In the middle of Gaza City is Palestine Square, a gathering spot for families shopping, couples strolling, and workers having a lunch break. In the center of it all is the Phoenix, a graceful, aged, bronze bird, its wings pointing to the sky as if about to take off.
Stop anyone milling around the statue, and they’ll be able to tell you the significance of the mythological bird to the Palestinian people. Legend has it that the Phoenix rose from ashes, in the midst of destruction. But who created this statue and when?
Few people in Gaza remember these days, but the artist is Iyad Ramadan Sabbah, one of the Strip’s most accomplished sons (and my maternal cousin), who lives in Belgium. His work has been shown around the world, notably in France, Italy, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Oman, Tunisia, Morocco, China, Turkey, and South Korea. But Sabbah’s roots, and his inspiration, are in and from Gaza, Palestine.
The birth of an artist
The Sabbah family is originally from the village of Bareer, a Palestinian town north of Gaza that was destroyed in 1948 during the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe,” the mass disruption caused when residents became refugees after Israel’s creation). His parents later relocated to Saudi Arabia for employment, and he was born there in 1973.
After his mother died in a fire and his father from a heart attack, Iyad went to live in Gaza. It was 1982 and he was just 9 years old. A few years later, when he was in sixth grade at a UN school, he found his passion.
“My math teacher was Ibraheem Alssawalhi. I still remember his name. He also taught art and showed us such a variety of colorful paints. The many different hues made me want to try them,” Iyad tells me, over Messenger from his home. “One day he asked us to draw a picture of the local market, and I did. He loved what I did and showed it to all the other students and teachers at the school. That’s what motivated me.”
In his art classes, he learned how to make simple sculptures from wood. Iyad then joined an art club and became the group’s president. He went on to earn a bachelor’s in fine art in Libya, where higher education was free at the time. Under the Casablanca Protocol signed in 1965, Libya became one of a few countries to allow Palestinians to travel and access employment and education benefits on par with citizens.
Iyad returned in 1998, teaching art at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University. This period coincided with the signing of the Oslo Accords, unfurling a surge of optimism and the creation of a new government, the Palestinian Authority. The early leaders focused on building institutions like hospitals and schools. It was in this context that the Gaza municipality staged a competition in 2000 to bring a new face to the city façade. Among 22 designs submitted, Sabbah’s won.
“The Phoenix was my first official work in Gaza and it introduced me to the people,” Iyad recalls. “It was the first of its type—made of fiberglass, instead of a mold from concrete as was the norm at the time.”
Iyad went on to create many other works of public art to inspire and instill pride in the next generation of Palestinians. Also in Gaza City, he built the Unknown Soldier, the Fountain of the Mermaid, and a statue of a horse that became the trademark of the Italian Complex. In the southern city of Khan Younis stood his commissioned piece, the Statue of Return, and in nearby Rafah, the Statue of the Martyr.
Today, all but three of his creations are gone—destroyed during three successive wars with Israel between 2008 and 2014, or dismantled as blasphemous “idolatry” by the Hamas government, after it assumed power in 2006.
The statues that remain are the Phoenix, the Statue of Return, and a sculpture for children with disabilities in Gaza City called Lakfee Aldonya Makan, Arabic for “You Have a Place in Life.”
“Seeing my creations destroyed caused me frustration and pain—especially when it was done by my own government,” he laments.
Nevertheless, Iyad never stopped creating and giving back to his people. When Israel launched the Israeli war in Gaza in 2014, the son of a close friend was killed.
“I went with my friend to the hospital to search for his son, who had been guiding some journalists in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood. The hospital was overwhelmed with the injured and dead,” he recalls, describing the day in July when at least 55 civilians were killed in a 24-hour period. “We found the body of my friend’s son among the dead.”
In the young man’s memory, Iyad created Tahalok, which means “worn out” in Arabic. In the exhibition, seven clay figures trudge away from Shuja’iyya toward the beach, men and women, children and adults who are fatigued-looking and stained with red. One of the figures has since been moved to the West Bank and is on display at the Banksy Museum in the Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem. The other figures are stored in his Gaza home, where some of his relatives now live.
“War and displacement are perennial themes of Palestinian life,” Iyad explains.
Iyad had earned his master’s degree in Cairo in 2006, and in 2015, he traveled to Tunisia to finish a Ph.D. degree he had started online. When he was invited to exhibit in Belgium that fall, he decided to seek asylum and make the country his home.
“But Gaza, Palestine, and the Palestinian cause will always be the focus of my artistic work,” Iyad says. He does what he can to support those left behind, struggling under occupation. “The artists in Gaza have so many experiences and ideas, and they have the creative energy to express themselves, but the blockade is a great barrier between them and the international exhibitions.”
The limited raw materials in Gaza also are a significant obstacle, particularly for sculptors. “It is hard to find large foundries, bronze alloy, and the special materials you need for molds,” Iyad explains. He does his best to help the artists in Gaza develop and share their work with those on the outside. Iyad started a YouTube channel to explain how he creates his art and also shares Gazan artists’ works on a Facebook page.
Iyad is like a bird that managed to escape from a big cage. Despite his freedom, his heart remains behind with the other caged birds.