Saturday, October 31, 2020

Handwritten maps and faded photographs: bringing exiled Palestinians back to their roots

By Maria Correia - August 20, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Jerusalem] [Displacement] [Nakba]

In a crowded café, Tarek Bakri searches for a photo on his phone. After a few moments of scrolling, the photo lighting up the screen is of two almost identical images, side-by-side. Both show a Palestinian home in Jerusalem. The one on the left is an old photograph, probably from the 30s or 40s. The one on the right is taken with a smartphone, and shows Nasser, a Palestinian father, and his two children smiling in front of the same house.

Nasser’s family belongs in this house; his father was expelled from it during the Nakba in 1948, when more than 700, 000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from their land. An Israeli family currently inhabits Nasser’s family home.
The harsh reality of the Palestinian refugee is nothing new; the symbolic key is plastered in graffiti all over the West Bank, Gaza, and pro-Palestine protests throughout the world, representing the collective hope of returning home. But Bakri is doing his best to bring people as close to home as humanly possible.
The project
Bakri is an engineer from Jerusalem. Alongside his job, Bakri has a project of visually documenting Palestinian civilization before the Nakba through old photographs, bringing displaced and exiled Palestinians visually closer to their roots.
His project began six years ago by coincidence. While studying abroad, he met many exiled Palestinians and their descendants, who hadn’t returned to Palestine or had ever stepped foot in the country. Being from Jerusalem gave him easier access to historic Palestine, to areas that Palestinians now refer to as '48’.
On one of his visits back home, Bakri went to Haifa. While there he ended up sending photos of the city to a university friend who had never seen Haifa, although that’s where his family was originally from. This began a snowball effect. After graduating, these visits to cities and villages that were ethnically cleansed in 1948 became a weekly occurrence. If he knew someone whose family was from a certain village, he would video-call them from the village, bridging the exiled and their land.
It was his way of keeping the exiled Palestinians and their children visually attached to their land.
Importance of documentation
When asked why this type of documentation is essential, Bakri stated: “Because the Israelis want to change everything, they are changing history, they are changing the names. They are trying to erase our history. And I am bringing forth the original Palestinian narrative.”
While there are plenty of historians documenting these villages, Bakri brings to it an element of storytelling. He brings forth the personal tales of exiled Palestinians in order to talk about the village itself.
As the project gained more traction, more and more exiled Palestinians would send Bakri old pictures of their old Palestinian homes. Bakri then would research what happened to it through the years and go recreate the photo in present time.
Apart from creating an emotive connection through the side-by-side photos, Bakri also wants to emphasize what Palestine used to be in terms of culture and society. “I want to focus on the Palestinian civilization before 1948, because Zionists claim that they came to an empty, peopleless land. We had a life, culture, cinemas, cars, railways… I do this as visual documentation of that civilization.”
The emotional attachment to land
Bakri told a story about a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, who was originally from a village near Jaffa. “When I was [in the village], I video-called him, I saw him and his family from the screen. So we started walking though the village together, him directing me through the streets all the way to his home from memory.”
It’s an emotional process. Bakri described the impact it had on the children and grandchildren although they had never lived in Palestine. The experience brought all three generations closer to their land, even if only through a smartphone-screen.
“The diaspora still feel attached, they know a lot of details about Palestine without having seen it. So when they come they start connecting to it more.” In addition to visually connecting Palestinians to their land through photos, Bakri also takes those Palestinians that are able to travel back to the country to their villages. Upon arriving, search their cities of origin together, with the help of old photographs or oral documentation.
Speaking to Zeina, a Palestinian woman who grew up in Canada, it became clear how significant Bakri’s work is on an individual level. Zeina reached out to Bakri after her cousin tagged her in one of his Facebook posts about a Palestinian-American going to his family home in Akka with Bakri’s help.
Zeina remembered: “I started laughing hysterically and crying at the same time.” She got in contact with Bakri right away, and told him she was coming to Palestine for her honeymoon and wanted to go see her father’s city.
Upon arriving to Akka with Bakri, Zeina described her feeling “overwhelmed with joy and sadness.” According to Zeina, what made this experience so important was the re-attachment to family she gained from it. Because her grandfather’s home was destroyed, reconnecting with family she didn’t even know existed brought not only her but her father as well closer to Palestine.
It also made her acknowledge the deep-rooted emotional connection that is key to Palestinian exiles living abroad. “I never knew that I belonged to the sea until I went to Akka. I didn’t know I had loving family members waiting for me until I went there, I didn’t know what it felt like to see my town until I looked at it and tears came from a place I didn’t know existed.”
To Bakri, getting to be a part of this process for Palestinians from abroad is unique. “Whenever someone comes, I feel that I’m seeing Palestine for the first time with them,” he stated.
“The Israelis say that 'the old will die and the young will forget,’” Bakri said, quoting Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.  Bakri is making sure the young remember. By creating a link between the exiled and their occupied land, Bakri is creating a movement of afar Palestinians that are able to embrace a connection to their roots, even with the systemic and legal circumstances that keep the two apart.

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