The Nakbah Project: A nightmare of shattered lives

Artist Jane Frere installing her exhibition in Edinburgh. (The Nakbah Project)

Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, is caught in an unending nightmare. “What can we do?” Amal, a Palestinian woman, asked me when I met her in the town. A 17-year-old boy was shot dead in Bethlehem Square in the snow. “A [Israeli] tank came in looking for a couple of kids and he threw a single stone as it passed by. They put two bullets in him, one in the chest and the other in the leg. His friends started to carry him to try and get him to hospital, but he was dead.”

“What time of day?” I asked, incredulous. I had just returned from my Christmas break in the UK, and such scenes still belonged in my mind to TV news. “Two o’clock in the afternoon,” said Amal. “We were shopping, then my son came dashing up to me — ‘Don’t go into the square, Mum, they just shot a boy.’”

I was in Bethlehem working on The Nakbah Project, a program of artistic workshops with Palestinians to create an art installation, Return of the Soul, marking the 60th anniversary of their expulsion from their homeland in 1948. Amal was one of three women I worked with in the ancient town — the others were called Imurad and Shama — who had agreed to make 200 figures. Normally these three ladies would eke out a living by creating the most exquisite Palestinian embroidery, or other craft folklore, to sell to the dwindling tourist trade. But now such tourists comprise only the most dedicated of pilgrims, bold enough to venture beyond the eight-meter-high towering wall, through hostile check points, to seek out the birthplace of Christ.

I knew that Imurad, Shama and Amal loved the concept behind the project. They were not only digging into their own family histories, but also those of their friends and relatives. But, really, they were desperate. Although they wouldn’t admit it, they needed the money.

So, with enthusiasm and dexterity, my Bethlehem trio swapped their needles and thread for pliers and wire. As we negotiated our way around the twists and knots, creating the skeletal wire shapes representing their fleeing grandparents, we huddled on sofas around a single bar electric fire, and out poured a litany of woes — unemployed husbands, hospital fees for the son who got shot in the leg, the struggle to support older members of their families, nearly all succumbing to an assortment of cancers. Palliative care is rarely available in hospitals there; if there is no imminent threat of death, everyone gets discharged as quickly as possible due to lack of space. But that might mean paying for medication and nutrients on drips administered at home, and if an electricity bill is not paid, the power is cut off with devastating consequences for the makeshift nurses. In my time in Palestine I gathered many stories like these, as I traveled across hostile borders observing the fragments of people’s shattered lives.

As an artist and theater practitioner, my interests have always tended towards humanitarian concerns, and the journey an artist takes interests me almost more than the final work of art. My journey for Return of the Soul began, unexpectedly, in a Nazi concentration camp, Majdenek, outside what was once a Jewish town called Lublin. Majdenek is a particularly harrowing place. The Red Army liberated its inmates, the majority Jewish –—but also many Poles and other nationalities — before the Nazis were able to clear away the evidence of their atrocities. Now, it is as though it has been caught in a time warp, with the remains of clothes neatly on display, children’s toys, spectacles, hair, ashes and shoes piled high, a potent reminder of the hundreds of thousands who had walked into the death camp but had not walked out.

During my last visit, I was moved by a group of visitors who had probably lost relatives there. They planted small Israeli flags, the Star of David, on the ground outside. I was confused by this image, pondering how that blue and white flag has become so blood-drenched since its creation. I began to wonder about the next stage in the tragic history of that period — the creation of Israel and its consequences.

The people without a land required a land without people, and the creation of the state of Israel — as is now being revealed by Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris — required a deliberate strategy to rid the land of as many of its indigenous population as possible, through a process of violence and terror. Palestinians called this the Nakba, or catastrophe. I wanted to create an installation comprising thousands of tiny figures, representing a mass exodus of the Palestinian people. Around 750,000 of them fled, mostly ending up in refugee camps. Sixty years on around 4.5 million are now still registered with the UN as refugees.

But a Scottish artist attempting to reflect another people’s traumatized lives through second-hand experiences would have seemed absurd. I decided my project had to be rooted in Palestine, and that to give the installation’s figures credibility and soul, they should be made through Palestinian hands. I was offered an assignment as artist in residence in East Jerusalem by the Al Hoash Gallery: Palestinian Art Court. To reach the Palestinians in exile I had to find sister organizations in neighboring countries to help set up the workshop program I had developed. Al Balad Theatre in Jordan was the first to host me on my tour across the region while Shams Theatre Association and the Arab Resource Centre for Popular Arts — Al Jana — were instrumental in setting up a duplicate program in Lebanon.

I thought it was important that as many figures as possible related to a real identity. So a vital part of the project would involve filming and recording written and oral testimonies, to create a personal account of those fateful days of 1948. By immersing myself in the rhythms of other people’s lives, sharing fragments of their daily purgatory, I soon came to realize that I was not just gathering stories and anecdotes, but capturing the tears of raw emotion, feelings often deeply suppressed, perhaps out of an instinct for self-preservation.

In Bethlehem there was a certain frisson in gathering tales from Dheisheh, a camp that is officially home to 12,000. My “minder,” Mohammad, led me down unlit alleys, going from door to door, taking me into cramped, smoke-filled parlors, but on the hour of midnight he would tell me: “Khallas! Enough! We better get you home.”

The Israeli military make regular incursions in their tanks or Humvees, creeping into darkened crevices like giant steel insects, waiting to “take out” those they consider a threat to security. It could be a teenage boy, a young girl (700 children were held by the army in 2007, including three girls), or someone’s father or brother. People can disappear for months without trial, and not return for years. It was hard to imagine such scenes until two tanks rumbled outside my bedroom window and, another time, helicopters buzzed overhead.

From the West Bank I spent time in Zarqa camp in Jordan, where old people shared the last of their fading memories with me. Seemingly trapped in time, they would recount memories of idyllic scenes of rural Palestine with its ancient olive groves and golden terraced landscapes, a Mediterranean landscape similar to parts of Greece or southern Spain.

“Have you seen my village?” they would ask desperately. “Is it the same?” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their village, if not submerged under the criss-crossing ribbons of concrete highways or the regimented red-roofed new towns perched with glaring incongruity on almost every hill top, was probably a pile of stones concealed beneath a blanket of fast-growing, acidic pine trees. All of this building has efficiently covered up the evidence that once there had been Arab dwellings there. Only the stubborn growth of the cactus bush aptly named “saber” — or “patience” in Arabic — reveals the ghostly outline of the hundreds of destroyed Arab villages. The plants were once used by Arabs to fence off their land.

It was while working in Lebanon that the stories became almost unbearable to hear. In al-Bas camp, near the Litani River in the south, I tried to focus on accounts from 1948, but talk would inevitably turn to more recent traumatic events from the war in the summer of 2006. From there I moved to the north to Baddawi camp, near Tripoli. Some of my workshop participants were recent refugees from the neighboring camp, Nahr al-Bared, which in May 2007 had become a war zone when fighting broke out between a hitherto unknown insurgent group called Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army. Palestinians, already in refugee limbo, became the victims in the ensuing mayhem. It struck me that the color photographs I saw of that mass expulsion of 30,000 Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared, with the columns of the dispossessed carrying their children, bore a remarkable likeness to the black and white images I had seen of the 1948 Nakba.

This repetition was brought home to me by Bassam, one of the young professional artists who traveled daily on the three-hour bus ride to and from Beirut while helping to set up the workshops in the north. On the first day in Baddawi he arrived late. Normally good-humored with an abundance of energy, he looked dazed and traumatized.

“Jane,” he said, “today I am very sad.” He explained that he had been given a 30-minute pass into Nahr al-Bared to go and collect whatever belongings might have remained after the two-month bombing campaign. “My mother told me she didn’t care what I brought back, just bring the photo of Dad. You see,” he continued, his dark brown eyes welling up with tears, “my father and my three brothers were all killed in Shatila camp when I was three years old, and only my sister and I are left. Jane, my house was like powder; the whole camp is like powder; it has been razed to the ground, and we will never see my father’s face again.”

I spent two evenings with Bassam’s mother in the rented garage where they now live. I wanted to interview the two generations of the same family, both punished for no crime at all except, it would appear, for being Palestinian. Bassam’s mother spoke briefly of her departure from Akka (Acre), the historic port in Palestine, but this memory of 1948 had been driven deep into the past, replaced by the horror of Shatila, the camp where she had brought up most of the family and where they had all virtually been wiped out in the notorious massacre of 1982. In order to survive with her remaining children she had fled and, with extraordinary resilience, set up in Nahr al-Bared.

The interview flowed with tears — all of our tears — as she struggled to reach the final chapter in a story of repeated exodus. Then Bassam took up his own story of how he had become a displaced refugee, graphically describing the shelling and the sniper fire, and how they were all cut off, terrified and trapped in the lower part of the camp. After several days, the injured started dying. He described the stench of decaying corpses in the heat, combined with the burning toxic fires, and how he and his friends had to dig holes in the ground to bury the dead.

“We were out of food and water,” he recalled. “We were so desperate we decided to risk the snipers and run to the main street to see what we could find. We saw loaves of bread lying scattered, in between dead bodies. I’m sorry Jane,” he broke off, “you are not going to like what I’m going to say next, but we were starving and I didn’t care about the bodies and the sticky pools of blood on the road. I picked out the whitest bits of bread, some of it full of blood. I just didn’t care. I took it back to my family. I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t speak to anyone for days after that.”

I stared at both mother and son, stunned into disbelief and silence. I wondered how it was possible to sustain so much pain and loss over a lifetime and yet maintain such compassion, dignity and, most of all, sanity. These suspended souls left me feeling humbled, privileged to have known and spent precious time with them, and also privileged, through art, to remind the world of a human tragedy some would rather ignore.

In the camps of Lebanon I gradually came to the terrible conclusion that it was the fate of so many Palestinians not to suffer just one Nakba, but to endure an apparently endless cycle of catastrophes. Still, Return of the Soul should not be mistaken for a political work — it is an expression of humanitarian and spiritual concern. If it has a message it is that it is time to break the cycle of catastrophe. Only then can there be peace.

Return of the Soul: The Nakbah Project is at WASPS Studios, 1d Patriothall, Edinburgh, 30 July until 18 August, as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. As well as the organizations named above, Jane Frere would like to thank the main sponsor The Welfare Association, the British Council and numerous other partner organisations and sponsors. Cultural Co-operative Association for Youth in Theatre and Cinema SHAMS will exhibit the work in Beirut in September, followed by Darat al-Funun Gallery (Khalid Shoman Foundation) in Amman in October.

This essay originally appeared in The Scotsman and is republished with the author’s permission.

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