Palestine’s Cultural Past: Between Expropriation and Reconstruction
May 15 2020

The violent interruption of Palestinian life and the rending of Palestine’s social fabric in 1948 are ongoing phenomena that impact every aspect of the intellectual and artistic work of Palestinians both at home and in the diaspora. Stories like Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa and art works like Amer Shomali’s Broken Weddings highlight a key dimension of the Nakba, namely, how Israel has advanced the legitimation of its settler-colonial project through the destruction, erasure, expropriation, and appropriation of Palestinian cultural heritage.

Palestinian artist Amer Shomali unveiled his monumental work Broken Weddings at the twelfth edition of the Art Dubai fair in 2018. Consisting of six panels with 9,639 colorful spools of embroidery mounted on aluminum and wooden bases, one of the panels is part of the Institute for Palestine Studies’ Keyword: Palestine II art exhibit, staged in Washington, DC and online. Each panel represents a traditional Palestinian embroidery (tatreez) motif from a specific village depopulated during the Nakba. The artwork was inspired by the sale of an unworn embroidered Palestinian wedding dress at an Israeli auction in 2017. That piece was auctioned by the son of a member of the Haganah who claimed to have found the dress in an “abandoned” Arab house in 1948.

A further example of art being a medium for the expression of political consciousness is Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella Returning to Haifa. The story, a fictionalized version of a historical account, features a Palestinian couple who flee during the Nakba and, amidst the chaos, leave their five-month old son behind. The couple returns to their former home in the wake of the  June 1967 war only to find it inhabited by a young man dressed in an Israeli military uniform who turns out to be their now-grown son, Khaldun. Kanafani highlights an episode in his novella where Zionist forces seize Said’s books. Book robberies were a common practice during the Nakba, where librarians from Israel’s national library would accompany soldiers as they entered Palestinian homes and would collect as many books as they can. This presents another theme that contributes to acts of cultural genocide.

Alongside the destruction of lives, property, villages, and urban centers during the Nakba, material culture and traditions have also been threatened by the dispersion and dispossession of Palestinians. Cultural artefacts and expressions have often been eliminated or appropriated by the Israeli state in “recontextualization” and “institutionalization” efforts at Israeli museums, something that amounts to cultural genocide. A quick review of the Israeli museum landscape is sheds light on the implications and consequences of Palestinian cultural genocide during the Nakba.

Battle for Representation

In 1938, the British-built Palestine Archaeological Museum opened its doors. It housed findings from excavations that demonstrated the centuries-old presence of the indigenous population in the territory. In 1967, when Israeli forces seized East Jerusalem, the Israeli Antiquity Authorities moved its offices into the museum and the Israel Museum began administering the exhibit. The Palestine Archaeological Museum was renamed the Rockefeller Museum, after John D. Rockefeller Jr., the American philanthropist who funded its construction.

Not only was “Palestine” obliterated from the museum’s name, but so were the Palestinians from its history. A booklet published by the museum in 2006 conspicuously eschews the term “Palestinian” in the entirety of its text, negating that the artefacts on display are representations of the different peoples and ways of life in the territory prior to Israel’s colonization. Furthermore, the booklet alludes to the prominent Palestinian al-Khalili family, from whom the Mandatory government purchased the land on which to construct the museum, as “aristocrats from Hebron who settled in Jerusalem in the 17th century.” It deliberately fails to recognize the family as Arab and/or Palestinian.

The examination of other smaller museums in Israel, like the Etzel Museum or the Haganah Museum, also illuminates the politically-driven removal of Palestinians from the Israeli national narrative. Palestinians represent over 20% of Israel’s population, yet they are unable to locate their own history within the Israeli museum landscape.  

Rethinking the Future

Despite challenges posed by the occupation and the diasporic condition of much of the Palestinian population, Palestinians have been able to push back against the “recontextualization” of their culture by practicing diverse forms of cultural resistance.

Poetry for one has survived the cultural genocide, defying numerous and repeated restrictions imposed by the occupation authorities on cultural and political expression. It holds a significant place in Palestinian cultural resistance due to the long-standing importance of this literary form to Arabic-speaking peoples in general. Palestinian poems by Mahmoud Darwish, for example, are recited throughout the Arab world and beyond, elevating the Palestinian narrative beyond the realm of political debate.

The effort to reconstruct, preserve and communicate Palestinian memory has transcended the geographic boundaries of historic Palestine. This collective drive to safeguard Palestinian cultural memory is evident in prominent artistic and literary works, as well as through the recent consolidation of the professional public museum sector in Palestine. Several cultural and artistic venues have also been inaugurated in the Western hemisphere in recent years, like the Palestine Museum in Connecticut, USA and the Palestine People’s Museum in Washington DC.

Numerous grassroots associations in the diaspora have begun to mobilize internationally, helping to ignite conversations about Palestinian identity. In 2019, the Club Unión Árabe Palestino (Palestinian Arab Union Club), founded in 1954 in Peru, hosted its second edition of “Taqalid” (traditions in Arabic), a four-day cultural event in Lima that gathered over three thousand diaspora Palestinians from a dozen other Latin American countries. For a long weekend, a suburb of Lima was the epicenter of the Palestinian diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. Several cultural activities, including a tatreez fashion show, daily dabke performances, sporting competitions, academic lectures, gastronomic experiences, and a handicraft market allowed Palestinian families to celebrate their identity and reconnect with their roots.

The efforts of Palestinians and their allies continue to challenge the impact of the Nakba, assuring the future of Palestinian cultural identity at home and abroad. There is hope to be found in memories.


About The Author: 

Odette Yidi David is a Palestinian-Colombian researcher and adjunct professor at Universidad del Norte. She holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS, and serves as the director of the Institute of Arab Culture of Colombia.

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