In September 1982, Christian militias massacred Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israeli military, which at the time occupied large parts of Lebanon and had surrounded the camps, refrained from intervening and blocked potential escape routes. This was done after the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) paramilitary forces had left the country in exchange for guarantees that civilians would be protected.
One month later, the Norwegian solidarity organisation Palestinafronten (the Palestinian Front) arranged an unofficial hearing in Oslo where sixty people, including many Norwegian aid workers, spoke about what they saw and experienced in Lebanon. These events form the backdrop for Oslo-based Palestinian artist Ayman Alazraq’s documentary exhibition The Lost Tapes of a Peoples’ Tribunal, 1982 at Fotogalleriet. It reminds us that the current war in Gaza – where Palestinians are once again attacked while fenced in – is yet another instalment in a long line of tragedies to which the Palestinians have been subjected. At the same time, the show also offers an opportunity to reflect on the ideological and historical reasons why such brutality is allowed to repeat itself.
The entire aforementioned hearing –around fourteen hours of footage – is presented as a single projection. It includes, along with plenty of formalities about proceedings and introductions, reports about Israeli attacks on hospitals and civilians. Doctor Ebba Wergeland describes, calmly and with precision, the many different types of shrapnel injuries she treated. Several Palestinian leaders also speak, including the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who sat on the central committee of the PLO, and Fathi Arafat, the founder of the Palestine Red Crescent Society and brother of Yasser Arafat. The latter gives an animated speech about solidarity, while the former describes the systematic destruction of Palestinian cultural institutions. Such attacks on institutions seem to be the main concern of The Lost Tapes. How can a culture of memory and common identity be maintained when everything the Palestinians build up is constantly being demolished?
In a separate video, Alazraq speaks directly to the camera, explaining that the videotapes of the hearing come from the Norwegian activist Kjell Bygstad. Three copies were apparently made, of which one was sent to the PLO, while the other two remained with him. The footage is now shown alongside photographs which Alazraq came across by chance in the basement of an Olso apartment complex he once lived in. It turned out that the building had previously housed the Norwegian Palestine Committee’s office. The pictures from the Palestine Committee, which appear to be from the 1980s, are pasted directly onto the gallery walls. They show public rallies in Norway as well as healthcare workers in hospitals. The people and places are unknown to me, but in the accompanying exhibition pamphlet Alazraq states that he recognises a refugee camp near Bethlehem and a building in Ramallah. A map of Beirut is painted on the floor, where LED light strips frame other photographs smeared with red paint that is presumably meant to look like blood. This last element comes across as a jarring and somewhat superfluous conceit, clashing with the exhibition’s otherwise sober archival aesthetics.
Photographic slides taken in Lebanon during the period in question – discovered by Alazraq in a second-hand shop in Oslo, meaning that they too were found by chance – are displayed in reddish translucent light boxes hanging from the ceiling in rows. Some of the pictures are portraits of Arab families in their homes, others show urban blocks of flats against blue skies. Gradually, the subjects also come to include bombed-out homes as well as armed paramilitary forces and soldiers. The mixture of everyday life and destruction evokes a loose impression of the time before and after the war. I struggle to make out a concise narrative here, but rather a series of puzzle-pieces which could, had they been part of a professional archive, perhaps have unraveled small and large stories about this war.
As suggested above, Alazraq has mobilised the familiar archival mode to remind us of the continued destruction of Palestinian archives and cultural institutions. A quote from Darwish’s aforementioned speech, handwritten on an untreated plywood wall in the room where the footage of the hearing is shown, addresses Israel’s destruction of Palestinian archives and supports this reading. In an interview in the latest issue of the French review Epoch, American artist Arthur Jafa says that he feels the term ‘archive’ is often used imprecisely in contemporary art. Much of what is referred to as an archive is in fact a private collection. An archive, Jafa clarifies, is a term given to a body of material managed by an institution that takes care of, catalogues, and labels it while also regulating access. Jafa’s nuancing take seems relevant to the interpretation of this exhibition given that it is based on material handled and managed by individuals. There is a paradox inherent in the fact that the processes of selection made in the context of archival matters also says something about which stories society at large deems worthy of being dug out, preserved, and told. Not least, archives support the idea that the communities in which we take part – and our individual contributions to those communities – can have a lifespan that reaches beyond our own.
So what does Israel aim to achieve by constantly demolishing Palestinian attempts to build a state with stable institutions, including archives? In 1983, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze published a short text on “the Palestinian cause” in the journal Revue d’études palestiniennes (Journal of Palestinian studies). It responds – like Alazraq’s exhibition – to the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. In his analysis of the many injustices that have befallen the Palestinians, Deleuze points out that even under British colonial rule, Zionism aimed to take over Palestinian lands on the grounds that these are destined to be part of Israel.
According to Deleuze, this fiction is convenient because it portrays the Palestinians as invaders who must be expelled, as Arabs who can and should live somewhere else. Israel obscures and defends its colonialism by claiming that the country’s very existence is threatened. But unlike the colonial activities of European states, the objective in this case is not to subjugate another people. Instead, it is – as Deleuze describes it – about denying that the Palestinians exist at all and have a geographically specific history and right to statehood. To these ends, the killing of Palestinians is a frequently used tool. Thus, genocide is not an incorrect term for the violence to which the Palestinians have been subjected, collectively and over a long period of time.
The Lost Tapes is not an exhibition that aims to put forth a similarly comprehensive argument about how the war in 1982 may be understood. Instead, visitors are encouraged – as is often the case with archival exhibitions – to rummage through the material presented and find their own connections. Thus, it feels like an exhibition about the narrative potential of the material presented, both in the testimonies from the hearing and in the narrative of why it was arranged. The show points to the further tragedy inherent in the apparent randomness of what has been preserved; it is by no means a given that those who have been deprived of a voice, identity, and history will be remembered.