Meet the Guardian of Palestine's Past
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the truth can’t stay buried forever.
By Tafline Laylin
Nazareth, the storied biblical city filled with the ghosts of Christianity’s past — or so the narrative goes. Ahmad Mrowat, a 6-foot-5 tower with a gentle countenance, wants to show you a different side to the Arab capital of Israel (and beyond). Using old photographs, documents and artifacts he obsessively hunts down, the 37-year-old archival specialist is slowly painting a picture of what transpired between biblical times and Nakba Day — the name for the 1948 exodus when, according to a mural on the city’s periphery, “more than 780,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and land” by Zionist forces.
The stories of who lived on this slip of parched earth and how they lived before Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — is shrouded in obscurity. That’s in large part because the Israelis confiscated much of Palestine’s archives documenting their history, according to Dr. Rona Sela, a curator, researcher and Tel Aviv University lecturer, and the director of a new film called Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel. (The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to an email request for comment.) Mrowat has devoted his entire adult life to completing and correcting the record — for the roughly 12 million Palestinians living around the world, to be sure, but mostly for posterity.
To understand the importance of his work, consider this: In June, Israeli writer Assaf Voll published A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era, which was made available as a free download and flew off the virtual bookshelves. The fact that it secured a spot on Amazon’s best-seller list is all the more surprising when you consider that each of its 120 pages is blank. The book was inflammatory and has since been pulled from the site. An article in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, said its “author” explained his work to the local radio station Kol Hai this way: “The Palestinian people believe they are a people, and someone needs to tell them the truth even if it hurts.”
No future is possible without knowing the past.
Dr. Rona Sela, Tel Aviv University
In addition to losing a sense of collective identity, Palestinians have also lost sight of their past, says Mrowat’s friend Ghada Boulous. An archaeologist, a philologist and a tour guide who operates a small gift shop in Nazareth, she adds, “As time passes, we, the new generation, have forgotten where we started.” But not Mrowat. He constantly toggles between past and present.
At age 7, Mrowat buried his dead cat, only to dig it up later to see how the body had changed. He says his mother knew then he’d probably become an archaeologist. His father was blind, so she raised him and his two siblings in Nazareth on social security checks and a series of menial jobs. After high school, Mrowat put himself through the University of Haifa, where he studied Roman, Byzantine and Middle East history before moving to Istanbul in 2010 for a one-year internship at Anadolu University. He learned Ottoman Turkish, which is essential to decoding texts throughout the former empire. Since then he has worked as a freelance archivist, and, starting in 2014, with Nazareth Municipality.
Over the course of his studies, Mrowat devoted six years to collecting archival footage of Palestine’s first female photographer, Karimeh Abbud, who lived in Bethlehem and received her first camera in 1913 when she was 17. She died in 1955. Funded by the Institute for Palestinian Studies and completed in 2011, the project is one of Mrowat’s crowning achievements, according to his peers. Previously unknown by historians or photographers, Abbud’s name now pulls up 18,000 results on Google, largely thanks to Mrowat’s work. On November 18, her 123rd birthday, the search engine gifted her with one of its highest honors: a home page doodle of her behind an old-fashioned camera. Mrowat says discovering people like Abbud, whose vast portfolio of portraits and landscapes includes a negative of a young King Hussein of Jordan, contradicts Zionist propaganda that pre-’48 Palestinians were uneducated brutes devoid of culture. Through his work — admittedly slow and painstaking — he’s helping to restore some of what’s been lost of the Palestinian identity. As Sela puts it, “No future is possible without knowing the past.”
And the past isn’t just waiting for people like Mrowat to fill in the empty pages. Anyone can access the thousands of books and manuscripts taken from Palestinian homes and currently held at the National Library of Israel, according to Aviad Stollman, head of collections there. Still, books, produced in multiples, don’t carry the same value as original archives, he says. Some of the Palestinian archives Dr. Sela discovered among the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry archives were stamped “saved from destruction.” Which implies, of course, that some were not saved and will never be replaced. But Mrowat prefers to focus on what remains — and the stories waiting to be told. He’s currently at work on a book about the most prominent Palestinian families in the diaspora. “I’m addicted to this,” he admits, “with all the difficulties it entails.” And with that, the archivist digs in, knowing the hard work is for people who’ve waited too long to reconnect with their past.
- Tafline Laylin, OZY AuthorContact Tafline Laylin