open Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. and by appointment. Admission is free.
Award-winning journalist Eleanor J. Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York and writes for Truthout.org, Lilith Magazine and blog, Rewire. News, Kirkus Reviews, Theasy.com, and numerous other progressive print and online publications.