Jerusalem, We Are Here

03/22/2017 09:03 pm ET

Since the late 1800’s Zionists in Europe prepared for the return of the Jews to Palestine with the mantra “a land without people for people without a land.”

After the creation of Israel in 1948, successive Israeli leaders worked on supplanting Palestine’s Arab heritage with a Jewish one: towns and villages were given new Hebrew names, and biblical heroes drove the historical narrative. New Israeli communities rose over and on Palestinian towns and villages seized during the recent war. Emptied homes in what had only recently been prospering Palestinian neighborhoods were seized and given to newly arrived Jewish immigrants from faraway lands. One such neighborhood is Qatamon which lies just two kilometers south-west of the walls of the Old City; an affluent community which encompassed Jerusalem’s bourgeois and upper middle class Palestinian Christian and Muslim families, as well as Greeks, Armenians and other foreign nationals.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and during the early years of the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1920’s, Jerusalem witnessed the rise of new neighborhoods such as Qatamon, Talbiyya and Baq‘a which prospered rapidly due to the influx of lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, and successful businessmen, some of whom were from Jerusalem’s upper middle class families, like the Dajanis, Khalidis, and Nashashibis. Still others came from Bethlehem, Nazareth and more neighboring towns and villages. Qatamon became the jewel of these neighborhoods, attracting as it did renowned intellectuals, such as Khalil al-Sakakini, Ibrahim and Fadwa Tuqan and others.

After the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948, the fate of Qatamon was not dissimilar to the fate of many other Palestinian communities. Its inhabitants were either forcefully driven out by the advancing Jewish paramilitary groups or fled to safety to East Jerusalem and other places; soon the Arab character of the neighborhood to be changed for many years to come. The newly established State of Israel repopulated the neighborhood with Jewish immigrants; some homes were divided up to house several families. It is worthy to mention that Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared the spoils of the victors and lived with his family in Qatamon in his early years.

Palestinians who were forced to leave Qatamon continued to harbor hope of returning to their homes one day. Through the stories told to them, their children and grandchildren equated it with the “Golden Era” in modern Palestine.

Dorit Naaman, an Israeli documentarist and film theorist who grew up in Jerusalem, and currently is professor of Film and Media and Cultural Studies at Queen’s University in Canada has long been interested in the history of Qatamon and its vibrant life before 1948. In 2007, while on a sabbatical, she rented an apartment in the old Palestinian West Jerusalem neighborhood. Her interest in the history of Qatamon peeked when she read an article published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about Palestinian homes in West Jerusalem. One of the homes featured was next to her apartment (currently a day care center), once belonged to the prominent Palestinian intellectual, Khalil Sakakini. This was the beginning of her journey to uncover the history of Qatamon, locate some of those families who used to occupy these homes and work with them to bring their stories into life. The result was an innovative interactive documentary called, Jerusalem, We Are Here, released in 2016, debuting at the Montreal Documentary Film Festival. Naaman since, has been touring the US with her interactive documentary, and also have plans to present it to Palestinian and Israeli audiences in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Jerusalem, We Are Here offers a model for digital witnessing and integrates a virtual walking tour of the neighborhood and its former residents. Participants get to pick their destination, moving from street to street, traveling from home to home. They get to hear from the original residents of these homes and their children and grandchildren. Suddenly Qatamon awakens from the past, with its homes, trees and stones coming to life to share ancient memories of happier times. You could sense the bitter sweetness in the tone of the original residents as they share their memories. The documentary unites them with their homes, yet they cannot move back in.

“The rich Palestinian past of the neighborhood is obfuscated by Israeli discourses (or lack thereof), and our goal is to digitally re-inscribe this past onto the present, hoping to stir conversations about the future,” said Naaman in a recent interview. “Dealing with this buried past seems essential to me if we (Palestinians and Israelis) are to have a future in the region.”

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