Palestinian museum in Beirut keeps memory alive
Beirut - From inside a little room in a hard-to-find alley in the sprawling Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila in Beirut, a man as old as his people’s darkest memory has been waging a special battle to keep the thought alive.
Sitting on the other side of his beloved chessboard, Dr Mohammad Khatib explained why and how he decided in 2005 to stock a museum with hundreds of items brought by Palestinians who fled their land during the exodus of 1948.
“We are doing this to remind people that Palestinians had a full civilisation before the nakba,” Khatib said, using the Arabic term for “catastrophe” that describes the exodus that accompanied the establishment of Israel. “We want to fight the rhetoric that claims that it was a ‘land without a people’.”
“A land without a people for a people without a land” was a common expression among supporters of Zionism in the early 20th century to justify the plan to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
“If there weren’t any people, any collective life, there wouldn’t be any Palestinian heritage before 1948… And this is clearly disproven by all these symbols of civilisation,” Khatib explained, pointing at the vintage items hung from every wall and resting on old wooden shelves.
One would expect to see masterpieces in a museum but not in this one. The purpose here is simple: demonstrate that there was “life before death” in Palestine.
The museum serves as a witness of refugees’ memories, a matter that has become increasingly significant for Palestinians as many see their culture being appropriated by Israel.
On display are hundreds of items, ranging from copper houseware to metal agricultural instruments, simple antique lamps that once lit a Palestinian village home, to a sewing machine that was a woman’s must-have. Even when items are of the same category, they are diverse in age, technology or size. Such distinction was clear in the collection of coffee bean grinders that Khatib is proud of.
Also on display is an ordinary-looking wooden stick that carried a singular story.
“The stick belonged to a Palestinian man named Abou el-Shoq, who always carried it around,” Khatib said. “One day he was asked to accompany an aristocratic lady to the Golan Heights to check on her sick father. When he returned, someone asked him, ‘Do you know who you were with? It’s Asmahan (a legendary Arab singer)’ He considered this stick to be so special that he refused to donate it till after his death.”
Passionate about his relatively new hobby, Khatib, a physician working with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), has gone beyond Lebanese borders to complete his collection. The hunt for items took him to the Yarmouk camp in Damascus in search of beads that a Palestinian woman used for healing sickness back home.
Many items were sneaked out of Palestinian villages after the nakba and after the 1967 war that led to Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
“Israeli soldiers used to leave occupied villages at sunset and come back after dawn fearing retribution attacks during the night,” Khatib said. “Meanwhile, many Palestinian farmers sneaked in to harvest their crops and grabbed some of their valuable items before returning to Lebanon.”
Khatib’s uncle was among those who sneaked into his home village of Khalsa, 8km from Lebanon’s southern border.
“I was 6 months old when the nakba took place,” Khatib said. “My parents were in the souk when they heard the sound of an explosion. Before even knowing what happened, they fled to the nearby mountain. They had heard of the massacres of Deir Yassin and Kafr Qassem and assumed the same atrocities would be repeated in Khalsa… And that was it. We never saw our village again.”
Khatib was also among those who survived the 1982 massacres in Shatila and the nearby west Beirut neighbourhood of Sabra in which up to 3,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were killed by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israeli forces during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
Remarkably, the sad memories have left the man with the will to dedicate all his afternoons to fighting the forced amnesia of Palestinian heritage.
“They stole our land and now they are trying to rewrite history or distort it with military and economic force,” he said. “This is the role we can play to save our heritage.”
The museum is one of 39 Palestinian museums all over the world. Two are in Lebanon, including one in the Rashidiyeh camp in the south. Khatib hopes more Palestinians would be interested in supporting his initiative so that the museum could become accessible to a wider population.