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

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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary