Carving a new life

SUNDAY, MAY 22, 2005

Olive wood carvings line artist Bassam al Hayek’s mantel — Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, a Christ child the size of an eggplant. This is the art he hopes to sell to the world.

But the violence of his past lies tucked into white plastic binders on the coffee table, in photographs of young Palestinian boys taunting Israeli soldiers in tanks and his cousin lying dead in a casket.

Al Hayek dreams of a day when his wood-carved nativity sets and crucifixes will find a market among affluent American Christians, a day when his business takes off and he becomes known as “the Christian Thomas Kinkade.” But if he doesn’t wind up famous for his religious art, perhaps one day he will be remembered for his vivid political drawings and photos of the contemporary history of Christian Palestinians living in the Holy Land.

“He is a very dedicated, hardworking man who has just had the dirtiest end of the stick I can imagine,” says Spokane artist Harold Balazs.

Al Hayek moved to Spokane in 2002 from Beit Sahour, a small sister town near Bethlehem known for Shepherds’ Fields, where the shepherds who visited the infant Christ are said to be buried. There he worked primarily as an artist, designing souvenirs for tourists drawn to the region by the stories of Jesus Christ and painting the art of the intifada, the Palestinian protest against Israeli occupation.

Today, with the help of generous Christians in the Pacific Northwest, he and his wife and daughters live in an old house off Maple Street on Spokane’s near North Side. He works a temporary job as a computer parts inspector at Honeywell.

Al Hayek calls his family Aramaic, not Arabic, the descendents of the Jews who were the earliest followers of Christ. In 1948 Israelis evicted his parents from their home in a village near Nazareth. They fled to to live with relatives in Beit Sahour, where al Hayek grew up.

He was an art student returning home in 1971 from the University of Baghdad when he was arrested by Israeli soldiers and taken to jail.

He has written a declaration about his past for his application for political asylum in the United States. He says in 1971 he was hung in prison with his arms over a metal bar and weights attached to his testicles. Guards also pinched his nose shut with a metal clip and placed a water hose in his mouth to fill his stomach with water. Then they beat his abdomen with clubs, he says, until he spit blood.

When he was finally released from prison, he was forbidden to leave the West Bank to finish college. Instead, he began making political art. In 1973, he says, he completed 22 paintings depicting the Israeli torture of Palestinian prisoners.

Annually, he created a postcard that depicted the oppression of the Palestinian people.

“The dogs here, the cats here, they are living better than us,” he says.

He describes a more prosperous life during the 1980s, when his business sold olive wood carvings of crosses, biblical figures and nativity scenes to tourists. By 1987, the Israelis moved in to take furniture to pay back taxes owed by the Palestinians. Al Hayek’s possessions were confiscated, and he was sent to jail for a month in 1988.

An American nun who lived next door during the 1990s watched al Hayek and his family of nine struggle to survive.

“He had a little studio where he did all of his work,” said Sister Elaine Kelly, who now lives in Portland.

When young Palestinians were killed, he painted martyr portraits, she says. Overnight they’d be printed into thousands of posters and hung on public display.

When the Israeli army found out, soldiers appeared at his home to drag him into the street.

Kelly describes al Hayek’s artistic range. He’s done oil paintings, stone and iron sculptures, mosaics and glass carvings. He’s painted murals for churches in Bethlehem, Shepherd’s Field, Nazareth and Jerusalem.

He also has taught art at Bethlehem schools.

The mayor of Beit Sahour, Fuad Kokaly, recently described al Hayek’s background in a letter sent by e-mail from the West Bank.

“When Beit Sahour’s Greek Orthodox Church was renovated, Bassam was the artist chosen to depict religious scenes in paintings on the interior church walls,” Kokaly wrote.

“Bassam is a well-known Beit Sahour artisan and is famous for many of his paintings and numerous original designs.”

Kelly was particularly impressed by al Hayek’s young son, Issa, who was a talented student. Born on Good Friday, he was given the Quran’s name for Jesus.

She invited the boy to study English as a second language at Portland State University one summer. He wound up staying and attending Eastside Catholic High School in Bellevue, Wash., with the help of a Catholic family there.

When he graduated, Whitworth College offered him a four-year academic scholarship.

“That was an unexpected and welcome miracle,” Kelly says.

By 2002, when Issa graduated, his father was ready to leave Beit Sahour. Tourists were too frightened to visit Bethlehem, where the Church of the Nativity was under siege that spring.

Israelis destroyed his art studio and his home that year.

“After all this trouble, I became a very, very poor man,” al Hayek says. “I lost everything.”

Christian benefactors reached out to help al Hayek’s wife, daughters and one son settle in Spokane.

Al Hayek’s family is part of the Palestinian diaspora, Kelly says, with one son in Kentucky and another in Ukraine. One remains in Bethlehem.

Today al Hayek shows the photos in his white binders to a visitor. His wife serves sweet tea flavored with mint as he talks.

One photo displays his son Jimmy, his head wrapped in bandages, after he was shot in the head by an Israeli’s soldier’s bullets. This son was named for American president Jimmy Carter.

Another photo shows al Hayek’s leg in a cast after they shot him with rubber bullets and broke one of his legs.

“I have been beaten many times because I take pictures of the Israeli government,” al Hayek says.

His lungs were damaged by tear gas. When he traveled through to Jerusalem for surgery, soldiers stopped him and forced him to strip and walk naked around their tank, he said.

He plays a video on the television set. It shows news coverage of the damage to his apartment in Beit Sahour, when soldiers burned his sofa and left bullet holes in his refrigerator and the dishwasher.

He tries to forget, he says. But the images keep coming back.

Both Israeli Zionists and Muslim fundamentalists cause the bloodshed, he says. Moderates like his family and many Jewish families wind up in the middle.

“I am not against the Jewish people. I am not against the Palestinians. I am against the violence,” he says.

“Violence creates more violence.”

He pulls out a drawing he made of a giant green fish devouring a smaller one.

“This is my story,” al Hayek says.

Lately he has turned his story over to an international team of graduate students in Whitworth’s management program. Suman Polepaka of India and Tobias Mayer of Germany, with the help of Whitworth’s entrepreneur-in-residence, Nigel Davey of the United Kingdom, developed a business plan that just last month won a second-place award and $3,500 in a competition at Gonzaga University.

They have done the math.

They know there are 700 churches in Spokane, 2,700 in Washington state. They also know this is the least-churched region of the country.

They discovered that in 2003 there was an estimated $6.8 billion in sales of religious products in the United States.

They believe they can tap that market and make al Hayek famous in this country, turn him into “the Thomas Kinkade of religious art.”

“I am here just to get a little bit of freedom,” al Hayek says. But the Whitworth team projects his company also could generate $4 million in sales in just a few years. Davey brims over with optimism about al Hayek’s chances.

“He’s a very talented artist, and nobody knows about him,” Davey says. “One of the key things to do is to get him commissions.”

Scott Kolbo, an associate professor of art at Whitworth, has seen al Hayek’s work.

“I think he’s tremendously talented,” he says. “He has ability a lot of us wish we had.”

Spokane artist Harold Balazs admires al Hayek’s skill as a craftsman and thinks his best bet would be to work with architects on liturgical pieces for churches. As for capturing a large art market, he sighs.

“I have a hard enough time making a living on this myself,” he says. “Some people think everybody who’s an artist in the United States is a millionaire.”

In the meantime, al Hayek’s lawyer, Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Granger, Wash., continues to work on his case. If al Hayek is granted political asylum, his family can remain in the United States and after a year apply for permanent residency.

“One of the sad parts of this job is that the worse someone has suffered, the better their case is,” Adams says. “Unfortunately for Bassam and his family, they have quite a strong case.”

Now al Hayek’s son Issa is married and works as a teacher in Umatilla, Ore.

“I think God brought me here for a reason,” Issa al Hayek says. He thinks he’s here to tell American people of the oppression of the Palestinians.

“I feel like I’m stuck with the truth, and I’m the only one who knows it,” he says.

As for his father, Bassam al Hayek’s future may be bound up in the business plan of the Whitworth students.

Or perhaps it intertwines with the drawings and photos tucked in the pages of the scrapbooks he keeps.

He hopes generations ahead will gaze at those images and remember what happened to the indigenous Christians of Palestine.

He plans to spend his business competition winnings on carving tools and begin carving a commissioned sculpture for Whitworth College.

“God tells us if you are breathing,” Bassam al Hayek says, “you must go on. And you can change your life.”


Click here to comment on this story »