My grandmother, Julia Dabdoub, was obsessed with heritage. She was one of the first in Palestine, I believe, to be so entranced by objects. She founded a museum in Bethlehem, Beituna al-Talhami, which is just a collection — a clutter, really — of objects. It has the vibe of a dusty backwater museum of folklore. She spent the rest of her life trying to create the other museum.
She did not operate as so called “cultural entrepreneurs” usually do. Rather, she operated the way a feisty woman from Bethlehem would. She sent out letters. Countless institutions all over the world must have received her countless letters. I remember her writing them, in her recognizable schoolgirls’ cursive. That museum was — if you excuse the hackneyed phrase — a labor of love.
A few weeks ago my cousin Yousef Anastas came across an audio interview she gave. He immediately wrote to me: “I can’t believe it” he wrote, “She says: ‘the museum will be without objects’.” I listened to the interview and could not believe my ears. I had always known she had a vision, but I had never been aware of how radical it was.
On May 18, 2016, the Palestinian Museum opened in Birzeit. This was both the object of intense, glowing pride, and slight embarrassment at how some internal and external affairs of the museum were dealt with.
Regardless of what exactly happened, the museum opened with no exhibition yet to show. Some media outlets were ecstatic. The Jewish Press, for instance, published an article entitled, “What if they built a $24 Million ‘Palestinian Museum’ and there was nothing to show?” They were having a field day. It seemed absurd to most of the press that Palestinians would want to build a museum, and would rush to open it although it had no collection yet. Even sympathetic articles felt the need to emphasize the absence of objects: absence, in the case of Palestine specifically, seems to be a lack. I have no qualification to judge whether this opening should have happened differently. I was astounded, however, at the intellectual mediocrity that such a criticism constituted.
The old ladies who worked with my grandmother were left with the same intellectual and emotional challenge when she died. “It has nothing to do with objects.” Deal with it. What were they supposed to do with that? We’ve lived our lives on objects. We’ve built our stories on them: our deeds, our keys, our kuffiyehs, our heritage. When my grandmother said, on this radio interview, that objects didn’t really matter, it meant something. She herself had spent years taking care of a museum whose entire existence was predicated upon objects; the old, the forgotten, the dusty objects of a Palestine that few of us have ever known. How could these old ladies deal with their embroidery? How could they envision such a revolution in our ways of defining our cause and our lives? How can we, today, think of our culture, whether it be our heritage or our contemporary creations, as objectless?
Absence is the crucial feature of our Palestinian-ness. No matter who we are and how we end up being called, West Bank, Gaza, 1948 Palestinians, refugees inside or outside, diaspora kids, third-generation Americans, we all carry absence like a yoke. We slouch. It defines the way through which we perceive our love lives, our families, our friendships, our cities, and our nation. Whatever the reason was that the museum opened with no exhibition, it seemed a fitting opening. There is nothing to see. It is a moment in time, a space where we can feel both proud and sad. It is a celebration and a dirge. It is our exile made manifest.
As the concept of Palestinian identity developed over the 20th century, we started instilling the objects of daily life with a meaning that was too great for them. Two things led us to do this. On the one hand, objects worked as proofs. As the idea that Palestinians never really existed started gaining ground in some circles, pre-1948 objects started acting as assertions. One will always proudly show a British Mandate passport reading Palestine, despite the fact that this was issued by another colonizing power. Objects had the power of ending the conversation. We were there: objects cannot be disputed. On the other, they worked as keepsakes. They were the embodiment of memories. They bypassed narratives (written and oral) to allow for an immediate transmission of history.
Objects, in a sense, worked like totems. Having the key to one’s grandparent’s house by the sea became, in a way, a reassurance that one would indeed see that house again. They enabled a type of magical thinking: since we have the objects, we’re still here. We could go so far as to say that paying so much attention to objects, we’ve played into the game of the occupation. We denied our reality because we were so convinced that objects had meaning.
And now, for once, we sidestep the Israeli imperatives: “fill up space, have objects, fetishize them, hold on to your key as if it were a familiar. You do not exist; you have neither soul nor history without them. Your cause is one of these objects. Carry them, as it will make you slower and heavier. Keep them under your pillow because they will make you dream less. It’s easier for us: make them your keepsakes, because once we have succeeded in destroying them, you will be left with nothing.”
“There will be no objects in the museum.” What a challenge to our own shot-sightedness. What a way of elevating a cause and a nation by saying it loud and clear: our absence itself is the object.