Interview: racism of Britain’s rulers in Palestine explored in major new exhibition

British troops blow up a Palestinian home in Nablus, late 1930s.

Anne Lineen Private loan

Anne Lineen is an exhibition curator dedicated to investigating Britain’s frequently brutal history. Her 2008 show Breaking the Chains examined the country’s role in the slave trade.

Over the past few years, Lineen has been working with the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. Along with the Palestinian author Karl Sabbagh, she prepared a major exhibition on the British Mandate, the colonial administration in Palestine from 1923 to 1948.

The project drew on testimonies from various people who had memories of the British Mandate period. Among the stories of arrests, house demolitions and hangings — strikingly similar to the actions of the current Israeli occupation — one man interviewed by Lineen in 2009 was particularly memorable. An elderly native of Nablus, who worked as a handyman and gardener, was literally too frightened to talk in detail about his experiences. More than sixty years later, the fear that someone would seek him out and punish him for resisting the British was still too strong.

Since that interview was conducted, the Empire and Commonwealth Museum has shut down, cancelled the exhibition and made Lineen redundant. But, absorbed by the documents and images she unearthed and the tales she heard from interviewees in Palestine, Britain and Jordan, she has remained committed to making the show happen. The British in Palestine is now scheduled to open at London’s Brunei Gallery in October.

Anne Lineen spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Irving.

Sarah Irving: What kind of material can we expect to see in this exhibition? It was originally conceptualized by the Empire and Commonwealth Museum as a very ambitious project, with lots of audio material and outreach work. Has the museum’s closure and withdrawal of support from the exhibition affected what will be shown?

Anne Lineen: There will be a lot of photographs, and some of them are very dramatic. There are lots of people in the UK who served in Palestine, either in the Palestine Police or the military or as administrators, and they have lots of very dramatic photographs of the events which they experienced, and often their albums will have their own little notes that give a sense of personal commentary and experiences of the period. And I’m also looking at some of the official British government documents which give a sense of the twists and turns of British policy in Palestine. So there are original documents, lots of documentary film from Palestine from this period and interviews with people and personal artifacts.

The Empire and Commonwealth Museum trustees wrote to me saying “no” [to a request to use material donated to the museum or bought by Lineen during the research process] but in some cases I’m doing interviews again and people are still willing to lend artifacts. But, for example, I visited a professor in Bethlehem who is an expert in newspapers from Palestine and bought off him a bound copy of Filastin [a Palestinian newspaper published in Jaffa between 1911 and 1948]. That’s now sitting in a museum basement in Bristol and I can’t use it.

But the British were obsessed with mapping; in the Royal Geographical Society and the National Archive they have maps which give a sense of population and the language and culture of the area. There are some beautiful hand-drawn maps in the Palestine Exploration Fund, for example, from when they did their surveys. They produced very vivid, detailed, hand-drawn maps and wrote descriptions. So you’ll have a map which shows a little village with gardens and orange groves and then in the records they’ll describe that village, saying “they have gardens, they grow pomegranates and olives, 1,600 people live there” — a great mass of material which gives a real idea of what Palestine was like before the British came.

SI: It must be likely that many of these villages were destroyed in 1948 when the State of Israel was established?

AL: I’m sure, yes. So, that adds to the poignancy of it.

SI: Will the interviews be available for visitors to listen to, as originally planned? How has translation been affected by the change in the exhibition’s circumstances?

AL: We’ve got a lot of interviews, nearly a hundred, many done in English, and in some of the interviews done with Naseer [Arafat, an architect in Nablus], he was translating as we went along. In little extracts that works quite well because you’ve got a bit of the conversation. But sadly any of the material that was in Arabic I won’t be able to use because I don’t have the resources to translate it. All the Gaza material was in Arabic but there are some written extracts so I can use those.

It’s a shame in some ways — the original idea for the exhibition was very ambitious, it would tour America and the Middle East. Now it’s just me, so it’ll be different — it will be much more personal, but I think in some ways that will be one of its strengths, it will be more organic and accessible. It won’t be glossy and overblown. And I’m always looking for more stories, people whose families lived in Palestine, who have stories of their parents’ experience, or any relatives. It’s not too late if people have anything to offer.

SI: There is a sense from the information about the exhibition that there was a big gap between the “official” British narratives about Mandate Palestine and the actual experiences of the people you’ve interviewed, especially Palestinians but also British people who were in the police and military under the Mandate.

AL: Yes, you’ve got the official narrative, and set against that you’ve got the personal material which gives a sense of people on the ground. Many of them have very personal photographs and documents which they’re very kindly lending, so you get a sense of the human stories.

It was fascinating [during the research] to hear both Arabs and Jews talking about their day-to-day relationships and interactions. I don’t want to be romantic and suggest that it was wonderful, but in the big mixed cities such as Haifa and Jerusalem people got on, they had to. There was somebody I interviewed from an Arab family; his father was a dentist, and he was able to go to the cinema run by a Jewish proprietor and get in free because his dentist father treated the proprietor. Or an Arab family who would go to a Jewish tailor — simple, daily interactions.

But what the British were doing was seeing people as groups. Somebody was either “Arab” or “Jewish,” and they had these very prejudiced ideas about the characteristics of both groups. The British had these terribly racist ideas — they thought that Palestine needed “developing,” it needed economic development, and they thought the Arabs couldn’t do that, so they need the Jews with all their wealth to come and do it for them. Just in that attitude you’ve got so many problems, it’s hard to know where to start. So in order to undermine that I’ve looked for examples of Palestinians setting up their own businesses. There was one person from Haifa whose father took a correspondence course in electronic engineering — ordinary people with their ambitions and aspirations which the British simply didn’t see, they were so fixated with Arabs being “backward” and passive and Jews being dynamic and rich.

Palestinian fighters during the 1936-39 uprising against the British.

Anne Lineen Private loan

SI: Many of the people who actually remember the Mandate era must be very old by now, but you also spoke to family members who will recall what their parents or other relative said about the period. What does this tell you are the Palestinian experience of British rule?

AL: We talked to families as well because family memories can be very interesting. You have a sense that this tragic history becomes part of the family memories. You’ve also got very poignant mementos that people have from the period like photographs and documents and the odd artifact, a teapot or coffee pot that people managed to retain, so very ordinary items become extremely precious. I think it’s interesting to see what meaning people attach to those items and what they say about the memories they have of Palestine. So that’s something I want to explore in the exhibition as well.

SI: You’re no stranger to mounting exhibitions on sensitive issues. Has this exhibition faced any controversy yet?

AL: To be honest, no. People see the issue as controversial, but actually when you go to museums in Britain they respond very enthusiastically, and individuals as well. They are very keen to see this history brought out into the open, because they feel that because it’s controversial nobody will deal with it, or it’s dealt with in a particular agenda. So anybody coming along and just saying, I want to look at what happened, I want to find out about you and what happened to you and your family, they’re really keen that their parents’ stories are told. I’m not trying to make out that anybody’s bad or evil, I just want to look at why people did the things they did, so generally I’ve been pleased that museums and individuals have been so supportive and enthusiastic.

SI: To what extent has your research been a reminder of how much Britain was involved in creating the problems of the modern Middle East, and how much this country might be seen as responsible for what happened in Palestine?

AL: Inevitably it is, because the conflict started under the British and they have to take some responsibility for that. I think it shows the dangers of a country or an imperial power getting involved in another country without really knowing anything about it, and always pursuing their own interests without seeing the damage that could do. What’s ironic is that in the end it wasn’t in Britain’s interests at all. Lots of young British men were killed in Palestine. They were the ones having to deal with the tensions on the ground, it wasn’t the politicians in the Colonial Office. There were dissenting voices, there were politicians who were critical of what Britain was doing, but if what they were saying wasn’t seen to be in Britain’s interests they were ignored.

SI: From your descriptions of what British men and women who served in the police and military in Palestine had to say, it sounds as if they have quite mixed feelings about their role there. Many people would see them as having been an occupying colonial power, but for individuals it obviously had a big impact on their lives.

AL: British people who were in Palestine, even if they were there for a short time, it’s still got a real grip on their imaginations. It is quite complex for some of them. For example, the police — some of them were only 17 or 18, doing national service. They had the typical attitude of a young person — this is an adventure, I’ll be abroad, and they also had this sense that they were indestructible. And they weren’t given a huge amount of information about what was going on and what they could expect and they did experience some really shocking things. They might not admit to being shocked or affected, but obviously they were.

I think they didn’t personally feel responsible but they did feel that the government was responsible. A couple of them did say things like “we let the Arabs down” — you would always get the sense that that’s what they felt. And the former soldiers always said morale was very high, but the soldiers’ mentality is of “doing what needs to be done.” They were given an order and that’s what they did. So they would go into Jaffa and stop the fighting, and a few days later they’d come out again and they’d know the conflict would resume. But those are their orders. So certainly in the military in the last couple of months [of the British Mandate] in Palestine it seems like an illogical situation where sometimes they intervene and sometimes they don’t.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.