Laila Ajjawi is one of the thousands of people who were born and raised in a refugee camp, specifically in the Irbid camp in Northern Jordan. Her grandparents had to flee Palestine and settle here after 1948, the date of the Naqba.. “I didn’t leave the refugee camp until I went to university. All my education, in all fields, took place there. As a teenager, I wondered what the world outside was like.” Coming from a humble family, Ajjawi grew up in a supportive environment, but, as she herself acknowledges, it was not easy. She lived in a space with no privacy (during her childhood years the whole family lived in one room, being six siblings). “I never had a space of my own. My grandparents lived downstairs; upstairs, my uncles and aunts. This made me start drawing and writing”. At first, she made children’s drawings, but slowly she perfected the technique and developed her own style.
Despite her talent, Laila Ajjawi did not study fine arts, but biomedicine, although she has never practiced the profession. “I did an internship in a hospital, but I’ve never worked as a professional. I spent my time at university signing up for free workshops related to art and humanitarian aid.” And it is precisely in the latter field, in addition to the artistic, where she has developed as a professional.
With her degree finished and the Syrian war still raging, Ajjawi clearly saw what she wanted to do: help people who arrived in Jordan seeking refuge. With this goal in mind, she did a series of training with the United Nations, which allowed her to start working as a trainer. Since then, she has been in different organizations and has combined her artistic and humanitarian careers.
Laila Ajjawi painted a mural for the first time in 2013, and she assures that it changed her life. This first intervention in public space took place inside the refugee camp where she lived. “A friend invited me to try it and I loved it. I felt a very good sensation, very powerful, but I found it very complicated to be able to master the technique,” she says. After this first experience, she was selected to participate in an artists’ event in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Despite the financial challenge – she lived in the North and at the time was barely working – she ended up going. She spent three days looking at what her colleagues were doing, not knowing where to start and regretting having accepted the invitation. “On the third day, I went to the hotel, turned on the computer, and watched dozens of videos where graffiti technique was explained. I had the theory, but not the practice. The next day, they made me climb on a crane to paint. I felt like I was on a roller coaster, but I had a very strong connection with what I was doing,” she says. Since then, her artistic career has soared.
Her paintings, of a vindictive nature, revolve around two very important themes for her: the refugees’ rights and the fight for gender equality and against the stereotypes that often surround women. Because of the content of her work and because she is a woman, Muslim, wearing a hijab, and in a conservative country like Jordan, Laila Ajjawi has had to face a series of challenges and has had to fight against sexism in a sector – street art – dominated by men.
To speak of the recent history of Palestine, we must go back to 1948. After the Second World War and with the wound of the genocide of the Jewish people in Europe, the State of Israel was created that year in Palestinian territories. Because of that occupation, known as the Naqba, more than 700,000 Palestinians had to flee to Jordan, Lebanon, and other countries in the region. From that occupation was born the Palestinian Diaspora, which to this day claims its right to be able to return to its territory.
Even though there are several United Nations resolutions (194 of 1948, 242 of 1967, 43/177 of 1988 – which calls for the entry of Palestine as a member of UNESCO – and 75/22 of 2020, among others) that refer to the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this is a frozen conflict with little chance of being resolved in the near future.
In fact, article 11 of Resolution 194 of 1948 states that: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”. In 1974, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 3236 (XXIX), which reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty as well as their right to return to their homes and properties. None of these resolutions has been heeded by the State of Israel.
In 1987, the First Intifada broke out after a truck killed four Palestinians. The uprising was led by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In the context of the Intifada, Yasser Arafat, then leader of the PLO, proclaimed the State of Palestine, but also recognized the State of Israel, giving effect to the coexistence of the two states, as proposed by the United Nations in 1947. This did not please Hamas, which decided to opt for armed conflict. The First Intifada ended in 1993, with the signing of the Oslo agreements, which initiated “a new era of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. A new way of conceiving the peace negotiations that set up the diplomatic framework to follow.” Israel recognized the sovereignty of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, and the mythical photo was taken of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton, then President of the United States. The agreements established the division of the West Bank territory into zones: A (under Palestinian control), B (under joint control by the PNA and Israel), and C (under Israeli control). This agreement was to lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, which never came to pass. Although the Oslo agreements have not been implemented, they remain the negotiating framework of reference. The Second Intifada broke out in 2000 and came to an end five years later in 2005. An estimated 3,600 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis lost their lives in this second uprising.
In terms of catalysts for the Palestinian cause in the world, two names stand out: Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1979) who fought for a united and modern Arab nationalism that included the Palestinian people and clearly positioned himself against the expansionist and occupation policies perpetrated by the Israeli state; and Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), who led the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and was president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) from 1996 until his death (2004). Currently, the president of the PNA is Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinian people currently consist of some 12-13 million people dispersed in different territories. Nearly six million Palestinian live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza; of these six million, one-third live in refugee camps recognized by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Two million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip. There are an estimated two million Palestinians in Jordan, half a million in Syria, half a million in Lebanon, and between two and three million in the diaspora. There are also an estimated 750,000 settlers currently living on Palestinian land in the West Bank. The situation remains critical in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. In the latter, 53% of the population lives below the poverty line, making two and a half million people absolutely dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. “On the other hand, the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank means perverse situations for the labor market of the Palestinian population. With no occupation opportunities available to them in the Palestinian territories, more than 127,000 Palestinians (24% of the labor force employed in the West Bank) work in the Israeli colonies every day, thus maintaining and developing a system that causes further occupation and annexation, creating a very high dependency relationship of the Palestinian labor market on the Israeli economy,” reads the report.
How do you live your Palestinian identity?
My generation and I have never forgotten our origins. When I was little, at school we often talked about each other’s hometowns, our culture, our food…. We loved it. Our families told us stories about our land, we celebrated Palestinian-related anniversaries, and we had a lot of information: in the textbooks, there was a lot of information about our cause, but now all this has changed. All this information has gradually been phased out and everything is going in one direction: the Palestinian cause falling into oblivion. It has to do with economic and geostrategic interests. We have also disappeared from the media, and we are often victims of censorship: they close our websites or block our social media accounts because of the content we upload. Now, if you post content about the war between Russia and Ukraine, nothing happens. They want to destroy the Palestinian cause. That said, my Palestinian identity is connected to the refugee camp where I grew up, which I left at the age of twenty-seven. Even though I don’t live there now, I continue to see the people from the camp; and it makes me very sad to see how the new generations are less and less connected to the cause. They are very distracted by social networks and other things.
In addition to your artistic career, you are involved in humanitarian work.
When I started leaving the refugee camp to go to university, I had to face racism. This marked me and I decided that I didn’t want anyone to feel the way I had felt. Many people hate refugees and are unable to understand their circumstances. They [els refugiats] have many enemies who are unable to see their talents. In this sense, I have always strived to discover these talents and highlight them to protect these people.
As a refugee yourself, how do you feel when you see the treatment of people arriving in an increasingly fortress-like Europe?
I feel sad that, after all, they have had to go through, they still face more barriers. I just ask that these people are not looked at as numbers, but as the human beings they are and that the necessary policies are made to treat them fairly. Here in Jordan, we have many Syrian refugees: they are paid less, they work longer hours…. And they accept it all because they have no choice. This would stop if the governments would get tough and legislate.
Your art has two main themes: the rights of refugees and the fight against gender stereotypes. Is it planned or does it come naturally to you?
Due to the circumstances I have had to live through, I have always been a sensitive, sensitised, and responsible person. Even as a child, I had to take care of my siblings when my parents were away. This responsibility grew with me as I grew older, and it is one of the reasons why I always ask for permission to paint murals in public spaces, for example. I try to do things well because I want to leave a good impact. This desire also means that, in my murals, despite being vindictive, there is only room for positive things. I want my art to be a seed for change, and this is the message I would like to leave. So, no, it is not planned: my drawings come from my experiences and from what I am; from seeing my friends having to leave school, from seeing my parents working and fighting for our education.
You are an example of self-improvement and empowerment, are you aware of that?
The desire to empower women has accompanied me since I was a child. Now that I have more international exposure, I take it as a personal responsibility. I am a woman, Arab, Muslim, and I wear the hijab. It has not been easy, but the words of other women have helped me a lot. I remember one of the first interviews they did with me, in Cosmopolitan magazine. Reading the comments of so many people who supported me was very empowering.
Usually, the representation of women is hyper-sexualized. You have distanced yourself from this representation.
Worldwide, yes. The graffiti world is a world led by men. The women I draw are natural, they are not sexualized and they appear with gray hair and wrinkles.
How do you relate to the idea that your art is ephemeral, that it can be modified or erased at any moment?
I’ve certainly had to work with it. I have had to understand that, once the mural is painted, that work ceases to be mine, it becomes people’s. And this means that it is exposed to changes, obviously. When I started painting, I had some painful experiences, that’s why I had to work on this facet.
I had painted a very pretty girl with a hijab and butterflies, inside the refugee camp.. Every day, when I passed by that street, I saw the mural and the changes it was undergoing. Once, I noticed that her face had been scratched, and I got angry. I approached and saw that some girls had written their names on the face of the girl on the mural. I knew they were girls because it was children’s handwriting. At that moment I felt happy: you don’t see girls’ names on the streets, and the mural had empowered them to show their identity there and in that way. They had made it their own. But one day they erased the mural. I found the whole wall painted white. I felt so bad that I even got sick. I tried to find out who had done it, but I never found out. It was sad and painful, but I understood that once you finish a work in a public space, it is no longer yours.
Your condition as a Palestinian refugee has shaped your art; then… How has art shaped your life?
Art has always been the most efficient way I have found to express how I feel. It has allowed me to expand and take responsibility But I have to admit that as an artist I have also had to force myself to take myself seriously and put my fears aside. Art has also offered me challenges. My art career has changed my life 100%, also my financial situation, and I am very grateful.
What challenges have you faced as a woman graffiti artist?
Some, but minor ones. I don’t like to generalize, but I have encountered men who have asked me why I do what I do, why I draw women. Or men who have told me that I should be at home taking care of the children or working in an office or an indoor place. Like all women, I have had to face different facets of sexism, of course!
What are you working on now?
I work as a supervisor of art-related projects. I have gone through different organizations and have worked as a teacher and supervisor. I really like my work as a trainer because it is a very enriching task: you give a lot, but you also receive a lot. The feeling of being able to give is very good, and I like it. Sometimes I say that ‘I was born a trainer’. On the artistic plan, for the future, I would like to make myself known internationally and to be able to make interventions outside Jordan. I would also like to exhibit my art in galleries or museums.