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A look at Washington DC’s Museum of the Palestinian People

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A feeling of family welcomes you when you walk into the Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington DC. Conversations flow, anecdotes and oral histories echo all around. Walls covered with pictures show faces and legacies that invite connection.

“There are connections that are happening,” says AnaMichele Babyak, social media and development coordinator. “People are coming in, they’re meeting people, and visitors are connecting to each other and the history. And we say that’s very inherent in Palestinian culture: to be met with so much welcome, hospitality, and to be brought together in a space with friends.” 

This sense of casualness, conversation, and family is no accident. Bshara Nassar, founder and director of the museum, says the dream of the museum was simple: to tell Palestinian stories and to create a space for people to connect. This dream was first actualized in 2014 when Nassar created the Nakba Museum Project, a traveling exhibit that reached over 50 U.S. venues that featured artwork, maps, photographs, and videos detailing Palestine’s history. 

The traveling exhibit has now found a home in Washington DC, in a humble but carefully curated space. As head curator of the museum, Nada Odeh tells me the process of collecting items for their permanent collection, as well as just opening the doors to the museum this summer, came with difficulties. 

“Having the museum open was not something easy to be done, especially with financial challenges and starting a space in DC, collecting items to exhibit. It takes courage to do that. People were hesitant, others worried about things politically,” and others simply didn’t know what to expect from a new space, says Odeh. 

Display from the "Making Their Mark" exhibit at the Museum of the Palestinian People. (Photo: Ana-Mation Photography)

Display from the “Making Their Mark” exhibit at the Museum of the Palestinian People. (Photo: Ana-Mation Photography)

Despite the difficulties, the space has now flourished with art, historical artifacts, and multimedia/interactive displays. Most of what’s displayed was donated from the community, like Mandatory Palestine passports, century-old maps, Palestinian pottery, and other items that assert the long history and existence for Palestine. This is a central theme throughout the museum: asserting identity and existence, and pushing against any attempts at erasing the vibrancy or audacity of Palestinian history. 

Some of the first artifacts you see upon entrance are water vases from antiquity, a testament to the enduring significance of water, and access to water, in history. On the wall across from these vases are two proofs of national identity: a National Geographic magazine from 1914 boasts of “Bible Lands and the Cradle of Western Civilization” and “Village Life in the Holy Land.” Both articles are accompanied by maps that show the Ottoman borders of Palestine. The presence of these artifacts subtly challenges constant and historical attempts to dwindle, blur, and outright erase Palestinian identity.

“The heart of this organization is grassroots,” Babyak tells me, discussing the vital role that the community of Palestinians, Palestinian-Americans, and other supporters have played in bringing the museum to life. Within this grassroots heart is the diaspora, whose artwork covers the walls in rotating exhibitions and has played a wonderful role in supporting the museum. 

“We have artists who are Palestinian women, Palestinians from refugee camps, Palestinian-Canadian artists, Palestinian-American artists, Palestinians from Gaza, and from Haifa. It’s a variety of voices meant to tell the story that Palestinians have diverse experiences,” she said.

As donations began to pour in, one of Odeh’s most important jobs was making sure items were authentic, ethically sourced, and could arrive intact. With many of the contributing artists unable to travel outside of Palestine, an obstacle created by ongoing Zionist occupation, paintings and artwork were shipped thousands of miles. This is where digital media displays become important, with video recorded performances of Palestinian singer-songwriters in Gaza shown on TV screens and tablets throughout the venue. 

The Museum of the Palestinian People. (Photo: Ana-Mation Photography)

The Museum of the Palestinian People. (Photo: Ana-Mation Photography)

The museum highlights core themes throughout its space: history, culture, the Nakba, and resilience, as does “Re-Imagining the Future, a current exhibit with a variety of astounding artwork. Throughout each section there’s an inherent political aspect, which Odeh and Babyak tell me is unavoidable given the content. 

“If anyone says they’re apolitical, it’s a sign of privilege,” says Babyak. “You can choose whether or not you want to be in a power discourse if you aren’t affected by it, or if power’s in your favor, but for Palestinians, people of color, minorities, that’s not a choice: it’s a lived reality.”

In discussing the political nature of the museum’s content, even if unintentional, Odeh says “Palestinians are facing occupation, living in difficult conditions, it is inherently political. We don’t focus on politics nor are we trying to persuade a specific agenda, but sharing these stories is political.”

Indeed, the political aspect of their very existence is hard to ignore. Images on the walls shows elderly Palestinians holding the keys to their now stolen, fled or destroyed homes, stunning paintings by artist Dalia Elcharbini shows Palestinian children playing on the Israeli apartheid wall, Al-Aqsa University professor and artist Mohammad Mussalam’s Palestinian passport mosaics form a global diaspora, and documentaries detailing the experiences of political prisoner and international icon of resistance Ahed Tamimi all appear extremely political to most outsiders. 

Still, they insist, the goal is to share stories, start conversations, and be a space where community can flourish and thrive. In the future they hope to connect with more local organizations and museums in DC, host educational events and workshops, and continue growing the grassroots sense of family which has brought them this far. 

“We hope to have a bigger space one day, and we want to have an opinion on what can be done in the future,” Odeh passionately tells me. “I think museums can be part of the solution, discussing political things and humanitarian causes. They’re becoming part of solutions for any conflict, and I hope we can continue to do this, reflecting what’s going on in the world and being truthful with everyone.”

The Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington DC is open Thursday through Saturday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. You can visit their website here, or find them on Facebook. 

Devyn Springer

Devyn Springer is an Atlanta writer, activist and artist who recently published his debut book "Grayish-Black" which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter at @HalfAtlanta.

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15 Responses

  1. Emet on August 28, 2019, 2:02 pm

    By your definition, Jews were Palestinians long before any Muslim was. As Jews have always lived in the region, from Tzfat, Tiberious, Haifa, Jerusalem, Petach Tikva etc, Jews are the original Palestinians. No other manipulation of the facts holds water. Lets see all the written material how the Arabs viewed themselves as Palestinians. I’ll save you the effort, there is none because they never did. Until recent history that is. The Museum should feature Jews in a big way but does not.

    • eljay on August 28, 2019, 2:19 pm

      || Emet: … As Jews have always lived in the region … ||

      Some Jews have always lived in the region. Most have not.

      || … Jews are the original Palestinians. … ||

      In which case Canaanites are the original Jews.

      || … No other manipulation of the facts holds water. … ||

      So stop manipulating the facts.

    • oldgeezer on August 29, 2019, 12:05 am

      As the descendants of Canaanites have been found, no Jews are not the original Palestinians. Not even according to zionist fiction.

      Tongue in cheek. Neither Jews, nor Muslims nor Christian’s nor martians nor anything are the original Palestinians. Artificial man made groupings of any kind do not equate to being indigenous. Particularly not when comparing today to 2,000 years ago using groupings that never even existed then. I dont usually enter into these debates due to the absolute absurdity of zionist claims (and many of the counterclaims) beyond pointing out DNA science shows the Irish originated from the ME 3,000 years ago. Your 2,000 yr old (laughable) claim has been superceded.

      Btw… don’t Jews claim to have come from/escaped Egypt and not Palestine? I’ve never heard a claim they were from Palestine before being enslaved. Unable to use a compass before wandering?

      No don’t ask me to back this up. It’s pure foolishness as are zionist claims.

    • RoHa on August 29, 2019, 3:09 am

      “Lets see all the written material how the Arabs viewed themselves as Palestinians. I’ll save you the effort, there is none because they never did.”

      And why does this matter? They might not have explicitly thought of themselves under that term, but that does not mean the term does not apply. They were born and lived in Palestine, had houses and farms and businesses in Palestine. The land was their home, and that is how they thought of it. What more is needed?

    • Talkback on August 29, 2019, 4:33 am

      Emet: “By your definition, Jews were Palestinians long before any Muslim was. As Jews have always lived in the region, from Tzfat, Tiberious, Haifa, Jerusalem, Petach Tikva etc, Jews are the original Palestinians. No other manipulation of the facts holds water.”

      Let’s analyze Emet’s manipulations.
      1.) He invents his own definition of Palestinian that doesn’t occur in the article.
      2.) He concludes that by his own definition Jews as such were Palestinians as if there have never been Jews living outside of Palestine or any converts.
      3.) He implies that only Jews or Muslims can be Palestinians according to his definition.
      4.) He implies that Jews today ARE the original Palestinians as if the have been undead for thousands of years.
      5.) He ommits the most important fact that “Palestinian” is the term of the nationality of “Palestine” since 1925, because he has to distract from the fact that the citizens of Palestine pre 48 are the Palestinians in the only legally relevant meaning of this term. Which troubles him, because neither he nor his ancestors have ever been Palestinian. That’s the reason why he has to twist this definition.

      Emet: “Lets see all the written material how the Arabs viewed themselves as Palestinians.”

      Let’s see their or their ancestor’s Palestinan ID-card on the one hand and let’s see yours or your ancestor’s on the other. No wait. Let’s see the Palestinian ID-card of every Jew in Palestine to see who is actually an “original Palestinian” by the only legally relevant definition.

      And let’s see all the written material that proves that every Jew is a descendants from ancient Hebrews who lived in Palestine and every Palestinian isn’t. I’ll save you the effort, there is none.

      • Mooser on August 29, 2019, 5:17 pm

        “And let’s see all the written material that proves that every Jew is a descendants from ancient Hebrews who lived in Palestine and every Palestinian isn’t.”

        Well, gosh, gee-whillikers, shouldn’t genetic testing clear all that up?

    • Misterioso on August 29, 2019, 8:56 am

      @Emet

      Good grief Emet. If ignorance is bliss, you must be a very happy person.

      Let’s be clear. Even if your assertion was valid, which it most certainly is not, foreign Zionist Jews had no right whatsoever to emigrate en masse to Palestine (primarily during the 20th century) with the stated intention of violently dispossessing and expelling the indigenous Arab inhabitants, which they succeeded in doing.

      A few pertinent documented facts:
      The Jebusite/Canaanites were ancestors of today’s Palestinians and it was they who founded Jerusalem circa 3000 BCE. Originally known as Jebus, the first recorded reference to it as “Rushalimum” or “Urussalim,” site of the sacred Foundation Rock, appears in Egyptian Execration Texts of the nineteenth century BCE, nearly 800 years before it is alleged King David was born. Its name “seems to have incorporated the name of the Syrian god Shalem [the Canaanite God of Dusk], who was identified with the setting sun or the evening star…and] can probably be translated as ‘Shalem has founded’.” (Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem, One City, Three Faiths; Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996, pp. 6-7)

      It is estimated that the Hebrews did not invade until circa 1184 BCE and their resulting United Kingdom of Israel, which never controlled the coast from Jaffa to Gaza, lasted only about 75–80 years, i.e., less than a blip in the history of Canaan and Palestine. Even the Hasmonean Dynasty under the Maccabees lasted only about 70 years (circa 140 – 70 BCE) and it was under Roman tutelage.

      BTW, no credible archaeological evidence, or more importantly, writings of contemporaneous civilizations, have been found that prove Solomon or David actually existed. (Nor has any evidence been discovered to confirm that the Jewish exodus from Egypt ever occurred.)

      Jewish historian Josephus’s (c.37-100 CE) The Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews contains many references to both “Palestine” and “Palestinians.”

      By about 1300 CE there were virtually no Jews in Palestine, which was a recognized geographical concept using coinage with “Filistin” (no “P” in Arabic) written on them. There were diaries of Palestinian travelers who said they missed “Palestine” and a distinctive Palestinian dialect of Arabic had evolved. From 1300 on, the vast majority of people who lived in Palestine were Christians and Muslims.

      Renowned historian/anthropologist and “Holy Land” specialist, Professor Ilene Beatty: “When we speak of ‘Palestinians’ or of the ‘Arab population [of Palestine]‘, we must bear in mind their Canaanite origin. This is important because their legal right to the country stems… from the fact that the Canaanites were first, which gives them priority; their descendants have continued to live there, which gives them continuity; and (except for the 800,000 dispossessed refugees [of 1948 along with the further hundreds of thousands expelled before and after the war Israel launched on 5 June 1967]) they are still living there, which gives them present possession. Thus we see that on purely statistical grounds they have a proven legal right to their own land.” (“Arab and Jew in the Land of Canaan,” 1957)

      Furthermore:
      http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fgene.2017.00087/full

      Front. Genet., 21 June 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2017.00087

      “The Origins of Ashkenaz, Ashkenazic Jews, and Yiddish”

      “Recent genetic samples from bones found in Palestine dating to the Epipaleolithic (20000-10500 BCE) showed remarkable resemblance to modern day Palestinians.”

      EXCERPTS:

      “The non-Levantine origin of AJs [Ashkenazi Jews] is further supported by an ancient DNA analysis of six Natufians and a Levantine Neolithic (Lazaridis et al., 2016), some of the most likely Judaean progenitors (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002; Frendo, 2004). In a principle component analysis (PCA), the ancient Levantines clustered predominantly with modern-day Palestinians and Bedouins and marginally overlapped with Arabian Jews, whereas AJs clustered away from Levantine individuals and adjacent to Neolithic Anatolians and Late Neolithic and Bronze Age Europeans.”

      “Overall, the combined results are in a strong agreement with the predictions of the Irano-Turko-Slavic hypothesis (Table 1) and rule out an ancient Levantine origin for AJs, which is predominant among modern-day Levantine populations (e.g., Bedouins and Palestinians). This is not surprising since Jews differed in cultural practices and norms (Sand, 2011) and tended to adopt local customs (Falk, 2006). Very little Palestinian Jewish culture survived outside of Palestine (Sand, 2009). For example, the folklore and folkways of the Jews in northern Europe is distinctly pre-Christian German (Patai, 1983) and Slavic in origin, which disappeared among the latter (Wexler, 1993, 2012).”

      “The Racist Gene” Haaretz, June 21, 2017: EXCERPT: “In 2013, the results were published of a study by the prominent British geneticist Martin Richards, who specializes in researching the maternal genome, which passes from the mother to all of her descendants. Richards researched the maternal genetic ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews. And lo and behold, he discovered that 80 percent or more (!) of the maternal genetic makeup of Ashkenazi Jews derives from European women – goys, heaven forbid. Gevalt! Devoid of any gene originating in the Land of Israel.”

      • Talkback on August 30, 2019, 5:42 am

        Misterioso: “By about 1300 CE there were virtually no Jews in Palestine.”

        There may have been Karaite Jews, because like them the Quran only acknowledges the Torah and not the Talmud.

      • Mayhem on September 2, 2019, 9:52 am

        @Misterioso, you keep rolling out this piece of nonsense repeatedly “The Jebusite/Canaanites were ancestors of today’s Palestinians and it was they who founded Jerusalem circa 3000 BCE. ”
        You cannot back this assertion up with one shred of proof.
        You are emulating Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. “

      • eljay on September 2, 2019, 12:14 pm

        || Mayhem: … You are emulating Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. “ ||

        Coming from a Jewish / “Jewish State” supremacist that comment is comedy gold!  :-)

    • bcg on August 29, 2019, 12:47 pm

      @Emet: Just exactly why should anyone give a rats behind who lived where in 500 B.C.? Israel is a human rights swamp, that’s the issue.

      • Emet on August 29, 2019, 4:11 pm

        Would you say the same thing about the Navajo Indians? Of course you would not. That’s because it’s not convenient for the Palestinian cause. The Romans stole the land from the Jews. Not it has been returned, in part. Some Arabs are squatting on parts of it. Eventually they will have to leave.

      • gamal on August 29, 2019, 4:23 pm

        “The Romans stole the land from the Jews”

        A case for Inspector Montalbano, they’re holed up in Vigata causing mayhem in Montelusa…romani apud se.

      • Talkback on August 30, 2019, 5:32 am

        Emet: “The Romans stole the land from the Jews.”

        Nope. They Romans just controlled the area.

        Emet: “Some Arabs are squatting on parts of it.”

        Actually only 5% of the Palestinians have Arabian genes. Unlike Jewish colonists the Arabians never colonized Palestine through war and expulsion.

        Emet: “Eventually they will have to leave.”

        Jewish orthodox racism in a nut shell. Reminds me of similar German voices which said the same about Jews. Anything else you have in common? Seeing the others as non human and “unclean”? Feeling racially superior? Pathological narcissim would do that to you. Just tell yourself that the source of this idiocies is some devine fuehrer.

  2. genesto on August 29, 2019, 1:21 pm

    Thanks for this article. I went to the museum site and was impressed enough to leave a nice contribution. Hope others here are inspired to do the same.

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