Against Erasure: A Photographic Memory of Palestine Before the Nakba, eds. Teresa Aranguren and Sandra Barrilaro, Foreword, Mohammed El-Kurd (Haymarket 2024), 240pp. Against Erasure: A Photographic Memory of Palestine Before the Nakba, eds. Teresa Aranguren and Sandra Barrilaro, Foreword, Mohammed El-Kurd (Haymarket 2024), 240pp.

Against Erasure powerfully documents the realities of Palestinians’ multicultural society in their historic lands as a moving defence against attempts to deny it ever existed, finds Thomas Gibbs

Over the course of the past century, the brutality of Zionist colonisation has forced the idea of Palestine to exist exclusively with respect to ‘Israel’: we’re not allowed to talk about Palestine outside of this context, and as a result, Palestine before 1948 isn’t allowed to have existed.

Just recently, this alleged lack of history once again became a talking point when the Canadian NDP’s minister for education, Selina Robinson, told her online audience that ‘Palestine was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it’. Yet, through its sheer visual richness, this book shows us in the clearest terms that this simply isn’t true.

Thankfully, the deliberately forgotten heritage of this land and its people has been emphatically reclaimed in recent years by endeavours such as Nur Masalha’s epic Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History (Bloomsbury 2022). With Against Erasure, Haymarket furthers this revival by lifting the families and their homes out of the pages through vivid images. As a Haifa-based historian writes, the strength of the Palestinian memory is reinforced by photography, ‘the intense relationship between time, space, and photography [providing] the most qualified testimony of what takes place on the stage of history’ (p.16). And, as he notes, it is precisely the stillness of these images that conveys the details of change over time.

We see the glimpses of the livelihoods of communities across Palestine, be it orange growing in Jaffa, tanning in Hebron, or fishing in the Galilee. In contrast with the Palestine we see under Zionist occupation, we’re struck by the normal and recreational: sports, music, cinema, picnics.

The photos encompass a period covering from the late nineteenth century right up to and beyond the establishment of the Israeli state half a century later. It’s a valuable phase in Palestine’s history to have documented in such detail as, relative to previous centuries, the rulership of the land changed rapidly. Whilst many of the earlier photos show us Palestinians living under the Ottoman Empire, the majority of the collection chronicles life in British Mandatory Palestine following the Ottomans’ retreat during the First World War.

And from this we get a clear sense of the differentiation between the territory’s ruling powers and its ordinary inhabitants. For example, the end of Ottoman rule did not mean those of Turkish origin having to leave, as evidenced by the portraits of the Karamehs in Haifa (p.150). By contrast, that same family did have to leave their home in 1948 and (on account of not being Jewish) were never able to return.

Distinctive culture

Similarly, we see that cultural signifiers of ordinary communities aren’t tied to the governance of the region: those who live in the Beersheba area dress much the same in the 1940s as they did decades earlier. Yet travelling north to Bethlehem, or further to Ramallah, we see – without crossing borders of time, race or religion – that the dress changes drastically. There’s no clear-cut Muslim culture or Arab culture. When allowed to be itself for its own sake, Palestinian culture is exactly that: Palestinian.

While the heart of this ‘photographic memory’ is undoubtedly its central collection of images, the edition is also prefaced by a number of valuable written contributions, including a foreword by Mohammed El-Kurd and a vast list of villages destroyed by Israel during the 1948 Nakba. And I don’t think we can overlook the beauty of the book as an object, right down to the thoroughness of the integration of the Arabic text: the result is an extremely precious printed testimony that stands resolute against possibility of being lost to time.

One of the real strengths of the book is in highlighting the ethnic and religious diversity of ordinary Palestinians prior to the Nakba. These memories of a multicultural society are neither forced nor performative but rather catch life simply as it happened. We see that not only was the existence of the Israeli state not necessary for those at home in the region but that in fact its existence has ripped communities apart.   

A particularly beautiful example is a group portrait of women working for the Customs Department in Haifa (p.149). Some of these women are Jewish, others Arab, yet all Palestinian, with their respective ethnic backgrounds having little consequence for their everyday lives.

The timing of its publication is particularly poignant. Last year, we marked 75 years since the Nakba, and now, through its genocidal onslaught in Gaza in particular, Israel is reminding us that the horrific reality of the Nakba hasn’t yet become history. In El-Kurd’s words, ‘it is relentless. It happens in the present tense, everywhere on the map’ (p.ix).

In addition, some of the most arresting images in the collection come courtesy of UNRWA (pp.154-60), the United Nations’ body for Palestinian refugees for which several states have recently suspended their support. This visual evidence sheds light on the longevity of both the refugee experience and UNRWA’s response to it, and reminds us of the critical role the organisation continues to play in simply keeping Palestinians alive.

Unsurprisingly, the beauty of book is a painful beauty, but whilst it inflames our nostalgia for the Palestine before apartheid, it also renews our anticipation for a Palestine after apartheid.

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