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Preserving Palestine: A hidden gem in Jerusalem's Old City

Rami Nablusi making jewelry in his shop an al-Saraya street in the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem
Rami Nablusi can be seen making jewellery in his shop in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

With sparks flying and safety glasses slipping down his nose, Rami Nablusi worked diligently. He is hand crafting a bold ring showcasing a bronze coin with the date 1943 and the word "Palestine" engraved on it.

More than just a skilled jeweller, Rami Nablusi has dedicated his life to collecting, preserving, and sharing this pre-1948 history of Palestine with his small art shop nestled in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.

It all started with a coin, similar to the one framed in this new ring, first given to him by an old coin seller when he was a young child. "I was so amazed, I didn't know!" Nablusi remembers fondly experiencing physical proof of Palestine's existence for the first time. "So I went to my father and asked him, 'What is this?'"

A coining dating back to 1943 with Palestine written in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Today, Rami Nablusi owns dozens, making them into jewellery

A coin dating back to 1943 with Palestine written in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Today, Rami Nablusi owns dozens and turns them into jewellery

Before the First Intifada, Nablusi explains, the Palestinian identity was not as strong as it later became. "Unfortunately, the school did not say much… we did not have a [formal] education of Palestine."

After his father gave him more details about what being Palestinian means, "I started to be in love with Palestine, to know more about it," Nablusi tells MEMO emphatically, "So I started to collect, since then, every little thing." Old diaries, newspapers, bus tickets, stamps – any document that revealed a Palestine before 1948. The date is significant, Nablusi explains, as many people try to argue that a place called "Palestine" did not exist before the creation of the state of Israel and the resulting expulsion – or "Nakba" as it is known – of the Palestinian people that very year.

READ: And the Nakbas continue

"We had a country before with many things – coins, money, documents." Nablusi sprawled dozens of old newspapers and books written by famous authors across the floor of his tiny stonewalled shop, admiring each one excitedly.

"Look at all these newspapers: Flasten, al-Difaa, al-Bilad, Manar, Anbaa, al-Quds. All from the 20s," Nablusi pointed out. "This means people were intellectual – they liked to write and to read." His most recently acquired treasure is an accounting book for a tailor named Said Al Yassiny. Dating back to 1947, Al Yassiny documented his textile sales to people organised via village – some of which were destroyed just a year later. Rami Nablusi is the keeper of Palestinian life no longer visible today.

A social archive

Though Nablusi has a store front, his documents and collectables are not for sale. He merely shares the knowledge stored within his historical material to any wanderer that may pass.

Since 2017, he has contributed thousands of documents to the social archive Khazaaen in East Jerusalem to be digitally preserved for future generations.

READ: Israeli waves Saudi flag in occupied Jerusalem

"When [Rami Nablusi] heard about Khazaaen, he was so excited," Alaa Qaq, Khazaaen's public relations manager, tells MEMO. "He wants everyone to use this information because they are not valuable if they are hidden."

Nablusi's shop on Al-Saraya street hosts hundreds of artefacts that reveal Palestine's past, such as passports, accounting books, government documents, or even Ottoman-era cigarettes

Nablusi's shop on Al-Saraya street hosts hundreds of artefacts that reveal Palestine's past, such as passports, accounting books, government documents, and even Ottoman-era cigarettes

Beginning as a volunteer-based initiative in 2015, Khazaaen gained official non-profit status in 2017 and is now a treasure chest of nearly 80,000 documents (250,000 of which are digitalised) that highlight the history of Palestine and the Palestinian cause via materials collected from families and every-day individuals.

"The things we are collecting are giving us more information and more stories and tales about the Palestinian culture, heritage, identity – about the people that no one knows," Qaq explained that history is usually told through the upper class or those close to the government. Khazaaen adds nuance to history by classifying itself as a social archive.

Khazaaen's archive hosts over 115 files from donor families or individuals. Nablusi is not only one of the larger contributors to this social archive, but his contributions are, "very very important," says Qaq. "He has very interesting documents, they are so valuable, they are rare." Nablusi rushed to a glass cabinet and retrieved a rather ordinary white paper bag with red print. It was a bag belonging to a bakery owned by an Abu Abdualla Sawaf. After the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli authorities took the man's bakery by force, turning it into a synagogue in what is now the Jewish Quarter.

"Before the Jewish Quarter it was called Hat Al Sharif. The honour neighbourhood. Here, it is written," Nablusi points to the bag, now evidence of a Palestinian mark hidden by current events.

Nablusi started and continues to collect old documents to preserve proof that a place called Palestine existed before the state of Israel was created in 1948

Nablusi collects old documents to preserve proof that a place called Palestine existed before the state of Israel was created in 1948

Now 42 years old, Nablusi claims to have achieved notoriety in the Old City in his early 20s as a collector. Initially scavenging garbage thrown out from recently renovated homes, he now has people coming to him with newfound valuables.

READ: 'Aqsapedia' launched to teach history of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque

"I make an army that belongs to me," Nablusi laughs. "All this army, now they pass by my shop and say, 'oh look what I found Rami!' I save the whole history." He adds this is cyclical community support as he always buys the items people bring him and never tries to resell them back to family members or institutions with inflated prices.

Collecting history to build a better future

Nablusi's modest shop, originally his father's blacksmith work space, is in an area called Aqabat Al-Saraya – a wide street home to only five Palestinian families, an orphanage and industrial school, and the Al-Saraya community centre.

Though Nablusi has been collecting Palestinian history for decades, his storefront has only been open for seven years. Once his Jewish-Israeli neighbours started to have eyes on his father's old workshop after his passing, Nablusi decided to re-open it as a form of resistance. He explained how settler organisations, like Ateret Cohanim, are constantly trying to take overtake Al-Saraya street in an effort to expand the Jewish Quarter.

READ: Palestine warns of 'religious war' over Aqsa's status

Likewise, he wants to share his treasures with his people and spread the excitement of learning about Palestinian history – especially to school children whose education on Palestine might be lacking as his was or even threatened by the Israeli system.

"I go alone to the schools, sometimes, without money. I give them lessons on how to keep things, collect them; that this is our heritage that we are people," Nablusi says passionately. Now that the school year has started up again, soon teachers will pass by his shop daily and Nablusi will have the opportunity to teach them the importance of Al-Saraya street and of preserving Palestinian history.

"It is nice, you need to make them proud of their history," Nablusi says of Palestinian youth. "It is very important when you are very proud. So in the future you will give more than how it was before."

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