Diplomatic Mission

Diplomatic Mission

From the outside, 1764 Litchfield Turnpike looks like an ordinary office building. But this Woodbridge corporate structure houses what its owner calls “the first U.S.-based Palestinian museum with permanent exhibition space,” a 6,000-square-foot series of galleries dedicated to the art and culture of the Palestinian people.

Opened in April of 2018, the Palestine Museum is the brain child of Faisal Saleh, who was born a Palestinian refugee in 1951, the youngest of 11 children. He grew up in a one-room house in the West Bank, came to the United States to complete his last year of high school on scholarship and went on to earn degrees at Oberlin College and the University of Connecticut.

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“I’ve been here about 50 years, and most of that time, I went to school, and then I worked and I kept my nose to the grindstone and really minded my own business,” Saleh says. “I didn’t get involved in any of the activities related to Palestine… and I felt, you know, it was time. I really wanted to do something…”

That something is the Palestine Museum. Its galleries, converted from office spaces, display photographs, sculptures, paintings, clothing, books and artifacts of Palestinian life. A large room includes a stage with a sound system where public events can be held, including an upcoming film screening and “an afternoon of music and conversation.” An informal gift shop sells books, olive oil, embroidery and prints of Palestinian art.

In fact, the entire intended focus of the museum is on the arts—an attempt, Saleh says, to sidestep politics and make it possible to view Palestinians not as a group embroiled in war but as human beings. The museum aims to “espouse a nonreligious and nonpolitical posture,” and Saleh figured the best way to do that was through visual arts, music, film, poetry and literature. “We wanted to kind of change the conversation,” he says, to “talk about our traditions and our life, and what’s going on in Palestine. But we want to do it through exploring the Palestinians’ culture and the arts rather than talking about these political things which don’t get us anywhere.”

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Hopkins School - Open House on October 20, 2019

A visit to the Palestine Museum is, indeed, much like a visit to any art gallery. The first bay includes a striking metal sculpture by Sana Farah Bishara of a larger-than-life woman, seated with one arm resting on her knee, gazing upward, her body literally split in two. In the central bay, three vibrant abstract paintings by the accomplished Palestinian artist Samia Halaby hang near angular portraits of women by 19-year-old artist Malak Mattar, whose work has been shown around the world. In another gallery, a series of paintings that read more like folk art depict Palestinian daily life: women grinding meal together on a stone patio, children reading by lamplight as their mother looks on.

Also on display are artifacts of daily life: two large clay jars that once stored oil, a backgammon board, passports, jewelry, coins and historic photographs. Mannequins wear a collection of elaborately embroidered women’s dresses that share some similar characteristics—long sleeves, decorative square bibs—but also rich, patterned differences that mark them as belonging to their own distinctive villages.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid politics altogether. “We don’t really focus on things that are overtly political,” Saleh says, “… artists cannot really insulate themselves from their feelings, and their feelings are often related to political things.”

Take, for instance, The Children of Gaza—Summer 2014, a sphere made of more than 1,000 chips of glass, one for each child under the age of 15 who was “permanently maimed and/or disabled” during a 51-day conflict between Gaza and Israel that summer. Included among the chips are 547 pieces of colored glass, one for each child killed. Children’s drawings, part of a larger exhibition titled A Child’s View from Gaza, hang from clothespins nearby on lengths of string. The exhibition catalog details the cancellation of this exhibition at the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland due to pressure from the East Bay Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. The fear, as exhibition organizers relate it, was that viewers might “ask some uncomfortable questions.”

The relationship between Saleh and the local Jewish community is decidedly better than that. Following a fire at the Woodbridge-based Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, he offered up for rent a space that his own company had just vacated. “They were able to walk in two days later and resume operations,” Saleh says. “We rented the space here, and as a result, we did have some very good relations.”

Saleh sees the Palestine Museum as serving two different audiences: Americans unfamiliar with or curious about Palestine, and Palestinian-Americans themselves. “Palestinians for years have felt totally ignored, and they’ve been to other people’s museums all their lives,” Saleh says. “For the first time, they can walk into a place that’s their own and talks to them directly, and it’s a great feeling.”

The museum is only open on Sunday afternoons or by appointment. Some days just two or three people wander in, Saleh says. Other days there might be 20, and events have drawn upwards of 100 people. He estimates that only a few hundred people of Palestinian descent live in Connecticut, but many travel from out of state to visit. There’s no paid staff, and Saleh is looking for a few committed volunteers to help him, particularly with curation and grant research. So far, much of the funding has come out of his own pocket.

School groups and universities have started to discover the museum, he says, and its online following is growing. Finding it here, hidden in plain sight just over the New Haven line, is a good first step to finding the people of Palestine.

Palestine Museum
1764 Litchfield Tpke, Woodbridge (map)
Sun 1-5pm or by appointment; free admission
Website | Facebook Page

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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