Washington D.C. is a city of museums. Not your run-of-the-mill buildings with glass cases and velvet rope, these venues symbolize and reflect something much deeper than the urge to preserve crumbling artifacts. They represent what American society considers to be important to its own identity, history, and culture, or, more ambitiously, to humanity writ large.
Many communities have fought long and hard to have their stories memorialized on the sanctified grounds of the National Mall, alongside venues like the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the American History Museum, and the Air and Space Museum. Thanks to these efforts, the last twenty years have seen more and more museums pop up, telling the stories of communities, once or still marginalized, that are often tinged with hardship and struggle.
In April 1993, The United States Holocaust Memorial opened its doors, after a fifteen year process that began when U.S. President Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust to “investigate the creation and maintenance of a memorial to victims of the Holocaust and an appropriate annual commemoration to them.” A decade later, in September 2004, the Native American community finally found itself with a venue dedicated to telling its own history from an exclusively native viewpoint. The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian was marked by a 20,000 strong Native Nations Procession from the west to the east of the city – a journey that symbolized a coming home for Native communities forced from the American East Coast and onto the infamous westward Trail of Tears in the mid-nineteenth century. Later this year, the first ever national museum for African-American history will open, ending a process that has taken anywhere from a few decades to a century (depending on who you ask).
It is no wonder then that Bshara Nassar, a Palestinian from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, sees Washington as a critical site for memorializing another human story filled with the tragedy, struggle, and resilience embodied by the museums dotting this city’s landscape. For a year now, Nassar has buckled down and doggedly pursued his dream of creating the Nakba Museum Project of Memory and Home, the first-ever museum in the United States dedicated to telling the “Nakba” story.
The Nakba, or “tragedy,” has defined Palestinian suffering and survival for over sixty years. In 1947-48, as proto-Israeli forces fought for control of historic Palestine, a plan to rid Palestine of its indigenous population was unleashed. Between December 1947 and May 1948, approximately 700,000 Palestinians (80% of the population) fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes in what would become the State of Israel. Since then, the Israeli government had prevented and denied their right of return. Today, some 6.5 million Palestinian refugees live mostly in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
For Nassar, the time has come for this story to receive the attention it deserves, in the form of a museum in the city of museums.
Mondoweiss had a chance to sit down with Nassar recently and speak with him about his motivations and goals in launching the Nakba Museum Project:
“This is not about victimhood, politics or religion,” said Nassar, acknowledging the controversy and divisive rhetoric that often surrounds the issue of Palestinian refugees. “We want deep conversations that can lead to equality and justice in Israel and Palestine…. I’m trying to tell stories that people haven’t heard.”
The museum will not only be an outlet and platform for Palestinians to tell their story, but also an educational resource for others to recognize the human suffering currently endured by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Nassar emphasizes that the museum is as much focused on the present as the past, and describes the Nakba as an ongoing event for Palestinian refugees who still live in camps and for all Palestinian people who live under occupation. To address that reality in their own lives, Nassar’s family founded an organization called Tent of Nations. Based at their 100-acre farm in the West Bank, near Bethlehem, it is dedicated to building respect and understanding between different people and cultures.
After a successful fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, the project launched its first exhibit at the Festival Center in Washington D.C. on June 13, which will run until June 27. The exhibit combines history with art and photography to give visitors a context for understanding the roots and on-going reality of Palestinian displacement and dispossession.
In different ways, notions of home, loss, exodus, and return are woven into the art work hanging on the exhibit walls. Each piece tells the story of the artist as well, and how his or her background fits into the Nakba narrative. The total effect is to draw the viewer into and make him or her see through the eyes of a refugee:
“To the Infinity and Beyond” by Haya Ka’abneh, who was born in 1991 in Jordan and grew up in Jericho, Palestine. In her own words: “I express myself through art, as many subjects are too sensitive for me to talk about, and art is where I most value myself and nurture my talents. I get my art materials from the library at my own expense”
“The Exile” by Mohammad Ma’ali, who was born in 1992 and has lived all his life in Dheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem. In his own words: “I want to live in the world as other human beings do, in peace, freedom and dignity. Most people have homes to live in, but Palestinians only carry the memory of their homes inside of them. As a Palestinian refugee, art is the sole medium where I can freely express myself. I cannot express myself with words; if I could, I would not draw.”
“No Time to Wait on Any Sidewalk” by Wa’el Abu Yabes, who lives in Dheisha refugee camp and was born in Bethlehem in 1988 to refugee parents from Al Kabo village, Jerusalem. In his own words: “”Art is a nonviolent way of telling our unheard stories to the world, and colors express our suffering on a deeper level that words could ever convey.”
“Nakba Genes” by Wa’el Abu Yabes. In his own words: “We enter the world with an inherent freedom. The genes of freedom are passed down from generation to generation.”
With only a few days left until the exhibit closes, we encourage those in the D.C. area to pay a visit to the Nakba Museum Project at the Festival Center before it’s too late.