“I spent my entire adult life trying to run away from here and never succeeded at staying away,” said Kathy Zarur, an art history instructor, independent curator and second generation Palestinian American whose family has been in The City since the 1960s.
“From Redwood City to New York City, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan; to Sharjah, Cairo and Ramallah, I keep coming back,” she said.
After 10 years away, following the 2014 completion of working as a curator in the United Arab Emirates, all roads once again led her back home, though she wasn’t entirely prepared for what she would find here.
“I felt like an exile in my own city, it had changed so dramatically,” she said.
Over tea at a cafe on the far west side of town, Zarur spoke of adapting to the changes in the physical environment here, as well as the personal and professional challenges of feeling like a stranger at home.
“Whether, political or artistic; the freethinkers and folks who walk to the beat of their own drum and whose values I share are still here,” she said, though it took her a minute to find them again.
As an adjunct instructor and appreciator of art from ancient to modern, she’s revisited wide swaths of The City and criss-crossed its neighborhoods. Teaching an arts intro class and a specialty class in contemporary art from the Arab world at California College of the Arts (CCA) and at San Francisco State University, she’ll soon add a course at a third campus that emphasizes land and public art.
“I’m dedicated to serving young people. I teach because it’s important students learn to think critically,” she said. “ I think that’s the most important thing I teach in my classroom.”
She identifies with the students, many of whom are committed to social and racial justice causes and working more than one job. But her adjunct teacher’s rate of pay without benefits doesn’t match the high cost of living here.
“Contract workers are affordable for the institution, “ she said. “They can just give the curator or teacher a lump sum.”
But there’s a cost to cutting corners at institutes of higher learning.
“Running from campus to campus, learning this system and that system takes a lot of time,” said Zarur. “It affects our capacity to be good teachers.”
She’s become involved with the the teacher’s union at CCA not only as an advocate for professors and instructors, “but for students to have professors who can do their best work,” she said.
“Part of why I’m able to live here is because I have a community. The places I’ve lived the last three years are opportunities I’ve gotten though my family,” she said. “That makes me very lucky.”
Zarur’s father is from the West Bank city of Ramallah. He narrowly escaped being drafted by the Jordanian army to fight in the Six Day War of 1967, one of the pivotal 20th Century events in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Her mother’s family, also from Ramallah, established themselves here earlier in the ‘60s. The couple, who just celebrated their 47th anniversary, met on a trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, organized by the Ramallah Club, a nationwide cultural organization, established so immigrants could maintain ties to Palestine.
“We lived on Potrero Hill, behind General Hospital. From there we moved to the Excelsior, a couple of doors down from a grocery store my father bought from my maternal grandfather,” she said. ”Years later, I realized it had probably previously been an Italian deli,” owing to the neighborhood’s prior immigrant identity.
Eventually the family bought a house in Daly City, but their activities remained along the corridor that extends from Skyline Boulevard and John Daly Boulevard to Mission Street.
“We would shop at Giant Value, and drive home along Brunswick where my grandma, my dad’s sister, other family, and friends lived. Sometimes we would be waving to people from the car along the whole route,” she said. The Southern neighborhoods remain a central location for the Palestinian community.
“Land and landscape, access to land and the ways the land becomes mythical are recurring themes in my work. I think it’s recurring because it figures into my experience,” said Zarur.
Her collaborative curation of Where is Here, shown at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) and Betweenscapes, presented by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center and Kearny Street Workshop at SOMArts, both shared themes of place and the spaces between them. Her next project connects the dots of the history of Palestinians in San Francisco.
“It’s researched-based, incorporating photography of the places people landed when they arrived here,” she said of the concept, still in its nascent stages.
“Defining what it means to be Palestinian in San Francisco is different than it is in Buffalo, than it is in Detroit, than it is in Gaza,” she said. “Though the experience has come out of great tragedy, there’s a lot to celebrate in terms of our resilience.”
With her days of living abroad and running away behind her, Zarur hopes to stick around to watch the next generation of her family grow.
“I finally figured out what makes home, home: It’s my people, my community. This is my home.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan. Museums and GalleriesVisual Arts