Friday, June 27, 2008

Writing history

The first time I met Ismail he asked me if I would like to go to work with him one day. He is one of the handful of visual artists who live and work in Ramallah and, although I wasn’t sure what ‘work’ meant in this context, he’d mentioned that he worked in a museum in East Jerusalem. When I met him again the other day I said to him that I would like to go with him to work and we agreed that he’d pick me up on Thursday morning around 8.30. We drove off and passed by the Qualandya checkpoint. We didn’t go through because Ismail said that today we’d take the ‘settler road’ which is the fastest. We drove on a wide road that had been cut into the landscape with tall yellow cliffs on either side. Ismail said that this was the general pattern around all larger cities on the West Bank; in other words, the Israelis build roads around the city centres so that the settlers don’t have to drive through the Palestinian cities. Ismail’s ID is from East Jerusalem and his car has yellow Jerusalem licence plates so he’s allowed to drive on these roads. I asked him whether he lived in Ramallah, which had been my impression. Yes, he kind of did, he said. He told me that it’s actually not legal to live in Ramallah with a Jerusalem ID but brushed it off saying that if you did everything the Israelis dictated then you wouldn’t do anything. So you have to be able to thread your way. There were lots of cars with green Palestinian number plates on this road, so it’s apparently not entirely impossible for them to drive here. It is, however, on many of the other settler roads in the West Bank and it’s out of the question to bring a Palestinian car into Israel.

We drove through a part of East Jerusalem that is still a heavily contested area when it comes to claims for land and territory. This landscape is a part of the West Bank and thus a part of the area that was occupied by the Israelis during the Six Day War in 1967. The Israelis, however, are expanding dramatically with new settlements built on the hilltops. The Wall, which after a while becomes a high-tech fence, zigzags through the landscape far into the occupied territories. These settlements don’t look very temporary and it’s clear that they are built to stay. In between the settlements there are Arabic villages and neighbourhoods that all look a bit older and more organically laid out. You can always recognise them by the minarets that stick up over the buildings. We arrived at a checkpoint by the Wall and Ismail said, “Now we are settlers”. We both relaxed a bit in order to look unaffected and as cool as possible and we were waved through without hesitation by the heavily armed Israeli soldier. On the other side of the Wall in East Jerusalem you couldn’t really speak any longer of settlements but entire neighbourhoods that had been built on occupied land. These neighbourhoods are most likely never going to be returned to the Palestinian people and Ismail sang with a smile ‘Jerusaaaaleeeeem is looooooost’ in a tone of voice that mimicked the prayers that are broadcast from the large speakers on the mosques. Eventually we arrived at the little museum where Ismail works.

There is a slightly sad story attached to the museum. Originally, it had been a Palestinian folklore museum but it hadn’t been open to the public for the last year and a half. It was one of the few institutions that contributed to the task of documenting and preserving knowledge of Palestinian culture but, as has happened so many times before when it comes to Palestinian concerns, internal disagreements had arisen that, in the end, had led to the museum’s closure. Alongside a handful of other people, Ismail had been hired about a year ago as a visual artist to help renew and re-open the museum. It seemed like Ismail was the last one left of this group and he was clearly looking forward to when his contract ran out the next week. Only one year ago a fortune had been spent refurbishing the building “with European expertise”, Ismail said, with a slightly ironic tone but this renovation had been a disaster for the building as all the windows had been covered with shutters and the entire building was about to collapse due to damp. A new renovation had already been planned to save the beautiful building.

Ismail told me that he had tried to change the focus of the museum from being a messy old fashioned and object oriented museum into a museum that spoke more of the context in which the collection had originated. The story behind it was that this collection had been brought together within the framework of a wealthy Palestinian family towards the end of the 1900s, and that the building that housed the collection had been the family’s original villa. Ismail said that he wanted the museum to tell the story of both the family and the collection. The collection consisted mainly of pottery, textiles and craft collected from the Palestinian villages. Towards the end of the 1900s there had been a relatively large and wealthy Palestinian upper class that had their own culture and traditions parallel to those of the Ottoman and European high society that also existed there around that time. The museum owned much of the family’s furniture and personal belongings and these could easily be integrated with all the other art objects of the collection currently on display in the many galleries of the museum. It wouldn’t be like this, though, as the board didn’t like the idea and just wanted a ‘museum’ and didn’t want to pursue Ismail’s ideas. Currently there isn’t one museum about Palestinian cultural history in Jerusalem that is run by the Palestinians themselves. This creates a cultural gap for the Palestinians and makes it easier for the Israelis to reproduce the myth of the Jewish migrants settling in an unpopulated land, the persistent story in the Israeli writing of history. However, in 1948, around 1,750,000 people were living in Palestine, of whom only 31% were Jewish.

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