Interview with Dorit Naaman about “Jerusalem, We Are Here”

Wednesday May 11, 2017

Dorit Naaman, film and media professor at Queen’s University, directed and produced an interactive documentary called, “Jerusalem, We Are Here”, which she presented at the Palestine Center on April 13th, 2017. The purpose of this project is to restore the lost or stolen homes, mainly in Jerusalem, of pre-1948 Palestine, if not physically then through the communicative power of art and new media. Until this day, houses are being demolished in Palestine adding another facet to the fact that the Nakba never ended. Acknowledging the existence of Palestinian homes, as this project does, is a form of resistance against cultural erasure. This interview highlights the importance of recognizing the past in Palestine, how it lives in the reality of our present, and challenges our future.

Q: What inspired you to create this virtual tour?
A: First of all, I don’t call it a film. I call it a documentary project because a film is a fairly linear thing. You start to watch it, then you finish it. But the documentary is interactive and you have a lot control over how much you hear and watch and where you look. So it is a documentary project but less grounded in film. It is much more fluid.

It happened in stages. I was on sabbatical in Jerusalem and I rented an apartment not far from where my parents now live and my daughter was a year old, so I wanted to be close. I knew I lived in a Palestinian home but I didn’t know anything about it and that bothered me. At that point, I had read Ghada Karmi’s memoir, In Search of Fatima. The neighborhood is very interesting. It’s not a large neighborhood and there are no public institutions there. There are no churches, no mosques, there is one school.

What I discovered through research is that on top of the hill there is a Greek Orthodox monastery and they were selling the land and they didn’t want competition. They didn’t want another church, a mosque, or anything. So, all the plots of land were too small for a public institution. For that reason, there are smaller streets and you have no reason to go there, unless you know someone who lives there.

When I rented there, I already had In Search of Fatima, in my head. Then I discovered that the house next door belonged to Khalil Sakakini. So I made a short video about the Sakakini house and the Baramki house, which is in a different neighborhood. I read the diaries and the material that was available like the journals Sakakini wrote every day of his life. In the fifties, after his death, his daughters, Hala and Dumya published a selection of his diary entries from 1910 to his death. Hala wrote a memoir in the 80s that is out of print, but I found a copy in the Jewish National Library.

In 1948, the Israelis knew who the intellectuals were. After they conquered the neighborhood and expelled the people, they came with trucks and took all the books. In Hala’s book, there was a hand-drawn map of just a few blocks around their house. In it, she names all the people she knew. So there were Greek Orthodox Arabs and sometimes she would just say an Armenian or a Russian family, but mostly she knew the names. Then I thought that maybe I could find the people. Now that I had the names, maybe I could find the people and do something with them, their descendants.

Right from the beginning, I wanted to make short films with people. Not oral history where you interview somebody for two hours and it’s really interesting to the family and historians of that particular area or era, but not so interesting to the public. I knew I wanted to make very short films so that people who have nothing to do with this area will still be interested. What I was thinking of doing was projecting them on the houses because I am an Israeli and I really wanted to force the Israelis to come to terms with al-Nakba. Everyone knows these were Palestinian homes. In Hebrew they say Arab homes not Palestinian homes. They sort of say, “Well there was war,” and they run away and that is that. I wanted to trouble that. In my own mind I wanted to make the films with the people and project them on the houses. I wasn’t quite sure what that would look like.

There is also something very interesting about this neighborhood [which] is that it was a middle-class Palestinian neighborhood and middle class at the time. There were radio announcers, educators and architects, some rich people, but most often first generation. Like Ghada Karmi’s father and uncle, they came from farming families and they were educators. Khalil Sakakini was self-taught. He did not have formal education yet he became a very important educator, linguist and poet himself although he did not come from that background. There were a lot of people like that in the neighborhood. When the neighborhood was conquered by the Israelis, they immediately put Jewish refugees into the houses, primarily from the Old City but also from other neighborhoods that were conquered by Jordan, and later immigrants that arrived from Europe and the Arab world. There was a huge shortage of housing, so there were four or five families living in a house. Each family had a room and then they were sharing the kitchen and bathroom. So, it became a slum. From this beautiful neighborhood–everyone had gardeners, maids and all of that–it became a slum. Then it was gentrified twice. The people, especially the Arab Jews that came and the ultra Orthodox Jews that came from the Old City of Jerusalem, were put into housing projects.

The Ashkenazi people, who are non-orthodox and much closer to the Zionist leadership at the time, were somehow told or found out that they could stay and get ownership of these Palestinian homes. In Israel there are tensions between Jews from Europe and Jews from the Arab world. Until ‘67, all the Jews from the Arab world did the construction, gardening and the farming, which later was done by the Palestinians and now mostly by migrant laborers from China. Romanians do construction and Thais do agriculture. Initially, I wanted to tell the Israeli story too because it breaks the binary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it’s much more pinpointing of the Zionist logic which is really a colonial logic. It wasn’t only the Palestinians who were other to the Zionist project, it was also the Arab Jews who were considered primitive and good for lower end jobs. I thought that would be really interesting but it became very clear to me that it would be very difficult to do a project, at this point, where there would be Israelis participating too for a few reasons. One of them of course is we are respecting the boycott and the BDS movement. When you do that work, a lot of people will not participate. I was really worried that it would fall into this dialogue project. Do you know the Gaza/ Sderot project? It is an interactive project that came out in 2008 right before the bombing in 2009. It was this project where in Sderot, which is often shelled from Gaza, you can watch stories of people from both places. What happens there is that you think people suffer on both sides and I did not want to make that equation.

Q: Are you highlighting the narrative from the Palestinian side for the Israeli perception?
A: Initially, but it changed because I realized even if I made sure it doesn’t seem like we’re equating the narratives as in you have a story and I have a story, I didn’t want to do that. It’s true that you have a story and I have a story, but my story also comes with a lot of political and economic privilege which you don’t have. So I was really worried that in the end the Israelis would say, “Well, we lost houses in Europe or we lost houses in Iraq too.” So it becomes about everyone suffering. In war, everyone suffers and I was really worried about that.

The other thing that happened, was that when I started working with Palestinians, I of course realized how little access there is and it’s not that I didn’t know it but sometimes you know something in your head but it does not quite sink in. So, Palestinians from the West Bank do not, of course, have access. They can maybe go to East Jerusalem but not to West Jerusalem. Palestinians from the Arab world will not have access at all. Also all of the Palestinians that have hawiye can’t, they can only come to the West Bank. Even if you have an American citizenship. Then I started thinking, “Ok, I’m not doing this project just for Israelis.” Ethically, it feels wrong to ask people to experience their trauma or to tell me their story of loss just in order to educate Israelis.

Q: Can you elaborate on that ethical feeling?
A: I think that from a practical perspective it’s a big deal. I think that you need to humanize the enemy or even if it’s not the enemy, the other. You need to humanize them in order for people to be willing to think outside the box. I’m very grateful that people were willing to share their stories and to have those stories engage with Israelis. I was also hearing people’s stories of loss and not all of them are in the project. And I had to rebuild their lives and the hardships that people experienced. So every time I worked with people, I started realizing that I’m really doing art therapy with them and I really freaked out. I thought, “I am not trained to do art therapy.” I would be very exhausted after filming or even after doing a skype meeting for an hour because I was taking it on. Then I realized I was actually intuitively taking care of the participants and it was good for them to talk, but I was taking it on and I didn’t know how to take care of myself.

Then I realized that these people trusted me with their stories. In the end we made the short film. But there was a long process before that, in most cases. I felt like this should serve them in some way. It shouldn’t just be a project that educates Israelis.

The year we were in Jerusalem, I had a sabbatical in 2013/14, and my daughter went to a bilingual school in Arabic and Hebrew. So on Nakba day, I guided a walk together with Anwar Ben Badis. We did a guided tour in the neighborhood for the school community. That was like a kind of ‘awda’ [return] and it was incredible because people had kaffiyehs and t-shirts saying, “I’m a Nakba survivor,” and Handalas on the t-shirts. We walked like that, Israelis and Palestinians, in the neighborhood, and there was Arabic in the neighborhood. The parents in the school, almost 90 percent of them are Israeli citizens. There are a few kids from East Jerusalem. So even the Israeli citizens had no idea. They got so emotional when we stood in front of Abdul Khalil El Karmi and Khalil Sakakini house and we started reciting the famous song ‘Sanarjiou Yawman’ by Fairuz.

There was a lot of emotion, but I realized that Palestinians will not come on their own to the neighborhood because now it is such an Israeli space. There are these enormous Israeli flags that were hung, you have three stories of Israeli flags. You don’t see that anywhere except for in these places. So that’s when I started thinking, “Actually, it needs to be online.” It needs to be accessible to Palestinians in refugee camps. It needs to be accessible to anyone in the world who can’t come or won’t come.

To read the full version of this interview, click here.