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.

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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

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