It’s hard to talk about Palestine in an objective way. For those of us who grew up in Europe in the 1980s, the very word Palestine, a place few of us have been to or will ever visit, elicits strong visceral emotions that we can hardly explain. “Sabra and Shatila” and “intifada” are dark clouds that accompanied us through our childhood, unspeakable things that were going on elsewhere, that we knew little of beyond the fact that they represented the ongoing tragedy that have been Israeli-Palestinian relations following the declaration of the Israeli State in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967.
This is neither the time or place to embark on a long explanation and analysis of a half century conflict that, in waves, has taken countless lives and caused untold injustices. That said, there is a photo exhibition currently running at Nairobi’s Alliance Francaise entitled: “The Forgotten People”. The exhibition is described as “a series of photos that show the resilience of Palestinians in the face of perpetual despair in Beirut’s Refugee camps of Sabra, Shatila and Bourj el Bouraineh”.
Interested to see how one of the darkest chapters of Israeli history was presented to a Nairobi audience, the author of this article headed down to the exhibition to look and maybe refresh her memory about why exactly it was important not to forget the people of Sabra and Shatila.
Before going on to record impressions of the exhibition, it is important to provide some context. In September 1982, Christian Lebanese Forces under the protection of the Israeli army attacked the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and over the space of two days massacred, depending on who’s account you believe, somewhere between 400 and 2000 civilians.
At the time, Kenya was under Moi’s dictatorial regime and, without internet and the ease of access to information we have today, many people were probably unaware of what was going on. Today, Kenyan youth probably know that since the turn of this century the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has surged again and again (as it is doing at this very moment in time). However it is not a given (unless they are students of modern history or Middle Eastern geopolitics) that they have any idea about what actually the root causes of the conflict and how the timeline has played out. Kenyan “youth” in this case, is an important demographic because Alliance Francaise is always populated by young Kenyans attending courses and so it is they that will inevitably set eyes on the photos that are displayed in the foyer of the cultural centre.
As a result, without taking sides, what should an exhibition of this kind strive to do? Simple: teach, educate and strive to give an accurate account of what happened, depicting maybe both versions of the massacre in big, bold, easy to view text. If the aim is to educate people about a forgotten people, then that should be done in a way in which the target audience really understands what happened and why it is still relevant today.
Instead, what does the exhibition actually do? The “Forgotten People” is a series of blown-up prints depicting the inhabitants of the above-mentioned refugee camps sixty years after they fled from Palestine. The pictures that make up the show depict faces of refugees, most of whom have never even seen the place from which their fathers fled. The pictures are not taken or printed by a professional photographer. However this should not matter if the objective is to illustrate a point, not make people admire beautiful images. That said, although pictures are worth a thousand words, in this case it is the author’s view that they should be accompanied by thorough explanation: where are we? Why is what we are looking at important? Who are these people and why should they not be forgotten?
Instead all we find is that hidden in a corner of the room is a small printout of an article written earlier this year by Ellen Siegel, a Jewish-American nurse who was in the camps at the time of the attack. The article is printed in full on two A4 pages and even the most curious mind cannot really do anything but skim it. Where are the bold numbers? Where is the information? In what way do these pictures actually leave the spectator more enlightened about the subject they are being asked to remember?
Alliance Francaise is an amazing promoter of culture on the Nairobi scene and their contribution to the arts must not be underestimated. However, if they ever did need to reassess their curatorial strategy, this exhibition should be the catalyst to do so.
This article was originally published on upnairobi.com in July 2014