This conversation between Samia Henni and Mostafa Minawi bridges the systematic eviction and destruction of Palestinian villages during the Nakba with similar military colonial violence committed in Algeria six years later. Today, the remainers of the Palestinian ruins tell this story to whom can read them.
SAMIA HENNI: I would like to start this conversation with a very specific moment to both of us: your response to the exhibition Discrete Violence: Architecture the French War in Algeria that you visited at the John Hartell Gallery in Cornell University. The show that I organized as part on my ongoing research on French colonial and military operations in Algeria was about France’s forced mass displacement of the Algerian population and the camps that the French army created in Algeria during the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962). Between 2017 and 2019, the show travelled from Zurich, to Rotterdam, Berlin, Johannesburg, Paris, Prague, Cornell and Philadelphia. When you saw the visual and textual archival documents — public and private, civil and military — presented in the exhibition, you immediately made a link between the forced displacement of the Algerian people by the French army and the forced displacement and resettlement of the Palestinian people by the Israeli army. You saw parallels between the violence of the colonial landscapes of colonized Algeria and colonized Palestine. You saw similarities between the black and white photographs and videos produced during the 1950s and 1960s to portray this violent involuntary exodus and the spaces and scenes that you experienced in person during your first visit to Palestine. I think this is a good entry point. Could you please describe these similarities and your experience?
MOSTAFA MINAWI: When I visited that exhibition, I did not really know what it was about. I was immediately struck by the effective use of the visual material. As a historian who works with traditional archival material, I am not used to working with visual materials, something I’ve always regretted. What happened to me while I walked through Discreet Violence was that I began to immediately relate it to my own experience. The images I saw started to cue in memories I had from when I worked on a research project devoted to the destruction and erasure of Palestinian villages and towns after the Nakba in 1948. I was struck by the similarities in the methods used by colonizing powers. The whole apparatus that is deployed by a colonial army to spin what an observer sees right in front of their own eyes. There is a whole army PR project that spent a lot of resources to make sure there is only one narrative related to the displacement of the locals. That is very similar to what I saw in Palestine. Even though all of the sites that I visited were of ‘48 villages — what I mean by that is that they were from the “original” displacement and occupation — the effort to control the narrative about these spaces continues until today. It is continuously policed by the Israeli state, which refuses to acknowledge that there were Palestinian villages and towns that were buried or “rebranded,” despite their very physical presence. It is, I guess, a form of “gaslighting” the observer. What you see, know, and experience is denied. This was especially true in places were the original inhabitants of depopulated villages continued to live in close proximity to their native land. When these Palestinian inhabitants would put up a sign that say “This used to be the village of this and this,” within 24 hours the police or the army would come and take them down.
The notion of acknowledging the existence of a place that was destroyed 70 years ago is still threatening. The Israeli state continues to erase, to rebrand, and to control the narrative of these places. This becomes evident in the narratives that are relayed to Israeli students when they are taken on field trips to these “historic” villages, or what they tell the general public of this conspicuous presence/absence of Palestinian homes, or what they tell the tourists exploring “biblical lands,” continues to have to be re-narrativize with an urgency like it is still 1949. It is still being exhibited as if it were the first few days of occupation, in ways very similar to the methods depicted in your exhibition. To control and maintain the legitimacy of settler colonialism, you cannot do it once and move on; you have to repeatedly do it because there is something about the absences that haunt the land and that they have to continuously contend with. That is what I initially wanted to share with you after seeing Discreet Violence. It does not end.
SH: After our first conversation about the visual records and histories that can be extrapolated from the exhibition, we had another meeting to talk about these spaces, villages and physical structures. You showed me striking photographs that you took when you were on a research trip in Palestine with an Israeli colleague, which whom you were supposed to work. The photographs showed the ruins of the destruction of Palestinian villages and the remains of the foundations of the houses, which came back into the surface thanks to the natural work of trees. We should publish some of those photographs as part of this conversation. What do you think?
MM: I think this is important. The project that I was a part of was specifically about going there and taking photographs of what used to be Palestinian villages and I still haven’t used them anywhere. It was an emotional experience that hit too close to home for me. So I shelved it.
SH: The photographs that you took in Palestine reveal and depict the “ruins of the present.” They testify to the physical destruction of buildings and the planned demolition of villages. It is an evidence. These photographs portray the violence embedded in the colonial landscape and confirm that a devastation of the built environment that existed in 1948, or after, did occur. When did you visit those villages? How many years after their destruction?
MM: It was in 2015. I am not sure how many years after.
SH: What really captivated my attention was your description of nature. You mentioned that trees took over the ghosts of villages and that the roots of those trees — that the Israeli state planted to cover and erase the memory of Palestinian villages — were bringing the foundations of the houses back to the surface. This is a very powerful imagery. Could you please describe this presence, which thanks to the force of nature, cannot be obliterated?
MM: Right. I think that I was struck with that. Initially the idea came about a couple of years after I tried to find my mom’s neighborhood in Jaffa. At that time, I went looking for my mother’s neighborhood, Manshiya, which was a part of Jaffa, but could not find it. I remember how I kept walking back and forth between Tel Aviv and Jaffa and I could not quite find the neighborhood, though it should have been there. It did not make sense until somebody whom I asked said “No, you are exactly where you should be, you are just standing on top of it.” He said it’s basically six feet underground. He told me that they used soil to bury the remnants of Manshiya when it got swallowed up by what became a part of Tel Aviv. Half of these neighborhoods that were right on the coast of Jaffa were destroyed in order to be able to use the waterfront as a place for the new residents of Tel Aviv to promenade along the Mediterranean coast. This neighborhood was buried and turned into these green rolling hills. The problem is that literally the physical structures of the city blocks were used as the rubble that they used to backfill those man-made rolling hills. That to me meant that the physical stones of the homes and shops and mosques were still there, six feet beneath my feet. It was still present but unseen. I was standing on top of it. That feeling stayed with me until I went back to look for villages a couple of years later that were starting to rise up. What I mean by that is that, in some cases, the same method was used in rural places where a lot of the depopulated Palestinian villages were buried.
The Israeli state used different techniques to erase the villages off the map. In some cases, they used top soil to bury them, in more remote areas they would blow up the roof of mud and brick houses only. The walls would stay, but the roofs would be destroyed. What they did then was to plant trees inside the house, in the interior mud floors of the houses, and then outside the house. They hoped the actual foliage of the trees would cover everything so the houses could not be seen from the air. An aerial survey would show unpopulated forests. The walls would be swallowed up by nature.
In other places where the villages were bigger with larger structures and roads, they would demolish the whole thing and then cover it with top soil, so the actual physical structures would be completely buried rather than just covered by trees. However, as the soil settled over the past 70 years, a lot of the walls of the buried structures have started to creep back up. So, when you approach them from outside, they look like they are crops of stone. As you come closer, you start to notice a pattern. 90-degree angles. A square here, a rectangle there. Your eyes adjust and you start to see these are the walls of houses rising from the soil. Then you see there’s a block of houses here, then it’s a street, intersecting with another street. The villages start to materialize in your imagination, like a 3-D hologram rising up. I remember feeling chills going down my spine the first time I recognized what we were experiencing. Often, with old maps in hand, we would know we were on the spot where a big village used to be, but all we initially saw were crops of rocks and piles of stones.
This changed when, one time, a displaced person from one of the villages saw us walking around confused and came toward us to investigate. The inhabitants of this specific village were forcibly displaced, so they started a new settlement very close by and their original village was raised to the ground and buried. They could see their historic village with the naked eye from where they lived now. After some explanation that I too am a descendent of another displaced Palestinian family and what I was looked for, he felt comfortable enough to help us. He told us what the displaced villagers and their decedents do every year. Every year, on “Yawm el-Ard” they come down from their new settlement and walk around on the spot where their village used to stand. They take their children around and show them where each family’s house used to stand, where each street and store used to be, where the church and the mosque of the village used to be. A GPS of memories.
He showed us through his eyes what the different piles of rock actually were. And suddenly it became very real, it felt like I was seeing those CGI type things where you see things actually come alive. Because suddenly a crop of rock becomes the church of the village, and this would become mosque of the village. And then we see pathways and urban planning and orientation of everything and it all comes alive again. It was a very emotional moment and we used this experience to read our surroundings better as we continued to look for similar villages. He also showed us where the graveyard of the village was/is. From that moment on the biggest signs for us that had found buried villages we were looking for was the graveyard. Graveyards hold the secrets to where villages are buried.
SH: This is an important point. Cemeteries became signs of life, of human existence, of presence of villages. Graveyards — places designed to bury dead human bodies — became witnesses of human life. Thus, necropolises are opposing the imposed amnesia and testifying to the existence of villages that were systematically erased. How did you operate on the ground, on those very sites?
MM: We were amateurs. We had a historic mandate-age map of Palestine that shows where villages were located. But we were trying to match the new roads, and even old roads whose names were changed by the Israeli state, with the old map. Sometime we would see that activists have written the old names on top of the new names on the signs. We drove around in a rented car and tried to find these villages that had in many cases been completely buried or hidden under thick foliage. Two things would give us a clue that there is a village on the sides of the highways. Usually they are buried and covered by thick pine trees that were planted through campaigns to “make the desert bloom” and funds from Europe and North America. Those trees were actually the trees that were planted in rows over the remnants of villages, to cover the depopulated villages. They are all along the mountainous sides of the highways were Palestinian farmers had planted their crops. Small scale farming. Palestinians built ledges along the slopes of these mountains which they farmed.
There is no way to get rid of every trace of this landscape, so the Israeli state planted trees that covered these areas with very thick ferns. It is funny driving down the highway and looking at the slopes to the side, because they looked odd, out of place. It looked like the Alps in some spots; an attempt at turning Palestine into something that resembled Europe. It is a specific notion of what is meant to for a landscape to be “green” and “lush.” Those ferns or pine trees planted in rows up the side of the mountain slopes were dead giveaways that something was hidden there. We would also notice cactus rows in geometric formations. You cannot get rid of cactus. You can burn the whole village down, but the roots of the cactus tree stayed and would come back up. Cactus rows were used in many cases as a way to fence in a front yard or farm on the side of the mountain. There would be a lot of pine trees with a cactus row that marked a plot of land, crisscrossing rows of pine, often intersecting at perpendicular angles. When we would notice that, we would stop by the side of the highway and start walking up through the thick bush. We would know we hit a village when we hit the graveyard. I don’t know how cemeteries are like in North African, but in simple Muslim cemeteries in Palestine, the only thing that you would have is a headstone and a footstone to mark the spot. What the Israeli state must have done, is that they got rid of the headstone — ironically enough also called the shahed in Arabic, which literally means “witness” — and the footstones.
Even though the grave is underground, it is important to remember that the grave is scaffolded with wooden planks or stone where the body laid. Over the years, the soil settles. The scaffolding marking the perimeter of every grave starts to stick out a little bit. So, what you see when you come up to a graveyard are rectangular frames in the ground; little rectangles, and big rectangles depending on the size of the buried body. They were lined up in the same direction. Different sized rectangles in the ground, in the middle of a pine forest, all oriented towards Mecca. So that is when we would know; we hit a graveyard and thus there is a village close by. Sure enough, within a few hundred meters we would find a village. Then we would find the remnants of big houses, or we would find the remnants of the water wells, and you look a bit more and you start to figure out this pile of stone actually leads down to another pile of stones of another house, and then another house, and so on. Soon a Palestinian village rises in your mind’s eye in the middle of a foreign forest. The places where people are buried become a witness to past lived lives. It is hard to describe the feeling. You are a witness in the silence of a forest to a whole community that was snuffed out. These are not mass graves, but the graveyard of a once-vibrant village where people went about their lives not that long ago. For a historian of the Ottoman Empire like me, 70 years is nothing.
The thing is, the methods to cover up what used to be, does not always involve the physical destruction or burial of a place. It sometimes takes the form of an elaborate rebranding of these depopulated villages. As I told you before, they bring school-age children on field trips to some of the empty villages that have been repurposed as tourist sites: “This is how ancient people lived, this is the land of the Bible.” These Palestinian villages are given a different label. It’s not a new name per se, they are simply dehistoricized. Often a plaque would be placed there to explain the site as one relating to some kind of a biblical past — a biblical character or a biblical story.
In depopulated villages close to where people live now, we would often stop and ask for directions to places we see on the old map but cannot find. The Israeli inhabitants that lived there would either have no idea that they lived so close (or on top of) a depopulated village. They would often say, “don’t waste your time, there is nothing, that is just a forest as you can see.”
Another thing we discovered is that there are structures that were not buried along with the rest of the village. For example, there are old tombs of Muslim saints, a kind of a mazar, that were left standing. They were traditionally painted white, with green dome. Now, the tomb was repurposed as a tomb of a Jewish religious figure. It is a repurposing of a “holy” place, like converting a church to a mosque in the Ottoman period. The green dome would be repainted blue and it is given a new history. It becomes a place where specific Jewish learned men, often from Eastern Europe, were commemorated. It is literally a rebranding of religious sites. The original mazars were not forgotten, because the people from these destroyed villages are alive and often live close by and remembered that this tomb belonged to this or that Muslim saint. It was fascinating to see the different ways of rebranding, retelling, and erasure of the past.
SH: This is absolutely fascinating. Is this something that you uncovered while being there on site, or is it something that you read about and then tried to test what you knew on the field? In other words, is a learning by doing situation? I am just thinking that if one does not know about these different ways of erasure of the past and realizes it on the spot — while one’s feet are on those very graveyards — it must have been shocking. Isn’t it?
MM: This is what made this project so emotionally taxing. It was not a research project in which I was an expert who was looking for something to support a new book project or article. It was a completely personal project for me. It was not about a reclamation of a place; it was about reclaiming myself, but I only understood that after I left. It was about reclaiming my connection to Palestine by digging up the present/past, literally. Something unexpected happened after this project, I left feeling — because of what is so conspicuously absent — deeply connected to that place. My connection to Palestine, as a Palestinian, has always been about loss, what has passed. That trip changed my relationship with the land because it made me understand that certain things never disappear, as much as a colonizing power desperately wants them to, and as much as people that want to move on with their lives want to believe that they’ve disappeared with no trace. My connection to that place, for better or worse, is still very, very, very present because of what lies just beneath the surface.
SH: When I was in Palestine for PalFest 2019, which took place in various Palestinian cities, we met with a number of people who are working on keeping the memory and history active and keeping the absence present. There was a group of activists, who eventually became historians, who used the methodology of the discipline of history, including the collection and consultation of texts, maps, drawings, photographs, any sort of evidence, any sort of textual and visual records and traces. This archive that the State of Israel had tried (and is trying) to get rid of is crucial. The Palestinians that we met have created documents that document this process and make sure that the absence is being recorded.
As you mentioned earlier, the politics of renaming streets and places contribute to the politics of erasure and denial of the memory of the place, and by extension of the place itself. This violent renaming was also discussed during my visit to Palestine. The Israeli state is doing everything possible to erase Palestinian history. Palestinians, however, have the right to claim their own history and that of a street or a place. Another Israeli strategy is to keep changing the name of the same place so that one could barely trace the chronology of the place and one would struggle claiming a specific moment of the biography of a place because it keeps changing. It’s continuous and ubiquitous. This violent repurposing is omnipresent. It is a colonial policy as it is the planting of trees. European colonizers used these measures in Asia and Africa to occupy, colonize and spread. There are many parallels.
MM: Absolutely. Even though I am an historian, I have put 1948 deep in the recesses of my mind as if it is an ancient event. 70 years later, the colonial project continues with continuous efforts to erase and rebrand space and place. It is like you are painting over an image of a wall, but the stones keep absorbing the paint and the original paint color bleeds through, so you have to continuously do it. There is a purposeful effort for the Israelis to reimagine the past as something quaint that has naturally disappeared, the way we think of physical heritage in any place with ruins, like “Oh! It’s a Roman ruin,” or “Oh! It’s a Greek structure,” and “Oh, it’s an Arab architectural structure,” as if it was not depopulated in recent history, but somehow, naturally emptied out and because a blank page to project our imagined past on it. That does not happen naturally. It is a lot of investment by the state and even by academics and intellectuals.
SH: Exactly. This involves a great deal of planning. That is exactly why and how urbanism and architecture are tools of occupation and colonization. The more one plans and builds, the more one needs infrastructure, transportation, energy, housing, hospitals, prisons, etc. One also needs people, teams, staffs, and a huge logistics and infrastructure to make this as efficient as possible. It is fascinating to realize that this is exactly what you saw in the exhibition Discreet Violence. You saw precisely that and you are not the first one. I also saw similar black and white photographs — exhibited in Discreet Violence — when I was in Palestine. The activists and historians mentioned earlier showed some of their photographs. They showed the pictures of the displaced people and destroyed Palestinian villages. They were very similar to the pictures of Algerian villages that I showed in Discreet Violence. It’s striking to see these similarities.
MM: I was truly struck by it. It’s presented in a way that goes beyond the intellectual. I think that’s why I felt compelled to reach out to you and tell you about my experience from 2015. My hope is that we can do something that transcends geography and talk about those tools of settler colonialism using public history methodologies that you are more familiar with than I am. I want people to have this visceral impact of understanding the connections between the colonial past and our present experience without having to read through a book.
SH: It is a methodological choice. The question is how you make an absence, a taboo, a denial, and an imposed amnesia an absolute presence. The French colonial regime did exactly that: destroy, build, repurpose, westernize — or let’s say make it French. This are part of the numerous methods of colonizing, occupying, destroying, and transforming a territory. I think because we are talking about a similar time period (the 1950s) and a similar military technology, it tended to look similar. When I saw the Palestinian photographs for the first I was moved by both the violence and similarity to my own country. What you’ve called “colonial landscapes” are sceneries that contain common techniques, means, and ends of oppression and dispossession. Singular and comparative colonial landscapes show clearly this perpetual violence.
MM: For me, it is a violence that continues. It is not a moment in time 70 years ago, or an event that has ended. That is why we have to continuously find ways to retell the story of colonial landscapes. I cannot emphasis the importance of teaching the politics of space and place-making in the humanities and social sciences. As we have been discussing, place-making (and remaking) is always a political act, and should be understood as such on the perceived, conceived, and lived levels to paraphrase Henri Lefebvre. It is not only important in the context of colonial states. As I am witnessing during the revolution in Beirut, architecture and whose interest it is made to serve is fundamental to the struggle for a claiming and reclaiming citizenship. Understanding how colonial states and the oligarchy uses built (and destroyed) places to disengage and discredit a certain portion of a population is fundamental to understanding the nature of the colonial and neoliberal states’ oppression, whether that happens in Jaffa, Beirut, or New York. ■
Samia Henni is Assistant Professor of History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism at Cornell University. She is the author of Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria (EN, 2017; FR, 2019), the editor of War Zones: gta papers 2 (2018), and the curator of Discreet Violence: Architecture and the French War in Algeria (2017–19). Read more on her contributor page.
Mostafa Minawi is an associate professor of history and the director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University. He is the author of The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy from the Sahara to the Hijaz (2016) and is currently working on two book projects tentatively titled Ottoman-Ethiopian Relations and the Geopolitics of Imperialism in the Horn of Africa, 1885-1915 and An Ottoman Officer and Gentleman in Africa: A Journey from Istanbul to Addis Ababa. Read more on his contributor page.