Mai Taha

The People of the Archive:
On the Oral History
Tradition of Palestine

I took a taxi to al-Cola neighbourhood in Beirut where al-Jana has been located since its formation in 1989, shortly after the first Palestinian intifada. Everyone on the street knew al-Jana. I went up the stairs and into the open doors to see books, journals, posters, people talking, moving around from one room to another, the windows wide open as the sounds of the street seeped into the workday at Jana. The audio recording here with Moataz Dajani, a Palestinian artist from Jerusalem and co-founder of al-Jana, gives a sense of the space and its sounds.

My visit to al-Jana cultural centre was to follow the story of the Palestine Oral History Archive (POHA), currently based online at the American University of Beirut (AUB). On some level, this visit was also about the often-invisible work of the people behind the archive who produced an impressive audio-visual collection of oral histories gathered from Palestinians living in Lebanon. POHA comprises of the Nakba Archive, an oral history collective in Lebanon created in 2002, and al-Jana archive, which is the archive collected by the Arab Resource Centre for Popular Arts, consolidated into a searchable database openly accessible to researchers.
photo taken by Moataz Dajani
The archive focuses on the experience of the 1948 Nakba as remembered by Palestinians living in Lebanon. But memory often takes a non-linear form, moving back and forth across time and space. In the recordings, one can hear remnants of the 1929 Buraq uprising or the 1936 Arab revolt in Palestine mixed up with the memories of ‘67, ’82, the intifada, the Lebanese civil war, and the war of camps in Lebanon.


My interest in the Palestine Oral History Archive developed from my research on labour and revolution during the period of the British Mandate. The context is the 1936 Arab General Strike, which developed into a three-year revolution known as the Arab Revolt (1936-1939). In my work, I look at Palestinian history of resistance during this period. But instead of only looking for revolutionaries in the barricades and the mountains, I look for them in the kitchens, in the bedrooms and in the messengers’ headquarters– that is the home. The home here, is a space of resistance –almost like a battlefield, it harbours weapons, food, water, songs, and rebels.
[1] Isabella Hammad, The Parisian, p. 533
Materials in the official state archives, be it the colonial Israeli archive or its inherited colonial British archive, were not concerned with everyday social life in the Palestinian home. In other places, I found references here and there to broken jars of olive oil spilled over buckets of wheat in the British search parties of Arab homes. One of the most common memories of Arab women that was repeated in several accounts, including most recently in Isabella Hammad’s family oral history-based novel, The Parisian, was: “They come into the village, they arrest people, and they smash everything. They mix all the food together, the flour with the rice and the sugar, … into a pile [and then] they usually add olive oil or petrol.” [1] I could only find those detailed stories in and around the home during the revolt in novels, films, and in oral history narratives.  
[2] See for example, the work of Sonia el-Nimer, Faihaa Abdulhadi, and Rosemary Sayigh.
This follows the rich Palestinian tradition of taking this form of knowledge production seriously. Indeed, there are reasons why Palestinians sought to build this incredible archive narrating their own history across generations.[2]One obvious reason for the richness of Palestinian oral history is of course the continued destruction of Palestinian national archives in Palestine and Lebanon. But also the formative experience of the Nakba that displaced thousands of Palestinians from their homes in Palestine could not be narrated into one simple national archive. The multiple stories of displacement, refugeehood, and the inability to return to Palestine made oral history both a necessary project and a political one, organically responding to the thousands of documents stored in the archives of international organizations and state archives around the world on the question of Palestine.
POHA, Al-Jana, Ein el-Hilwat Collection
In al-Jana’s 1998 special issue journal on oral histories, Moataz Dajani and Jaber Suleiman interview Rosemary Sayigh on how she came to her practice of gathering oral histories. Sayigh recalls:
[3] Interview with Rosemary Sayigh “Oral History for Palestinians: The Beginning of a Discipline” (May 1998) Al-Jana: The Harvest.
“[In the early 1970s], I did my research at Burj al-Barajneh camp. For interviews, my Palestinian colleague devised a list of informants that formed an exclusively male and older sample. I objected, and he said, “But these are the only people who know about the Palestinian question.” Thus I realized that, for many people, the Palestinian experience is a matter about which you must speak from a basis of educational knowledge rather than personal experience, as I had taken for granted. … my attitude being that anybody who’d lived it could speak, would have something interesting and valuable to say about it; whereas his attitude was that no, this is a complex historical issue, which could only be delivered properly to a foreigner by senior male members of the community.”[3]
[4] Interview with Rosemary Sayigh (Al-Jana).

[5] Interview with Rosemary Sayigh (Al-Jana).
Sayigh even tried with the Institute for Palestine Studies in 1980/1 to record with older women on their memories of the pre-1948 women’s movement, but her suggestion was turned down at the time.[4] Times have changed, but these discussions on oral history where taking place years before the academy started to consider oral history as proper history. Indeed, in the 1970s, Sayigh herself struggled to find a publisher that would publish her work in the UK. She spoke about the bitter experience of being told her work was “absolutely useless” until she published the now classic book Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries in 1979 with Zed Books.[5]
Oral history would later become one of the most important ways that Palestinians tell their history across generations. In the 1990s, al-Jana worked with Palestinian children in Lebanon to collect their own family oral history through techniques of roleplay and theatre. In my interview with Dajani, he recounted how they engaged children with questions of history, memory, and continued struggle across time. Importantly, and through different art practices, children learned to tell their own history.

Listen to Dajani speak about the project here:


Dajani described his method when working with children as “learning through action, it’s a method that uses roleplay to inspire children to become experts in role—as journalists, as filmmakers, as archaeologists, historians, whatever—and to solve a problem in a simulated scenario that will start the process of discovery and expression.”

The following is an excerpt from Hazem Jamjoum’s translation of part of my interview with Dajani (see recording above) that describes the starting point of the whole activity:

“I said, “My name is Moataz Dajani from Jerusalem, and you? What are your names and where are you from?” Someone says Dayshum, another al-Ghabisiyah, Ayn al-Zaytun, Safad.

“But aren’t all these places in Palestine?” I asked. They answered, “yes.”

The children were ten-year olds.

I said, “then why are you all here and not in Palestine?” A girl responded, “There was a war.”

“So, what happened in the war?” Another girl answered, “The Israelis, they dropped an atomic bomb on us.”

“What? Is that true?” They started to nod their heads. “The Palestinians, did they fight?” A boy jumped up, “Of course we fought!” I asked him how, he said, “with stones.” In 1990 it was the times of the Intifada.

This action was done three times in three different places in different years. Each year we find out that children do not know what happened in 1948. And what the children say means that the memories of their elders are not reaching them.”

As I was listening to Moataz recount this whole exercise with children almost 30 years later, I thought about the significance of oral history not only as a question of preservation of previously untold stories, but as an active engagement with the past from the present. In some sense, the project embodied the idea that moving forward in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine entailed looking back into history. It also approached research as an ongoing process that is embedded in a political project and in building social relations, rather than approach it as an extractive exercise. Through these activities, children not only learn to tell their own stories, but imagine themselves as filmmakers, archaeologists, and historians. In fact, children created a theatre production from oral history narratives collected from their own families in this project, following the prompt “if you were born in Palestine, how come you are in Lebanon now?” The very act of doing research and collecting oral histories here becomes itself transformative.
[6] Kaoukab Chebaro is a librarian at Columbia University and was previously the head of the Archives and Special Collections Department at the American University of Beirut (AUB) when the POHA project came to the Issam Farris Institute at AUB.
Similar ethos were apparent in my interview with Kaoukab Chebaro,[6]who worked on the POHA project and was the head of the Archives and Special Collections Department at AUB.

What comes out so beautifully from Chebaro’s words is the ethical sensibility of the project. Rather than an extractive relationship with the participants, Chebaro spoke about a relationship of care, where the encounter lays down the basis for creating new solidaristic social relations. She notes that what is obvious yet often forgotten by researchers is that they are talking to people about their lives, so the stakes are much larger than an academic piece of writing even if she would include her interlocutors as co-authors. She tells me that as a researcher, you should “become like the bed of the river.” For her, “oral history [is like] a yarning experience, you do it together, maybe you share something about yourself, maybe you visit 6 times before the interview.” And importantly, she reminds me also to “stay in touch,” not the least because “consent is continuous.”

[7] Mahmoud Zeidan is the co-founder of the Nakba Archive with Diana Allen. See the Nakba Archive website:
Mahmaoud Zeidan,[7] spoke about how the Nakba Archive was intentionally carried out by the people of the camps. In some sense, he said, it was truly a grassroots project. When I asked him about who were the people who collected the oral history narratives, he said that they were almost always from the same refugee camp, and “some were their neighbours.” The interviewers either directly or indirectly knew the narrators. He explained: “I’m from Ein el-Hilweh camp, for example, I can ask my friends from the village of al-Rawi, “who do we have in Ein el-Hilweh from al-Rawi?” and they’ll guide me, they’ll say “we have this elderly person from our village.” That’s how it would go.”

In the academy, there is a plethora of camp literature, particularly ethnographies. While some of this literature has positively contributed to the corpus of Palestinian refugee history, the grassroots ethics of the Nakba Archive deploys a very different method of doing research. Again, like with al-Jana, it is not simply about telling stories excluded from previously written history, but about establishing relationships and training a new generation of Palestinians to engage with their own history.

The POHA collection is an archive of difficult stories, some moments are light-hearted, or even funny, but mostly it is documenting the violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and the process of becoming refugees in Lebanon until today. They are, therefore, memories of violence, expropriation, separation, and exile. In my conversation with Zeidan, we spoke about silences, feelings, tears, and emotion that were bound to come up in many of the interviews. Written history’s inability to capture a certain gaze or the evocativeness of silence in an interview shows the significance of oral history, especially in a video recording, where it captures some of the feelings and the silences that the space of the interview creates.

Zeidan spoke to me about that safneh, he said: “written history cannot document the safnat [moments of silent reverie] and agitated excitement. When we thought of and insisted on video, it was because video tells you more than written material, and gives you some representation of these emotions, or what you might call…gestures, expressions, to portray these expressions in ways that convey, condense, and intensify things that cannot be expressed by sentences…A tear, or…sometimes, …”

“That safneh [when a speaker pauses because their mind has wandered elsewhere], that can’t be written. Whenever I think of that interview with [Mahmoud Abu Haija] in Burj al-Barajneh camp, I can’t forget that safneh—how he sighed and had that look on his face from how his heart burned at the memory of what happened to them in the village.”

“It’s not easy, like I said, to just forego these emotions, or these expressions in doing the recording. But we trained the interviewers on how to engage with the safneh.”

We both pause and remain silent for a bit, perhaps in memory of those other silences of the narrators.  The verbal has limits: there is a certain untranslatability of feelings into words to be written in a document. Oral history archives reflect some and only some of those silences, feelings and gestures that tell a more complex story of history, its affect, and its afterlives. 

The ethics of doing oral history was central to all the conversations I had with the people who worked on POHA at various stages. I could hear echoes of the same political and affective sensibility in my interviews with some of the cataloguers and indexers, Sara Sweidan, Nourhan Shehab, and Manar Fleifel, who took on the recordings from their raw form and transformed them to their searchable and accessible one. The politics of the project that appeared so clearly in my conversations with Moataz Dajani and Mahmoud Zeidan who were part of the process of collecting the oral history narratives, also appeared when we discussed the processes of archiving, indexing, tagging, and naming. This labour, often invisible, is central to any archiving practice, but especially with community archives that have limited resources or time-bound grants. Importantly, this labour is political. The choice of tag words, the organization of the material, the spotlighting of some topics, are forms of political labour that archivists undertake.   
[8] Hana Sleiman, “Gendering the Historic and Archival Professions,” a paper presented at the Gendering the Arab Archive Workshop in Beirut, May 2022, organized by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS). Sleiman referred to a new body of literature that sees the labour of librarians and archivists as one that reproduces the academy.  

Editorial, (May 1998) Al-Jana: The Harvest.
I want to end by referring to the work of historian Hana Sleiman, who worked on the POHA project when she was a special collections librarian at the AUB. Sleiman’s work investigates women’s significant role in archiving and record-keeping. She notes that this labour has been historically gendered, since it was often compared to ‘housekeeping,’ as it required the same attention to detail needed to care for a household.[8] Sleiman argues that the technical labour required for any archiving practice, not only reproduces the academy, but is itself intellectual (and also political) labour. Following this sensibility, this piece was a first attempt at following the people of the archive and their work in collecting, documenting, cataloguing, and indexing oral history narratives. Their work reproduces knowledge for researchers, activists, artists, and importantly for the Palestinian community whose archives have been repeatedly looted and destroyed by Israel. I approached POHA as a researcher interested in the content of the collection, but in the process and through this project, I came to relate to the archive as not only a resource for researchers, but primarily as a community archive, a space for the Palestinian people in Lebanon to have a conversation with the past from the present with its current agonies and elations. Afterall, “oral history is an activist project.”[9]

I want to thank Hana Slieman for her generosity of spirit and camaraderie. Without Hana’s help, I would not have been able to meet with all the people who worked on POHA at various stages. I am grateful for all her support and for the friendship that came out of this. I thank Hazem Jamjoum for his excellent translations of my interviews with Moataz Dajani and Mahmoud Zeidan from Arabic to English. I thank Moataz Dajani for his time, and for welcoming me at al-Jana, and for the space he provided for a continued conversation on the long Palestinian revolution we have been having since. I am also so grateful to Kaoukab Chebaro, Manar Fleifel, Nourhan Shehab, Sara Sweidan, and Mohamoud Zeidan for their time and their invaluable work on the Palestine Oral History Archive. I also thank the staff of the American University of Beirut (AUB) library: Basma Chebani, Fatme Charafeddine, and Elie Kahale.

Mai Taha

Mai Taha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She has written on law, colonialism, labour movements, class and gender relations, and social reproduction in the Middle East. A selection of her publications include: Human Rights and Communist Internationalism: On Inji Aflatoun and the Surrealists (2023); The Comic and the Absurd: On Colonial Law in Revolutionary Palestine (2022); and Law, Class Struggle and Nervous Breakdowns (2021). Using film, literature, and oral history narratives, Mai is currently working on questions relating to labour, the home, and revolutionary subjectivity.

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