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Republishing of Archival Book Reinforces Preservation of Palestinian History


Palestinian women grinding coffee beans, 1905
Image licensed under public domain

In a speech before the UN General Assembly in 2021, young Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd bluntly summarised the trajectory of the Israel-Palestine conflict since the Nakba, or initial ‘catastrophe’ of Palestinian displacement and dispossession: ‘The appetite for Palestinian lands – without Palestinians – has not abated for over seven decades’. Indeed, since 1948, Palestinian lives and cultures have never been free of the threat of symbolic and literal erasure.


On Thursday, March 15th, Reference Point London held a special event to acknowledge these endangered cultures. On the occasion of the republication of the aptly-named photo book Against Erasure, a collection of archival images of Palestine in 1898-1946, Palestinian historians Dr. Mezna Qato and Rami Rmeileh critically responded to the manner in which Palestine has been represented in media since the beginning of the conflict. Edited by Teresa Aranguren and Sandra Barrilaro, this archive was originally published in Spanish in 2016; the new English edition, published by Haymarket Books, features a new foreword written by El-Kurd himself. 


The book, a product of years of collaborative archive research, achieves a rare and insightful synthesis of visual and oral histories to reflect the transition from a peaceful and flourishing state to one on the brink of devastation. In the early pages, we observe families collecting olives, camels powering waterwheels, and young men packing oranges into crates. As the book progresses, protest and displacement seize the stage.


These photographs, forms of countermedia, express the authenticity and dignity of Palestinian culture, challenging Zionist narratives according to which the region was previously uninhabited – or that its inhabitants are uncivilized and hostile. And where Israel and its allies actively censor and manipulate reports on the conflict in the media, this archive serves as an indelible record of the social stakes of settler colonialism.


The photographs are contextualized by brief portions of text. Next to a photo of a melon market is a list of crop distribution by Palestinian and Israeli ownership. Though the settlements themselves are not depicted, perhaps to a fault, the infringing nature of settler colonialism is obvious in the figures: early settler camps produced barely a third of what established Palestinian farmlands did, though today the former outstrip the latter by an enormous margin. 


Palestine exists in the Western popular imagination as constitutively war-torn, broken, or underdeveloped, but Against Erasure stands as a powerful means for dispelling this illusion. It depicts Palestine before the Nakba as a flourishing modern nation with sophisticated and even progressive infrastructure, technology, and cultural norms; in light of these powerful images, it is not possible to ignore 


The archive misses the extreme Zionism infiltrating the region at this time as well. The only explicit Israeli presence is felt through a few lines of Hebrew on the side of a commercial airplane. This omission greatly takes away from the nature of the occupation, as expressed by the panelists, making it seem that it was swift and sudden rather than slow and purposeful. It hides the development of Zionism in the region and therefore severs the connection with Zionism’s role in it today.


The imminent destruction creeps in slowly in later photographs, where early resistance to British troops is immortalized. Meetings of military, political, and religious committees appear one after another on the pages. Stoic men in European style suits and Arab headwear stand tightly alongside each other. They assemble for decisive conversation to protect themselves from the encroaching settlement. This is too little too late, however, as the remains of buildings destroyed by the British and Zionists follow the assembly photographs.


As the Israeli military continues to destroy Palestinians' homes today, the panelists emphasize that the Nakba is an ongoing process rather than an event of the past.


“The loss is overwhelming,” Dr. Qato laments. She urges the viewer not to fall into nostalgia or idealization of the old. She hopes for the archive to be a historical document for today's Palestinians' identities. Memories are the foundation of Palestinian resistance, according to the panelists. Young people do not have the same spatio-temporal perceptions of the Nakba, and therefore works like these help contextualize the event. These images provide water in the artificial desert of information about the real people that breathed life into Palestine. 


Qato hopes for the book not to be used as romanticization of Palestine as a pristine society. Though it is intuitive to wipe any flaws from the Palestinian memory to further its cause, it existed as any other developing country. Poverty, class disparity, and crime are also portrayed in the photographs, giving edge to the idyll. Acknowledging this does not detract from the value of Palestinian life; it only forces the viewer to accept people being people as a universally imperfect phenomenon, and, indeed, a primary indicator of humanity. 


In addition to the discussion, the night was enhanced by the musical stylings of London-based artists Saia, Silai, and Aliyah. The trio, two DJs and a vocalist respectively, created a soundscape to supplement the visual archive with an auditory one. Aliyah’s vocals reverberated through the space, so smooth that one could not imagine her voice was not recorded and perfected by software. Instead, she was hidden away behind a bookshelf, producing complex vocalizations and scales inspired by religious chants. She was not visible to the crowd because this music was not a performance; it was a voice to the movement, according to the artists. Another form of memory meant to capture the sounds of Palestine in the past. Along with the synth and reverb, seemingly built for the Western ear, recordings of streets and animals mark the music. Beeping cars, wagon wheels, clicking hooves, were woven into the night. 


They are inspired by multiple countries, including Egypt, Sudan, and Chechnya to create their amazing work. Saia says they are incredibly happy to contribute to the unity of this meaningful conversation, and these events are crucial support stones for the Palestinian resistance movement. Against Erasure adds coals to the massive torch that new generations of Palestinians are forced to carry in their fight for freedom.

 

Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor

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