Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians 1876-1948, introduction and commentary by Walid Khalidi, (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984).

Before Their Diaspora gathers some 400 photographs to present a portrait of Palestine, its people and their culture, from the late 19th century—he last years of Ottoman rule—until the end of the British Mandate in 1948.

The photographs are organized in roughly chronological sequence, grouped into sections which deal with aspects of social, economic and political life. The majority are portraits of people or scenes from everyday life. There are relatively few “news” or action photographs. Where these are used, they mostly relate directly to violent conflict with the Zionists and the British. The captions in most cases provide information or otherwise amplify the photograph. Occasionally they are also used to make a polemical point. The text which accompanies each chapter does not refer directly to the photographs but provides a commentary on political events of the period, and each chapter begins with a useful chronology.

While it contains much to interest students of Palestine—not least the large number of photographs of prominent Palestinian personalities of the period—the book seems to be mainly addressed to an audience, primarily in the United States, which is either ignorant of Palestinian history or resistant to the idea that such a “history” exists. The book aims to convince people of the reality of a society which Zionist propaganda has often sought to deny. For this purpose, photographs, presented here in the form of an historical album, are a powerful instrument. The people portrayed—families, political and religious notables, school children, writers and fighters—look out at us from the pages, asserting their existence. The book’s considerable diversity of images covers many aspects of life in Palestine. Among the most interesting and unusual are the numerous photographs of schools and their pupils, reflecting the importance of education to Palestinians even during this period. Photographs of individuals and delegations visiting from other parts of the Arab world highlight both the strong personal and intellectual links of Palestinians with the region and the increasing significance of the Palestine question in regional politics. Especially valuable are the many rare photographs of individuals seldom seen in photographs, including major figures such as Izzedin al-Qassim.

Khalidi’s selection of photographs also challenges the Orientalist image of Palestine as a place inhabited by the exotic figures of early studio photography, wild bedouin or a cast of biblical characters. He has taken care to choose photographs which do not reinforce these stereotypes. He uses a small proportion of photographs by European commercial photographers, such as Felix and Adrien Bonfils, and a number by Eric Matson of the American Colony, who worked in Palestine from the 1890s until 1948. Matson took some photographs for the tourist market which do play up biblical and Orientalist images, but he also took a large number of photographs of agriculture, crafts and other aspects of daily life, some of which Khalidi uses. The majority of photographs, though, come from family collections or from the collections of missions and educational institutions, which give a different, less alienated view of the society. There are also a number of photographs here by the local photographer Khalil Raad, relatively few of whose photographs have previously been published. Despite the pressures of working as a commercial photographer, Raad took some pictures which present more of an insider’s view of the Palestinians.

The very usefulness of Khalidi’s achievement here nevertheless highlights the problematic use of photographs as a means of demonstrating that “we were there” when it is not linked to a more critical appraisal of the photographs as a form of historical evidence: “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing has happened,” Susan Sontag has written. “The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” [1] It is this “incontrovertible evidence” on which Before Their Diaspora relies. In the Palestinian case, evidence of existence is clearly an important issue in itself. But to take the question a step further, what sort of existence are the photographs evidence of? What sort of society do they portray?

Khalidi warns against the use of historical evidence—here in the form of photographs—as a polemical weapon to create myths: “A victim’s obsession with the past is often the concomitant of a vengeful disposition, and protagonists have habitually compiled ‘historical records’ of their conflicts as a prelude to each other’s delegitimisation. But a retrospective glance can also serve a constructive purpose…” He expresses the hope that the book “will shed some light on the Palestinians as a people before their diaspora.”

To avoid photographs which “orientalize” Palestinian society, the author has relied heavily on pictures taken or at least commissioned by Palestinians themselves or by those directly involved in Palestinian institutions. Here another process of selection occurs, because these photographic collections have as their focus mainly the urban upper and middle classes. Indeed, throughout the Middle East during this period it was these classes which had access to photography—either by having pictures taken by professionals or by owning hand-held cameras. It was among these classes, too, that photography came to be accepted as a way of portraying themselves and their families. Photographs depicting rural, peasant society or the urban poor in the period up to the 1950s were mostly taken by Western travelers and anthropologists, or by commercial photographers creating picturesque scenes for the tourist postcard market.

Photographs of urban middle class families, of Palestinian graduates from Oxford and Cambridge, or of members of Jerusalem’s notable families serve, at one level, to redress the balance by presenting an entirely different image of Palestinian society from the popular stereotypes of “terrorists,” bedouin, biblical figures or downtrodden refugees. It is an image of solidity and respectability in many ways reminiscent of European family albums of the period, an image to which Western readers can relate.

But as a portrayal of Palestinian society as a whole this emphasis creates another form of distortion by over-stressing the society’s elite. This is not to deny the significance of the landowning, merchant and professional classes in economic and political terms; rather, the limitations of the genre can obscure the fact that the lives and experiences of some 70 percent of Palestinians were rooted in the countryside. In Before Their Diaspora, the photographs of the countryside do not give the same prominence to its inhabitants as do those of urban society. The section on agriculture stresses the issue of Palestinian versus Zionist productivity on the land. There is little about the nature of village life or social relations of production. It is in the nature of the photographic record that pictures of villagers rarely include their names or histories; whereas those derived from the collections of urban literate families are usually of named individuals whose histories (at least those of the men) are fascinatingly recounted in the captions.

Another subject which warrants some reflection is the significance to the viewer of these family photographs, a genre still much debated by theorists of photography. Roland Barthes speaks of photographs as presenting a sense of “having-been-there” which exists in dislocation with the present. [2] The very stillness of these posed portraits seems to emphasize the gulf between that frozen moment and the present. In the Palestinian case, that gulf is made the more poignant by our knowledge of the intervening history: the violent dislocation of the social fabric of which these photographs are a symbol. At a personal level, the sense of shock is heightened when looking at a photograph like the one of Adil Zuaiter in Nablus in 1935, with his two sons (No. 358). One son, Wail, is a baby on his smiling father’s lap. The caption informs us that, as PLO representative in Rome, Wail was assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents in 1972. We as observers somehow telescope time in both seeing the “reality” of this baby and his proud father and knowing of his death.

One response to the “time-warp” created by such photographs is nostalgia and sentimentality over a lost world. This is understandable but questionable from the point of view of historical analysis. What is most obviously missing from such a photographic album of a society is a sense of ongoing social change, of a historical process which is more than this series of “frozen moments.” This is something which the evidence of photographs alone, for all their immediacy, cannot provide. Given this constriction, though, this book does provide valuable visual reference to important aspects of Palestinian society before 1948, and is an excellent addition to the resources available on Palestine.


[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Harmondsworth, 1979), p.5.
[2] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (London, 1977), pp.44-5.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Before Their Diaspora," Middle East Report 139 (March/April 1986).

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