Hidden memories: Shatila's museum keeping Palestinian refugees' heritage alive

Hidden memories: Shatila's museum keeping Palestinian refugees' heritage alive
Curios for the curious: Refugees' prized possessions tell a story of life before displacement, discovers Jillian Kestler D'Amours.
5 min read
13 October, 2016
Art and facts: Curios of heritage inside the Memories Museum [Jillian Kestler D'Amours]

It is said that every picture tells a story.

But down a narrow and barely lit alley in Shatila, one of the infamous Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, a small room proves that even the most modest item can also hold a unique story of its own.

"That stick, if you see it there… this has a story," says Mohammad al-Khatib, pointing to a walking stick affixed to the wall in front of him.

The cane's original owner was a man from Khatib's ancestral home of Al-Khalsa, a village in the northern Galilee that was ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian inhabitants in 1948 when the state of Israel was created.

Once, long before the Nakba, the village's mayor asked the man to accompany a woman to a hospital in the Syrian Golan Heights. Khatib told the man's story.

They crossed the rugged, mountainous terrain on foot for several days - his walking stick in his hand - and upon his return to Al-Khalsa, the mayor asked if he knew who the woman was.

Bewildered, he said no - and got the shock of his life when the mayor said he had accompanied Asmahan, the celebrated Druze singer, born in Syria, who lived much of her life in Egypt.

"He said, 'I was with Asmahan walking? I am crazy! I am crazy!' He gave me this stick and told me this story," Khatib said with a wide smile, revelling in the surprising memory held by such a simple item.

Mohammad al-Khatib has curated his
collection since 2004 [Jillian Kestler D'Amours]

Memories museum

This is the Memories Museum, a modest room in Shatila filled to the brim with personal, household, work-related and other items collected from Palestinian refugees across Lebanon.

Khatib began to collect the items in 2004 and in just four months, had enough to begin putting the museum together.

But it wasn't easy: his main challenge was building enough trust among his fellow Palestinian refugees for them to hand their most prized possessions to him to put on display.

He recalled an elderly Palestinian woman that he approached in those early days for anything from Palestine.

I made it for memories - heritage and memories

A day after he made that first request, she brought him two cups: an aluminium cup from which her father drank water, and a silver one he used as an ashtray.

When he tried to hand her money as compensation for her donation, "she replied, 'shame on you. Palestine is not only yours. I want to collaborate,'" Khatib remembered.

"This woman encouraged me so much. I will never forget her."

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Today, the museum is divided into how each item was used, Khatib explained.

In one corner hangs an assortment of work tools, including a babeer, a circular-shaped scythe used to cut tall grass, and a bellows, used by ironworkers to blow air into a growing fire.

Elsewhere, shelves are filled with delicate and sometimes crumbling cooking utensils, from deep spoons used when guests visited, "so they can eat more", Khatib said, to frying pans and decorative drinking cups.

"I made it for memories - heritage and memories," Khatib said of his museum, adding that he keeps about 200 items in his own home, fearing they would be damaged in the museum's humid rooms, which receive no direct sunlight.

Most of the items were collected from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon - Shatila, Burj al-Barajneh, Miyeh Miyeh, and others - while donations have also come from Palestinian refugees across Syria.

"Every piece that you see here has a memory for their owners," he said.

The iconic iron keys Palestinians took with them when they were forced from their homes during the Nakba sit behind a locked, glass case on the wall.

Next to them hangs a small axe Khatib said was used during another traumatic event in the history of Palestinian refugees: the massacres carried out in Shatila and the neighbouring Sabra refugee camp during the Lebanese civil war.

Read more: 'Bloodthirsty wolves' - Remembering the Sabra and Shatila massacres

In September 1982, members of a Lebanese Christian militia aligned with the Phalange party killed Palestinian civilians in the camps in collaboration with the Israeli army, which had encircled the camps. While estimates vary, between 1,500-2,000 Palestinian refugees are believed to have been killed.

'How we were living'

A medical doctor by profession who worked with the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) before retiring, Khatib was just six months old when his family fled Palestine for Lebanon during the Nakba.

I want the new generations to know the customs of their grandfathers

He said he moved to Shatila refugee camp in 1979. The camp was originally built in 1949 to accommodate approximately 3,000 Palestinian refugees pouring into Lebanon from northern Palestine.

UNRWA says the camp was home to fewer than 10,000 registered refugees in 2014, but the real number is likely much higher and has been pegged at more than 20,000 residents.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimate that the population of Shatila has gone from 10,000 to 16,000 people between 2011 and 2015 - thanks in large part to the influx of Syrian refugees into Beirut.

According to Khatib, despite his best efforts, "most of the people don't know that there is a museum" in the camp.

Asked where the museum was, one morning in mid-October, a woman sitting directly opposite a sign that advertised the museum shook her head, and said she didn't know where it was.

Despite this difficulty of appealing to local residents, Khatib said he hopes the museum will serve as a reminder to younger Palestinians of their rich history and will help combat the Israeli government's effort to present Palestinian heritage as its own.

"The Israelis are stealing the heritage, so I have to preserve it and let the people know the lifestyle of the Palestinians before 1947. I want the new generations to know the customs of their grandfathers, the lifestyle of their grandfathers, and to remember," Khatib said.

"The Palestinians have one story to tell," he said, referring to the Nakba. "But here there are many stories. Not only how we left, but how we were living."

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours