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During the Nakbah, one of the main goals of the administrative, occupying and colonial Israeli powers was obtaining the physical material of Palestinian culture. The Edward Said Library at Al-Finiq Centre is working to reverse this mass cultural expropriation. Preserving, collecting and disseminating knowledge to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Find out more about this work into this new blog. 

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Front desk at Edward Said Library at Al-Finiq with quote from Khalil Sakakini describing the loss of his library at the hands of the Israeli’s in 1948.

Since 1948 there been an intimate understanding in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem about the methodology of collecting knowledge and learning and what judgments are present when one chooses a subject. Standing on top of the hill on the outskirts of the camp, looking down onto the Hebron Road is the Al-Finiq Centre and Campus in Camps, an alternative pedagogical school set up by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, which I first visited in 2012. Al-Finiq is the home of camp’s library, or maktaba, named after Edward Said which can be found on the top floor of Al-Finiq sitting quietly above a gym and a guest house. The library is used to work on a number of projects: from research, reading and writing, to receiving oral histories, to hosting community workshops and Campus initiatives, to local families working with artists digitizing, preserving and archiving their family photos. Hopefully these will soon sit amongst other newly available Palestinian digital archives, particularly UNRWA’s new digital archive of Dheisheh’s history.

Image copyright UNRWA

Campus and its community work to maintain a space and to preserve and share as much of Palestinian culture as it can. They are custodians of a paradoxically permanent/ temporary space – the camp – that comes with its unique temporary visitors and temporary guests, all the while having to constantly address the notion of return. They use the space every day to make such things more real and in the library knowledge production is self-organized, independent and assumes responsibility for re-educating itself, with the community gently reminding the visitor that Palestinians are non-passive subjects. As a guest who has had the privilege of being invited into the camp to learn more about the value of the knowledge that resides in the camp, to listen and to take part in workshops and talks, the notion of privilege/ guest/ visitor is impossible to forget.

Over the last seventy years Dheisheh’s community has had to constantly address filling the void left by the absence of books and historical documents that they were forced to leave behind. Of being told that you can return to your home in a couple of weeks, only to find yourself to be permanently removed, as your home is looted and re-occupied. As the name Al-Finiq (the phoenix) suggests, it rises from the ashes of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of books burned by Israeli soldiers raiding the camps, during intifadas and using the building as a military base, through to the many home raids and arrests for simply having a book. In his story Learning in a Puddle, from his book Mulberry Leaves, local Dheisheh resident, activist and writer Aysar Al-Saifi recalls:

“During and after the first intifada in 1987, books and publications, especially political ones, were banned in Dheisheh refugee camp. The Israeli occupation used to arrest anyone who was found to have books in their homes as they recognized that knowledge is a threat. My grandmother told me: ”we would cover our books in plastic bags and bury them underground in order to keep them safe”.

Image, Valentina Bonizzi

Campus is constantly trying to reactivate the maktaba and in 2014 it first received donations from Verso Books in London, who generously gifted books selected very meticulously by locals and international volunteers. Through the desire to better know the wider culture of the occupier and critical dissident figures, the library stocks a number of critical texts to accompany its books on religion, law, engineering and the many periodical and publications by the many NGO’s that can be found in the camp (it is believed that Dheisheh has the largest concentration of NGO’s on the planet. One local person told me there were over 90). From books on media to culture, to texts that critique exaggerated religious and historical pretexts; or mythistories, historicides, memoricides, politicides; to the notion of normalization and permanence. There is a particular language and tone at work and the large children’s section at the end of the library is a light counterpoint to this overwhelming archive. Also selected were books on race, gender studies, politics, geography and religion, including Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet, currently being read by a lovely lady in the local shop opposite Al-Finiq.

Image, Nathan Witt and Campus in Camps.

Campus is, understandably, prioritizing texts in Arabic and it has received donations from publishers and organizations such as MADAR, the British Arabic Centre, the Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem, Albright Institute in Jerusalem and Saqi Books in London and Beirut. Rimal Publications in Cyprus, who manage the estate of Ghassan Kanafani have generously donated the entire collection of their beautifully designed Kanafani back catalogue. The donations from MADAR Institute for Israeli Studies in Ramallah also need a mention; an organization set up in 2000 by the late Mahmoud Darwish to foster greater cultural exchange between Palestinians and Israelis. In 2016 Pluto Press contributed over 100 titles from their catalogue, hopefully to include e-books to accompany an increasing number of Palestinian archives that are currently being digitized in order to better preserve them. Fortunately, free digital versions of texts and online libraries and archives have directly challenged the Israeli cultural censorship and this area can be of huge importance, whereby accessibility of archives has been limited, sometimes in order to be better protected, or just simply because it takes a very long time to scan in and archive all of the pages of the many fragmented documents.

Ghassan Khanafani back-catalogue donated by RIMAL Publishers in Cyprus.

During the Nakbah, one of the main goals of the occupying powers was confiscating, selling or destroying the physical material of Palestinian culture; whether it was antiques, artworks, books, houses or land. The mass looting occurred primarily by military force, but also through volunteers working on behalf of the state, or newly arrived Israeli citizens, private sponsors, newly emergent academic institutions and even by volunteering academics themselves. Once a house was forcibly evacuated and emptied of its contents, they were either burnt, sent to state archives or sold on the market. The contents of this mass cultural expropriation went straight to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and labelled as ‘Absentee Property’. In his book Illuminations, Walter Benjamin frames the dark obsession with collecting the physical object:

“For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned them into invalids, or those who in order to acquire them became criminals”.

Benjamin does not, however, address the need for collecting (and naming and owning) as acts of political resistance, cultural reclamation and custodianship, one towards an identity that has been for seventy years under the constant threat of erasure. And, as with collecting and preserving knowledge, there is always the concern of the notion of understanding a subject; when it becomes interpreted, or misinterpreted, as owning a subject. The question of: is knowledge yours to own, or do you have to resign yourself to [trying to] owning your own knowledge? Which is a task in itself. Campus’s deeply held belief makes it clear that Palestine owns any work made about it, or within it, and that it is impossible, naive and immoral to separate the politics and history of Palestine from the work. Belief in this notion acts as a defense mechanism that protects communities from cultural erasure, cultural appropriation/ misappropriation, voyeurism and academic racism, whereby certain academic processes, ideologies and institutions perpetuate racial or colonial stereotypes. This notion of ownership seems to come later, even if the reactivation of the library is an early act of reclamation. But what will this future look like? What can be taken, if a return is allowed? This desire traumatizes the simplicity of a reader’s intentions. Desires often change, many ideas abandoned and many times abandoned to examine a different perspective, such as trying to understand the occupier. One lady wished to take all of Dheisheh Camp back to her village, Miska, when she returned (not if she returned) and to bring all of the things the community has built whilst in exile. Others, understandably, just wanted to return full stop and do not care about books.

Physically returning books and the many exiled and banished authors to Palestine is deliberately difficult and prevention of importing it is part of the occupying powers goals, with many authors and any texts in Arabic being flagged, labelled incendiary; fearing they would make their way onto the national curriculum (as if Kanafani, Sakakini, Said, or Darwish were not on the curriculum already, or could be downloaded as PDF’s). Here there are many unnamed heroes, volunteers, educational reformers, who regularly visit back and forth to and from bookshops, book repositories coming in from around the world and I wish I could name them to highlight the many journeys they make, each and every week, not even taking a passenger in the car with them for fear of losing space for books. This is to thank all of these people, the publishers and the people of Dheisheh.

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Made with the support of Foundation for Art Initiatives and the British Council.