Tag Archive | Jerusalem

The bookseller saving Jerusalem’s Palestinian identity

Stripped of their rights, the last wall of Palestinian resistance is culture, says owner of a Jerusalem bookshop.

By Urvashi Sarkar

On Jerusalem’s busy Salah Eddin Street, where cafes, grocery stores, money exchange centres and jewellery shops proliferate the landscape, a prominent board at number 22 announces itself as the Educational Bookshop.

Shortly ahead, across the road, is another bookstore and cafe, also titled the Educational Bookshop. Both belong to the Jerusalem-based Muna family; the first sells Arabic books and stationery while the latter sells English books. “The bookshop started with one bookseller: my father. Now we are six brothers who read, recommend and sell books,” said Mahmoud Muna, manager of the English bookshop.

Upon entering the English bookstore, a shelf stocked with books by noted Palestinian academic Edward Said catches the eye. The presence of Said at the entrance is significant since it was his family who originally owned the Arabic bookshop. palestinian books

Muna traces the connection: “The Edward Said family had bookstores in East and West Jerusalem. They ran the Palestine Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street, where they sold stationery and books,” Muna told Al Jazeera.

The shop changed hands a few times. When Muna’s father, Ahmed, bought and established it in 1984, he dropped Palestine from the title, since it was illegal then to have the word ‘Palestine’ in the title of an entity or the Palestinian flag. Therefore, the name was changed to The Educational Bookshop.

The history of both bookshops is a reflection of the reading preferences of Jerusalem’s inhabitants, both locals and tourists, over the years. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Arabic bookstore stocked mostly books in Arabic on politics, history, poetry, literature and fiction, and some English books on tourism.

A turning point came in 1994-95, when, according to Muna, many Palestinians stopped reading. “Palestinians had been reading about the supposed light at the end of the tunnel, promoted by nationalist Palestinian writers who wrote about how the peace process would bring freedom,” recalls Muna.

But after the 1993 Oslo Agreement, things changed. “It turned out to be lies, and people stopped trusting books. Consequently, the bookstore also suffered.”

Muna characterises the post-Oslo years as a time when Jerusalem received an influx of international NGO workers, diplomats and journalists. “Jerusalem’s newcomers sought to understand Palestine and the Middle East better and wanted English books. We made a conscious decision to increase our English selection.”

Therefore, Imad Muna, the eldest of the Muna brothers in charge, decided to increase the English selection of the store. 

Muna still remembers the ripples created by the publication of Said’s Peace and its Discontents, published in 1996. “It was the first book to criticise the Palestinian Authority [PA], exposing the peace process and Oslo. We sold hundreds of copies in English and Arabic to Palestinians and foreigners. The PA banned it, but we could sell it since being in Jerusalem we are not under the PA.”


‘The bookshop started with one bookseller: my father. Now we are six brothers who all read, recommend and sell books,’ says Mahmoud Muna [Courtesy of the Muna Family/Al Jazeera

The bookstore expanded on Said’s collection, also stocking books by Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, who were critical of the Israeli narrative. Realising that there was a big market for English books, in 2007-08, a new bookstore was established with only English books, along with a cafe and a literary-cultural space called the Jerusalem Literary Salon.

“We also witnessed a revival of Arabic readership during this period to which the Arabic bookstore catered.”

Muna reflected on the need to present the Palestinian story in English. “There were no proper English bookstores in Jerusalem, and the only English books were in Israeli bookshops which portrayed the Israeli viewpoint. British and American authors with orientalist perspectives were writing about Israel and there was very little on the Palestinian viewpoint. This, however, changed in the 90s.”

The English Educational Bookshop was the first of its kind in Palestine. “This was the first bookstore that sold books in English by Palestinians and about the Palestinian viewpoint,” he says.

Central to the identity of the two bookstores is their location in Jerusalem. “We want to reinforce the notion of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. We may expand to other areas, but our main area of functioning needs to be Jerusalem,” Muna says, acknowledging that a Jerusalem location renders it inaccessible to many Palestinians who face restrictions on entering Jerusalem.

The English bookstore also hosts cultural and literary events, such as readings, screenings, exhibitions and talks. The bookshop, according to Muna, plays a role in the larger spectrum of cultural resistance and it is being viewed as reinforcing Palestinian culture and identity. 

“The Palestinians have been stripped of their rights, political representation and freedom. The last thing we have is our culture – the last wall of resistance, which Israel will find very hard to break down. The mission of the bookshop is to reinforce Palestinian culture and identity.”

The store has about 1,500 titles encompassing history, fiction, politics, poetry and even cookery. “These are serious books, not propaganda. We sell books on Palestine written in different parts of the world.”

The bookshop has titles from across the Middle East. Muna says: “This is not a Palestine-Israeli conflict; it was and is an Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The operations of the bookshop are not without hurdles, with the delivery and clearances of books often delayed. “Our books come from the US, UK, India, France, Germany, Jordan, Egypt and Spain and pass through Israeli security,” he said.

“The Israelis pick on titles. They do not like books such as the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe or Jeff Halper’s book on Israeli manufacture and sales of arms. They also do not like books on Hamas, or with provocative covers. The delivery of such books is delayed by two or three weeks. But since there is no censorship law over English books, no books are confiscated.”

Books from Syria, Lebanon and Iran cannot come directly. Instead, they are routed through Jordan.

Muna recalls when Mordechai Vanunu, who had revealed Israeli nuclear secrets, was kidnapped twice from the store. “When the Israeli army come, they create a scene. Once a man was shot outside, and our CCTV cameras recorded it.” According to Muna, the Israeli forces closed the shop for hours and wanted to take the camera. The lawyer, however, convinced them to take only the footage.

They took the phones of customers and deleted pictures. “Sometimes, they spray chemical skunk gas in our neighbourhood, and the foul odours enter our store, too. We do not know if we are being targeted.”

On the positive side, Muna points out that there has been a renewal of Palestinian Arab readership. He describes the current readership as fiction preferring, predominantly female, and in the 17-22 age bracket. 

“The older generation consumed mostly history and politics. The new readers like books on romance and sexuality. I want them to read more serious, classic stuff: Books on Palestinian history, Arab nationalism, Arab communism, and the great literature of the Arab world.”

“They [young readers] use social media and ask us about books we don’t know of. As a bookseller, this ought to be disconcerting, but it makes me happy.”

Source: Al Jazeera


$30 Million Palestinian Museum to Open in the West Bank in 2016

By Henri Neuendorf

The NGO Welfare Association has announced the construction of a $30 million museum dedicated to Palestinian history, culture, and art, slated to open in the West Bank next year.

A rendering of the new Palestine Museum. Photo: Palestine Museum

A rendering of the new Palestine Museum. Photo: Palestine Museum

The 3,800 square meter museum—which will be located in Birzeit, north of Jerusalem—will house a series of exhibits aimed at creating a “link between Palestinians in historic Palestine and those living in the diaspora.”

The opening ceremony of the Palestinian Museum will take place on May 15, 2016. The date coincides with the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic. It refers to the day when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced into exile as a result of the conflict that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948.

The museum will include exhibits on Palestinian culture, society and history of Palestine. Photo: henninglarsen.com

The museum will include exhibits on Palestinian culture, society and history of Palestine.  Photo: henninglarsen.com

Today, under half of the 12 million Palestinians in the world live in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The remaining six million live abroad, including an estimated 5.5 million registered refugees that live in UN-run refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries.



All Boxed In: Interview with Palestinian-American artist Rajie Cook

By Maureen Clare Murphy

Born in 1930, Palestinian-American artista Rajie Cook has had a very successful career in graphic design. The “Symbol Signs” that hang in airports internationally, communicating purely through icons rather than text, were designed by Cook and his design firm. rajie cookHe has been honored by President Reagan and the “Symbols Signs” project has been acquired into the Smithsonian’s collection. However, Cook is not done creating work that intends to communicate. Born in the United States to parents originally from Palestine, the violence and continued injustice that consume his homeland spurs him to make Joseph Cornell-inspired boxes that comment upon various aspects of the conflict. In this interview with EI’s Arts, Music, and Culture Editor Maureen Clare Murphy, Cook explains his work:

EI:First, you were born in the U.S. before al-Nakba. When did your parents emigrate to the U.S. and why?

RC:My father Najeeb Esa Cook was born in Jerusalem, Palestine on March 23, 1886. He was one of the very early immigrants to America making several trips, his first in 1906 at age 20. He married Jaleela Totah in Ramallah on April 20, 1920. They arrived in the USA in 1927, living in Newark and then Bloomfield, NJ. My father was a peddler selling fine linens, draperies and bedspreads in New Jersey. They raised their family of 5 children, Lillian, Rajie, Julia, Wade and Edward. In the early ’40s, after several unsuccessful cataract operations, my father lost his eyesight. He never saw any of my work as a graphic designer and obviously the art that I am currently doing. Living to age 94, Najeeb enjoyed his growing family of 10 grandchildren. My mother died in 1992 at the age of 89. I really never asked my father why he left Palestine, but I would imagine it was for the opportunities that were possible for him in America.

EI:On the front page of your website, you write that your fourth grade teacher suggested you go by the name of Roger, rather than your given name “Rajie.” You write that “Rajie,” which means “hope,” is now back. Can this be interpreted that you have reconnected with your Palestinian heritage, by making artwork that responds to what is happening in Palestine? And have your travels to the region precipitated this reconnection?justicesuspended

RC:I have never felt disconnected from my Palestinian heritage. I was always proud of who I was and where my roots were. Travel to the region has indeed increased my need to create public awareness of the details of the Palestinian struggle. This “connecting” goes back to 1948. I remember being glued to the TV in the ’50s, when then president Eisenhower forced England, France and Israel to cease their offensive activities in Egypt. Also during ‘56, ‘67, ‘73 and ‘82 I had a difficult time focusing on anything other than what was happening in the Middle East. In 1981, after spending a month in the Middle East, I started writing letters to my congressmen and senators. I sent over 50 letters and received form responses that always included, “Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East.” In the mid ’80s I was asked to serve on the Presbyterian Church’s Task Force on the Middle East, which I did for 10 years. After several trips to the Middle East, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church USA, visiting the West Bank, Jordan and Israel, and one trip to Syria, I began writing letters to my local newspapers and also meeting with two of my congressman. While on one of the fact-finding trips with the Task Force I decided that my efforts as an activist might become more effective by applying my experience and talent as a graphic designer. I started designing and producing posters. I remember, while studying at the Pratt Institute and later during my career as a graphic designer, I enjoyed creating assemblages and visual (sometimes mirthless) puns similar to the pieces “Whatsoever Ye Saweth” and “Justice Suspended.”

:I’m curious to hear at which point in time you began making boxes. It seems that the subject matter of the boxes have changed with the current Palestinian intifada, and that they have become more explicitly political, directly referencing the Palestinian struggle. Have you always produced artwork that discusses Palestine?homesweethome

RC:I enjoy working with my hands and always liked working with wood and tools. Sometime in 1999, combining my experience as a designer/photographer/woodworker, I began making these boxes. Yes, my work has become more explicitly political and focused on the Palestinian struggle. An expression of frustration … I guess you can say these boxes are my “rocks.” Much of my life (over 50 years) as a graphic designer has been spent designing all forms of corporate communications: annual reports, brochures, posters, logos, and trademarks. My first involvement in creating visual art dealing with Palestine was in the early ’90s with posters, and in 1999 I began [the exhibition] Thinking Inside The Box. Communicating visually was much easier and more natural for me than using the written or spoken word. So expressing myself by creating these little “theaters” that relate to the injustice that is taking place in the Middle East was easier for me than verbally debating the subject with someone. And it’s somewhat more difficult for any “someone” to argue with a box.

EI:Looking at the Exhibitions page on your website, it appears as though you have mostly shown your work in shows revolving around the theme of Palestine. Have you had difficulty exhibiting your work in less geographically specifically themed shows?

RC:Here in America, with very few exceptions, artists whose work expresses the struggle of the Palestinian people will most always have a problem exhibiting their work in museums. Yes, I have been turned down many times – and almost always without an explanation. Of the fifteen exhibits that I’ve been in since exhibiting my boxes in my first show in March 2002, only three exhibits were less geographically specifically themed shows. All three were solo shows. One of the three was a museum exhibition, the other two were at private schools.

EI:I’m wondering if the average American art viewer will be able to pick up on some of the references in your work. Like 2000’s “Hope on Hold,” which features metal stencils with the numbers 194, for UN Resolution 194, above a doorknob adorned with keys and a toy hand holding a ticket that says “admit one.” How important is it to you that people know that Resolution 194 reads that refugees should be allowed to their homes as soon as possible, and that it was drafted in response to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced during the establishment of Israel in 1948?

RC:In a museum show at the Cape Cod Museum of Fine Arts in Massachusetts I briefed about fifteen museum docents on the message of the boxes. At the two exhibits that I had in the private school I had an opportunity to lecture to the students. In several of my shows I have placed a poem by Nathalie Handal adjacent to my work, to help the average American art-viewer get the message. I’m not sure it’s the best way. I think it’s very important that the viewer get the message.

EI:In “Home Sweet Home” (2003), the box contains a doll’s head wearing a keffiyeh and a key around her neck. The key stands in front of vintage pictures and a traditional panel of embroidery. Do you consider Palestine your home? Also, there is a stone at the bottom of the box. Is this to remind the viewer that the current intifada, where Palestinians are fighting largely with stones, is still a battle over the continued injustices Palestinians have suffered since the establishment of Israel?

RC:In “Home Sweet Home” the traditional panel of embroidery is a photograph I took of my mother’s dress. One of the two vintage photographs is of the home my father built in Ramallah in the 1920s. The other is a photo of my grandfather. While living with two names, Rajie/Roger, I feel that I am also living with two homes. That feeling is in my blood. The stone is a powerful symbol of the imbalance of state nuclear power against the stone. I’ve used it both in posters and in my boxes, and you have done a good job expressing my reason for its use.

EI:A lot of your work incorporates toys and game pieces. Is this because the nature of your work depends on things that are miniature in size? Or is this a more conceptual decision – to perhaps represent the game-like nature of politics? In particular, I’m thinking of “Checkpoint Checkers” (2003), in which the game board is coincidentally the shape of the Star of David, and there are bullets in the holes of the star points, where the pegs in the middle eventually have to go.

RC:I have always had a difficult time discarding things. For example, I still have a lot of my train tickets from the seventeen years of commuting to NYC from PA, starting in 1967. I’ll most likely use some of them in a box. I even still have my driver’s license from 1947 and my Boy Scouts membership cards, and I used them in the bio section of my website. I am an avid collector. I collect vintage toys, clocks, tools, posters, etc. I spend a lot of time in antique shops and flea markets, looking for “things” that might help express symbolically the message I want to communicate in my art. But first, the very box that I construct represents the oppressive, restrictive occupation within which the Palestinian people now exist.

EI:The pieces that resonated the most with me were, strangely enough, the ones that didn’t explicitly refer to Palestine with the use of a keffiyeh, a flag, or language like some of your other works. I am particularly struck by “Future Bound,” in which a weathered metal bird stands with rope around its neck, atop a series of smaller boxes containing eggs bound by rope, and “Justice Suspended,” in which a judge’s gavel is suspended by wooden rods. Do you have much of an idea of which works in particular resonate with your audience? Is it these pieces, which have a more universal message, but equally as relevant to what’s happening with the Palestinians, or is it the work that is more specific in its subject matter?

RC:Most people respond as you did to the two boxes you mentioned. They’re easy to comprehend. There are no unfamiliar icons in these boxes. These two pieces, along with the saw, hammer and drill, have a more universal message and could fit many situations similar to that now being experienced by the Palestinians.

EI:Lastly, if a just answer is found to the question of Palestine in your lifetime, do you think you will continue to make boxes? Or might your work be more free-form, and not bound to small spaces?

RC:I think I will continue making boxes. Some of my more recent boxes include a kinetic “fourth dimension” – as you approach the box a sensor activates mechanisms that go into action. “Jenin Jenin,” “Homage to Joseph” and two others that you have not seen also include kinetics: lights, motion, perhaps sound. One of the pieces, “Shock and Awe” reflects the handling of prisoners in Iraq.