Invisible Geographies New Media Exhibition


Jury Prize: Jerusalem, We are Here

Jerusalem, We are Here, by Dorit Naaman

Jerusalem, We Are Here

Canada/Jerusalem, 2016 | Dorit Naaman

On 29 November 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of the termination of the British Mandate of Palestine and a partition of the territory into two states: one Jewish, the other, Arab. Under the plan, Jerusalem was designated an international city. The Palestinians rejected the plan – which gave 55% of the land to less than 30% of the population – and the Jewish leadership accepted it. In the months that followed, war ensued. Jerusalem, in particular, suffered intensely.

By the nineteenth century, what is now referred to as the old city in Jerusalem had developed into four quarters — Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim — though these quarters were mixed. By 1948, the Jewish quarter was under an intense siege with a limited supply of water and food. At the same time, paramilitary Jewish groups intimidated the Palestinian population into abandoning their property and neighborhoods through a series of bombings and a massacre in the village of Deir Yassin. These attempts culminated in an intense battle at the Monastery of St. Simeon, which fell under Jewish control on the 2nd of May 1948. The entirety of southern Jerusalem, which was primarily Palestinian, was conquered in the following days.

By the time the state of Israel was established a few days later on the 15th of May, the fate of the southern neighborhoods was sealed. The city was divided into East (Jordan) and West (Israel)— and families were evicted from both sides.  Despite the efforts of the UN and its special envoy Count Bernadotte, Palestinian refugees were neither allowed to return, nor compensated for their losses, as they had been promised by UN resolution 194 (1948). By the end of the war, one million Palestinians had lost their homes in this catastrophe, known in Arabic as the Nakba.

Under Israeli occupation since 1967 — or “reunification” in Israel’s terms, East Jerusalem has been increasingly divided by walls that destroy communities. Lives of the city’s Palestinian residents are policed by checkpoints, and their movements are tracked by surveillance cameras.

Despite the intense violence since the mid-twentieth century, often reductively framed as a longstanding animosity between “Arabs and Jews,” Jerusalem was historically a diverse and tolerant city where Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs, lived peacefully together, traded, and sometimes even married.

Jerusalem, We Are Here revives that history, digitally erasing checkpoints, walls, and barriers, to give access to the haunted Palestinian past and the lost city, excavating and relayering the present Jerusalem with its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and rich cultural past. The camera does not surveil, but instead provides an intimate look into communities that have been erased from the space, carefully considering the various forms of erasure (political, developmental, gentrification, etc.). 

The project opens with Anwar Ben Badis, Mona Halaby, and Dorit Naaman inside Jerusalem’s Lev Smadar Theater, formerly known as The Orient and later as the Regent Cinema, screening home movies that have retrospectively become citizen journalism. One such movie shows then theater manager Fernando “Nando” Schtakleff recording images of a family holiday to the beach onto a reel of film that concludes with the Nakba and the destruction of Jerusalem. “Like most Palestinian Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, and other non-Jewish citizens of Palestine, Nando will eventually be expelled,” explains the final intertitle.

Available in Arabic and English, Jerusalem, We Are Here includes virtual tours (or re-visitings for Palestinians and others whose families who once lived in Jerusalem). The tours include audio commentary by the site’s guides and by experts and witnesses, black-and-white and color photographs, ambient sounds and music, as well as detailed information about the sites and the people who lived, worked, or entertained in them. Users can select particular points along the tour or follow along by moving through photographic simulations of urban space.  At the houses of descendant participants, users can watch short videos produced collaboratively and dealing with brief, impossible, and imagined visits, sometimes to houses that have been gentrified and altered beyond recognition. 

The project also includes an interactive map called a “remapping of Jerusalem” with historical information and images. The information for the Smadar Cinema, for example, includes a photograph of the official marker in Hebrew and English. The photo is annotated to indicate that the Palestinian era of the cinema’s history has been omitted. The project thus interprets geographies that have been rendered invisible — or erased, to adopt a term that many scholars use in reference to the razing of Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in an effort to remove the material presence of Palestinians in Palestine and lend credibility to Zionist framing of Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land.” The project’s title is a call to remember those who lived in Jerusalem.

The basemap is color-coded to indicate buildings constructed before or after the Nakba, as well as ones that have been identified as houses of particular families, embassies, factories, monasteries, and so forth. Most include photographs of the present; some also include archival photographs from the past. The basemap can also be layered with printed maps from 1934 and 1938 or aerial photographs or maps from 1914, 1946, and 2016. The project continues to remap these neighborhoods, house by house.

Postscript: Jerusalem entered headlines again in December 2017 with the U.N. condemnation of the U.S. decision to recognize the city (not only West Jerusalem) as the capital of Israel. 

This project was selected for a jury prize.