The ‘Guardian of Gaza’: Fathi Ghaben (1946-2024) Preserved Palestinian Memory, Colors, Dress, and Symbols Through Art

Elie Chalala
On the left: A painting by Fathi Ghaben, circa 1996. On the right, photograph of Fathi Ghaben from the online ARTnews.
As if gripped by the fear of losing the history of Palestine, Fathi Ghaben kept Palestine close to him for his entire life, in his mind, art, and physical existence. Reporters, critics, and Palestinian government officials paid tribute to the artist, whose unwavering focus on Palestinian culture and memory saturated his life and work. In the words of Palestinian Minister of Culture Atef Abu Seif, “Palestine was always present, in all its details, in Ghaben’s works, who carried with him the life of the Palestinian village, camp, and refuge to the world through his skillful brush.” The late artist remained in Gaza until his dying breath, but even in his final moments, he was deprived of the freedom he sought for his home. Fathi Ghaben, who grew up living in a tent since his youth, breathed his last in a tent on February 25, 2024, succumbing to an illness exacerbated by the lack of medical resources caused by the war and impediments blocking him from leaving for Egypt to seek medical care.
Ghaben received many nicknames throughout his life in Arab and Western media, but he was most prominently known as the “Van Gogh of Gaza.” In a 2015 interview, the American Al-Monitor website described his resemblance to the Dutch painter Vincent Willem van Gogh, whose struggle with suffering and tragedy felt akin to Ghaben’s experiences. The article states, “The strong brushstrokes that Van Gogh left on his paintings may express the bouts of despair over poverty that ultimately led him to cut off his ear and then commit suicide…Poverty and creativity accompanied Van Gogh’s life, just as they continue to accompany the well-known Palestinian artist Fathi Ghaben, who lived an unfair life.” While the similarities between the two are general, perhaps his accomplishments as a famed art historian of Palestinian life, heritage, and tradition serve a more befitting title. In the same interview, Ghaben spoke on his early artistic beginnings: “I used to draw everything at any time, in mathematics, science, and Arabic classes, and I remained like that until my name became famous in Gaza. Although I did not complete my studies due to poverty, I was employed as a drawing teacher due to the fame of my name.”
Born in the village of Herbia on November 12, 1946 (1947, according to various sources), Ghaben grew up within the borders of the 1948 territories. His mother carried him during the Nakba, and they were forcibly displaced to Gaza, where he lived his life in the Jabalia refugee camp. With no formal art education, he learned art through practice. He began drawing in the first grade of primary school, filling his notebooks with drawings of animals, human faces, and cartoon movie heroes. Later, he was influenced by the atmosphere of the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956 and the occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1967. He began drawing international emergency forces, women, children, cars, and the general situation, alerting everyone to the talent he possessed at an early age, which prompted them to encourage it, according to Alaa al-Helou in the New Arab.
Excerpted from "The ‘Guardian of Gaza’: Fathi Ghaben (1946-2024) Preserved Palestinian Memory, Colors, Dress, and Symbols Through Art” by Elie Chalala, scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 28, No. 85, 2024.
Subscribe to Al Jadid Digital for $15.95 to read the full article (2243 words). Subscribers gain access to Al Jadid’s online archive, which includes 21 years of Al Jadid Magazine issues and the last three years of Inside Al Jadid Reports:
If you are a student and your library is not subscribed to Al Jadid, contact your library to subscribe to Al Jadid’s institutional subscription:
If you are interested in purchasing print copies of Al Jadid Magazine (Nos. 42-75), contact us at or by mail:
Al Jadid Magazine
5762 Lincoln Ave. #1005
Cypress, CA 90630
Copyright © 2024 AL JADID MAGAZINE