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  • Memory of Place: The Photographic History of Umm el-Fahem and Wadi ‘Ara at Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, Israel

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    Memory of Place: The Photographic History of Umm el-Fahem and Wadi ‘Ara
    A Permanent Exhibition at Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, Israel

    Text by Dr. Mustafa Kabha

    The Palestinian narrative, on both the national and the local levels, has suffered grave poverty in sources for historical writing: documents, photographs, oral stories, etc.1 This shortage is due mainly to the total destruction of the historical and cultural heritage of Palestine in 1948. This destruction includes the elimination of activity in the urban centres and a stop to architectural and cultural development in its villages and rural towns.

    The destruction of the urbanization process which began in the late Ottoman and early Mandatory periods (and reached its peak during the 1930s and 1940s) has had a crucial influence on the evolution of the Palestinians as a people with one collective historical memory and a single historical narrative. The physical division to which the Palestinians have been subjected since 1948, a split that has rendered most of them refugees, makes it especially difficult to sustain a unified narrative. Thus, the existing Palestinian narrative may be dubbed a “diasporal narrative.” Under the impact of the Palestinian Issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict, most historians have engaged in documentation of the conflict and its evolution, focusing on general description and analysis of its general frame, while largely neglecting other historical aspects, such as the local cultural, social, and historical facets. This neglect resulted in the exclusion of many sectors in this society and the silencing of other voices. It also involved the avoidance of documentation and analysis of the processes which took place on a local level, and were not directly linked to the conflict.

    Thus, the need arose to compensate for this ‘lack’ by presenting the absent voices and aspects, and shifting them from the margins to the center. It is in this context that the project by the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery was initiated to establish an historical archive of the city and of the Wadi ‘Ara area. This will serve as a reference point for scholars and other individuals seeking raw historical material. It should be noted that the choice of Wadi ‘Ara was not due to considerations of local fanaticism but due to the assumption that such historical documentation would require the extensive gathering of local documents, photographs, and testimony. It is hoped that the project will form a nucleus for similar work on a country-wide scale. It is our aspiration that this start will spur different groups to follow as part of an overall effort to write and consolidate a collective historical Palestinian narrative.

    At the outset of the project, we set tasks for ourselves on two complementary levels: the temporal — from the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century; and the contextual — addressing social, cultural, and existential issues. The combination of the two introduces a comprehensive picture of the region, from personal as well as public perspectives. Geographically, the project will include the towns and villages of Salim and Zalafi to the east, Umm al-Qataf and ‘Aoyun al-Asawir to the west, the Wadi al-Milih area to the north, all the way to the “Green Line” (1967 borders) to the south. This geographical territory includes the city of Umm el-Fahem and the localities on either side of Wadi ‘Ara, in the area called al-Khattaf Mountains to the south (Umm al-Qataf, Dar al-Hannun, Barta’a, ‘Ayn al-Sahala, al-‘Arian, ‘Ar’ara, Khur Saqir, southern al-Biyar, Umm el-Fahem, southern Musmus, Zalafi, Aqqada, Salim, and Khirbet Wadi ‘Ara); the al-Ruha area to the north (Kufur Qari’, ‘Ara, Mua’wiya, Mushyrifa, Al-Biada, and some of the uprooted villages in the area of al-Ruha which had special ties with the Wadi ‘Ara villages and towns. Among them: al-Sindiyana, Subbarin, Khubbeiza, umm al-Shouf, Qannir, al-Kafrin, al-Buwayshat, al-Butaymat, a-Lajjun, all-Mansi, Abu Shusha, Abu Zurayq, and al-Ghubayyat). The inhabitants of the area had much in common, in terms of norms and traditions as well as the population structure and shared memory. They maintained ramified relationships,2 and the area enjoyed strategic value as the meeting point of three important districts: Haifa, Jenin, and Tulkarm, a fact which contributed to the diverse interrelations between their inhabitants and those of Wadi ‘Ara.

    A three-step plan was conceived for the purpose of gathering raw historical materials for the archival project:

    I. Gathering available photographs from the advent of photography in the region to our times;
    II. Gathering oral stories from inhabitants who witnessed and participated in the events;
    III. Gathering documents associated with the area from personal, local, and international archives.

    The materials are catalogued and documented in a computer program created especially for this purpose. Project participants were given special training and participated in workshops organized by the gallery in collaboration with the Open University. They learned methods for collecting raw archival material, sorting, and cataloguing, in addition to practical work in editing and documenting personal interviews.

    The first products of the process will be published in a three-volume book. The first volume will address the photographic history of the area; the second will document oral stories, and will include an introduction and analysis; the third will combine oral stories and archival materials. It will also include a general historical review of the area and other aspects, such as tradition, architecture, flora, and the ties between all these and the land, people, and identity.

    Photography as a Historical Source

    Scholars who specialise in the philosophy of history writing concur on the importance of photography and its power in presenting and reconstructing the historical context of events, yet they differ over the degree to which one should rely on photographs for analyzing context and drawing lessons. Some maintain that photography is vital to the induction process, adopting special criteria regarding textbooks.3 Others hold that one must not exaggerate the use of photography, proposing to employ visual means that may facilitate the reconstruction of details missing or omitted from the written texts.4 Both sides agree, however, as to the importance of the use of photography, especially when historians are unable to obtain written documents or in the lack of oral documentation. Since this is the situation as far as Palestinian history is concerned, and especially in Wadi ‘Ara, we regarded photographs as crucial for the construction of the historical narrative of the area. In this context I believe that the history of the development of Palestinian photography as a whole, and that of Wadi ‘Ara in particular, should be reviewed, and that the fundamental characteristics of this process, their suitability and the significance of the photographs must be studied, so that they may serve as resources for writing and documenting the area’s history.

    In the Palestinian context photography became a popular medium several months after its invention by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre of France in 1839. The relatively quick arrival of photography in countries outside Europe may be ascribed to two main factors: one, the photographers’ romantic interest in Palestine as the birthplace of Christianity echoed the growing interest in the Old and New Testaments at the time; and two, the western colonialist had a general interest in the East, and in Palestine specifically. While I shall not ascribe precedence to one factor over the other I would like to emphasize that these two factors have many affinities and intersections. The Palestinian historian ‘Isam Nassar, who wrote about the development of photography in Palestine, noted that these two factors were ambiguous: on the one hand, the interest led to early documentation of Palestine, while on the other, the photographers underscored the religious facet of the country, disregarding its inhabitants. According to Nassar, the disregard stemmed from the fact that the inhabitants of Palestine were not a part of Europe’s historical consciousness.5

    To reinforce Nassar’s conclusion, it may be noted that the photographs of Palestine preserved from the late Ottoman period and the British Mandate period reveal only a partial reality, as they present Palestine and the East through the landscape that nourished the romantic and religious inclinations of the Westerner. Theirs was a landscape highlighting the virginal quality of nature, and a place calling to mind descriptions in the Old and New Testaments. In other words, the real identity, life, and ambitions of the people who lived in Palestine were of no interest to the Western visitor to the country. This may be one reason why scholars studying the people that lived in the region during that period have great difficulty relying on these photographs as a pivotal source for reconstructing the spirit of the time and establishing the contexts for the processes that took place in the region.

    Most of the photographs associated with colonial activity in the region are kept in the official military archives of the colonising countries, especially the UK and France. The photographs usually represent the military power of these countries as opposed to the weakness of the other party as seen in photographs taken during the First World War. Another type of photography comprises personal and familial pictures taken in private studios by local photographers or photographers from neighbouring countries. For example, Armenian photographers who underwent a process of Arabization, were interested in the people living in this region and operated according to professional criteria largely implemented by Western photographers.

    Researchers setting out to explore the history of the region will have difficulty deciding to what extent these photographs—which largely document the upper class and the local Arab elite, while omitting the poor urban classes and the inhabitants of outlying villages—are indeed representative.6 Assuming that photography was accompanied by rituals dictated by the photographers who designed the setting and backdrop and determined the dress and head covering, this process inevitably perpetuated an artificial reality which the photographed subjects were unable to influence. At the same time, one cannot ignore the materials which the photographed subjects brought with them from outside the studio. This is evident mainly in cases when domestic or official, pedagogical, cultural, and religious events were documented. In these photographs one may discern, in addition to the architecture in the background, various symbols and elements indicating the identity of the depicted subjects.

    At the end of the British Mandate in Palestine, the indigenous inhabitants’ participation in photography as a whole continued, not only as subjects but also as photographers in their own right. This fact has assisted scholars in drawing knowledge about the reality of the time from the photographs — not only about the landscape, but also about the human element. After 1948 and the destruction of the Palestinian urban centres, the urbanization process suffered, influencing the development of photographic techniques. This regress, however, did not prevent the realization of the need for photography and documentation. In the Wadi ‘Ara area photographs were taken mainly by official and military representatives or by photographers of the Jewish majority. Concurrently, an independent process, albeit rather limited in scope, began evolving, of photography by the indigenous inhabitants. In this context, it is obviously impossible to cast aside photographs taken by officials (especially during the Military Administration era, 1948-66), as they form the bulk of existing photographs documenting the Wadi ‘Ara area and other Arab areas in the period under discussion.


    1. Mustafa Kabha (ed.), Towards a Historical Narrative of the Nakba: Complexities and Challenges (Haifa: Mada al-Carmel Arab Center for Applied Social Research, 2006) [Arabic].
    2. For an elaboration, see: Mohammad ‘Aqill, al-Mufssal fi Tarikh Wadi ‘Ara [The Detailed History of Wadi ‘Ara from the Early Canaanite Period to the Late Ottoman Period: Roots, Families, and Places] (‘Ar’ara, 2004) [Arabic]; see also: Mustafa Kabha and Nimr Sirhan, Bilad al-Ruha fi Fatrat al-intidab al-Britani: al-Sindiyana Namuzajan [The al-Ruha Area during the Mandatory Period: al-Sindiyana as a Case study ] (Ramallah, 2004) [Arabic].
    3. Dov Sterling, “Illustrations in the Textbooks,” Journal of General Education, vol. 5 no. 2, 1951, pp. 111-123.
    4. Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970), p. 296.
    5. ‘Isam Nassar, “Early Photography and its Absence during the Nakba,” in Kabha 2006 (n. 1).
    6. For these and other photographs see: Walid Khalidi, Before their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians 1876-1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1991); Elias Sanbar, Les Palestiniens: La Photographie d’une terre et de son peuple de 1839 à nos jours (Paris: Hazan, 2004).

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