NEW PALESTINE — Early in March, a billboard went up at U.S. 52 and Post Road whose cryptic message caused motorists to wonder about its meaning.
The billboard has a black background with white letters stating, “Notice, on the top picture the name of the town was once Palestine.” Below, the same words are displayed in Arabic. The bottom of the sign says, “I love (heart symbol) New Palestine, OH.”
Many who saw the puzzling billboard thought it had to be some kind of misprint, especially with the reference to New Palestine identified as being in Ohio. And not many people can read Arabic.
It turns out the billboard wasn’t a misprint, and the Arabic greeting was part of the billboard’s message conceived by a Palestinian artist, Qais Assali.
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Assali, 32, is a visiting assistant professor and artist-in-residence studying critical race studies at Michigan State University.
The artwork, several years in the making, was designed to create “a moment of “bridging,” Assali said.
The billboard is the result of his artistic skills as a graphic designer, coupled with his hopes for Americans to understand more about people like him and his homeland, one of the most contested regions of territory in the world.
During a bus ride to New York in 2016, Assali was fascinated to find towns on maps of the United States named Lebanon and South Lebanon, places with which he was familiar in the Middle East.
“Just by a weird coincidence, Google Maps was telling me there was a New Palestine listed below both Lebanon and South Lebanon, two borders as a Palestinian I cannot cross between,” Assali said. “It’s a political thing.”
The thought of being able to visit those American places, including his homeland’s namesake, became a goal — almost an obsession, he said. Assali first went to the New Palestine in Ohio, which ended up being a small road by a river. And then he came to the New Palestine in Indiana.
“I wondered what a New Palestine in America would look like,” Assali said. “I really wanted to have an interaction, a connection between the two New Palestines I had found and the Palestine I am from.”
That’s what the billboard was designed to do: share a commonality, if by name only, and start a conversation between cultures. His moment of bridging.
Assali spent a day taking pictures and filming New Palestine for his studies to showcase how different it was from his home in Palestine. While in town, he met Becky Gaines at the town museum and asked many questions.
“He was fascinated with our little town and at some of the things we kept near and dear to us in the museum,” Gaines said. “Even though our museum is small, he thought it was mighty.”
Gaines told him New Palestine was originally called “Palestine,” but officials added “New” because the mail kept being delivered to the wrong place. She even showed Assali an old picture of the railroad station with the word “Palestine” above it.
That’s the picture he references on the billboard, he said, noting he left the actual picture off the billboard to get people wondering.
Gaines had no idea he’d use her words or the picture reference with the word “Palestine” to be part of his national art project, but she’s glad he did.
“He kind of took what I said out of context and didn’t add the photo, but what he was trying to do is question people — let their imaginations go, and it worked,” Gaines said.
Since the billboard has been up, Gaines has heard all kinds of comments and was slightly surprised when she learned some were frightened by the Arabic writing. But the display did exactly what it was supposed to.
“In the art aspect of it all, his whole thing is while New Palestine and Palestine are different, they’re also alike,” Gaines said.
Gaines and Assali had a good conversation about Palestine and New Palestine, Midwestern values, the community and culture. Both found that despite their differences, there were many things in common, particularly their love of community.
Assali invited Gaines and Mike Dean, president of New Palestine Main Street, to visit East Lansing, Mich., this week to see and be part of his project, “Palestine With a New,” a presentation of the museum along with stories about New Palestine.
“It was fantastic,” Gaines said.
His project showcased 3-D imaging of New Palestine along with the border lines of his homeland. Gaines spoke during the presentation and explained how nothing really gets done in small-town USA without a community effort.
Gaines wanted to portray America to Assali in a different way from the images of the United States often shown in larger cities via the national media, she said.
“My thing is if we can get one person to shake hands with another person, no matter the race, no matter the nationality, two people can meet and greet successfully,” Gaines said.
Assali was also interested in creating awareness of the differences between the two New Palestines he has visited and strife-torn Palestine, which has been recognized by 137 out of 193 countries in the United Nations, but not the United States.
The region of Palestine is in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and is part of Israel. But it is claimed by Israelis and Palestinians as ancestral territory. It is also the area where Jesus lived, so Christians consider the region important as well.
“Palestine for me is a holy land, a combination of Islam, Christianity and Jews,” Assali said.
While Assali doesn’t consider himself a political person, he admits, growing up in the Middle East, under occupation, a person doesn’t really have a choice but to be political.
His goal with the billboard was to open conversations about the Middle East to help people understand Palestine. He wants Americans to be as curious about his homeland as he was about a small town in Indiana.
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Qais Assali, 32, has been a faculty member at a number of academic institutions in the Middle East, including Al-Ummah College, Jerusalem. He holds two master’s degrees, an MFA from Bard College, New York, and an masters in art education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In addition to his presentation on New Palestine, Assali has an art exhibit on display at MSU titled, “Costume Party at the Moslem Temple,” which looks at the way American organizations have appropriated Muslim trappings in their culture. His work includes screenings, exhibitions, performances and talks.
Now that his studies and work at Michigan State University are wrapping up, he’s hoping to land a job as a professor in the United States combining his love of graphic design and conceptional art.