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The art of living with a disability in Gaza

Living with a disability can mean coming face to face with numerous challenges during your everyday life, in addition to society’s attitudes which can stifle and limit you, but what happens when you’re also fighting a military occupation? This is precisely the battle that Mohamed Dalo, 21, from the Gaza Strip has been fighting since birth when he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy – the degeneration of the muscles – where almost every aspect of daily life is a struggle for survival and progression.

Mohamed says his parents, specifically his father, encouraged him to integrate fully – the lack of special needs schools made the decision a more natural one – and so he attended mainstream schools which he proudly says enabled him to “mix with people of various abilities which consequently made me more confident as people gradually accepted my disability and I rarely felt ‘different’.”

He found his main struggle to be “the fact that Gaza has yet to acknowledge and implement the United Nation International Convention for People with Disability which inevitably decreases the chance for personal development if you are an individual living with disability.”

According to Medical Aid for Palestinians over 87 per cent of Palestinians with a disability are unemployed, and one third of them will never be able to get married. Over one-third of Palestinians with a disability have never been to school, whilst many do not use public transport as it is not adapted sufficiently. It is these practical barriers which make living with a disability extremely hard under occupation. Mohamed, however, did not allow these obstacles to deter him from pursuing his dream of becoming an artist.

“Since I was a toddler, art was a hobby that grew into a passion which knew no boundaries, but when my health and condition deteriorated I could no longer endure the long and tiring school day,” Mohamed explains. He had no choice but to leave education before he had the chance to complete his baccalaureate exams – the equivalent of the British A-Levels – and so he embarked on a solitary journey to achieve his dream.

It was, however, during his school years that his artistic talent was discovered by his “middle school teacher who encouraged me to work and pursue my talent but I didn’t have the self-confidence and was not entirely convinced.”

Once forced out of education, Mohamed turned to the internet and social media to learn and develop his creative skills. Through his constant research and the online networks he’d created for himself, Mohamed discovered his real passion lay with anime art – Japanese animated productions featuring hand-drawn or computer animation – and so he continued to develop and learn in his solitary surrounding.

Gradually Mohamed began showing his work to others; initially on social media then to friends and family and recently he had his work exhibited at two local events in Gaza, including the “Renewing Contribution” festival at Gaza College. Soon afterwards, Mohamed attracted media attention as Palestinian, Iraqi and Jordanian newspapers and TV channels all vied to interview him, a young man who had succeeded against all odds.

Although Mohamed loves Palestine and especially Gaza – something that is reflected in his art work as the theme of Palestine and resisting occupation are ever present – he does admit that “living in Gaza is a real challenge for any individual but if you are disabled then it is an entirely different matter; the siege which limits the everyday life of every Palestinian in the Strip, also means those with disabilities are unable to get access to, or learn about, opportunities and facilities that are available for people with special needs.”

The siege has meant that electricity in the Strip is unstable and cuts for hours leaving those with a physical disability with obstacles they are unable to overcome without access to lifts to get to their flats, or sufficient generators to ensure medical equipment, such as ventilators, are operational.

Despite all these issues, Mohamed is still hopeful of better times ahead for Gaza and himself: “I want to leave a mark in the world of art, travel and see what is out there in terms of art, especially anime, open my own exhibition where people from all over the globe can come and view my work and improve my skills through interacting and meeting artists and academics who may help me nurture this talent through further studies.”

In reality this is quite a task without funding, facilitates or sponsorship combined with the degenerative nature of muscular dystrophy. Though his dream may be difficult to achieve, something in his determination gives the notion that it is not impossible.

He also hopes to follow in the footsteps of other well-known visual artists that have worked professionally despite the challenges having a disability brings, artists including: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Frida Kahlo, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Al Capp.

However the artists that influence his work the most are Picasso, Da Vinci and Japanese anime artists Naoki Tate and Masashi Kishimoto, he says. Mohamed’s fascination with anime stems from the idea that, unlike other forms of art, anime is not restricted by rules or guidelines and has no boundaries. “You draw whatever your imagination leads you to without adhering to any specific shaping or the general appearance of the drawing.”

For him, anime is the most accessible form of art for a person living with disability in quite an isolating environment, “I only have my A4 drawing pad and pencils that enable me to live out my dream.”

The faith in his own talent has paid off as this week he opened his first solo exhibition in Gaza entitled “Anime is my Life” at the Arts and Crafts Village which has coincided with his 21st birthday, making it a double celebration.

Mohamed’s advice to others in his situation is “don’t hide or supress your talent, nothing is impossible, be proud of who you are and what you contribute to society. People with disability have a vital role to play in shaping the world and influencing the attitude and perception others have of disability.”

Images by MEMO’s correspondent in Gaza, Mohammad Asad and also provided by Mohammed Dalo.

See more of Mohamed Dalo’s work on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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