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Theft and Creativity - Archives of a Fragmented Nation

Palestine's story is one of displacement and dispossession – a people who have been dispersed to all corners of the world, and a homeland that has been methodically carved up by settler-colonialism. Today's fragmented geography – of people as well as places – sees pieces of the collective national jigsaw scattered far from their true homes. The archiving of the Palestinian story in all its intricacies thus presents a huge challenge.

Israel has always been aware of the power of Palestinian archives and their importance as records of national identity, history and culture. Beginning even before the Nakba, Zionist militias and later the Israel army have destroyed or confiscated many collections that should be playing significant roles in a collective national archive.

As documented in the film 'The Great Book Robbery', an estimated 70,000 books were stolen during the Nakba including many notable libraries such as that of noted intellectual Khalil Sakakini. This project which was carried initially out by the Haganah and later the state's official army was done in cooperation with the Israeli National Library on whose shelves thousands of these books can be found today marked with the letters 'AP' – Abandoned Property.

Similarly, the Israeli military archives contains thousands of stolen Palestinian photographs including many historic documents which show elements of life as it was before Israel was established.

Such practices did not stop with the establishment of the state. Famously, when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 its forces looted and confiscated the PLO's national archives. Dr Sabry Jiryes, head of the PLO Research Center in Beirut in 1982 told the New York Times that 25,000 books as well as microfilms and manuscripts were stolen during the raids.

Amidst the destruction of the Second Intifada, which included attacks on cultural and educational institutions, another significant collection of the Palestinian archive was stolen. Israel closed Orient House – the PLO's Jerusalem headquarters – in 2001, and in the process a significant portion of its archives were confiscated including collections of photographs, official documents and historic newspapers.

With this background of decades of systematic theft of national archives, recent weeks have seen the Qalandiya International contemporary arts festival held across Palestine under the banner 'Archives, Lived and Shared'. The festival saw more than 100 Palestinian and international artists respond to the notion of archives in various artistic forms.

From contemporary responses to historic photographic archives to hour glasses filled with the concrete of the Apartheid Wall and installations exploring Israel's 'Cemeteries of Numbers' (in which it imprisons Palestinian fighters even after their deaths), many issues were explored within the festival. The politics of fragmentation were reoccurring themes – fragmented people, fragmented communities, a fragmented homeland.

Despite Israel's policies of confiscating cultural artefacts as well as its assassination and imprisonment of leading cultural figures – including pioneers such as Ghassan Kanafani, Naji al-Ali and Samih al-Qassim – Palestinian art continues to respond. Through the Qalandiya International festival many young artists showed that they still believe in the power of culture, and that the national experience continues to infuse their practice much like their esteemed predecessors.

Images by Rich Wiles

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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