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: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions