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Preserving fragments of Palestine
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BEIRUT: Dr. Mohammad Khatib is a natural storyteller. Hands tracing patterns in the air, timbre modulating as he enacts a dialogue, he shakes with laughter as he recounts how a simple oil lamp came to be exhibited in the Shatila Memory Museum. “The lamp belonged to Umm Charbil,” Khatib begins. “But Umm Charbil is not really Umm Charbil.

“She had a husband who was working in East Beirut [when] the war began, in 1975. His name was Abu Mahmoud, [a] Muslim.

“He was working with a man called Georges, and Georges said to him: ‘If you stay here with a name like Abu Mahmoud, somebody will kill you ... From now on, you are Abu Charbil.’

“After the war he came here to the camp and his wife was [still] living here. He had had so many things from Palestine. ‘Where are my things?’ he said.

“‘I threw them away,’ she said.

“‘Okay. We will divorce,’ he said.

“‘No, no!’ She said. ‘Don’t divorce me. I saved something.’

“It was the lamp.

“He said: ‘If you have the lamp, then OK. We will not divorce.’”

Khatib is laughing as he gets to the punch line, but he ends on a sober note. “He had to have something to remember his house in Palestine,” he says.

The Shatila Memory Museum houses a collection of items brought by refugees who either fled or were expelled from historic Palestine during Israel’s creation in 1948 – an event referred to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” Although every object here has its own story, they all share one feature: Each item was preserved and treasured by a Palestinian family who had lost everything except the few possessions they were able to bring with them when they left their homes.

Khatib was born in Khalsa, a small village 8 kilometers from the Lebanese border. He was 6 months old when his family left Palestine. Having lived in various locations in Lebanon, he moved to Shatila in 1979, where he survived the horrors of the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre and the War of the Camps before moving again in 1987.

In some ways he never really left.

Determined to preserve the culture and heritage of Palestine, in 2002 he bought a small L-shaped room off a narrow alleyway near Shatila’s Qaat al-Shaab (People’s Hall). It was used as a dumping ground by local families and was full of rubbish and rats.

Khatib cleared it out and began to hold monthly dialogue sessions in the space, inviting people from the camp to attend discussions on a range of subjects, from mental health and child psychology to democracy and the role of the individual in society.

“I wanted people not just to applaud,” he says, “but to think.”

After three years of dialogue sessions, Khatib decided to embark on a new project, transforming the space into a museum filled with traditional Palestinian items. The doctor was working full time for UNWRA, but spent four months traveling the country during the evenings and weekends, collecting items donated by Palestinian families.

The museum opened in 2004, and today it is packed to the rafters with a chaotic jumble of objects that suggest a lot about day-to-day life for Palestinians before 1948.

Farm implements, scissors, utensils used in preparing traditional dishes like mouloukhieh, brass coffee cups and plates hang from the walls or stand on simple shelves. A small display cabinet contains strings of chunky amber beads. Colorful woven rugs are heaped along one wall.

A selection of unique items are scattered among them. A traditional wooden trousseau chest, upholstered with a carpet patterned in pinks and reds and trimmed with thick leather bands, stands next to new fan. Jars of earth collected from different towns and villages in Palestine stand side-by-side. An old fashioned butter-churner – a hefty sack adorned with two small arms used to shake the milk inside – hangs from one wall, looking a little like a turkey ready for the oven.

A small but deadly metal hatchet is also on display. Khatib explains it was one of five found in the camp after the 1982 massacre.

Two beautifully crafted model houses are painted to resemble stone cottages. They were built by an elderly Palestinian man, explains Khatib, who recreated his two grandfathers’ houses in Palestine from memory.

“These are simple stories,” Khatib says, “but for the people they are significant. This 80-year-old man had a very clear mind. He remembered what was in every room, how they sat in this room and where he used to play in that room. It was amazing.”

The museum’s collection is not only a testament to the unique cultural heritage of those living in the camps, it also provides an opportunity for the thousands of children for whom life in Palestine is little more than a fairy tale to see and touch pieces of its past.

Many of the visiting children don’t know what the items they see in the museum are or what they were used for, Khatib says. “They recognize some, but they ask me, ‘Grandfather, what is that?’ ... Even if somebody has told them about it they don’t have the visual memory.”

Creating the museum is Khatib’s way of resisting cultural appropriation.

“The Israelis stole the land,” he says, “and now they want to steal the heritage ... My house is still in my country, still standing, and a woman is living there. My nephew went there. He knocked on the door, the woman came out, and my nephew said to her: ‘This is my grandfather’s house.’

“She said: ‘Yes, but I am here by force.’ This is the exact sentence. We are living in an unjust world.”

Khatib can recall the story behind most of the museum’s objects, and some are tagged with their owner’s names and place of origin. But a leak in the apartment upstairs flooded the museum recently, destroying the documentation book he used to record the details and a number of items from the 1,000-piece collection.

Unable to secure funding from local cultural organizations, Khatib has shouldered the cost of the museum since its inception. He paid to have the leak fixed, but says he is getting too old to do everything alone. The items need to be properly documented and digitally archived, and awareness about the museum is still lacking.

“People don’t come of their own initiative,” he says. “So I have to make a program, for kindergartens, for schools, for NGOs ... I have to go to people’s houses, give them an invitation, speak to them, and then they come. I cannot do it for everybody.”

In the meantime, Khatib is working on a new project. “I’m writing a play,” he says. “We’ll do it I think in March. Now I am collecting actors – not specialists, but people from the camp, to train them. I am not a writer, I am not a director, but I will train them and train myself ... It’s about memory and heritage, the same as the museum.”

To find out more or arrange a visit to the Shatila Memory Museum call Dr. Muhammad Khatib on 71-413-237 or 01-854-346.

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