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Dr. Mohammed Khatib speaks from the ‘Memories Museum’ in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. (William Christou)

Amid Gaza’s Destruction, Palestinians in Exile Push to Preserve Cultural Heritage

As Israel's war in the Gaza Strip takes a toll on cultural heritage, Palestinians in diaspora say museums and art play a crucial role.

Words: William Christou
Pictures: William Christou
Date:

Dr. Mohammed Khatib still remembers the day in September 1982, when armed men stormed the hospital where he worked in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, home to Palestinians displaced to Lebanon during Israel’s establishment. Khatib, 35 at the time, had just gotten off the phone with another nearby hospital, warning them they could also be in danger. As the armed men started killing hospital staff, Khatib escaped out the back door. 

That day marked the beginning of what became known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre. For three days, the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia under the Israeli military’s protection, attacked, raped and killed scores in the refugee camps. By the time the militia withdrew, its fighters had slaughtered up to 3,500 civilians

More than four decades on, Khatib remembers that first day — and its aftermath — clearly. He recounts the patients he treated, the mutilated corpses he saw, with the matter of fact tone of a medical professional. And since retiring from medicine, Khatib has made memory his full-time focus. 

In 2004, he began collecting artifacts and antiquities from Palestinian refugees in his neighborhood, from colleagues, and even asking friends to bring him handicrafts from Palestinian artists. The result is the Memories Museum, a cramped room in the heart of Shatila, a place whose walls are lined with mementos of Palestine. 

The museum is a reminder for the camp’s residents of the country they were forced to leave and a declaration that Palestinian history will survive, whether in Palestine or in Lebanon. 

Khatib knows the history of each item in his museum, proudly recounting how an old colleague brought him a mirror framed by traditional Gazan woodwork. He points to the mahbaj, a traditional wooden mortar and pestle used to grind coffee beans, and explains its centrality in the Palestinian diwan culture of communal debate and gatherings. 

Hung on one of the few uncrowded walls is an ax, a remnant of the dark September day when the massacre began. “Why would I save the ax? So that everybody can hear [about] and remember 1982,” he said.

In the Memories Museum, Khatib keeps an ax used during the Sabra and Shatila massacre (William Christou)
In the Memories Museum, Khatib keeps an ax used during the Sabra and Shatila massacre (William Christou)

Khatib’s work, however, has taken on a renewed importance in recent months, as Israel carries out a military operation in the besieged Gaza Strip in response to the deadly cross-border attack Hamas launched on Oct. 7. On top of killing more than 22,000 people, Israel’s military campaign has destroyed scores of important cultural sites in Gaza, constituting what rights groups have called the “explicit targeting of Palestinian cultural heritage.”

Israeli air and artillery attacks have demolished historical and cultural buildings in Gaza, such as the Al-Omari Grand Mosque and the Gaza Municipal Library. According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, international humanitarian law prohibits the deliberate targeting of cultural and religious sites in the absence of military necessity.

The preservation of antiquities in Gaza have taken a backseat to the needs of residents, whose daily lives amid Israeli bombing and a shrinking food supply have become a desperate fight for survival.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian diaspora and cultural centers outside of historic Palestine have stepped up to help preserve and document Palestinian culture and heritage. To many, the preservation of Palestinian culture is essential for the survival of the country’s identity, which they see as under siege.

For Khatib, Israel started by taking the land by force, and then moved onto either targeting or appropriating the cultural heritage. “They say the Palestinian dress is theirs, the keffiyeh is theirs, that falafel and hummus is theirs,” he said.

A Loss of Indigenous Knowledge

It is not just physical monuments and artifacts that are under threat, but intangible knowledge and customs that are passed on through generations. The wiping out of entire families from Gaza’s civil registries threatens to stop the reproduction of those customs. 

Dr. Rami Zurayk, director of the Palestine Land Studies Center in Beirut, described how even before the current Gaza war, Israel’s occupation had fundamentally changed the nature of agricultural production and cultural practices around food in Gaza.

Traditionally, much of Gaza’s agriculture was geared around subsistence farming, with farmers growing typical Mediterranean staples such as cereals, olives, pomegranates and figs. Gaza’s coastal location also meant that fishing comprised a large part of the local food industry.

This has changed, however, since the advent of Israel’s occupation. Gazans’ ability to fish has been curtailed by Israeli restrictions on how far out fishermen can venture in their boats, and local development initiatives have encouraged farmers to start growing more profitable crops, such as cut-flowers and strawberries.

Changing farming practices under the occupation have created a “loss of Indigenous knowledge” and a pivot away from more traditional, sustainable farming,” Zurayk said.

This is extremely important to us, this anchorage of the Palestinians through the knowledge and the acknowledgment of their cultural heritage.

– Rami Zurayk

“You have an integrated system that’s based on the local ecology that completely disappears. It’s replaced by a non-integrated system based on the injection of funds,” Zurayk added. “Farming, food, the sharing of food — a lot of habits that create a society and anchor it disappear.”

The recent Israeli assault on Gaza has accelerated this loss in Indigenous farming practices. Not only have those who would teach or be taught these traditional farming practices been killed, but their farmlands have been damaged and, in some cases, razed.

Preservation and documentation of these traditional customs are key to ensuring that the concept of Palestine that survives the current war is one that Palestinians can recognize.

“This is extremely important to us, this anchorage of the Palestinians through the knowledge and the acknowledgment of their cultural heritage … So that Palestine does not just become a symbol, but continues to live on as an entity in the minds of the people,” Zurayk said.

Palestinian Art as a Memorial, Resistance

Meanwhile, other cultural centers have taken it upon themselves to refocus attention on the Palestinian art they already collected and to use it as a means of nonviolent resistance amid the mass killing and threats to cultural heritage the Gaza war has wrought.

In Beirut, the Dalloul Art Foundation (DAF), one of the largest private collections of modern and contemporary Arab art in the Middle East, launched an exhibition entitled “The Little Prince of Gaza” on Dec. 20.

The exhibition pays tribute to the suffering of the Gazan children who are stuck in the embattled coastal enclave, juxtaposing it with the ethereal French children’s novel “The Little Prince,” in which a child travels the cosmos.

At the center of the exhibit is a cubist sculpture of a Gazan child made in 2010, now surrounded by almost a thousand ID cards with the names of children killed by Israel’s current military operation in Gaza.

“This was an installation that was executed as a memorial to the massacred children of Gaza. Today we intend to represent this structure, created in 2010 as the fragmentation of the lives of the children of Gaza, and the fragmentation of their limbs and body,” said Wafa Roz, the exhibition’s curator.

An exhibition in Beirut includes the names of Palestinian children killed in Gaza (William Christou)
An exhibition in Beirut includes the names of Palestinian children killed in Gaza (William Christou)

The exhibition blends traditional Palestinian heritage with modern commentary on the reality of Israel’s occupation — with Palestinian tatriz, embroidery, on display alongside a pop-art painting of drones. An Iraqi artist visualizes the famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s verses in drawings and calligraphy, while photographs of Israeli checkpoints show them as alien, sterile human cow pens.

The ongoing killing of Palestinian civilians is a constant and inescapable feature of the exhibition. In the center of one of the exhibition rooms, DAF piled nearly 2,000 ID cards with children’s names listed as “unknown,” a reference to the children still unaccounted for under the rubble of flattened buildings.

The mission of the DAF, to preserve and showcase modern and contemporary Arab art, has become even more important in the context of the current assault on Gaza, Roz said.

Besides the devastating physical and human loss, she referred to what she called an “intellectual genocide” exercised on Gaza’s archaeological, historical and cultural monuments. 

Back in the Shatila camp, Khatib insisted that museums like the one he runs have become even more crucial at a time when Palestinian cultural heritage is in the crosshairs. “Always, a museum preserves history, heritage, education and culture,” he said. “It helps in social relations, [and] it gives directly to the people.”

William Christou

William Christou is a Beirut-based journalist covering the politics of the Mediterranean. His work appears in The Washington Post, The Guardian and The New Arab. Previously, he worked with Al Jazeera in Doha and Syria Direct in Amman.

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