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Raya al-Jadir

Mohamed Dalo and the art of living with disability in Gaza

Mohamed Dalo is a Palestinian artist from the besieged Gaza Strip [Image supplied]

Date of publication: 22 February, 2018

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Living with Muscular Dystrophy under siege in Gaza, Mohamed Dalo is fighting through his art, reports Raya al-Jadir.
Living with disability in any part of the world comes with its own challenges - yet the main issue that the majority experience are societal attitudes, which seem to conspire to stop you from living an ordinary life.

But what happens when you are not just fighting social prejudice, but also confronting a military occupation? This is precisely the battle that Mohamed Dalo from Gaza has been fighting since shortly after 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.

From a very young age Mohamed was encouraged by his parents, particularly his father, to integrate fully - a lack of special needs schools made the decision a more natural one - and so he attended mainstream school and mixed with people of various abilities.

This left Mohamed growing in confidence, as his fellow students and teachers gradually accepted his disability, and he became at ease with being "different" from others around him. The fact that Gaza has yet to acknowledge and implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities decreases the chance for personal development if you are an individual living with disability.

Mohamed Dalo was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy at birth [Image supplied]

According to Medical Aid For Palestinians research, more than 87 percent of Palestinians with a disability are unemployed, and one third will never get married. More than one-third of Palestinians with a disability have never been to school, while 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. Yet Mohamed did not let these obstacles deter him from pursuing his dream of becoming an artist.

Ever since he was a toddler, art was a hobby that grew into a passion which knew no barriers, when Mohamed's health and condition deteriorated and he could no longer endure the long and tiring school day, he had little choice but to leave education before he had the chance to complete his baccalaureate exams - the equivalent of British A-Levels - and so Mohamed embarked on a solitary journey to achieve his dream.

Mohamed Dalo is a Palestinian nationalist and dedicates much of his artwork to 'the cause' [Image supplied]

Mohamed recalls that the first person to discover his artistic talent was his middle school teacher. who encouraged him to work and pursue his talent. Back then, Mohamed was not as convinced of his ability. Yet when life dealt him the hard blow of discontinuing his secondary education, Mohamed turned to the world of the internet and social media to learn and develop his artistic skills.

Through his constant research and networking 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 surroundings. Gradually, he began showing his work to others; initially on social media then to friends and family - and recently had his work exhibited at two local events in Gaza, one of which was the 'Renewing Contribution' festival at Gaza's College.

Soon afterwards, Mohamed attracted Arabic media attention as Palestinian, Iraqi and Jordanian newspapers and TV channels queued to interview him, representing a positive image of succeeding against all odds.

Living in Gaza is a real struggle for anyone - but if you are disabled then it is an entirely different matter; Palestinians have been suffering under the occupation for more than 65 years, and people with disability suffer the same fate of not knowing or interacting with other countries, so they are unaware of the opportunities and facilities that are available for people with special needs, or even what they want or need.

Disabled people here are largely marginalised and isolated, without appropriate equipment that could assist them or any specialist professionals or doctors to whom they could turn for advice or help. People with disability can often fail to see a way forward and begin to lack the courage needed for everyday life - as well as having deep-seated feelings of being at fault for their predicament.

There aren't any disability-friendly adapted measures to live life to the full in Gaza: people with hearing impairment have no access to university education and some university degrees are impossible for the visually impaired. Still, there are no facilities to integrate people with disability into education.

Gaza has been under siege for the past eight years. With little to no electricity available, there are no working elevators, so even those with a physical disability are still expected to get up flights of stairs. Even generators are not always working due to fuel shortages.

During attacks, the sense of being in danger is much higher for someone with disability because the chance of survival is much lower - it is harder to leave the home and seek shelter or to move from the top floor to the basement.

Despite all these issues, Mohamed is still hopeful for better times ahead - both for Gaza and for him personally.

"I want to leave a mark in the world of art, travel and see what is out there in terms of art, especially anime. To 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 to nurture this talent via further studies."

Without funding, facilitates or sponsorship, combined with the degenerative nature of Muscular Dystrophy, Mohamed's dream is an uphill struggle, but through his sheer determination, it is a dream that is not impossible to make real.

Dalo's portrait of Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian writer and leftist PFLP leader [Image supplied]

Mohamed is not the first artist with disability, and it is from this fact that he draws hope of following the paths of well-known artists that have worked professionally despite the challenges of disability: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Frida Kahlo, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Al Capp, John Callahan, Chuck Close, Yinka Shonibare, Ryan Gander and Kathleen Morris to name a few.

Mohamed cites Picasso, Da Vinci and Japanese Anime artists Naoki Tate and Masashi Kishimoto as his main inspirations.

His fascination with Anime art stems from his love for minor and critical details and the freedom offered by this particular form. Anime is not restricted by rules or guidelines and has no boundaries - whatever your imagination leads you to draw on paper is accepted without adhering to any specific shaping or the general appearance of the drawing.

Anime is distinguished from other forms of visual art by its simplicity, says Mohamed, and the ability to use an eraser when a mistake is made. He says it is the most accessible form of art for a person living with disability in a quite isolated environment:

"I only have my A4 drawing pad and pencils to enable me to live out my dream." 

His faith in his own talent has paid off; this week he opened his first solo exhibition in Gaza entitled "Anime is my life", coinciding with his 21st birthday.

What advice would he give other people living with disability in Palestine or elsewhere?

"Don't hide or supress your talent, nothing is impossible," he tells The New Arab. "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."

If you'd like to keep up to date with Mohamed Dalo, you can follow him on Instagram, on Facebook and on Twitter

Follow Raya al-Jadir on Twitter: @carelessrayoon

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