The way we were: Rare Palestinian family albums to be put on show

Under the title ‘Family Album’, the project is being carried out by the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, 25km north of Ramallah

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Sophisticated, affluent and composed. A photographic treasure hidden in an old family album, attesting to the life of one of many Palestinian families in the early 20th century, shortly before meeting their grim fate of dispossession and expulsion from their homes — some with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the key to their front door.

Historical photographs like these are one way to chronicle national identity. Such has been the latest effort of the upcoming Palestinian Museum for the past four months: hunting down telling photographs from Palestinian families, only to scan and digitally store them before making them available to the public.

With a past marked by conflicting narratives and shifting realities as a result of the partition and disintegration of Palestine over the past 68 years, the project is a move to preserve and offer original accounts of Palestinian history.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, more than 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, partly facing forced expulsion by Zionist militias, and partly escaping in fear. This exodus, termed the ‘Nakba,’ meaning ‘catastrophe’ by Palestinians, gave birth to the Palestinian refugee problem, when the newly founded state of Israel passed a law banning Palestinians from returning to their homes.

Researcher from the Palestinian Museum sitting with the Jamal Yousef Bek Ali family.
Researcher from the Palestinian Museum sitting with the Jamal Yousef Bek Ali family.

Today, Palestinian refugees number approximately 5 million, many of whom continue to live in run-down refugee camps, with over 2 million living in Jordan, 450,000 in Lebanon, 500,000 in Syria, and over 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) residing in the West Bank and Gaza, according to U.N. figures.

The ‘Family Album’ project is being carried out by the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, 25km north of Ramallah.

The museum’s spokeswoman, Rana Anani says the core idea of the project is to offer ways to connect with Palestinian communities abroad that are forbidden from visiting their homeland.

“We aim to tell the story of Palestine, and to introduce the new Palestinian generations to their history, especially now with the digitalization of everything — they are not exposed to photographs in old family albums,” said Anani.

Preserved memories

The high-resolution images are being collected and scanned from Palestinian families across the country. They will be made available to the public in digital form on an open portal set to be launched within the next few months. Researchers have digitally stored up to 4,000 photographs so far.

Under the slogan ‘Your Pictures, Your Memory, Our History,’ the ongoing project kicked off in November 2014 in the West Bank, and has since expanded to Jerusalem and historic Palestine.

The next phase of the ‘Family Album’ project will see research groups working to interview Palestinian families in Gaza and in neighboring countries, starting with Lebanon and Jordan.

Hopping from one house to the next, researchers have been sitting with Palestinian families for hours at a time, recording the stories behind the photographs and cooperatively selecting the pictures to be featured.

A Palestinian woman picking grapes, from the family album of Jamal Yousef Bek Ali. (Courtesy: Palestinian Museum)
A Palestinian woman picking grapes, from the family album of Jamal Yousef Bek Ali. (Courtesy: Palestinian Museum)

Each photograph to be displayed will be accompanied with the respective family name to which it belongs and with the family’s account of the people or events shown in the picture.

Fady Asleh, the research coordinator in Jerusalem and the 1948 territories says that the reaction from Palestinian families has been one of enthusiasm and relief that such a project is finally underway.

“We are affording new material and resources for researchers of Palestinian history, and offering a deeper understanding of the Palestinian case.

Also, many Palestinians in the diaspora will be able to search for their family name and discover their extended family’s history, and hopefully build connections with them,” said Asleh.

The Palestinian Museum

On May 11 2015, the Palestinian Museum gained official international recognition when it was admitted to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), joining a network of 30,000 museums worldwide.

The project, which is expected to cost approximately $43 million in its initial phase, is looking to open its doors in spring 2016, with construction assigned to one of the largest construction firms in the region, the Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), and financial backing from the Welfare Association and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.

The Welfare Association first proposed the idea for a museum centered on commemorating the Nakba in 1997, ahead of the Nakba’s 50th anniversary.

“Over the years, the idea changed, because Palestinians were here before the Nakba, and we will continue to be here. So we chose to focus on the past 200 years for now,” said Anani.
The museum’s primary aim is to introduce, through a network of partnerships and different platforms abroad, programs that will allow them to reach out to Palestinians in the diaspora, and in historic Palestine, such as the ‘Family Album’ project.

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