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I can’t recall any story I’ve ever written here over many years that threatened tremendous controversy and outrage, but which ended in a wonderful resolution. Tonight, you’ll read such a story.
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Redmond WA, the corporate home of Microsoft and a Seattle suburb, has a winter festival it calls Redmond Lights. It describes it as a “celebration of art, culture and light.” The Redmond Arts and Culture Commission reviews artistic submissions and chooses those which will be displayed in the town center. This year, two Muslim-American artists, Omar Sourour and Amal Khalaf, proposed a light sculpture that would highlight the use of Arabic calligraphy along with Arab contributions to the world of astronomy. Due to budgetary considerations, the artists had to scale back their ambitions and they settled for creating a large cube lit from within with various Arabic sayings and slogans engraved on the surfaces of the cube. Among them was the phrase “Remember Palestine” in English and Arabic.
Last Friday, as Sourour and Khalaf were installing their sculpture, a town official (I haven’t been able to determine exactly who, but it was someone tasked with overseeing the arts element of the festival), saw the word “Palestine” and immediately became alarmed. According to a tweet I read from CAIR-WA director, Imraan Siddiqui:
According to the artist – soon after the installation, @CityOfRedmond officials told them to remove “Palestine” as it could be considered offensive/political by some. And if artists didn’t comply, the art installation would be removed altogether.
Progressive – Except Palestine. https://t.co/fHltDIn6tK
— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) December 13, 2021
I should add here, that the artists, offered an impossible choice, elected to save their artwork’s public display, rather than have it removed altogether. They spent hours removing the word Palestine from it. When it was done, you can see the effect of its erasure (see it pictured above).
When I first read this, I became outraged both because of the inherent issues involved and because Redmond is a suburb of Seattle, where I live. As the headquarters of Microsoft, the city’s residents are well-heeled, highly educated and diverse. There is even a local mosque, MAPS, many of whose members are software engineers working at the company. I attended the mosque dedication several years ago and the audience was replete with politicians showing support to the local Muslim community. The reaction of this official didn’t make sense in that context. Though of course in a national context, this sort of Islamophobia is an everyday occurrence.
The city’s first attempt to address the incident didn’t go well. Its parks department released a statement which was, shall we say, underwhelming. It apologized profusely for any hurt caused to the Pajestinian community, while doubling down on the decision itself. It blamed the artists themselves for not following their own original proposal, which specified that the installation would focus on Arab contributions to astronomy.
Friday, December 10, the art installation Dhat Al-Zawaya arrived on site for installation and differed in both concept and theme from the approved concept. The text on the artwork also included “Remember Palestine” in English, and “Palestine in our Heart” in Arabic alongside other statements in place of the originally discussed content around astronomy.
It implied, without using the “p” word, that any political slogans were a diversion from the original plan. Thus, the decision to bring the artwork back into compliance was justified. Then, the statement offered a lie:
Instead of requesting full removal of the art installation, city staff worked on site with the artists to ensure the statements on the cube reflected the theme and spirit of Redmond Lights as a celebration of art and light for all members of our community.
Actually, the artists were offered a stark choice. Either excise Paiestine or the work would be removed entirely.
Then it moved into the realm of woke -speak:
As we reflect on these recent actions, we understand the hurt they have caused our Palestinian neighbors and community members. The goal of the city staff’s actions were not to participate in the active erasure of Palestinian voices and culture. I offer my sincere apologies for the hurt this decision created for all within our community. I truly work to embody the welcoming values of Redmond as a Director to ensure that all feel welcome in our parks, events, and spaces.
Instead of plainly laying out the city’s argument for removal, it appropriated the language of the protestors themselves in order to pre-empt their own arguments. It was an artful, but entirely deceitful exercise. Certainly, this was not written by the parks dirrector herself, but by the city attorney or a crisis management consultant. It reeked of condescension.
After reading it, I immediately began reaching out to local Muslim-Americans, Palestinian-American artists, journalists, and human rights organizations bringing the incident to their attention. Many of them joined me in wanting to mount a campaign protesting this violation of artistic freedom and censorship of speech on Palestine. Not to mention that after the Israeli Nakba, which erased 1-million Palestinians from the country in 1948, such artistic erasure is an all too uncomfortable reminder of those terrible historic events.
CAIR’s local chapter was already involved. Its director had first tweeted about it. Then the ACLU became interested. A Seattle Times reporter wanted to contact Omar. The campaign was beginning to take shape. But then a funny thing happened.
Last night, there was a city council meeting at which CAIR representatives brought up the incident. The council members listened carefully. They realized an error had been made. They deliberated and decided that the earlier decision would be reversed. Palestine would be restored. Redmond did the right thing.
In a world riven by strife between religions, races, ethnic groups, and political parties, chaos and bloodshed is the norm. In this country, our politicians deliberately stir up such hostilities and exploit them for political benefit. Hate wins elections. Or at least motivates the rabble-rousers among them to rise up and mount insurrections (and vote for Republican!).
But here was an incident in which elected officials heard their constituents and balanced the considerations of the official who banned the word, the town and its residents, and came down on the right side. Artistic freedom was redeemed. Muslim-Americans were affirmed. Palestine was restored. America doesn’t often work the way it was originally supposed to. It doesn’t often lead to two opposing sides finding common ground and resolving conflict. Instead, we’ve become a nation in which grudges are nursed and resentment is kindled like a match in gasoline.
Here in Redmond, America worked. People sat, spoke, listened and acted for the greater good. They saw reason. Our Founding Fathers and Mothers would not have been more proud. Paraphrasing something Omar said to me during a Zoom conversation with him and Amal: I’ve seen many progressive movements in the Arab world: the Arab Spring, democracy in Tunisia, and the Syrian uprising. They all began with hope but ended with suffering. Here is something where we created this art work seeking to bring light and hope into the world, along with awareness of Arab traditions. And in the end it worked. Though our art was threatened, in the end the outcome was the right one.