Robert Fisk: Khalil Raad's Palestinian pictures chart the history - and the tragedy

The Long View: This exhibition of the work of the first Palestinian photographer helps fulfil the Palestinian narrative, but it also shows a country that will never return.

Share

Jerusalem lies there in 1933, the slopes below al-Aqsa empty of roads, the view across the Mount of Olives containing scarcely four houses. During the First World War, a man in a white smock hangs outside the Jaffa gate, Ottoman Turkish troops standing to attention – proud of their judicial murder – the dead man’s head twisted to the right, a large placard on his chest announcing that he tried to help the enemy. The enemy then were the British – or perhaps just the Arab nationalists who opposed the Ottomans – and the British later became the enemy of the Arabs themselves.

Khalil Raad, the first Palestinian photographer, took all the pictures and they hang now in a cool gallery in Beirut’s Clemenceau Street – yes, named after the French President in that same First World War – a majestic series of landscapes and portraits from the Great War to 1948 that shows Palestine as it was. One picture depicts a Palestinian porter carrying a grand piano, another a man lugging a wardrobe on his back. Tough times, tough people. The Institute for Palestine Studies (whose exhibition this is) claims the photos help to fulfil the Palestinian narrative history – a narrative that for many years belonged exclusively to Israel – and I think it may be right. But I also believe that this Palestine, existing in dreamless sleep for many Palestinians, will never return. The Jewish colonies on what is now called the West Bank and the Jewish colonies around Jerusalem are, when you examine these photographs, ghosts of the future.

There are other ghosts, too. A pre-1918 Turkish policeman can be seen searching an Arab man. Then a British soldier is searching an Arab man. Now Israelis search Palestinian men. There are Arab schoolchildren in white (and very Western) shirts and blouses, streets packed with people, most of them Arabs. There are Jews in some of the pictures after 1918, but not many. But then, the Arabs were at that time a majority.

So what happened to those schoolchildren, the men loading Jaffa oranges into their boats to take to the steamship lying off the coast? What happened to the family of the man hauling the wardrobe on his back?

We do not know, and that is part of the tragedy. These people speak to us with their faces or in their peasant clothes, usually without identification. The exhibition ends in their catastrophe – for Palestinian Arabs, not for the new State of Israel – in 1948, with booby-trap explosions across the land of the old British mandate. To be fair, the pictures include scenes of 1948 Arab bombings of Jewish civilians, just as they depict Jewish bombings of Arab civilians. But you cannot deny the authenticity of these scenes. The Jaffa oranges were mostly sent to London. And London, of course, repaid the Palestinian Arabs by supporting the British government’s desire for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Israeli narrative, of course, is that Arab armies tried to destroy the nascent Jewish state by invading Palestine – true – while Arab radio stations told the Arabs to flee their homes until “ the Jews have been driven into the sea”. Totally untrue. No Arab radio ever said that. There were rapes and murders and ethnic cleansing of Arabs in that part of Palestine that would become Israel. The Israeli historian Illan Pappé has done seminal work on this.

And there is one deeply disturbing picture in this collection. It shows the Hotel Fast in Jerusalem, with the Nazi swastika flag hanging from the first floor, next to a UK flag. What was the Hotel Fast? Were these the rooms of German and British diplomats after 1933 – the date Hitler came to power – for the swastika must certainly have gone by September of 1939? The Institute for Palestine Studies does not know. Do any readers?

Born in Lebanon in 1854, Raad’s family moved to Jerusalem after the death of his father, who had converted from Catholic Maronitism to Protestantism. But in the 1914-18 war, Raad happily became a photographer for the Turkish army. There’s a grim picture of Jemal Pasha, one of the authors of the 1915 genocide of the Armenians, and of Raad himself on horseback in Ottoman uniform. His family donated his pictures.

At the back of the gallery, I suddenly find the Palestinian film director Naji Simaan who still remembers life in exile. “When we came to the refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh in Sidon,” he said, “I had to walk through the mud two kilometers simply to get to the toilets.” That’s life for a refugee. Possession, hardship – and boredom. I write in the visitor’s book that these photos should also be shown in Israel. Wrong again. They already have – in Nazareth.

Robert Fisk on Algeria

Buy the new Independent eBook - £1.99 Two decades of reportage on a tragic conflict the West can no longer afford to ignore - by one of the world’s great foreign correspondents

kobo iBooks Amazon Kindle

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'