It’s a cold and wet Jerusalem winter afternoon and already my desk is awashin requests for photographs. As chief of public information for UNRWA, the UN agency that has provided humanitarian anddevelopment services to Palestine refugeessince 1950, my office is the port of call for anyone tracking down photographsof Palestine refugees. And while 15 May, 2008, the sixtieth anniversary of the Nakba, is still months away, there seems no end to the appetite for images of the 1948 refugeeexodus. This morning, requests from two European newspapers; yesterday requestsfrom an American NGO and al-Jazeera.
There and Looking over the photographs that Amani Shaltout, our dedicated archivist, sends out in response, my eyes linger on the faces. What happened to the old man being helpedaboard a departing boat? Where is the young Photography Exhibit woman staring out at us from the back of a Haganah truck? There is almost a uniformity to these images. The faces inevitably express the Nakba fear, confusion, sadness. The bodies are in flight – walking, running, being carried, – helped by trucks and boats. And there are always tents – single tents, then rows,opening up to reveal fields of tents as far asthe camera and eye can see.
But one photograph makes me stop. It isa photograph of two young girls pushingcarts stuffed with bedding. I’ve seen the frightened, sad faces before. But it is whatis behind the young girls that stops me: twolarge stone buildings, built in a popular early twentieth century European style. Palestinian refugee iconography (refugee iconographyin general) focuses on that which is temporal – tents, trucks, boats, mattresses slung over Photos courtesy of UNRWA. shoulders – all symbols of dispersion. But
these buildings are permanent – homes and shops – part of what was once a stableand thriving Palestinian community. Only minutes earlier these young girls were not refugees. Their home, their school, their playground – everything that was familiar and dear to them – are all still a few short blocks away.
I go back and look again at the other photos. Who were these people before they were turned overnight into refugees? I suddenly remember words from a poem byMahmoud Darwish:
I come from there and I remember
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows…
The old man and woman staring at us so stoically from the entrance to their tent:did their home have many windows? Had their life been a happy one? The 120,000 Palestinians who fled Haifa, the 123,000 who fled Jaffa – whom had they loved and married? What had they taught their children? What was their life a year, a week, a moment before? How many worlds were lost?
And so began the work on “I Come from There and Remember”, a photo exhibition evoking the life of pre-1948 Palestine, UNRWA’s commemoration to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. The exhibit premieres simultaneously in six locations –Jerusalem, Ramallah, Gaza City, Amman, Beirut and Damascus – on 15 May, 2008. Musical performances and lectures will be held around the exhibition’s theme of pre1948 Palestine, and after two weeks the six exhibits will begin tours to universities,municipalities and refugee camps. The exhibition is also available for hosting and touring, regionally or internationally.
Sponsors of “I Come From There and Remember” are the Swiss Development for Cooperation (SDC), British Consulate General, Arab Fund for Arts & Culture, and the Qattan Foundation. Gina Benevento(co-curator)has curated exhibitions on Palestinian themes regionally and internationally and is the former chief of public information for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Jerusalem Quarterly Associate Editor Issam Nassar is co-curator of the exhibit.