4 August 2011

The Nakba Continues - Jerusalem's Museum on the Seam: Artful Dodging

Washington Report | By Awatef Sheikh | Jan/Feb 2011 | NEDERLANDS

Violence can take many forms in a colonial occupation—from killing to torture, home demolitions, kidnappings, roadblocks and military invasions, to name but a few. Especially in the context of an ongoing colonialism, seemingly pacifist terms such as coexistence represent another form of violence, one perpetrated not only against the indigenous community but also against aesthetics and knowledge. This is precisely the case with Jerusalem's Museum on the Seam.

Described as a "socio-political contemporary art museum," Museum on the Seam was established in 1999 by Raphie Etgar, its designer and curator, with the generous support of the von Holtzbrinck family of Germany, through the Jerusalem Foundation. The Museum's Web site, , contains only two references to the building itself. The first states that the "Museum is situated in a building constructed in 1932 by the Arab Christian Architect, Anton Baramki." The other notes that "while Jerusalem was divided (1948-1967), the building served as a military outpost (the Turjeman Post) which stood on the seam line between Israel and Jordan across from Mandelbaum Gate, the only crossing point between the two sides of the divided city. The house was damaged by war and its facade bears the pockmarked scars of bullets."

The paragraphs refer to an unspecified war, Jordan and Israel—but not to Palestine or Palestinians. Moreover, according to their author, Jerusalem was divided, but only for 19 years.

The building is located on the 1949 armistice line, which divided Jerusalem into what became known as the East and West sides. That year the Gaza Strip was put under Egyptian governorate and the West Bank—including East Jerusalem—under Jordanian governorate. The three-story building happened to rest precisely on the edge of the emerging frontier of the Israeli and Jordanian-ruled sides of the city. Due to its strategic location south of the Mandelbaum Gate, it became an Israeli military outpost. Only United Nations and diplomatic personnel—not Palestinians or Jews, with few exceptions—were allowed to cross through the Gate, which served as the official transit point between the once unified Palestinian city. An important function was to prevent the "infiltration" of Palestinians heading back home across the newly designed frontiers into "West Jerusalem." After Israel initiated the Six-Day War in 1967, capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it annexed East Jerusalem in violation of international law.

The building which today houses the Museum on the Seam is, in fact, owned by the Baramki family. It was designed by Andoni Baramki, then a young Palestinian architect who designed many of Jerusalem's houses. In 1934 he built it and rented it to two Palestinian families who were forcibly expelled from the house in 1948. The Baramki family lived in a rented house nearby and, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, were forced to flee their homes in search of temporary safety during the violent spring of 1948. Denied return to their home, the Baramki family lived as refugees in Gaza before moving to the village of Birzeit, north of Ramallah, in 1953. Following Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967, all members of the Baramki family with the exception of son Gabi—his parents, brother and sister- managed to obtain Jerusalem ID cards and live in East Jerusalem. The Washington Report contacted Dr. Gabi Baramki, who was 18 when his family fled Jerusalem in 1948. A former vice president of Birzeit University, he lives in Ramallah.

After 1967, when the family was able to cross over to the west side of the city, Gabi's father, Andoni, fought for his right to his house. He went to the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property, presented the deeds to his house and his identification documents. According to Gabi, "My father, a 6'4" tall man, stood in front of the Custodian and told him: 'I'm Andoni Baramki and I want to return to my house.' The Custodian looked back at him and replied: 'you are absent.'" The family then turned to the court but received no justice there, either. "You will get your house when there is peace," the judge told Gabi's father. People often told Gabi that his father, a very well-known figure in Jerusalem, "stood in front of the house for hours looking at it the way Romeo used to look at Juliet." Andoni Baramki was never allowed to set foot inside his house again. He died in 1972.

About 10 years after losing the court case, Gabi recalled, the municipality turned their house into a museum, called the Museum for Understanding. He then received a visit from two people representing the museum, seeking his approval of the project. "This means that you recognize that this property belongs to us," he told them, adding: "I don't have a problem at all in donating this house to be a museum but it will be our choice, our decision, not yours. So you tell us that we own the house and ask us what we want to do with it, and if you propose something that we accept, then I will do it."

The museum representatives never returned and, apart from his mother, who was granted access to the house in 1998 for the shooting of a documentary film, Gabi, his brother and sister were not allowed into the so-called Museum of Understanding. Like their father, they could only stand outside it. The house was occupied by the Museum for Understanding until 1999, Gabi said, when it became the Museum on the Seam. "First, the municipality got the house from the Custodian of Absentee Property and transferred it to the Jerusalem Foundation," he explained. "They established the museum with the funding of a German supporter." This was yet another violation of international law, which stipulates that an occupying power is not permitted to change the status of the property, land or people it occupies.

When the Museum on the Seam opened, Gabi allegedly was invited to the opening. "They said they tried to get in touch with us to invite us to the opening," he said, "and tried to put the blame on me for not attending. I was in Montreal at the time, and I told them that even if I had received an invitation I wouldn't have attended the opening. It's theft in daylight and they had the audacity to invite me to attend to legitimize the illegitimate."

Gabi did have the chance to enter the family house after 2000, with a German journalist who was working on a feature story about the house. When the receptionist asked him to pay the entry fee Gabi refused, saying that one doesn't pay to enter his own house. The receptionist consulted with the management and he was allowed in without paying.

In Israel "art," "education" and "culture" go hand in hand with the Zionist mission of eliminating Palestinian existence and history in Palestine. While the Israeli military handles the physical erasure of the Palestinian presence, education, art and culture complete the mission by erasing what Palestinian traces remain, thereby contributing to the reconstruction of knowledge and aesthetics to fit the Zionist myth: that no Palestinians ever were here. Art and culture reshape the space, appropriate Palestinian property and heritage, and further consolidate the physical dispossession via an ostensibly pacifistic and "green" process. Hummus and falafel became Israel's national foods. Ruins of Palestinian villages are camouflaged with artificial forests, Palestinian homes house "leftist" Israeli artists in such "artists' villages" as Ein Hod, a Palestinian village north of Haifa, and Mamilla, Jerusalem's ancient Muslim cemetery and holy site believed to date back to the 7th century, is being destroyed to construct the so-called Museum of Tolerance in West Jerusalem.

Wiping Palestine Off the Face of the Map

The Museum on the Seam is yet another example of the erasure of anything Palestinian through pacifist and aesthetic means. Nowhere in the information and rationale for the museum does the word "Palestine" appear—not to mention the word "occupation." Nothing about the Palestinians who live literally less than 30 yards to the east of the building, let alone the fate of those who lived in it and those who rightly own it. In the one instance in which the existence of "Palestinians" is acknowledged, they are referred to only as "neighbors" in relation to whom Israeli society is "split and fractured," with "profound rifts." The Museum makes no attempt to explain why.

Detached from its immediate reality, for which it shares responsibility, the Museum places itself in a global context from which it observes the world and humanity with concern. Among its concerns are the perceptions of the other, exploitation, immigration, discrimination, extreme ideologies and terrorism, violence and intolerance. It sympathizes with the suffering of the other, is able to make these others visible and create a voice for them, spells out the facts and explains about refugees from Darfur, civil war in Lebanon and the Syrian control of the country, apartheid and colonialism in South Africa, industrialized trade in women and Albanian refugees lacking work permits in Spain, and Israel's foreign workers—"the Rice Eaters." The "Palestinian humanity" that crosses to the other side of the "border" at Erez checkpoint, however, remains nameless.

In an exhibition called "Homelesshome," the caption for Israeli Natan Dvir's photograph of refugees from Darfur "taken upon their arrival to Israel" not only criticizes Israel's treatment of the refugees, but makes them visible, providing the figures and context of their community. Adds the caption with no hint of irony: "Today, 60 years on, Israel turns its back on Darfur refugees and ignores the international law."

In the same exhibit, the caption for a photograph taken by Israeli photographer Nir Kafri entitled "Balata, Israel, 2002" refers to the "extremely overcrowded" urban space appearing in the photo as a "camp." It offers no information about its residents—who they are, how many, and why they are there in the first place. The caption is merely an exercise of contemplation about an urban space, which concludes: "The camps aren't recognized by the states, and yet they are vibrant cities, superbly organized, and their chaos and lack of form are their architectural statements." This camp is Balata refugee camp, a Palestinian refugee camp in the northern West Bank.

To the Museum on the Seam, its Palestinian "neighbors" exist—but only as an image. They exist, but outside themselves, outside their own bodies, outside their property, heritage, identity and nation. They are fluid—just like art. Intangible, they are more of a concept to contemplate, and to allow one to feel good while doing so. They are there but absent—just like Andoni Baramki. Negatives.

Awatef Sheikh, a former parliamentary aide to an Arab MK, is a free-lance consultant and journalist.

No comments:

Post a Comment