San Francisco Muralist Connects Bay Area Residents To Palestinian Life
The Bay Area has become known for its murals. Vibrant colors, intricate details, and a variety of styles tell the stories of San Francisco’s diverse communities. “Humanity is Key” tells the story of one artist’s homeland: Palestine.
In the Mission District, by the 101 at San Francisco’s upper market area, a mural covers three of the four sides of a building in the quiet Elgin Park neighborhood. Completing the mural took about six months. The artist, Chris Gazaleh, shows me around the building and explains the process of how it all came together.
“I didn't use any projectors or anything like that. I just measured out the building on a piece of paper and then just figured out where things should be. I just learned the wall,” Chris says. “It's like a mosaic, in a way. But it's not proportionate, it's not even. It's very random, it's more organic. But I like what that does. I like what that creates.”
Pedestrians walking to Elgin park from Market street can’t miss a major part of the mural, where Chris depicts Amal, the main character in the mural — a woman wearing a beautifully embroidered dress.
“The most intricate part of the piece is the dress. It’s her thob, which is the traditional Palestinian dress,” Chris says.
Thobs are normally handmade. The embroidered patterns, mostly geometric, and designs differ from one area of Palestine to another, forming an identity badge indicating a woman’s region. The history of the Palestinian embroidery and thobs can be traced to hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. And, historically, they told the story of village life and indicated a woman’s social status. For example, in some areas, the colors of embroidery would differ in dresses worn by unmarried women from those worn by married or widowed women. These days, Palestinian embroidery can be seen on modern clothing and household items.
The thob is worn at weddings and on special occasions and has become an icon of Palestinian pride and identity. In the mural, Amal’s off-white dress with dark red patterns was inspired by the traditional thob of the Ramallah area, which is where Chris’s family originally comes from.
He says Amal is the spirit of this mural, she’s the hero and the hope, a tribute to Palestinian women.
“Most of the people I know who are activists and working for Palestine are women, so I had to recognize that and pay homage to it,” Chris says.
In the mural, Amal is the Palestinian returning to the homeland. She carries an orange in one hand and a key in the other. The orange was a major crop in the coastal area of historic Palestine where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived and collaborated to maintain the beautiful orchards for generations.
As for the key, Chris says, “So, the key represents the right of return for people’s homes that they left or were kicked out of in 1948. She's handing the key to one of the kids who is climbing over, basically telling them, ‘let's go back home.’”
A central element of the mural, stretching across the building, is the image of a tall gray wall cutting through farmland. Representing what the Israeli government calls the security fence, or barrier, and what Palestinians call the apartheid wall. Israel began building the wall in 2002, and it’s projected to extend over almost 800 km, that's about 500 miles, cutting through Palestinian land. Chris says the wall is one of the most striking images of life in present-day Palestine.
“I had to put the wall on the building because I feel like it's the most important visual that people can pick up from the situation in Palestine. People don't talk about it a lot, it gets swept under the rug, people talk about everything else. But it's just another thing that we have to call out,” Chris says.
He came up with the idea for the wall after discussing it with Ron Dudum, the owner of the building whose family also came to the US from Palestine. They saw the wall as a display of the connection between struggles of communities of color in the US and those in their ancestral land.
“Because of this connection to what's happening here on the border in America with Trump and the wall here, it's an important thing. And the kids, the brown kids, they could be Mexican, they could be Arab, it doesn’t matter. So I think it should be able to speak out to everybody,” Chris says.
Kids are depicted on the mural climbing the wall. He says they’re yearning for freedom. Above them is a blue sky with Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Another quote is written on top of an orange sun that shines over farmland. It’s in Arabic, by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, and it says, “you can’t find the sun in a locked room.” Although Chris says there’s no bad time for speaking out, he sees the current political moment as an opportunity.
“There's a new platform for young kids, children of color and people of color in general, to feel like they have a place or can speak out. Trump is a blatant adversary. He makes how he feels so clear,” Chris says.
But, he says, racism has always been part of his life. Chris grew up between San Francisco and Detroit, Michigan. He recalls moving from Detroit to a predominantly white-suburb and coming home one day to find a swastika painted on his family’s home. Being Palestinian, and an Arab, in America meant navigating mostly negative stereotypes.
“No matter what, you're going to get stereotyped. If people are not sucked in by Fox News and they think that you’re a terrorist, then they're from the city and they think you own a liquor store,” Chris says.
Chris says his grandparents have had to hide their heritage at times. Especially when they first came to the US they would pretend to be from other countries in fear of being judged or harassed. They wouldn’t talk politics — they wanted to leave their traumas and their past experiences under occupation behind.
Chris, who is second generation Palestinian American, says he considers himself privileged compared to newer immigrants. That’s why he wants his art to stand for something.
“Being born and raised here, and even my parents being first generation . . . it has given me a little bit of an open door, to say whatever I want, in a way. And I see it as an advantage because many of my friends who are Arab or Palestinian, either they're first generation themselves or their parents came here, and so they learned how to be more quiet about their culture, or not be so outspoken about it,” Chris says.
I asked him why he thought that was the case. “Their parents are worried and they want them to fit in. They don't want them to have trouble, they want them to be able to get through life,” he says.
Chris’ mural art can be found all over San Francisco. He hopes that his cultural and political expression will inspire other youth of color to speak out against injustice and for compassion. That’s why he called his mural “Humanity is Key”, to emphasize that even in the face of violence and injustice we should never lose our humanity.
The mural is a story of belonging to the Bay, but also to our ancestral homelands.