Keep meaning to write up my visit to Palestine for this blog. In March, I gave a paper on aspects of Mass Observation – specifically the contemporary project – at the University of Birzeit in the occupied West Bank. It was a contribution to an international conference on archiving Palestinian papers: “Globalising Palestine: Birzeit University’s Digital Archive in International Perspective”. The theme was the urgent need to identify, gather and preserve (by digitisation) the dispersed historical records of the Palestinian people. As so often with people living under occupation and enduring sometimes violent conflict, archives are vulnerable and yet – as we all know- the preservation of archives, like museums, is a fundamental task for the survival of a culture and a people.
Following on Fiona Courage’s visit to South Korea last year and her admirable success promoting the idea of their doing a Mass Observation-style diary for 12th May, I thought I would recommend the same project to my Palestinian friends. So part of my paper explained the logistics of recruiting diarists to record their everyday life on just one day. There was some enthusiasm and interest but sady, the people I met felt they did not have the resources to take on the idea for the moment. There have been a number of impressive oral history projects by both Palestinian and international scholars including the eminent American feminist professor of oral history, Sherna Berger Gluck (cf Women’s Words) who attended the conference and with whom I shared some great conversations. The creation of Village Books is also of great interest – where older Palestinians recall their life before the Naqba in 1948 when the newly founded Israeli state drove the indigenous Palestinians from their villages. The Village Books attempt to reconstruct a history that has been lost (see “Palestinian Village Histories; geographies of the displaced” by Rochelle Davis). there is also a tradition of life writing and diary-keeping in Arabic culture (see the work of Salim Tamari who was also at the conference).
My argument was that they should also be looking forwards and – in true MO style – be recording life in the here and now, capturing what is happening at a time of great social change in the Middle East, and recording the experiences not just of the elders but also of children and young people.
Apart from the problem of resources, there are also understandable anxieties about security. If people in Britain are concerned about privacy and the power of information to hurt them, then this is magnified under military occupation. Nevertheless, while I was there (I stayed in Ramullah and in East Jerusalem, and visited Bethlehem) I heard about the extraordinary archive of prisoners’ stories at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. Here the families of political prisoners had donated stories, many of which had been smuggled out of jail. I very much hope to visit this archive when I next got to the West Bank.
In 1990, I made a similar series of visits to Eastern European cities just after the Fall of the Berlin Fall – encouraging people to keep records of the changes in their lives during tumultuous social change. This trip to palestine felt a little similar and I was hesitant not to seem like yet another Westerner importing western ideology. Certainly Palestinians have enough of that through the various aid charities.
Nevertheless, I haven’t given up on advocating MO as a cheap, democratic, interactive method of recording for the future. So I will be back!
Dorothy Sheridan, MOA Trustee (formerly MOA Archivist & Director)
Many thanks to Dr Jake Norris (lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Sussex and author of “Land of Progress: Palestine in an Age of Colonial Development 1905-1948”) for his advice on Palestinian archives before I visited.