Palestinian learns to make recycled art in prison

A young Palestinian pays his way through university selling recycled art he learned to make while in an Israeli prison.

Sheren Khalel | | Arts & Culture, Palestine

Bethlehem, Occupied West Bank - Ghassan al-Azzeh was arrested by Israeli occupation forces and sent to prison when he was only 16 years old. As a young teen in an adult detention facility, al-Azzeh was lost until a group of older artists, also Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, took him in.

Al-Azzeh was interested in art before he was arrested, but did not take the craft seriously until it became his only reprieve from the daily life of prison.

"They taught me so much about making art in prison. We didn't have real art materials, so they showed me how to make brown sugar packets into beautiful portraits," al-Azzeh said from his cramped backyard workshop in Beit Jibrin refugee camp.

"This rock," he said, picking up a stone half the size of his calloused palm, "would have been a treasure in the prison. The guys taught me how to make all of kinds of things from carving a rock like this."

Al-Azzeh was released from prison three years later, but did not forget his craft. Once back in the real world, the young man continued to make art from recycled material.

"I like to take recycled things and make them into something new. Art can be a way of resistance - it's my way of resistance," he said.

In addition to his political artwork, al-Azzeh has also taken to making polished furniture out of pallet wood found throughout the city.

His most recent project, a desk for one of his professors at Birzeit University, sat half finished on the back porch of his home. The dark stain and polished wood of the desk had been smoothed down so artfully it was difficult to imagine the piece was crafted from scrap pallets like those stacked up on the side of his narrow workshop.

Al-Azzeh commissions art by word-of-mouth as well as a Facebook group called Made in Camp. His work has been fruitful enough to help him pay the off his tuition fees for his completed bachelor's degree and near-completed master's.

While he has almost completed his master's in Democracy and Human Rights, his love lies with his art: "I'm mostly getting these degrees for my mother," he laughed. "She wants me to be educated and finish my studies, but my work and my passion is art."

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