Disappearing Palestine


Foto expositie van Rula Halawani in Londen. Foto’s naast elkaar: oude foto’s van voor 1948, de dorpen van Palestina. En nu: dezelfde plekken. Ik schreef een inleiding voor de catalogus. (Foto hierboven is van een vorige expositie. Lifta. Eens een welvarend dorp, nu een verlaten.)

Disappearing Palestine

I first met Rula Halawani in 1997, when she was working as a news photographer for Reuters. I had come to Palestine for a conference, and some of us went to Silwan, a village on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. We had heard that there were some Palestinian families being thrown out of their houses by settlers, and we wanted to see for ourselves and join the protest. The Palestinians know only too well how soldiers rough them up. We were soon to discover, however, that this was the first time that internationals were being handcuffed, dragged over the sharp stones and beaten with batons. Rula took photographs throughout the ordeal. As she snapped away, I noticed tears flowing down her cheeks. Another thing struck me. She pointed her camera not only at the action unfolding before us, but also at the woman standing on the balcony watching, crying and shouting: “don’t beat them! don’t beat them”!
We became friends.

Rula grew up in a place with what I think is the most beautiful address in the world, it simply says: Mount of Olives, Jerusalem. Unfortunately the reality is far from romantic. East Jerusalem is under military occupation. Even though, as a resident of Jerusalem and holder of a press card, Rula has more privileges than an inhabitant of the West Bank or Gaza, and can travel more freely, they will never let her forget that she is a Palestinian. She is treated as a foreigner in her own country. She studied in Canada for five and a half years, and was away during the first intifada. When she returned, she had changed and her country had changed. “Why should our people continue fighting?”, she thought, when she embarked on her career as a photojournalist. “Why don’t they forget? Why should land be more important than life?” She started taking photographs of children throwing stones. One sixteen-year-old boy got injured, went to get his wound dressed and came back, limping, to throw more stones. She was there, doing her work, when he was shot dead in front of her camera. It was the first death she witnessed. “It was only then that I began to understand”, she explains. “This land cannot live without us and we cannot live without this land.”

Although her salary was good, Rula decided to abandon her career as a news photographer to become an independent photographer. Over the years, I witnessed how she nurtured and developed her talent. Her early photographs, of people, are all in colour. Gradually, she returned to black and white photography, and her concepts changed. In “Negative Incursion”, the horrific images of tanks in the streets of Ramallah, and the dead body of an old man, are printed in negative. Another project, ironically named “intimacy”, features hands. Just hands. Hands of the occupied, and hands of the occupier, exchanging ID cards at the checkpoints. And then there are the huge, intimidating images of the ugly wall. In Rula’s pictures I see fewer and fewer people. But it is as if they are populated by her people, invisible, but still there.

When I was young, I believed in the romantic version of the birth of the state of Israel, of how the Zionists fought to build a safe haven for the survivors of the Holocaust. I was told that, after May 15, 1948, the Arabs started the war against Israel, and during the fighting many Arabs fled. It took me a long time to realise that Israel’s war of ‘independence’ was the Nakba, the Catastrophe, for the Palestinians. I learned that half of the 800,000 refugees had already been expelled from their homes before May 1948. There were massacres of villagers unable to defend themselves, like in Deir Yassin, on April 9, 1948. Read Ilan Pappé, “The ethnic cleansing of Palestine”. Immediately after the Palestinians were deported and chased away, Israel started to destroy most of the abandoned villages. One reason was to make it impossible for the refugees to return to their homes. The villagers thought they would be away for a few weeks or possibly a few months, and could return after the war was over – they had left behind most of their belongings, their cattle, their clothes. In some of the abandoned villages, their meals had been left on the table. Another reason for all this destruction was the Zionists’ desire to obliterate the history of the Palestinian people, to make not only the people go away, but also their names, the names of their villages, their memories. Close to five hundred villages were wiped off the map, their names were removed. Parks and kibbutzim were built on top of the ruins. Some villages were spared and are now inhabited by Israeli families. If you look closely, you might see an old mosque that has been converted into a restaurant. Occasionally, you might bump into a small museum displaying the tools of the villagers, without mentioning who they were, these people who vanished.

I have worked in the Gaza Strip for many years now. Whenever I take a taxi from Ben Gurion airport to Erez checkpoint, I watch out for cacti in the landscape. Wherever I see cacti, I know there were Palestinians living there. You can still see the stones, a few walls standing, the broken stones of a cemetery. Whenever I ask a child in Gaza where he is from, his reply is not “Nuseirat camp”, or “Jabalya”. Instead, he will say: ‘I’m from Saf Saf, or I’m from Jaffa’. I knew the mukhtar from Kawkaba. He was an old man, living with his two wives, and with dozens of children, grandchildren and the first great-grandchildren in Bureij Camp. He would get up early every morning for prayers, and make coffee for the men of Kawkaba, to discuss the matters concerning his villagers. The room for the diwan was never painted, because he believed it was only temporary, they would be going back. The Crusaders had disappeared, and so would the Zionists, the other invaders. He was adamant. He never acknowledged the fact that Kawkaba no longer existed. In the last days of his life, he stopped talking. He smoked and cried a lot, and then he died.

Rula took me with her to Lifta. It is a steep descent, down a path with big holes in it. Lifta is one of the few Palestinian villages that was not completely destroyed in 1948. The beautiful stone houses, two or three storeys high, are damaged but still there. These houses were inhabited for a few years by Jewish refugees from Yemen, until they relocated to modern accommodation. The empty houses are occasionally inhabited by squatters, sometimes by crazy people. The village pool is visited by ultra-orthodox boys from a nearby settlement, who swim in it and leave the wrappings of their candy bars and their cola bottles to litter the stones. When they leave, and silence sets in, we hear the birds, and the rustling of the trees in the wind. It is not so difficult to imagine the children’s voices, and their mothers shouting, forty years ago, when this was still a prosperous, rich Palestinian village, famous for its embroidery. The only surviving male villager from Lifta, Abu Suleiman, told Rula how they used to sit on the flat stone floors beside their houses, eating, and smoking, and listening to the murmur of the water that flowed through the village.

Do none of the habitants of the new Jewish state of Israel realise they are living on the ruins of a different country, in houses that another people inhabited, except for the minority of the Palestinians who stayed on? There seems to be an almost complete denial of the history of this country. Even children in school are not allowed to learn about the Nakba, the great disaster that befell the Palestinians. But some of the early Israelis were aware, as revealed by a fragment of a diary that I found while doing research for one of my books. A young member of kibbutz Sasa wrote the following diary entry in the spring of 1949, as the family were preparing to celebrate Passover:
“Why are we celebrating our holiday in an Arab village? Once there was an Arab village here. The clouds of Sasa floated high over other people one year ago. The fields we tend today were tended by others – one year ago. The men worked the plots and tended their flocks while women busied themselves at baking their bread. The cries and tears of children where heard in Sasa one year ago. And when we came, the desolation of their lives cried to us through the ruins they left behind. Cried to us and reached our hearts, colored our everyday lives. So we search for justification for the right to be here. It isn’t difficult to imagine how life must have been. A slipper here, a mirror there, a sack of grain here, a family portrait there, a child’s toy. What gives us the right to reap the fruits of trees we have not planted, take shelter in houses we have not built? On what moral grounds shall we stand when we take ourselves to court?” (From Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins, p 167)

I asked Rula about her new project, the photographs of some of the depopulated villages: “For years I have been thinking about doing a project on these abandoned and destroyed villages”, she said. “Thinking about it is not the right word. I tried to forget it, I did other things, but it was like this idea went after me, I could not abandon it, I had to do it. Our Palestinian history is my life. I live this history, and I wanted to translate it into pictures.”

“I took some friends with me to see Lifta village, that was the beginning. Then I went from village to village, or what was left of them and I started to collect old photographs, which was not so easy. Some villages had just been simple villages before the Nakba, with no idea that they would be destroyed. Standing among the ruins of what once was a beautiful place takes your breath away. They have become ghost houses. The places did not die a natural death, they were murdered. They were abandoned when people fled, or were deported by force. And then they were destroyed, most of them.”

“I had read about a village called Kawkab al-Hawa, “universe of the wind”, it was built high up a mountain, overlooking the Jordan River to the east and the Sea of Galilee to the northwest. I couldn’t find it. My guide could not find it. But one day we were looking for a village called
al-Birra. There are no maps left showing the way. There are no signs telling you were to go. Many of the roads have gone too. And it is an unsettling experience, having to ask these people, who are the occupiers, who go for nice walks with their families in the landscape that was once ours, who have picnics among the ruins of our lives, who are enjoying the beautiful scenery, for the way. And sometimes, among those happy Israeli families, you see some old Palestinians, who sit silently among the ruins, because they can’t forget.”

“Yes, some Israeli people said, when we were looking for al-Birra, there are some stones up there. We followed a very steep path, up the hill. My car could just make it. It was windy and raining. The view from the summit was amazing. We saw some stones, a few olive trees. The wind was so strong, I had trouble opening the door of my car. And then there was this old man sitting there. And he told us the name of the village we found. It was Kawkab al-Hawa. I must confess tears streamed down my face.”

“I stayed there until it was dark. I tried to understand the people who lived there, who had wanted to live in this place even though they had to walk on foot or on a donkey to climb this high. I had the feeling their presence was still there, their souls had not left. It is like the land is still waiting for them to come back. My guide, he did not understand why in every village we went to, I would greet the people, “salaam aleikum”, I would greet the people who were there and not there. Who had left their existence behind when their bodies left.”

“There are no pictures of Kawkab al-Hawa in this exhibition. I did not find any old pictures and there is nothing left.”

When you stand in front of these silent, simple photographs, villages as they were, as they are now, be silent. Listen. If you listen carefully, you will hear the murmur of the water, you will hear the birds, you will hear the voices of the children of Palestine.

Anja Meulenbelt (1945) is a writer and a member of the Dutch Senate. For the past ten years, she has been the chairperson of the Kifaia Foundation, an aid organisation helping disabled people in the Gaza Strip. Anja has written several books on Palestine/Israel. She is currently working on her next book, entitled “War when peace threatens”.

Walid Khalidi, All that remains. The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992
Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006
Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape. The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948. Berkeley, University of Calofornia Press, 2000

Website: Palestine Remembered. www.palestineremembered.com

3 gedachten over “Disappearing Palestine

  1. 10 jaar geleden was ik in Tiberias op een architectuur excursie. Op zoek naar een bancomat liep ik met een Israelische stedebouwkundige door de stad. Tussen nieuwbouw verspreid enkele lage huizen in een zwarte steen. Uri vertelde dat zijn arabische huizen. Ik zei, er moeten er dan toch veel meer geweest zijn. Ja, die hebben we gesloopt, we wilden niet dat ze terug kwamen.
    Twee dagen later in Haïfa, rondleiding door de befaamde ‘nieuwe zakelijkheids’ wijken uit de jaren dertig. Gebogen met de medewerkers van Monumentenzorg over de kaart met voorstellen voor de restauratie viel me op dat de oude monumentale poortgebouwen er niet op stonden. We waren ze net gepasseerd. De vriendelijke gemeente architecte keek me een beetje verbaasd aan na mijn vraag. Geen antwoord.

  2. Prachtige inleiding. Hartverscheurend en zo verdrietig. komt Rula met haar foto’s ook nog naar Nederland?

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