The Evidence for Palestine
by Eric Eyges
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.” The above excerpt from George Orwell’s novel 1984 might well have been spoken by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta about Palestine and its history, a history that Abu Sitta has dedicated his life trying to affirm.
The Palestine Land Studies Center (PLSC) at AUB, inaugurated this past January, is the result of that dedication. Housed in the basement of West Hall, PLSC is built around archival material that Abu Sitta amassed over several decades as he scoured libraries and archives in Europe and the Americas for evidence that the Palestine of his childhood and that of his ancestors was a historical reality rather than a myth.
The impetus for his odyssey came in 1962, when, as a doctoral engineering student at the University of London, he noticed that the name Palestine could be found “neither in the Royal Geographic Society, nor in the British Library.” In an address during PLSC’s inauguration, Abu Sitta says: “I started on a long trek from the time my hair was black until it turned silver to collect every map, document, or record I could find. It required a lot of traveling, searching, and acquiring. In the UK, for example, there are dozens of repositories of such material, scattered all over the country, whether political, military, academic, or personal. There are sources in Germany, such as in Munich, housing the first ever aerial photos of Palestine in the First World War. There are sources in Paris, in the Bibliotheque Nationale, which houses Napolean’s maps in Palestine in 1801. And of course, there is the US Library of Congress, which is a great source.”
In other words, there was evidence of Palestine’s existence in all the great Western libraries and institutes. It just wasn’t cataloged as such. It wasn’t marked as evidence. Cataloging it and documenting it in lawyer-like fashion has been Abu Sitta’s mission.
Now, Abu Sitta and PLSC’s inaugural director, Howayda Al-Harithy, hope that scholars can draw from the archive to make the case for Palestine’s existence, the right of return, and transitional justice for Palestinians in the context of contemporary understandings of international law and human rights.
Abu Sitta’s inaugural address continues:
“The interpretation of history is always changing as the law changes, as its sense of justice changes and takes a new meaning, and as it acquires a new weapon of enforcement . . . Here at AUB, students can find at PLSC rich material for joint projects in all disciplinary fields [such as in] the following, for example: geography, cartography, history, archaeology, statistics, populations studies, international law, right of return, economics, contemporary politics, water engineering, urban planning, Palestinian written and visual culture, Palestinian youth education, archives management, IT, and media.”
Among the many remarkable documents at PLSC are 500,000 land property records pulled from the UN Library and 300 aerial photos of Palestine taken by the German Air Force between 1917 and 1918. “The aerial photos are particularly interesting for me as they are a kind of military gaze of the landscape,” says Al-Harithy.
The entire archive is now open for scrutiny and interpretation. In fact, PLSC already has its first researcher, Bana Madi, a Palestinian-Jordanian master’s degree candidate in anthropology. Madi has also been working with PLSC research coordinator Mike Avanzato to organize the archive. “Bana and I set up the archive, physically, literally taking all the boxes, opening them, and putting them on shelves,” says Avanzato. Alongside the physical archive is a five-terabyte digital archive of maps, photos, and tables. Since at least the end of the British Mandate period, AUB has been closely associated with Palestinian intellectual and political life. As President Fadlo R. Khuri noted during the inauguration, “It was at the American University of Beirut that the historian Constantine Zurayk named the Nakba of 1948.”
In closing, Abu Sitta offered some words of encouragement that all forcibly displaced people might take to heart. “You do not need to wear a uniform and carry a gun to assert your identity or recover your lost home. You just need to be diligent and determined, never despair, never lose hope, never betray your roots. You do not want to take anything from anybody. You just want to take back what’s taken from you.”