*Palestinian painter and storyteller
My grandfather, Abdel-Dayem Ayoub Abdel-Aal, began his life journey in 1948 when he left his home and birth village, al-Ghabisiyah, in northern Palestine. He was just nine years old. He and his family settled in Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. They lived in tents, like everyone else, and he went to school in a big tent. The boys gathered under it and were taught by ad-hoc teachers, or by students who were older than them. At school, he would draw images from primary school books on notebooks, paper, and wrappings of canned foods distributed by UNRWA to the inhabitants of the camp. These materials allowed him to give up drawing on dirt, wood, and other things. This was the beginning of his childhood journey with art.
The living conditions in the camp were harsh, forcing him to leave school and work with his father, who was a blacksmith. Once the canvas tents were replaced by concrete blocks, the camp became a pile of concrete houses. Abdel-Dayem thought about changing his profession. As a young man of 20, he chose construction as an occupation, because it was the closest to his hobby and talent of drawing.
After building houses and painting on paper and cardboard, he dreamed of the city, like any young man in the camp. He would steal time from his busy days to wander in the wide streets of Tripoli, the closest city to Nahr el-Bared. There, he met a Lebanese calligrapher who decided to teach him the technique and types of Arabic calligraphy. He embraced the dream of becoming a calligrapher in the camp. He did not know then the relation between Arabic calligraphy and drawing. Yet he achieved his dream, and was the only calligrapher in the camps with the knowledge of the new calligraphy techniques. He began to draw signs for shops and schools, and banners for political and national events and commemorations that were hung in the streets of the camp. But for financial reasons, calligraphy never became his main profession.
As he grew older and his responsibilities increased, he traveled to Iraq to earn a living as a worker in a construction company. In Baghdad, the ancient capital of Harun al-Rashid, he found a fertile ground for his talent, especially on al Mutanabbi Street, the street of painters, artists, musicians and calligraphers, where bookstores and publishing houses abound and books are displayed on the sidewalks. The atmosphere was right for him to look for books and to learn about the calligraphy styles and the works of artists displayed on the street. This way, his drawing talent grew and developed.
Since necessity is the mother of invention, he was forced to invent drawing materials with his own hands and to make his tools from household objects. Using flaxseed oil, turpentine, and zinc, he mixed paints with the pigments that he wanted. I used to hear him classify paint colors with special names, such as warm and cold, and describe the art of mixing colors and creating new colors, as well as the craft of shading, lighting, shaping, and movement in every work of art. His drawer was filled with cans of oil colors, including what he produced and packaged in toothpaste tubes after emptying them. He would also bring bird feathers and use them as quills for calligraphy. He would make his brushes from toothbrushes because he could not afford expensive painting tools on his modest budget.
He had special rituals in painting. He built a private room on the roof of his house away from the noise of the children and grandchildren, a room entirely of wood: the tables, the chairs, the studio, and the library shelves. The latter held Al-Arabi magazines, heritage and history books, Jurji Zaydan volumes, translated international novels, books on the Muslim conquests, One Thousand and One Nights and other seminal Arab books.
He never sought the limelight. He would decline offers to hold art exhibitions in Beirut and Tripoli, preferring to disappear with his paintings in his room. We were attracted to his remote room. The roof was our only playground because there were no spaces around the houses, and the houses in the camp were small. As we went up the stairs, we looked into his room from the window. We liked its old furniture and could feel that it was different and special, not like the rooms we were used to in the camp or anywhere else.
He was part of a group of friends who loved culture. They met in the home of one of them and talked about art, literature, poetry, and politics. He passed on to his children and grandchildren not only his art but also his love of culture and literature, and he provided for them an artistic environment that allowed them to become artists and intellectuals like him. His paintings speak of the place: the buildings, the houses, and the trees. In each painting there is a trace of a place in the camp, or in Palestine; for images of the latter he would look in magazines and old paintings by Orientalists.
Years after his return to Lebanon, during the 2007 events in Nahr el-Bared after a terrorist force ignited the fighting in the camp, my grandfather’s room on the roof of the house was destroyed and he moved out of the camp. He spent his days in a bad mood. He always asked about the camp and its good people whom he loved, and at the same time about his room, which contained his childhood memories and a trace of al-Ghabisiyah, his village, the start of every story he told me. But he returned to the camp again before the reconstruction began. He found his room destroyed. Many of the paintings were burned and or damaged with shrapnel. However, he did not despair; he restored the room to the way it was, and re-bound some books, having removed their worn ash-covered covers. And the paintings again adorned his room.
His health deteriorated recently, and it has not improved despite receiving a gift of oil paints intended to help him resume painting. He complained that his eyesight and lungs no longer helped his hands. And so he left us and his room on October 11, 2018. But his paintings still adorned its walls, speaking of the memory of colorful Palestine in his eyes until his last breath.