It started off as an art project, my friend Emily Jacir decided to build a memorial for the 400-something Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948, following the ethnic cleansing and forced migration exercise conducted by the emerging Israeli state. The memorial was to be part of a show at PS1, and would consist of a real refugee tent, like the ones distributed by the UNRWA, with the names of the villages stenciled on its sides and top, then stitched over with thick black thread.
It's not easy to find a refugee tent, it's not like you can just walk into K-Mart, flash your credit card and say: "I'll have the beige one please!" After extensive research, Emily finally found an obscure supplier and ordered it. She then painstakingly set the tent up in her New York studio, printed the village names and started the stitching, soon to realize the monstrous scale of the task ahead!
Emily enlisted the help of her wide circle of friends, family and fellow artists, posted a few emails, and people started coming on and off to help her with the stitching. Then more people came, friends of friends, acquaintances, neighbors and passers by. Even who didn’t live in New York dropped by.
The first time I went to her studio to help I found a very peaceful and quietly busy community of workers stitching and chatting. It reminded me so much of the community spirit I felt when all the women in my family used to get together to make Ma’amul around Easter time. Every time I went to Emily’s studio, I was pretty much guaranteed to meet someone new, and someone interesting.
But the job at hand was still huge and if it were me thinking [with my project management hat on], I would have made a quick calculation: 418 villages, 2 hours per village, with 5 weeks remaining till the show… Noway!
Emily angrily dismissed my analysis and said "It will be finished,it must be finished".
Next, Emily thought it might be fun to add some live music, so she asked some of my musician friends and me if we could have our practice there to entertain the “workers”, and that became almost a weekly event:“we’re going jamming at Emily’s”. The height of that musical scene was the day of the Right Of Return rally, where so many visitors came that most of them were standing outside the studio. Charged with an extraordinary sense of solidarity and euphoria, people were working like bees while singers and drummers were performing Arabic folk songs till dawn.
As the deadline for the show was nearing, people’s motivation kept going up. Many of the die-hard supporters worked till dawn several days in a row, to be topped by an all night work session/slumber party on the final night before the show.
There was not enough time to stitch all the names, so the Tent went on exhibit with a few villages remaining unstitched, as a testimony to the continuing nature of the process of dispossession. After all, a completed tent would be misleading, it would imply the destruction had stopped, it would provide closure, which sadly is still very far ahead.
A total of 143 different people helped with the stitching.
This was a lot more than an art project - this was a community builder. People came to work, chat, discuss Mid-East politics, eat, drink, make music, and even flirt occasionally! People were addictively drawn to the tent, after all it had everything: community, art, manual work, entertainment, it was Emily’s salon de culture, and we’re sorry it over.
Or is it ?
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"Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages.You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."
-- Moshe Dayan, address to the Technion, Haifa, reportedin Haaretz, April 4, 1969