|Still from: We the Palestinian People (Pacific Newsreel, 1973)|
In a 1974 article for the magazine al-Usbu’ al-’Arabi entitled “Jean Paul Sartre Shot Rockets at the Palestinian Research Center’s Offices?,” the Palestinian poet Mu’in Bseiso recounted the 1972 Israeli letter bombing that maimed the historian Anis Sayigh, who was then director of the Research Center’s headquarters in Beirut. Bseiso goes on to tell a different story in the article, an allegory about a devastating missile attack on the Center. “Palestinian blood,” Bseiso wrote, “mixed with Palestinian ink where the office once stood.”¹ The attacker in the story is Sartre himself, who by virtue of his Western passport could not be turned away at the Beirut airport, allowing him to enter Lebanon as an Israeli agent carrying missiles in his suitcase and wreak havoc. Here, Bseiso attacked both Sartre for his support of Israel and lamented the weakness of Arab sovereignty. While Sartre was not, in the end, the perpetrator of the act, the Palestinian Research Center was in fact looted by the invading Israeli army in 1982. “Israel’s seizure of the Research Center archive,” writes Hana Sleiman, a historian who has carefully tracked the archive’s fate, “is one in a series of Israeli appropriations of Palestinian memory.”
For at least two decades, contemporary art has moved in archival directions. Art practice today often involves historical lectures, the presentation of accumulated images from the past, and the display of acquired texts, official and otherwise. The archive, long associated with history, has now become—in its counter, radical, and affective modes—a major source of memory, remembrance, and testimony. The archive’s association with the making of the modern state and the subjugation of its colonies, explicated forcefully by Foucault, Thomas Richards, Ann Laura Stoler and many others, has set the tenor of this work.
Palestinian artists, along with other Arab artists like Akram Zaatari, Lara Baladi and Walid Raad, have made brilliant use of archival material and practices of archiving in their work. In her ongoing project, “Material for a Film,” Emily Jacir traces the life of the Palestinian writer and translator Wael Zuitar as it appears in the archives of Italian solidarity. Basel Abbas and Rounne Abou-Rahme’s installation and video project, “The Incidental Insurgents” places the infamous rebel-cum-bandits of Mandate Palestine in a global array of banditry from Victor Serge to Bolaño. Writing about Jacir’s work and that of others, the art critic Guy Mannes-Abbott has recently registered the significance of the “archival impulse” in Palestinian art.² And in her account of recent visual art and practices of witnessing in Palestine, the Israeli academic Gil Hochberg has argued that the such work produces “alternative archives of seeing.”³ But, where do these archives and this art come from? And where will these archives take us?
Palestine was one of the first places to be shot on film, its imprint can be found on the negatives of the Lumière brothers from 1896. During the Mandate the official propaganda films of the British served as important tools of documentation and indoctrination. On the eve of the nakba, the U.K. Ministry of Information’s 1947 film “Portrait of Palestine,” presented a narrative of progress in the region incumbent on European Jewish settlement, a story Palestinian filmmakers have had to contest ever since.
In the 1960s, growing numbers of Palestinian films were made and distributed as the Palestinian revolutionary movement grew more sophisticated in its methods and global in its reach. In Amman in 1968, under the auspices of the Palestinian political party Fatah (and later the Arts and Culture section of the PLO), Mustafa Abu Ali, Hani Johariya and Sulafa Jadallah formed the Palestinian Film Unit. La Lil Hal al-Salmi (No to the Option of Surrender), was the first film produced by this new group of Palestinian filmmakers, who would move from Jordan to Lebanon and beyond as politics dictated where and when Palestinians in exile could make art and revolution. In 1976, Johariya was shot dead in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War.⁴
Their ideas and practices of filmmaking were tied to the anti-colonial cinematic movement which began in Latin American known as Tercer Cine or “Third Cinema.” Teshome Gabriel wrote in his classic study of the movement that “Third Cinema must, above all, be recognized as a cinema of subversion. It is a cinema that emerges from the peoples who have suffered under the spells of mystified cinema and who seek the demystification of representational practices as part of the process of liberation.”⁵ In typical Third Cinema fashion, the manifesto of the Palestinian film unit condemned the frivolous, bourgeois films of the Arab world and called for the development of a cinema committed to “democratic and progressive content” and “a new aesthetic… able to coherently express a new content.” But they also specifically called for the creation of a “film archive which will gather film and still photograph material on the struggle of the Palestinian people in order to retrace its stages.”⁶ This archive was stolen.
The meaning of Israeli troops carting off our archives from Beirut in September 1982 was lost on no one. — Edward Said, After the Last Sky
Mohanad Yaqubi’s 2016 film, Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory is the latest and most powerful presentation of the remarkable films made by the unit and their fellow travelers. Eschewing the narrative of decline that so often marks recent narrations of this period worldwide, Yaqubi adopts the form of his forbearers in constructing an hour long montage of their montages. Left melancholia is nowhere to be found. No story is told of how the revolution fares, no sorrowful account of the Oslo Accords or Abbas’s state. Even in the film’s epilogue in contemporary Ramallah, the revolution continues. Without any new narration, and therefore, without nostalgia, Yaqubi re-creates the feel and form of the Film Unit’s cinematic and political project. Despite the remarkable archival work Yaqubi undertook to make the film, in the end the film is not about the archive, but the imperative to liberate Palestine. It is not a film about the Israeli theft of Palestinian archives, but the theft of Palestinian land. It would appear that the mission of Yaqubi’s film, as Ousmane Sembene said of his own films, is “to prepare the revolution.”
But of course the making of the film was also about the reconstitution of an archive. In an interview with Ivan Čerecina, Yaqubi described how he was able to track down the films he used: “After reading some texts, I found that for each film, 60 to 70 copies were made and sent around to universities, student unions, workers unions, political parties, cultural centres, festivals and so on, and from there I started. I went to work through the audiovisual archives of the French and Italian Communist parties and from there I started to find my material.” Like the materials Jacir uses to reconstruct the life of Zuatir, the films of the Palestinian Film Unit that Yaqubi edits were largely located in European archives. This is of course, ironic, though typical. For in 1976, Edward Said told an interviewer from the journal Diacritics: “that there exists in Europe a vast cache of Arabic texts, removed out of the Arab world by the colonial powers during the nineteenth century. Here Foucault's theory of the archive and discourse acquires a very material dimension; the archive of much of modern Arab history resides unmetaphorically, has been deposited in, has been physically imprisoned by, Europe.”
So where is the Palestinian archive? The land of Palestine, if you want to find it, is easy enough to locate on a map, even if mislabeled. But the archive of Palestinian history is seemingly nowhere and everywhere at once. Images, at least, are abundant. There are the countless Facebook groups and Instagram and Twitter accounts of varying quality that provide their followers (myself included) with a constant stream of historical images of Palestine and Palestinians. There are more academic endeavors, like the online Palestine Poster Project, a vast collection of ephemera. And now there is the Palestinian Museum, which is certainly the largest and most well-funded example of these attempts to display the Palestinian past, and also the one which most readily mimics the practices and global rules of art-making and state-building. Though at the museum, there is unfortunately an all too common obsession with Palestinian “crafts.” In searching for accounts of Palestinian culture in the mainstream, one sometimes wonders if Palestinians ever did anything more than embroider.
In his essay, “Beirut, A City Without history?” Saree Makdisi reflected on an archival project, the vast collections of Beirut’s Arab Image Foundation. Emerging from, if I may, the ruins of the Lebanese Civil War, alongside well-capitalized projects of reconstruction and reconciliation, the Image Foundation’s mission “to preserve and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora” appears at first as a welcome and familiar venture. But the limits of preservation and study are circumscribed by the very medium. The image is not enough. “In being frozen in visual form,” Makdisi wrote, “history threatens to become an aesthetic object, a commodity, a spectacle, a fetish, rather than a narrative, a process, or a struggle.”⁷
The Palestinian historian Mezna Qato has written that in her archival investigations across the West Bank she often faced the same obstacle: the “good stuff” had gone up in flames. Indeed, stories abound of Palestinian archives intentionally and unintentionally burned. Wadi al-Bustani, the self-described Lebanese-Palestinian poet and lawyer, burned most of his papers shortly before leaving Haifa in 1953. The great Palestinian poet from Musmus, Rashid Hussein was killed by his archive, when a dropped cigarette lit up his New York apartment full of cassette tapes bearing the sound of his poetry and that of other poets. The smoke from the burning magnetic strips suffocated him to death.
At moments of heightened intensity, especially right after assassinations by air raids, when Palestinian bodies are turned into ashes and televised, the Palestinian collectivity oscillates between total insecurity and total oneness. — Esmail Nashif, Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community
Qato continues, “as with the archival spoils of war from the Nakba, there is one remaining witness – the Israeli archives.” These archives are full of images, as the work of Ariella Azoulay and Rona Sela attests, but also many documents and books which have been used to write the history of Palestine and the Arab world by countless Israeli historians and increasingly by Palestinian historians themselves, as in the case of Leena Dallasheh and Adel Manna’s recent studies of Nazareth. But, the Israeli archives of the Palestinian past can never be enough.
Hana Sleiman and Ahmed Barclay’s recent installation at Dar al-Nimr in Beirut provides, perhaps, a way out of our archival impasse. As Sleiman put it in a recent interview, they see their work “as a history/historiographic project, more than an archival project. We are not collecting the archive of the archive, nor are we collecting a body of material that tells its story. We are using a body of material to tell a meta-history.” Their project, and others like the Palestinian Revolution website and the Palestinian Oral History Project, do more than simply collect or preserve, they expand our political imagination. Thawra hattal nasr.
¹. Mu’in Bsieso, “Jean Paul Sartre Yatlak al-Sawarikh ‘ala maktab markaz al-bath al-Filistini?,” al-Usbu’ al-Arabi, (December 16, 1974), 73.
². Guy Mannes Abott, “This Is Tomorrow: On Emily Jacir’s Assembling Radically Generative Archives,” in Arthur Downey, ed. Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015)
³. Gil Hochberg, Visual Occupations: Violence and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 8.
⁴. This sketch of the founding of the Palestine Film Unit is based on: Mustafa Abu Ali and Hassan abu-Ghanam, ʿAn al-Cinema al-Falisteniyya (Tripoli: Palestine Film Unit, 1975); Qays al-Zubaydi, Falisten fi al-Cinima (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006); Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008); Nick Denes, “Between Form and Function: Experimentation in the Early Works of the Palestine Film Unit, 1968–1974,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 7:2 (2014), pp. 219 – 241.
⁵. Teshome Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 95.
⁶. Palestinian Cinema Group, “The Palestinian Cinema and the National Question: Manifesto of the Palestinian Cinema Group,” Cineaste 9:3 (1979), 35.
⁷. Saree Makdisi, “Beirut, a City without History?” in Ussama Makdisi and Paul Silverstein eds., Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa (Bloomington and Minneapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 206.