The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Muralists bring Palestinian experience to Olympia

Chris Allert, Works in Progress, February 2008

The Olympia-Rafah Mural Project is an official recognition by the people of Olympia, Washington of the sister city relationship that exists with the city of Rafah, Palestine. Through the act of creating a collaborative public mural, we will express our desire for Palestinian self-determination, which is rooted in honoring the common struggles for global justice faced by marginalized people everywhere. By upholding rights for all, we seek to break down barriers to understanding, increase visibility for Palestinian people, encourage imagination, embrace the hope and courage of Rachel Corrie, and bring people together in one voice for change. (Click here for Olympia Rafah Mural Project site) Currently, we are in the process of negotiating an arrangement with a landlord for a downtown location for the mural.

Break the Silence Mural and Arts Project (BTS) is an arts/activist group committed to using creative projects to facilitate social change and greater awareness of the complexities of the conflict in Occupied Palestine. (

Susan Greene has been painting murals for over 20 years. She is a founding member of Break The Silence Mural and Arts Project, a psychologist, and she directs the learning center at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Lisa Nessan has taken part in several delegations to Palestine, and is a member of Break The Silence, and posts her photography and writing at]

Chris Allert: When did you start painting murals? Was that before you got involved in Palestine Solidarity?

Susan Greene: Yes, I started painting murals when I was in college at SUNY Binghamton. Even before that I was fascinated by them, these big giant paintings, and the whole community thing. I was very ambivalent about art that people put in galleries. I wanted to do art that was connected to life. Murals really seemed like a marriage between art and politics. I was definitely trying to find my way as a muralist before Palestine. By the time I got involved in Palestine, that was the way that I worked.

CA: Are you Jewish? When did you start thinking about Palestine? How were you introduced to it?

SG: Yes, both my parents are Jewish.

I think I always had a discomfort with what was happening there, but I didn’t know that much. I’ve been an activist for a long time, using mural painting as a community organizing tool, as a way to resist.

In the early 1980s I read The Question of Palestine by Edward Said. I had a kind of colonial/imperial critique of the world, I was seeing things through that lens of imperialism and colonialism. It was not a big leap to Palestine at all.

But going there was a transformative experience. I lived in a refugee camp for three months with three other Jewish American women in 1989 during the first Intifada. That experience of life under military occupation, which is in my name, in the name of a Jewish homeland, and at the expense of the Palestinians, who really welcomed us with open arms, who were very gracious, who told us all kinds of stories about their lives—everyone we met was a refugee—they told us about their lives before they were exiled from their villages where they had Jewish neighbors. We heard about this other time, while perhaps not perfect, people basically lived in relative peace and harmony. It was Zionism that really changed things. The betrayal that older people felt and the pain they felt about what had happened was profound.

We talked to a lot of people and painted six or seven murals during that three month period. What we painted really came out of our discussions with people, what we heard from people. The murals were all community based, so we worked with people to design and paint each one. Some of them were very quick ones, and then this one in the Popular Arts Center in Al Biereh, which is right next to Ramallah was much more detailed, and we worked on that one steadily for the entire three months.

And then we had an opening, which was illegal, because Palestinians at that time weren’t allowed to gather in groups larger than three. There were a couple hundred people at the opening. At every turn we saw how difficult life was for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the name of a safe haven for the Jews. The whole thing was Kafkaesqe. Watching soldiers with Yarmulkes on their heads shoot at Palestinian schoolchildren—it was wrenching. As a Jew, I’m not religious, but I certainly identify as a Jew culturally, it was hard to see that. Israel presents itself, describes itself, perceives itself in a very different way. They think they are a very kind people, a fair people, a just people. And then to see what that really means—it’s not so different from things here, the way that the American society absolutely denies the success that it has based on the oppression of other people.

CA: Did you hear the news when the City Council rejected the Sister City Relationship with Rafah?

SG: Yes, I watched it online. The day that the hearing happened, I was right there. It was not surprising, and it was also disturbing. There were many more people speaking in favor than against. But there were people speaking against it, and with the most spurious reasons for being against it, like “it’s making our community divisive,” or “the government there is in favor of violence.” It’s such a contradiction, because there are other sister city relationships that Olympia has, with governments who are very guilty of human rights abuses. But people were lining up, and people were eloquent, speaking in favor of it.

CA: Where were you when you heard Rachel died? What did you think of it at the time?

Lisa Nessan: I was at a friend’s house in San Francisco. My friend Rob called me. I was homeless at the time because I’d just come back from Palestine. I was hanging out in the City a lot because there was a lot of talk about the war. It was going to be any day now. And I remember he called, and he said, “The Israelis fucking did it.”

“What did they do?”

“They killed an American. 23 year-old woman from Olympia.”

And I said, “Oh my god, who was it?” because I had just been there, and he said, “Rachel Corrie.”

And I said “I met that girl. I know that girl.”

I walked away from my friends, went and sat outside on their front porch, and I said “Can I call you later?”

Then I just sat there and cried for a long time.

It could have been me. It could have been any of us. Then I started calling everyone I knew to organize a response to this.

SG: When I had heard this, I had a sense that the impossible had happened. Before I had a sense that because I’m an American, I’m invincible, I’m safe. It really was a line that was crossed when that happenned that really shocked people. I think that was the intention. It’s an old, tried and true method, that if you sacrifice someone, it really scares people.

Pretty soon after that, I thought I’d like to try to do a mural there.

CA: What was your connection to Rafah and to Olympia before and after Rachel died?

SG: I had no connection at all to Olympia except that I liked the band Sleater-Kinney. So up until this particular event, that was about it. I had been to Gaza once before [July 2002]. I interviewed a kid whose family were all killed. He was one of the only surviving members of his family, standing in the rubble right where his bedroom was.

Then I worked in Beit Hanoun, with some kids, and did an art class there. I went to Rafah one day and we saw the checkpoint to Egypt.

Then the following summer I tried to go back, and they wouldn’t let me in. And I think that was partly related to what happened to Rachel. They wouldn’t let any foreigners in after that.

CA: You had about a week to spend in Rafah to paint the mural in 2005.

SG: Cindy said that when Khaled Nasrallah was here, and he saw the trees, he said some thing like “Rachel left paradise to come to us.”

Part of what’s enticing to me about trying to do this project is the very dramatic difference between Olympia and Rafah, and how now these two cities are very inextricably linked, because of this tragedy. People now know each other, who under “normal” circumstances never would.

If it wasn’t for what is happening in Palestine, I don’t think I ever would have gone there in the first place. Although I love Cindy deeply, I never should have met her, really. I never should have met you either.

CA: How did you come up with the design for the mural in Rafah? There’s a hand reaching for the sky that’s also a tree. Rachel’s face is in the wrist. There are salmon to the right and left, and there are doves in the sky. The roots of the tree show, there are chains breaking, and there’s also a key above the hand.

SG: People in Rafah suggested the different images, and so many of these, like the roots going down into the ground, are common in Palestinian resistance art. We didn’t have the luxury of time, really, but we had the pressure of time, which can be a good thing. People did drawings, and then we created a collage of all the drawings. We were working with a lot of artists and they all had their own ideas. We worked with the Rafah artist union, and some people came from Khan Younis.

CA: Do you see the Palestinian struggle connected to the Native American Struggle? Have you done much work with Native Americans?

SG: I hope to do more. I’ve started to work more intentionally with Native Americans. Recently Break the Silence did this art exhibit called “Internal Exile” which was a show of Palestinian, Native American, and Latino art on the subject of internal exile, this idea of people being colonized in their own land. That was really great because people came from different communities that normally don’t gather in the same space. It was about making these connections that we will be building on. It’s a very natural connection and people felt it easily.

CA: You’ve come under pressure for murals that you’ve done. Did you have to remove images of keys from one of the murals in San Francisco? Who wanted you to take things out of it?

SG: It was the Edward Said mural at San Francisco State University. It was the Zionists and Jewish groups on campus that wanted to change it.

Our vision for the mural came out of town hall meetings. People wanted a particular kind of mural about Palestine, and it was spearheaded by the General Union of Palestinian Students. They enlisted Fayeq Oweis and myself to be the artists, but really we were realizing their vision, which was based on these meetings, where a list of symbols were generated, and ideas were generated that people wanted to see represented in the mural.

The controversy was that included in that design was an image of Handala, the cartoon figure by Najil Ali, and a key. The key, in Arabic, said “al-awda”, which means return. This was bound to upset people, and it did.

CA: What do you think of controversy? Do you seek out things that will be provocative in the murals? Do you avoid controversy?

SG: I think the key was going to be controversial whether it said al-awda or not. They absolutely hated the key, because that represents the right to return. The right to return is completely threatening to Zionism, and they were very upset about that. And Handala, they said, is a symbol that Israel should be destroyed. They found that figure to be “hateful and divisive”. So people brought pressure to bear on the president, and there were faculty at the school who also held these positions. The students struggled very, very hard to figure out how to handle it.

I wasn’t sure the mural was ever going to happen. There was a meeting with activist scholars who are older than the students, activists with a lot of experience, and they said that the point of the mural is that it’s about Edward Said, who represents all of these things. His work is about the right to return and the Palestinian right to self-determination, about questioning the existence of Israel as a Zionist Jewish-only state. Are those symbols worth fighting about keeping when the mural actually includes all those ideas without them? This is the only mural of this nature in the country. The students were finally convinced, and agreed to remove the key and Handala so the mural could go forward.

Even without the key and Handala, the idea of the mural still hasn’t changed. All Edward Said’s books were there in the mural, and “A Question of Palestine” is the first book. If they had fought for the symbols, there would have never been a mural.

CA: How do you think it matters? This mural in Olympia, what do you expect it to accomplish?

SG: Some of the things it will accomplish can’t be really known now. I hope that this whole project, and the Sister City Mural Project in Rafah, and the documentary I’m working on about doing this, become vehicles for people who are not involved in this topic to identify with it because of what happened to Rachel, and to become more engaged. I hope it becomes something that will get attention beyond the people who know and care about this situation already. I hope for the mural to build communities, not the people that already agree and know, but between other communities. It was so gratifying and great to know that there were Native Americans at the Mural Design Workshop today. I think that the mural can help draw that out and make it visible, and create some excitement about it that can lead to other work.

CA: Did you have any thoughts about the Palestinians blowing up the wall in Rafah a few days ago?

SG: I think the Palestinians are very, very restrained people. If anybody was doing that to Americans, there would be riots every day. I think that they are an incredibly non-violent people. And it’s just too much. It was great, it moved me to tears to see it. The situation is so horrible to begin with. Cutting off fuel so people are in utter darkness? It’s medieval. So I was thrilled to see them break out.

Photo: Mural inside Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah.
Photo: Mural inside Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah.

A mural by Susan Greene, local artists from Rafah and Khan Younis. The quote on the ribbon reads “I think it’s important that human rights and resistance to oppression be included in the way we define ourselves as a community.” (Photo by John Halaka)

Photo: Edward Said Mural at SFSU Campus
Photo: Edward Said Mural at SFSU Campus

The mural of Edward Said at San Francisco State University. It was painted by Fayeq Oweis and Susan Greene. For more about this mural, visit (photo by Darlene Bouchard)

Photo: Mural in Beit Hanoun
Photo: Mural in Beit Hanoun

Susan Greene Painted this mural of oranges in Beit Hanoun with a group of children. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Drawing: Handala
Drawing: Handala

Character by Naji al-Ali. For more about Handala, visit

Photo: Susan Greene and Lisa Nessan
Photo: Susan Greene and Lisa Nessan

Susan Greene (right) and Lisa Nessan (left) in Olympia (Photo by Ashley Harrison)

Photo: Dr. Nasrallah at site of Rachel Corrie’s murder
Photo: Dr. Nasrallah at site of Rachel Corrie's murder

Dr Kareem Nasrallah standing where his house once was pointing to where Rachel Corrie was murdered in Rafah. (Photo by John Halaka)

Photo: John Halaka, Dr. Nasrallah, and Susan Greene standing at site of Rachel Corrie’s murder
Photo: John Halaka, Dr. Nasrallah, and Susan Greene standing at site of Rachel Corrie's murder

John Halaka, Dr. Kareem Nasrallah, and Susan Greene standing at site of Rachel Corrie’s murder (Photo by John Halaka)

Photo: Artists in Rafah working on mural
Photo: Artists in Rafah working on mural

Artists in Rafah working on mural that is now outside the Rachel Corrie Center. (Photo by John Halaka)

Photo: Mural installation at Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah
Photo: Mural installation at Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah

Completed mural being applied to outside of Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah. (Photo by John Halaka)

Photo: Mural on Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah
Photo: Mural on Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah

Completed mural on Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah. (Photo by Rachel Corrie Center in Rafah)

Photo: Susan Greene with children in Rafah
Photo: Susan Greene with children in Rafah

Susan Greene entertaining a crowd of curious children in Rafah. (Photo by John Halaka)