The Museum of Palestine: Keys to the past

In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes, never to return. One of them, Mahmoud Dakwar, has made it his mission to preserve a record of this vanished society for its descendants, as Robert Fisk reports from Matchouk, southern Lebanon

Robert Fisk

The Independent

Published: 20 July 2005

There are pound notes printed in English, Arabic and Hebrew, piastre coins and Ottoman land deeds and British mandate tax returns, ploughs and hoes and even the lock to Acre prison, dated 1918 - a whole roomful of artefacts from a lost land called Palestine. Mahmoud Dakwar hovers over each photograph of old Jerusalem, each delicate blue necklace, bead and map, with a creditor's concern. For this really is the lost credit of Palestine, the last trinkets of a vanished society. And he produces two sparkling, burnished pieces of metal and walks outside into the sunshine.

He holds them up. The keys of Palestine, one coloured gold, the other a sinister black. Someone turned the gold key in their front door in Safad in 1948. Someone else used the black key to close a house in Nazareth the same year. And of course, they set off as refugees with these front door keys, waiting to go home.

The locks have been changed, the houses probably destroyed. The nakba- the disaster - caused 750,000 Palestinians to flee their land. Some of them live down the road in the hovels of the Baas camp in Tyre. A couple of miles from the museum, it is even possible to see the border of what was Palestine and is now Israel.

This is the first - and so far the only - "Museum of Palestine" and its founder, curator and jealous guardian is Mr Dakwar, 68, a former schoolteacher who realised about 10 years ago that no one - not the PLO nor the occupants of the sweltering refugee camps nor even the sacred offices of those who claim to represent Palestinian culture - had opened a museum to show Palestinians and their children and their grandchildren what they lost in 1948, and what they may one day aspire to if - if - they ever return.

There are 8,000 volumes in the museum library - many of them donations from Mr Dakwar's own bookshelves - and they include 1,500 on Palestine, another 1,000 on Lebanon, many more on Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A hush of air conditioning moves through the hall administered by the Palestine Committee for Culture and Heritage. Mr Dakwar used $140,000 (£70,000) of his own money to build his museum, a tribute to the generosity of a man who believes that history has more worth than money.

The jewellery is exquisite, the necklaces a memory of an agricultural society. It comes as a shock to realise how rural Palestine was, how animals and corn and dates and olives were the centre of industry when the British marched into Jerusalem and "liberated" the city from the Ottoman empire.

Mr Dakwar has even drawn a map of his own village outside Safad. "This block, marked No 2 is my own home and here" - his finger moves carefully around his property - "are our orchards and fields." There are piles of birth certificates, passes for the Palestine Police Force, land registration documents - all genuine, all worthless - and valuation notes. There is a licence to grow tobacco in Acre - 10 per cent of tithe receipts went in taxes - a cheque issued by the Ottoman Agricultural Bank and a building permit belonging to Mr Dakwar's long dead uncle.

And there are the stories, of course. Mr Dakwar was 11 when the nakba overwhelmed him and his tale of fear and flight and loss needs to be told in his own words. "I remember the minutes of my life at that time," he says. "Do you understand? I remember the minutes, every second. We have a duty to remember this, always. It is our story." His narrative begins, like so many others, in the autumn of 1948, on 29October to be exact, when he left school for the last time and prepared to leave Palestine.

"I ended two classes in my school at Qaditha. The village next door, Ein Zeitoun (in English, the spring of olives) had fallen to the Israelis.

"There were some Syrian volunteer fighters in our village. We were very near to a Jewish colony. I went with my parents that afternoon to the back of our village where we couldn't be seen by the people in the colony.

"Some of the houses in our village had been destroyed. I was very afraid. My parents went to our olive gardens to get olives. It was the harvest season. Before sunset, I accompanied my grandmother around our gardens - we had many orchards - and then left to the village of Jesqalah."

Mr Dakwar pauses and holds his right hand aloft over his head. "There were planes dropping bombs on three villages in the neighbourhood. But I couldn't see my parents and I cried.

"There was a distraught Christian woman who was begging God to save us. We hid behind a wall. Where were my parents, I kept asking? I heard that some of my schoolfriends had been killed by the bombs.

"After a while, my father Youssef arrived and told us a bomb had fallen near him. My parents had a donkey to carry the olives. I asked if my mother was killed. My father said she was with other women in a valley behind the village.

"We heard crying in the big orchards near the church. Many people had been killed there, some beheaded by shrapnel.

"Guns started firing after sunset and we left the village for the valley, on foot, of course. Then the shells started falling into the valley and we walked north, all the way to the Lebanese border at dawn on 30 October.

"We first arrived at the village of Yaroun and then went Bint Jbeil. We found many Palestinians sitting under the trees. I met a schoolfriend from my village, covered in blood, and I said: 'What happened to you?' He told me his mother had her head cut off from a bomb dropped by a plane. His brother, who had been in is mother' arms, was killed too. His sister was wounded."

After two nights under the trees in Bint Jbeil, Youssef and Latifa Dakwar took Mahmoud and his younger brother and older sister to the Shia village of Jouaya. "We rode on a truck with my family at night. Then we slept under the fig trees in Jouaya.

"We didn't know anyone. We stayed a whole day under the fig trees. We had no friends or relatives but the Lebanese people were very kind and generous to us, they prepared food and bread for us. Now we were refugees. We had lands and orchards and a home in Palestine but now we had no shelter, no food, nothing."

Mr Dakwar tells his life as a chronology. He worked for the United Nations Work and Relief Agency (UNWRA) for 44 years - from the age of 16 to the age of 60 - as a teacher and headmaster in the Bourj Shemali refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

"I tried to enrich the school library from my own collection of books," he says. "I bought books whenever I went to Syria, to Egypt, Arabic books, Arabic literature. I opened my own library to teachers, pupils and others - open for all, Palestinians and Lebanese. In 1989, I visited the museum in Damascus and was very shocked that nothing seemed to represent Palestine.

So, when I got back to Lebanon, I visited my fellow head teachers here and said we should hold an exhibition about pre-1948 Palestine in 1990. We filled five schoolrooms with items from Palestine and showed them to all the pupils. 'This was Palestine,' I told them. All were astonished though, I'm sorry to say, we later lost some items. So I decided to build the 'Palestine Museum' outside Palestine."

Mr Dakwar established a committee - that institution so beloved by the Arab world - which contained men and women with no political associations. "I put my whole library at their disposal as a public library. I went to other camps and to Europe and to America to purchase things from Palestine.

"The Palestinian coins I had to buy in America. They were very expensive. We built this hall last year so now the museum exists and anyone is welcome."

And the breeze from the air conditioning stirs the papers on the big table next to the Palestine books and Mr Dakwar's map of his own village, drawn from memory in 1996, moves. "Bier el-Sheikh Bridge," it says over a stream near one of the family orchards. "We'll go back and live in our village one day, maybe not me but my kid will go back there - in one nation, in one home, all of us, Arabs and Jews together, like we used to be."

It is the familiar dream, the fateful mythology, the British mandate of Palestine where Muslim and Jew lived happily together, where there was no Arab revolt, no Zionist ambition, no imperial strategy, no riots, no hangings, no murders, where planes bombing. The Israelis won, the Palestinian Arabs lost and - trying to cling to 22 per cent of mandate Palestine - are still losing today.