My life as a refugee from Palestine, the Gaza Strip, living in Istanbul under the Covid-19 lockdown

Malak Mattar - Gaza-Istanbul

Malak Mattar, 20, is a painter from the Gaza Strip, Palestine. She started painting at the age of 13, during the 51-day Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2014. When she wrote this piece, she was studying in Istanbul, and continuing to paint. She went back to Gaza to her family for the Eid festival in 2021 and has been stuck there ever since because of the Israeli attack. Her some 300 works which have been shown in exhibitions all over the world, as well as on social media including Instagram and Facebook.

I wish to talk about what life is like being under lockdown and having to communicate over the phone with your family, who currently live under a brutal military siege

Born in late 1999 and raised in the Gaza Strip, I lived through military occupation, siege and three major wars and 8 large scale military operations, along with almost weekly bombings. During these times we were forced to stay home no matter how urgent the reason for going outside.

The life I have lived has led me to unique perspective on the world, but also many mental scars. During the last war waged against the Gaza Strip in 2014, I began to sketch and to paint. I was suffering an immense combination of emotions during that period. I was stuck inside, in a form of lockdown and waiting like all of us to receive news about where had been bombed, who had been affected and whether my home would be next.

At this time, I received a gift, a watercolour set. I began randomly sketching and eagerly putting brush on paper, cardboard, finally canvas, whatever I could find. Through this discovery, creating works of art not only relieved me from the mental exhaustion of war, but it also helped me to express myself in a way I had never experienced before. I was hooked and began to pursue this as a profession.

Now, I realize that like everyone else in Gaza I was living since birth in a kind of lockdown and confinement, not because of a virus but because of the Israeli occupation and brutal politics.

After finishing high school and receiving the highest grades in the Gaza Strip, being one of the top marks in all of Palestine, I managed to eventually receive a partial scholarship to study International Relations in Istanbul in 2017. This meant that I had to leave my home and family, in pursuit of a better education due to the conditions in Gaza, which have been described by UN experts at the United Nations as unlivable. I left Gaza, now living as a student, a two-time/double refugee, I’m a Palestinian refugee in Gaza but legally staying in Turkey as a student).Let me explain why I say double: I was born the grandchild of Palestinian refugees who were expelled from my family's native village of Al-Jura, taken by Israel in 1948. My family was ethnically cleansed from our lands and we are registered as refugees by UNRWA. I feel I have now been displaced again in a sense that I cannot simply return to my homeland as a result of the crippling policies against Gaza. Even though I have a student visa for Turkey, which is more than what Syrian or Afghan refugees have, my passport is not internationally recognized. I exist in a bureaucratic limbo.

Life in Istanbul consists of constant ups and downs, something which the pandemic has intensified. I believe the best way to describe my emotional journey here, living in Istanbul, is as a love-hate relationship. A relationship with the city, in which I experience and absorb the inspiring and spiritual beauty of Istanbul, yet I am still not able to feel as if I am properly integrated into Turkish society. I have only a few friends and can’t help but feel that my existence in Istanbul is looked down upon as I am a refugee. This is because Turkey is home to a huge number of Syrian, Palestinian and Afghani refugees and residents, which are portrayed as a burden on the native Turkish population, even more so in the lockdown.

Living in Istanbul as a student is especially tough, due to the intensive courses, the assignments and exams I have to pass. Because of financial precarity, I have to shoulder many responsibilities in my personal life as well, which can be challenging to say the least. However, on the contrary, my existence in Istanbul as an artist has been interesting. I’m also very much enjoying the progress and the changes I’m seeing in my artwork since I left the Gaza Strip. Turkish art, architecture and culture have all influenced my artwork. Of course, now all this only exists on my computer.

As an artist I often paint self-portraits, inspired by my emotion and expression of what I feel the need to communicate to the world. When I paint, I always do so with the Gaza Strip present in my heart and mind as I always recall the memories I have of my family, my art studio and the port of Gaza. Since Palestine is where I started painting and this was an escape from the intense emotions associated with the war, I carry this in my heart when I am in a creative mood.

The hardest part of life of an artist is the business side of it, where I have to make a living of selling my art and speaking in different universities and public spaces. It is indeed a big responsibility, especially with inflation affecting rent, food and art material- and prices have shot up since the appearance of Coronavirus. As a student and artist, I have no financial support from my university or any organization, which makes the burden even bigger having to spend years of studying and also follow-up with my artwork and international exhibitions. Add to this the coronavirus pandemic which put me and the rest of the world in confinement. Now, because of this and the closing of borders everywhere , four of my trips to Europe and the USA have been cancelled, which means I won’t be able to make enough to live for the rest of this year. Communication through internet, especially Facebook helps me to keep alive my connections to potential collectors.

Despite this, as an artist, I see beauty around me as an inspiration for my artwork, stories of people I connect with on social media, successful people also motivate me as well. I love seeing artwork of different artists from the past and present. Currently, I focus on the philosophy of Picasso, who said something very important and pertinent to this time in history,namely that we should stop waiting for the moment of inspiration, because inspiration will find you working.

The pandemic in Turkey is spreading so fast and seeing the numbers of confirmed cases and rising death rate is stressful. I chose to remain in for a half-week self-isolation because of the lockdown imposed by the Turkish government while the rest of the week I barely go out meaning I can’t go out for a walk, buy food from the market or get art supplies. It’s suffocating sometimes, because for an artist seeing new things and experiencing different emotions is very important. I believe seeing the same things over and over again would lead to similar pieces of art, because what makes the artwork different is the emotions a discovery brings.

The pandemic in the Gaza Strip, where all of my family lives, is spreading quickly despite the precautions taken by the government, placing all newcomers in quarantine for three weeks. So far in September there are 1551 confirmed cases and 10 deaths. It stresses me out seeing the number increasing as I’m scared for my family and my people knowing that the Gaza Strip is very tiny but very crowded, which means a confirmed case can lead to rapid growth of infections and deaths of vulnerable people. The Gaza Strip is not capable of dealing with this pandemic due to the shortage of medicine, ventilators and electricity. It’s very important to mention that the hospitals are already crowded with severely injured people - shot by Israel during the ‘Great March of Return’ since March 2018. Unfortunately, if a vulnerable person gets infected with Covid-19, there is little chance he/she will survive in Gaza.

I feel very concerned about the Gaza Strip, I read the news on Gaza more than I do for Turkey, because I’m pretty aware of how sensitive the situation is there. I was planning this year to take the risk of traveling to Gaza to be with my family for the summer vacation as it’s been a long time since I 've seen them, unfortunately I will no longer be able to do it this year and maybe not next year either. And I miss them terribly. This December, it will be my third year living in Turkey without being able to return home. It's very sad that my home in Gaza is caged and besieged.

As I speak with my parents and siblings under lockdown, they are very bored and feeling suffocated and worried. Regardless of the number of confirmed or unconfirmed cases, my family is very cautious and is taking precautions to avoid the virus. In Gaza, unlike many places in the world, there is no online class system for schools and universities, which means students can’t use the time to study and keep themselves busy. In Turkey, I’m enrolled in Political Science and International Relations courses. There are a variety of courses that I take, for example Mathematics, Economy, History of Civilization, Foreign policy, Turkish language, Political science and international Law. While I enjoy some of the courses like Economy and Mathematics, there are courses that I really don’t enjoy like International Law.

The reality is, that if I was even able to get into Gaza right now, due to the siege I could find myself stuck there endlessly and as a minimum lose the rest of my university year in Istanbul, especially if there was to be any escalation or war.

Living as a refugee here in Istanbul, during this lockdown, I reflect on my memories of war spent with my family and in my art studio, whilst living in Gaza. Knowing what war feels like, despite the current stressful condition of the world, I feel safe. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have nowhere to escape from the bombings, even whilst being locked-down in their houses. Thousands of children, the elderly and women have lost their lives to a different strain of virus, called Occupation, that has lasted for 72 years.

Associating the situation in Gaza with the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, I painted a picture entitled and showing “The Mother and Child from Gaza”. It depicts a Palestinian mother with her baby both with their faces covered with gas masks. I myself was one of those affected by Israeli chemical weapons, which stopped my thyroid from working and led to a major operation recently. Not only does this piece reflect the current situation that the world is going though, due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, but shares a perspective of the situation in which Palestinians have been living in under occupation, having to use gas masks to avoid gas and chemical weapons employed against them, rather than masks protecting against the spread of a simple virus.