A JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY BEARS FRUIT FOR PALESTINIAN ARTIST JASON AL GHUSSEIN
Jason Al Ghussein plants his Palestinian roots in Over-the-Rhine, hoping a bright mural can open minds and bring people together.
PHOTO: Jason Al Ghussein in front of his Over-the-Rhine mural. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEVYN GLISTA
By Jim DeBrosse – May 4, 2023
The rendezvous location was hard to miss even in the labyrinth of back streets in northern Over-the-Rhine: a five-story-high mural painted on an abandoned building, the wall ablaze with giant oranges and bursts of white blossoms on branches latticed against a bright blue sky. The mural’s creator, Jason Al Ghussein, was standing in front of his work on a late summer afternoon last year when two black Escalades rumbled past him on East Clifton Avenue, did a quick turn around on the empty street, and pulled up at the curb.
When the passenger door of the lead SUV popped open, out stepped the lanky frame of 78-year-old Roger Waters, cofounder of Pink Floyd. After landing at Lunken Airport earlier that afternoon, his solo concert at Heritage Bank Center was just a few hours away. But first the rock legend wanted to meet with Al Ghussein, and for one reason: The two men share a passion for the Palestinian cause.
Al Ghussein’s mural was inspired by the famed Jaffa oranges, given as prized winter holiday treats in Europe since the days of Queen Victoria and once grown on Palestinian land owned by his family. But in 1948, his widowed grandmother and her 11 children were driven from their land and into neighboring Jordan during the beginning of what Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe.”
By war’s end, hundreds of villages in Palestine had been destroyed and 750,000 Palestinians had fled or were expelled. Their abandoned properties were then confiscated by the fledgling nation of Israel through the 1950 Absentee Property Law. Land taken from Al Ghussein’s cousin, Ali Qleibo, has been proposed for the site of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem—a move that reverses 70 years of U.S. policy by recognizing Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital rather than Tel Aviv. Today nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees are eligible for services through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, with one third living in UN refugee camps.
Waters greeted Al Ghussein with the teasing words, “Man, you’re a hairy dude.” Al Ghussein, 34, a freelance graphic design artist and software developer, sports shoulder-length hair and a bushy lumberjack beard. For his meeting with Waters, he was wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian headdress that’s become a symbol of the Palestinian resistance movement.
Waters donned another keffiyeh that Al Ghussein gave him for a photo shoot in front of the mural. The rock star chatted for 30 minutes during his visit and signed covers of Pink Floyd’s iconic The Dark Side of the Moon album as well as Al Ghussein’s electric guitar. Before leaving, he asked if he could take Al Ghussein’s keffiyeh with him. The younger man gladly handed it over. During the concert that night, Waters wore the scarf while performing “Déjà Vu,” a protest song he wrote for Palestine.
Roger Waters has long supported Palestinians in their struggle for nationhood and civil rights.
Al Ghussein has far more personal reasons for his support. His grandfather, Yacoub, was a national Palestinian leader arrested several times by the British and beaten unconscious after he cursed a British police superintendent in 1933. He was arrested again in 1936 for being a leader of the Arab Higher Committee, loaded onto a British destroyer, and sailed to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, where he was a political prisoner for nearly two years.
The roots of the Arab revolt go back to World War I. After promising Arab countries their independence if they would fight against the Turks and Germans, Britain reneged on that promise and, under pressure from Zionists, unilaterally designated Palestine a homeland for Jews under the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In the decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, mostly from Europe, poured into Palestine. Tensions with the Palestinians grew, and both sides began smuggling weapons for what they knew would be a coming war.
Al Ghussein’s grandfather died of a heart attack five months before war broke out. Then on April 9, 1948, in the village of Deir Yassin, Jewish paramilitary groups massacred 107 Palestinians, including women and children, piling up their bodies and burning them. The massacre is considered pivotal in the lead-up to the war. Palestinians began fleeing the country, including Al Ghussein’s family, who fled north to Lebanon from their village of Ramleh. Five weeks after the massacre, neighboring Arab countries joined the conflict.
For Al Ghussein and other supporters of Palestine, the 1948 war wasn’t about Israel’s struggle to defend itself against Arab attackers. “It was, and is, a war of conquest,” he says. “Zionism was a foreign ideology and movement that originated in Europe. And it was foreign-government officials, the British, who issued the Balfour Declaration. It’s not the Israelis who are defending themselves, it’s the Palestinians.”
One of the first official actions of the new Israeli legislature was to confiscate homes and land left by fleeing Palestinians, including the thousands of acres Al Ghussein’s family had accumulated over 1,500 years. The scattered family carried on. Al Ghussein’s uncle Jaweed became a leading Palestinian educator and philanthropist who later blew the whistle on corruption within the Palestine Liberation Organization; his uncle Talat became the first ambassador from Kuwait to the U.S.; and his father, Khaled, helped manage Jaweed’s construction firm before retiring to Cairo, Egypt. It was there that Al Ghussein’s mother, Marilyn, a Cincinnati native and professor of art history at the American University of Cairo, met his father.
Despite the family’s prominence, Al Ghussein had no idea he was Palestinian until he turned 16. His mother kept it a secret from him as protection against political controversy surrounding the Palestinian conflict. “Growing up as a little kid, my mother always told me I was Egyptian,” he says. “My friends even remember me telling them I was Egyptian.”
He learned differently after he was assigned a high school project to research his parents’ ancestry. It was then his sister Bassima, three years older, sat down with him for the talk. “She told me Dad lives in Egypt because he’s a refugee of this war that happened in Palestine,” he says. “It was the first time I had even heard of Palestine or that there was a war there. They don’t teach you anything about Palestine in American schools.”
Al Ghussein had met his father only twice before then: a month-long visit from him during Al Ghussein’s early school years, and his own trip to Cairo as a young teenager. “My dad was mostly a voice on the phone,” he says.
A self-described “surfer dude,” Al Ghussein was born in Southern California after his parents separated and his mother returned to the U.S. along with his two older sisters. When he was 10, the family moved again, this time to Hawaii, where he spent much of his time surfing the monster waves on Oahu’s storied North Shore. After graduating from high school, he wanted a change of scenery and a reconnection to the mainland. He was 18 when he came to live with his maternal grandmother in suburban Cincinnati and started classes at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.
Al Ghussein’s first-ever meeting with a Palestinian outside of his own family happened a month after his arrival here, totally by happenstance. He was on his way back from classes at Cincinnati State—a two-hour Metro ride to Kenwood—when he spotted a clothing store with graffiti T-shirts in the window. Hoping to pitch and sell his own designs to the shop’s owners, Al Ghussein hopped off at Gilbert Avenue and McMillan Street in Walnut Hills, only to find the shop closed.
With nothing to do until the next bus arrived, he began exploring the neighborhood when he heard a man speaking Arabic through the open door of a cellular phone store. Al Ghussein entered and greeted the man with the little Arabic he knew: “Ahlan wa sahlan,” or “welcome to my place,” a reversal of his role as visitor.
Despite the gaffe, a friendly conversation in English ensued, and the two men learned their families were from the same village in Palestine. “What’s your family’s name?” the clerk asked. When Al Ghussein answered, the man said, “Oh, the rich family.”
“You know the name?” Al Ghussein asked. “Of course,” the clerk said, and, taking both of Al Ghussein’s hands in his, added, “Thank you for everything your family has done for the Palestinian people.”
The stranger’s affirmation made real to Al Ghussein what had only been part of his family lore. It wasn’t until his father’s death three years later, on Al Ghussein’s 21st birthday, that he began to explore in earnest his Palestinian roots. “The way that I dealt with the loss of my father and my grief was by trying to learn more about him and his life and my heritage,” he says.
Al Ghussein started growing closer to his Palestinian relatives overseas through Facebook and other social media. But the picture of his heritage wasn’t really complete until 2014, the same year as the Gaza War and the deadliest conflict between Israel and Palestine in decades.
In the spiral of violence that’s become the signature of Mideast conflict, the war began with the Hamas-led kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Israel responded with the arrests of hundreds of Palestinians. Hamas replied with more rocket fire from Gaza, and Israel countered with devastating air and missile strikes. Over a seven-week period, Israel used its overwhelming military might to pummel Gaza, its civilians, and its tottering infrastructure.
According to the UN, 2,251 Palestinians were killed—with 1,462 of them believed to be civilians, including 551 children and 299 women. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and five Israeli civilians, including one child, were also killed. In all, nearly 20,000 homes in Gaza were destroyed or damaged along with more than 90 schools and health clinics sponsored by the UN Relief and Works Agency. The conflict displaced almost 500,000 Palestinians at its peak.
Many Americans who saw the carnage and destruction on TV were shocked at its brutality. Those like Al Ghussein who had social media access to Palestinian sources on the ground saw up-close and in graphic detail the human suffering in Gaza. For the first time, he had a truly emotional connection with the plight of his ancestral land.
Al Ghussein bought his first keffiyeh, ordered from the last remaining textile factory in Palestine. It’s the same keffiyeh he would later give to Roger Waters.
Like his journey of family and ethnic discovery, Al Ghussein’s decision to paint his Jaffa oranges mural was a step-by-step process. It began with the COVID pandemic in 2020, “when I was bored and couldn’t hang out with my friends,” he says. “I just got tired of looking out my front windows at the ugly gray concrete wall on the abandoned building across the street.”
With little work to do during the pandemic and some extra money stashed away in his savings, he decided to paint over the wall with a mural. He wasn’t sure what that mural would be, but it would have to be colorful and, to meet his limited budget for paint, simple in design.
But first Al Ghussein would have to find the building’s owner and ask permission. A thorough search of county property tax and deed records as well as state corporate registrations led to a phony shell company without a real address or reachable signatory for a building that had been abandoned since the 1980s. Al Ghussein decided to go ahead and paint it, he says, “and if anyone had a problem with that, I’d deal with it when it happened.”
The first order of business was clearing out the piles of trash in the empty lot at the corner of Frintz and East Clifton adjacent to the building. He then leveled the lot with a rented Bobcat and dumped 20 tons of gravel on the site to support a boom lift. Toying with different mural subjects in his head, he remembered his father telling him about the smell of his own father’s orange groves as a child, a sweetness that had signified the beauty and bounty of pre-1948 Palestine. A mural with that theme would both brighten his day and remind him and other Palestinians of their home.
In the end, Al Ghussein chose a close-up of a few branches and oranges against an azure sky—a design he could do freehand without a grid or the worry of boom lift rental costs piling up. Even so, the project used close to 100 gallons of paint, including 10 gallons just for the primer on the thirsty concrete wall. Using an industrial sprayer for the primer and blue background, he completed the painting with smaller rollers in eight days at a personal cost of $10,000.
His neighbors loved it. “To have an abandoned building and watch him turn it into a mural with a message was exciting,” says John Wulsin, who lives across Clifton Avenue from Al Ghussein. And without being able to reach the building’s owner for permission, “it was a ballsy thing to do.”
Even ballsier, Al Ghussein later applied to include his mural among the animated exhibits in the 2022 BLINK weekend. Located several blocks east of BLINK’s Findlay Market Zone, the mural was rejected as being too off-the-beaten path for the official exhibition. But Al Ghussein was invited to participate in other BLINK-related events.
As an artist and advocate, he wasn’t deterred. Animation and 3D had been part of his studies at Cincinnati State. With just six weeks to go before BLINK’s launch on October 13, 2022, he put together a $20,000 GoFundMe campaign and met with friends who could help him animate and light the exhibit. “To leave a marginalized group of people in the dark just didn’t feel right,” he says. “I thought to myself, Let me just give it a shot.”
Despite a $4,000 donation from his family and local contributions from his friends, the effort got off to a slow start in the first few weeks. But then Al Ghussein reached out to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a Palestinian advocacy group. An IMEU social media post about the mural garnered nearly 20,000 likes, and money began pouring in from as far away as California and Kuwait.
At the $8,000 level, a matching anonymous donor emerged and assured the fund-raising goal would be reached in time. Al Ghussein says he was honored that so many people had supported his work, including several of his Jewish friends.
The money was needed to rent scaffolding and projectors for the four days of BLINK and to compensate those who helped with labor, technical planning, and animation. In addition, Al Ghussein was able to pay himself $1,000 for his lost freelance income and for the hours he devoted to the project, when he often pulled coffee-fueled all-nighters.
He and his friends developed an app for finding BLINK exhibits, including the rogue Jaffa Oranges, and named it BLONK to avoid copyright infringement. Released under Al Ghussein’s Nerdy Surfer label just days before BLINK opened, BLONK registered nearly 10,000 downloads over the October weekend.
Al Ghussein isn’t about to let his mural go unnoticed. He plans to invite other touring musicians who support the Palestinian cause to meet him for photo shoots. He’d also like to start an annual outdoor event bringing together a wide range of Palestinian supporters as well as those who are Jewish.
“I want it to be something that brings us together,” he says. “I’m not about increasing the tension. I’m about communication and enjoying the arts and forming bonds between people. Even if it’s difficult to have this conversation, I want the mural to be a unifying experience.”