Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Safeguarding Palestinian stories at Disarming Design

By Patty Diphusa - August 05, 2019
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [culture]

Arriving at the building in the Palestinian town of Birzeit, north of Ramallah where the organisation Disarming Design is located, one can quickly tell that it is a place where heritage, tradition and new ways of reproduction meet. 

Within the limestone walls and traditionally tiled floor, Palestinians began to gather and share stories as part of the workshop “The Present and the Absent” on oral tradition developed by Chilean-Palestinian artist Francisca Khamis. 

The workshop is an initiative created to stimulate oral storytelling by using different exercises and tools to gather different Palestinian narratives.

“[Oral traditions are] a set of experiences, stories and knowledge of our ancestors that are told and passed from generation to generation,” Khamis explained. “It's the stories that we carry as part of our heritage.”

The project consists of a number of sessions in which participants are encouraged to share memories through different exercises, and analyse how by the act of storytelling, the narrative often changes as a reflection of what they are going through. 

The participants were Palestinians from all ages ranging from young university students to established professionals, and had travelled to Birzeit from all the country; such as Jerusalem, Jericho and Hebron. 


Palestine Monitor took part in one workshop and sat with attendees and artist Francisca Khamis to find out more about the project and why it is indeed a significant and necessary space. 

Khamis first began working on oral tradition and memory after her grandmother, the last one of her family to have arrived in Chile from Palestine, passed away in 2013. Khamis said that “together with her death, something else was lost; part of her stories”. 

After Khamis visited Palestine for the first time, she confirmed what she suspected about oral histories. “In oral tradition, there is a side of fiction,” Khamis said, explaining that when she arrived in Palestine she saw that “part of the stories I had always heard were fictional in the sense that these are shaped through what the story-teller is going through”. 

In the case of her grandparents, a great shaping factor was that of displacement and exile from their homeland, and this, according to Khamis “embedded the stories in nostalgia; for them it was about a land in which they once happy and can not return to”.

The importance of oral tradition 

Oral tradition is important for a set of reasons, some of them in a broad sense and some specific to the context of Palestine. 

Khamis explained that encouraging oral tradition is also about denouncing the colonisation of knowledge production. 

“There is generalised assumption that knowledge can only come from certain text books of some authors,” Khamis said. “The stories of our ancestors and what we make of them is equally valid and equally important knowledge.”


Saba, a participant from Hebron suggested that Palestine, such as so many other places, has a rich heritage that includes stories both from the past and current, but “we don’t really know how to take care of them”. 

“There are many missing parts in our histories and they are fading away and we do not give it the importance it deserves,” Saba explained.

In the specific case of Palestine, Khamis suggested that preserving and re-appropriating oral tradition is indeed a form of resistance. She asserted that “Israel almost has a monopoly over the history of what happened and it even intends to occupy stories of Palestinians.” 

“This control that they can exercise over the history that is written,” Khamis continued. “They cannot impose on oral tradition.”

Her statement comes almost a month after the Haaretz report which proves how Israel systematically destroyed evidence of the Nakba. The Nakba of 1948, or the catastrophe, is the year that marks the foundation of the state of Israel and the displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their villages, towns and cities in lands that now make up Israel. 

Avoiding stereotypes

One of the dangers when regarding memory in Palestine, is falling into the stereotype of reducing Palestinians into the singular narrative of occupation, and therefore reducing their complexity as human beings. During the session Palestine Monitor attended, Khamis did not set the topic of occupation nor did she pronounce the word. 


The workshop revolved around sounds, and focussed on what are the most appreciated sounds and what memories they arouse. Although the topic was broad, some stories (not all of them) of the participants resonated from the daily impacts of occupation in Palestinian lives. 

For instance, one participant expressed that her favorite sound was that of stalls closing in East Jerusalem in the late afternoon, describing the sound closing doors make in the old city not all Palestinians are allowed to enter. When discussing sounds that make us 'think of home’ one attendee said that he has no such place as he was born in Syria, lived in Jordan and later on came to live in Palestine.

Haya, an attendee from Jericho re-told the story of her aunt Yamila. Yamilla spent most of her life in Jordan and had been trying to get permission to return to her homeland for over 25 years. “She couldn’t even come to her mother’s and sister’s funeral,” Haya said. Although she does not know all the details about her aunt, she created a fictional story of her together with drawings putting her own subjectivity and experience in the creative process. “Before coming here I never realised that these stories were important,” she recalled.

Khamis insists that these sessions are more transversal than the occupation alone. She carried out a similar project in Basel, Switzerland with young girls. Although the participants were different, there are points of connection as “it is ultimately about memory and understanding how the past affects us and we shape the past by telling it” Khamis continued. However, the matter of occupation comes out and it does along other stories. 

Khamis mentioned that in Basel “the girls were keen on discussing topics regarding feminism and they did so with the anecdotes they shared. There is something I notice that make people want to tell stories about their struggles”. 

The connecting point is that oral tradition, when addressed with the most diverse audiences, becomes a form of resisting oppression that takes different shapes. And as Khamis maintained, “because oppression exists, these spaces are necessary”.


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