Interview with Bshara Nassar, Founder of Nakba Museum

(Photo Credit: Mohamad Torokman / Reuters)
al-Nak·ba
alˈnäkˌbä/
noun
singular proper noun: Nakba
  1. the Arabic term for the events of 1948, when many Palestinians were displaced from their homeland by the creation of the new state of Israel.
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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)

The Nassar family of Bethlehem have held fast to their lands for decades. Since 1916, in fact. It is not a large plot, roughly 100 acres, but the family has labored on it for generations. Their fields, however, reside in Area C, which is part of the patchwork system of direct and indirect occupation devised after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Areas A and B fall under a nebulous idea of Palestinian autonomy, but Area C – roughly 60% of the occupied West Bank – is under full Israeli control and there is no pretense here of whatever independence the Palestinian Authority (PA) may entertain.

Not only are their cultivated lands in Area C, but the Nassar family finds itself surrounded by five illegal Israeli settlements eager to encroach on their lands. To add to their woes, the Israeli authorities plan a road that would connect the settlements and run right through the Nassar’s lands.

Israel disputes the Nassar’s proper acquisition and private ownership of the land, and if the title was never secured – no matter who tilled the soil – then the land has always belonged to the sovereign power at the time, so Israel argues. Since 1991, the Nassar family has been fighting an Israeli effort to expropriate their lands under the pretext of ‘state land’. They have been in-and-out of Israeli courts and have produced a trove of documents from the Ottoman period, the British Mandate and Jordanian rule from 1916 to 1967 attesting to their rightful ownership. Currently, they await a decision from the Israeli High Court. In sum, the Nassar family faces the perennial Palestinian struggle since the early 20th century: surviving as stewards of their lands in the face of Israeli settler-colonialism.

The family’s perseverance against an Israeli tactic that is as exhausting as it is bureaucratically mundane – to compel a Palestinian white flag through seemingly interminable and costly legal battles and arcane documentation requests – would be commendable enough after more than two decades, but it is their hopeful resilience that is most admirable.

Arrayed against the Israeli government and illegal settlers firm in their belief that the Palestinians are mere squatters on land ordained by God to the Jews, and whom often bring the point home by dumping trash on the family’s land, the Nassars opted to appeal to the better selves of both Palestinians and Israelis. In that spirit, the family founded Tent of Nations on their lands and invited Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals to visit and bear witness to the non-violent struggle of Palestinians farmers to hold onto their lands. On the grounds of what Israel has turned into another arena of colonial-versus-indigenous strife, of us versus them, the Nassar family has presented an alternative vision of hope and equality: a camp for educating Israelis and internationals about the Palestinian cause, a summer camp for Palestinian children who are often traumatized by life under occupation and otherwise have few parks, and affording individuals the opportunity to “live the experience and the struggle of the Palestinian farmer.”

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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)

Palestinian children at Tent of Nations 

This story was related to me by Bshara Nassar, the family son who currently resides in Washington, D.C., and founded the recently concluded exhibition, Nakba Museum Project of Memory and Hope. Born in Jerusalem and raised in Bethlehem, Nassar left the occupied territories in 2011 to pursue graduate studies at Eastern Mennonite University. Several articles relating Nassar’s exhibit mention its inspiration: all Bshara wanted was a place in the nation’s capital to tell his people’s story. Traveling to Washington, Nassar visited the National Museum of the American Indian, the Laogia Museum dedicated to human rights abuses in China, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is quick to avoid any comparisons between tragedies, but emphasizes that each museum tells a story about a people. And these stories are told to visitors “in the United States and from around the world.” He asked himself: “Who is telling our hopes and suffering?”

The idea for the Nakba Museum Project of Memory and Hope was born and who better to tell it than Nassar, a child raised under occupation and on a family farm that epitomizes the Palestinians’ hope for freedom and self-determination? The exhibit was housed at the Festival Center in Washington and after a two-week residence concluded its run on June 27.

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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)
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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)
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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)

Its purpose would be to “share our story” to “Americans unfamiliar with the Palestinian struggle.” It would tell the “simple story of Palestine” and the dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinian people.

Its funding came primarily from the crowdfunding website Indiegogo where the project reached its target goal of $14,000. Additional funds came from the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church and individual donations, including from Jewish and Palestinian Americans. And a German organization devoted to the betterment of Palestinian refugee children in Lebanon (its very name Flüchtlingskinder im Libanon translates to Refugee Children in Lebanon) designed much of the museum’s layout through its chronological texts and illustrations.

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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)

Asked about the audiences who visited the exhibition, Nassar relates that although most came with some knowledge about Palestine, few knew about the root causes of the conflict: Zionist colonization, and its corollary of Palestinian dispossession, under the rule of British imperialism for the purpose of establishing a Jewish state in a land that had been overwhelmingly Arab. While many are familiar with, say, settlements and the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the museum presented an introductory lesson on the Nakba for many visitors. The opportunity to learn about the displacement of about 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of over 400 villages by Zionist forces, along with the expropriation of refugee property, was an edifying experience for many. Many visitors, Nassar noted, did not even “know there are more than five million Palestinian refugees.”

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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)

Bshara Nassar (left) speaking to an audience at the Nakba Museum.

Of course, there is often a vocal backlash toward the presentation of any Palestinian narrative in the U.S. In his case, he encountered “no hostility,” but “I’m sure people came who did not agree with us.” He hastens to add, “And they are allowed to disagree with us.”

His purpose has not been to “advocate or to be involved in politics,” he says. The Palestinian struggle, he explains, “is a story trapped in the politics of power – UN resolutions and U.S.-mediated negotiations – but no one is telling the story of the refugees, or other simple stories, that no one hears on the mainstream media.” And that’s the purpose of the museum: “We are here to tell our story with all its complicities, tragedies, and aspirations.” The Nakba Museum cannot, of course, avoid the arena of high politics, but its focus is on the human stories – such as the Nassar’s family farm – that define the Palestinian existence. The Palestinians who were expelled or compelled to flee their homes in 1948 have often been referenced within the framework of negotiations between diplomats or PA spokespersons, but behind such distant and legal discourse there are the simple stories of a people burdened by loss and aspiring to the dignity of a free homeland. “While someone can argue with politics and political opinions,” Nassar told me, “we can’t argue with stories.”

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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)
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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)
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(Photo Credit: Nakba Museum’s Facebook page)

Such political framing, Nassar adds, renders occupation, refugees, settlements (et cetera. . .) “just words,” but with the Museum’s focus on the human stories “now it matters.” And the spoken word and art were a great part of that transformative experience. The Museum featured many photographs and paintings (that were also at auction) and visitors were able to speak with Palestinians, including those who displayed their artwork. The museum also held numerous lectures and discussions, and a play about the occupation. Similarly, the exhibit featured video recordings of Palestinians relating their history and experiences.

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Exile by Wa’el Abu Yabes

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Nakba Genes by Wa’el Abu Yabes

“We used art to transform imaginations,” Nassar says, “and visitors got a live interaction of the Palestinian narrative.” By “sharing our story,” he concludes, “many visitors began to ask questions and challenge their assumptions” about the conflict and the Palestinians. Part of that new found knowledge is the awareness that the Nakba is not a tragedy solely in the history books, but one that echoes in the lives of Palestinians today and tomorrow. The staged display of the family on a truck (above) symbolizes both the below historic photograph and the present reality of continued dispossession of Palestinians.

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Looking toward the future, Nassar is considering a traveling exhibition throughout the United States or establishing a permanent residence in Washington. Either way, he relates, his goal is to “mobilize the Palestinian community, because the support has to come from within.” Any project will require the hard work of applying for funding and grants, but it is the “empowerment” of the Palestinian community, Nassar argues, that will be invaluable.

“I would like to say that we want the Palestinian-American involvement and their support. This is something that is for them and we want them to claim this museum as their own,” he told me emphatically. “This is something for us and the community should own this project.”

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Father’s Suffering and Child Dreams by Ahmed Hmeedat

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As for the family’s ongoing legal battles: Nassar says they live “in constant fear of losing the land,” which he calls the “state of the Palestinian.” But he adds with remarkable faith: “Of course, we will stay there. We have hope. We, of course, use negative energy toward a positive end.”

Related Article: Nakba Day 2015

Special Focus: The Nakba – In The Words of Palestinians

Update: Nassar recently announced that the exhibition will be touring this winter and spring:

Jan-Feb       Calvert Baptist Church Building, Washington DC

March              Princeton University and Rutgers, New Jersey

April                Fort Wayne, Indiana

May                 The Jerusalem Fund, Washington, DC

Exact dates and locations will be announced before the exhibition’s opening.

By Khelil Bouarrouj.