Snapshots of Everyday Palestinian Life Before the Nakba

The release of the English translation of the 2016 photo book Against Erasure: A Photographic Memory of Palestine Before the Nakba, with a new foreword by activist and writer Mohammed El-Kurd, coincides with an era in which more images of Palestinians are circulating than perhaps ever before. Each day, a montage of genocidal horrors documented by Palestinians in Gaza is shared alongside moments of reprieve, like recovering a bicycle from rubble.

Spanish photographer Sandra Barrilaro writes in the frontmatter that in the setting depicted throughout the book, “most families didn’t have access to a camera” and “photography was confined to luxury status.” Consequently, the historical record is often limited to bourgeois families.

But candid moments are still captured on film, and very rarely do we know who was behind the camera. One image from the 1936 revolts of British soldiers frisking Jaffa residents reverberates with the chilling familiarity of a checkpoint.

The first photographs we see in the book depict olive cultivation. On the left, a photo from 1934–39 shows a man pruning trees with a child by his side, his head angled gently upward as he handles the olives. In an image to its right from 1900–1920, a group of women and children sit on dusty ground pressing olives, the next step in the process of harvesting the oil.

In a brief technical note, Barrilaro explains that black film framing, numbering, and remnants of adhesive tape are still visible in some of the digitized images, enhancing the tangible quality of the photographs. As I drink in these first two pictures, I imagine that the pressed olives came from the pruned tree. These images were, of course, taken at least a decade apart, but they share a page here to emphasize the prevalence and permanence of the olive tree in Palestine. The titular phrase “against erasure” takes on a new meaning in this way, especially considering the occupation’s targeting of indigenous vegetation — uprooting olive trees is a tool of erasure in service of genocide.

The majority of the images are paired in spreads of four, with some accompanying text in English and Arabic describing the photographs or providing historical context. I am struck by the range of emotions captured, from the ease of women smoking together to snapshots of the Palestine Broadcasting Service studio in Jerusalem. As hospitals continue to be targeted by Israeli bombardment, the photos of patients in front of a mobile eye clinic in northern Gaza in 1939 feel particularly tender. Children sit, squinting into the sun, with nurses chatting in the background. The mundanity of Palestinian society before the Nakba becomes a gift in these images, filled with all of the usual activities that are easily taken for granted — people spending time with loved ones, going to and from their jobs, harvesting their fields.

What I found peculiar, though, is an epigraph that follows another photo of olive cultivation. The quote from Truth from Eretz Yisrael by Russian-Jewish writer Ahad Ha’am reads, in part: “We are accustomed to believe that Eretz Israel is presently … an uncultivated desert … But in truth, it is not so. In the entire land, it is hard to find tillable land that is not already tilled.” 

To frame these images with a myth-breaking statement from an early Zionist thinker struck me as hollow — must Palestinian abundance be affirmed by others? The captions often refer to the people in the photographs not as Palestinians, but rather as “Arabs.” US Library of Congress photos use this term, while Palestinian scholars contextualize the people in images as Palestinian, as is the case of the excerpts included from Walid Khalidi’s Before Their Diaspora (1984). This is a missed opportunity to combat erasure in archives, in which historic Palestine is often filed under “Israel” or Palestinian identity is collapsed into a non-specific Arabness.

Still, my favorite image, of an open-air cinema in the city of Halhul near al-Khalil (Hebron), taken in 1940, reminds me how special it is to see a crowd of Palestinians huddled together on the ground to watch a film projected onto a mosque’s outer wall. I am moved by every face illuminated by the film’s light to contrast the night. This, a leisure activity, invites us to witness. 

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