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Ohel Yizkor* for the Nakba

Emily Jacir, Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed-Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948, P.S.1 Museum International Studio Program, The Clocktower Gallery, NYC.

Oz Shelach

21 May 2001

From outside one sees the abundance of names. Embroidered in black thread, they cover the walls and roof of a cloth tent, fashioned after one of two tent models which the Red Cross distributed to Palestinian Refugees in the 1950s. Some of the names were penciled on the fabric but not embroidered. Some were begun but not completed, as if the embroideress was forced to get up and run for her life in the middle of a letter. But inside you will not find a cup of coffee cooling down, or a piece of shrapnel, nothing. Only the backside of the stitches, and loose threads dangling in the air, like exposed roots.

It is evident that more than one hand has been at work. Some of the letters are pretty and orderly, their stitches evenly spaced, accurately covering the penciled type face. Some letters are awkward, stitched by inexperienced hands. They are limp, injured, much more thread than necessary was used to make them. And this is one of the virtues of the artifact, that it was executed not by sweatshop slaves or hired assistants, but by dozens of volunteers, most of whom did not know the artist before the project.

In the last two months Emily Jacir opened her studio to those who would help. Some days the little studio was too small to contain all the guests, and they waited in the corridor for their turn. On weekends volunteers showed up with instruments, a darbouka, an oud, to make the embroideresses’ time pleasant. Refugees have come, wishing to embroider the village from which they were exiled. Twice the volunteers made home-made sushi. A hundred and forty three names are documented in the work log, which lies on a shelf next to the exhibit. Volunteers from dozens of countries and cultures. A community mode of production.

The log contains names of the kind that was not given to anyone before the… Names like Nir, Yael, Shlomit. What has brought us, Israelis, to this studio, with love, with apprehension, with great care – not to offend, with gratitude for the privilege to participate in the study of our history and in the writing of it? Perhaps the longing for a meeting that is only made possible by an acknowledgment of the power relations, by a political agreement on something very basic. A meeting between those who might have been neighbors?

The list of villages was taken from Walid Khalidi’s comprehensive and fascinating book All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, a historical lexicon with maps and pictures (a book – as advertisements may put it – that no Israeli library is complete without, and one may also say: a book no Israeli library exists not on the foundations of which).

Meeting Palestinians by the tent supplements the geographical picture in the book. One, whose parents were uprootedin 1948, escaped with them from Beirut in 1984. Her family now lives in Los Angeles, and she is in New York, writing her dissertation on marketing to Palestinians “inside,” “inside’48.” Another, whose grandparents and parents were deported in 1948, then stole across the border that popped up behind their backs, and ended up being settled in other deported Palestinians’ houses, in another village, inside Israel, says she is from Haifa. One, his father from Jerusalem and his mother from Yaffa, grew up in Beirut, spent some years in London, and now works as a computer administrator for a Swiss bank. He never visited a refugee camp, not even right outside Beirut. He likens the painful process of realizing he is Palestinian with coming out.

Jacir herself grew up in Chicago, France, Saudia, Colorado,Italy, and Texas, her parents have wandered quite a bit. Outside her family's home in Bethlehem stands a check point, marking the passage from an area of one status to another.

In our history, which is our everyday, we have cleared a few hours to embroider the names of the villages we destroyed in 1948. And in our everyday, which is history, it was recently written that thousands of the natives of Hebron “were ordered to evacuate their homes,” (and where are they since then? And what are they since then?); that “hundreds of ‘residents’ have escaped Rafiah,” (and what were they until then?). Dozens of the artist's relatives, for example, are being bombed, under curfew, in Bayt Jalla, Bethlehem and Ramallah.

The tent overflows with pain. And questions. Most of the embroiderers are not yet forty. What would it look like had old women done it? Prettier? More painful? The stitches tighter? The letters, perhaps,more free, not so bound by the penciled frame? How many shades does exile create? And what does this tent, the very words for the description of which are forbidden, for example, in the New York Times dictionary, teach us about the pressing of discourse into narrow corners? About the compression of 418 destroyed villages into a short art show review the word-quota for which cannot even contain their names? What does it teach us of the marginal space and time allowed for mourning the past, which is the present, about trampling down hope?

*Ohel Yizkor, literally a Remembrance Tent in Hebrew, is one of the sections in Israel's Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Jerusalem


Oz Shelach is an Israeli writer and journalist, and runs this site. His novel, Picnic Grounds, was published by City Lights Books, San Francisco in 2003. A hebrew version of this article was published in Haaretz.