Some 1,200 people streamed through the doors of the Fitzroy Town Hall over the weekend to see the Palestinian Nakba exhibition, despite a bleak rain-laden day on Saturday and a still chilly day on Sunday.  Even the difficulty of negotiating blocked off Napier Street did not deter visitors from queuing up to see Rich Wiles’ photographic exhibition and the photos taken by the children of the Lajee Centre in the Palestinian Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. 

The exhibition was certainly the biggest of its kind ever shown in Australia – three photographic exhibitions just recently shown in galleries throughout Europe, as well as selections from previous Australian exhibitions of paintings on Palestine by Melbourne artist Dora McPhee.  If visitors thought it would be a quick glance around the exhibits, they soon found that there was so much more to captivate their interest.  The first morning began with an invitation-only breakfast session to introduce Ali Abunimah to the media, except that our media seemed not in the least bit interested in availing themselves of this opportunity to hear a Palestinian viewpoint – and a highly-respected, international one at that. Chicken sandwiches, mini quiches and petit fours ended up being given to everyone else lucky enough to be around when Ali Abunimah spoke about the difficulties with the media worldwide on Palestinian issues.  There was certainly no shortage of people wanting to avail themselves of this chance to hear Ali speak. 

There were also presentations by both Rich Wiles and Australians for Palestine public advocate Michael Shaik throughout each day and there were plenty of people on hand to answer questions and/or help people better understand the significance of each of the works.  Catalogues were freely available as well as other complementary information and visitors were also treated to some wonderful tastes of fresh bread dipped in olive oil and za’atar as they contemplated buying bottles and packets of these products for their pantries.  Palestinian artefacts were on sale and books and cards produced by the Lajee Centre were practically sold out.

From the moment the doors opened, there was barely time to think about the day’s program.  People from all over Melbourne had heard about the exhibition through our intensive advertising campaign, particularly the radio advertisement that had been played all during the week on the 3AW breakfast show.  Advertisements placed in the daily newspapers also alerted readers to the exhibition and the thousands of flyers distributed by our wonderful supporters brought in many more.  Those lucky enough to receive invitations to the exhibition’s opening were treated to the most human exposé of the daily lives of Palestinian children in the camps that anyone is likely to hear in Australia.  There was hardly a dry eye in the place, after Rich Wiles gave us the stories behind each of the photographs that in and of themselves give little indication of the nightmares they hold for the children.

One of the most gut-wrenching stories emerged from the simple photograph of some schoolbooks on the window ledge of a young boy’s bedroom.  In the distance, a watchtower provides the ominous background to the reality of life in the camps. Rich explained how high-powered telescopic lenses invade the privacy of every home and how Palestinians are easy pickings for Israeli snipers. In this horrific story, a single bullet entered the window while the boy played with his brothers and sisters in the “safety” of his bedroom. The bullet penetrated the small body of the boy, and shattered glass and shrapnel left their cruel slashes on the other terrified children.  Another image, shows the boy’s shoe lying in a pool of blood - his sister’s nightmare.  There were no riots, no shootings, not even stone-throwing, just children playing as children play anywhere in their rooms.  By a strange quirk of fate, the bullet curved as it entered the boy and missed by millimetres his spine and vital organs, so he lived, but the nightmares remain terrifyingly real in the children’s minds long after the wounds have healed.

“Dreams of Home” show images taken by under-sixteen children who were able to leave their prison world because they could get past the checkpoints without IDs.  Rich took them to the villages of their parents and grandparents, and so vivid were the stories that they had been told of their heritage that some were able to find even the names of their family members etched in the stones of the walls of their former homes.  Others though became distressed when they came and saw nothing remaining of their village or family home, and instead, saw the foreign settlements with guards and security gates in their place.  Water wells, remembered olive trees, crumbling stone buildings overgrown with weeds, street signs with Hebrew writing instead of the Arabic they should be, cacti plants still resplendent with blooming flowers amongst the rubble, all strangely silent in this dispossessed land broken only by the sudden sound of a train cutting through the landscape taking its Israeli passengers on a journey that never includes the Palestinians on whose land the train tracks have been laid.  In another time and another place, this was called apartheid.

Keys and lined faces tell their own stories in Rich Wiles’ “Portraits of Palestine” - every image an unsettling reminder of a people waiting to return home.  Some have long since died, their dream unfulfilled, but others wait determined to keep the dream alive.  In sixty years, Israel has not been able to destroy their steadfastness.  After all, who would give up on wanting to go home when lives have been put on hold in the refugee camps and there is no future for any of them or their children?  Then, there is still the matter of international law, which stipulates the right of everyone to return to home. Despite Israel’s vain attempts to legitimise its presence, the dark clouds of occupation, land theft, apartheid and ethnic cleansing hover malignantly over everything.

So many poignant pictures and story after story of lives hijacked and futures crushed in Israel’s assault on Palestinian society.  Dora McPhee’s dramatic paintings explain the historical developments in graphic detail and visitors spent long moments immersing themselves in the evocative images and the accompanying text to learn more about the Palestinian narrative.   Much of the exhibition would never have been possible without Dora’s ability to see its scope, already presented to us months before in an impeccable 3D-model.  Nothing was left to chance and the careful preparation and meticulous attention to detail bore fruit as the installation came together without a hitch on the Friday before the exhibition. 

The people who came to the exhibition saw something very special, each photograph a window into a world most know nothing about.  It is a great pity that the exhibition could not continue long enough for the word to get around even more.  This was the stuff for school excursions, but regrettably, our finances could not support a long-term display.  With visits to holocaust museums now part of any school curriculum, the Palestinian al-Nakba is enormously disadvantaged if it must rely on one-off exhibitions over two days to bring another human catastrophe still continuing to the attention of the public.  It should have its own memorial, its own historical museum that will record the tragedies of human suffering due to the inhumanity of one people to another.  Human tragedy is not the exclusive provenance of one group of people and our Exhibition of Remembrance showed that simply, honestly and best of all, through the innocent eyes of children.  It is something to work towards.

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