Galilee Diary: What Will Become of the Past?
Moses said, "This is what the Lord has commanded: Let one omer of [manna] be kept throughout the ages, in order that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness when I brought you out from the land of Egypt."
– Exodus 16:32
Over 20 years ago, shortly after we arrived in the Galilee and I got involved in organizing encounters for visiting Jewish groups with the local Arab population, a friend told me about the newly opened Museum of Palestinian Heritage in the nearby Arab town of Sachnin. The founder, director, and curator was Amin, a young Sachnin native with a BA in sociology, who had gotten the use of a 200-year-old house in the heart of the village, and filled it with scavenged artifacts of pre-modern village life – tools and utensils, clothing, handcrafts. The highlight was the madhaffi, or parlor, a replica of the village chieftain's receiving room, that traditionally served as hotel/courthouse/legislature. Mannequins depicted the various types of leaders and the social classes of the village - while across the hall, female mannequins were set up to show everyday life activities (in the kitchen…). Amin's descriptions and explanations were interesting, and I found that many groups enjoyed the visit and the window onto a way of life that has largely faded (and that was not a much different from the lives led by Jews in this part of the world, for centuries).
The exhibits were rather plain and unsophisticated, and Amin always found a reason to explain why he hadn't yet had the chance to prepare labels in Hebrew. I knew that funding came from a foundation in the West Bank, and I understood that the main purpose of the museum was not to teach Jews about Arab culture, but to teach Arab kids about their roots, to keep their Palestinian identity strong. But that was no reason not to use the museum for my own educational purposes.
Time did not treat the museum well. The funding dried up. Amin was dependent on the city government; when his clan's candidate won the mayoralty, he got a budget. When he lost, he didn't. And it seems that Israeli Arab schools are increasingly focused on modernization, and not particularly interested in spending their scarce excursion budgets to bus the kids to see pre-modern agricultural tools. Occasionally Amin has made some improvements: shaded seating in the courtyard, a new display of embroidery upstairs; but for the most part, the place seems to be fading and crumbling as the years go by – like the content it depicts. I still take groups there occasionally, as Amin's lecture in the madhaffi is worth the trip.
On a recent visit, I discovered a weird new feature. A group of Israeli and international artists have been working for over a year to create a "Mediterranean Biennale," an exhibit of avant garde art from around the region. Struggling against government bureaucracy and clan politics, they finally managed to get the idea off the ground in Sachnin, and dozens of works of art are now on display around town – in city hall, in shops and restaurants – and in the museum. So now amidst the shelves of antique kitchen utensils hang large, disturbing, surreal photo-compositions, and between the dusty cases, containing mannequins in traditional dresses stand "untitled" abstract sculptures. The American kids in my group kept asking me what these items had to do with Palestinian heritage. Amin reports an increase in group reservations - apparently the Biennale is having the desired effect of bringing visitors to Sachnin.
Sometimes it's a little wearing to live in a place where the past and our relationship to it are so constantly present – and so unresolved. Which archaeological remains should we pave over or dig through – and which ones should we reconstruct? Whose history should we commemorate, and whose obliterate? To what extent is our project here a restoration of what was, and to what extent a creation of something new?