Al-Ahram Weekly Online
24 - 30 May 2001
Issue No.535
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Other Palestines

Amina Elbendary contemplates different European images of Palestine

Over the last 53 years of nakba -- even more so since the outbreak of the second Intifada -- we have been flooded by photos of Palestinians resisting occupation. Photos of men -- and women -- of the agonised burying loved ones. Palestine has become, for some at least, synonymous with images of suffering and violence.

Two recent exhibitions at the American University in Cairo offer very different images from the ones we are tortured with every night on the nine o'clock news.

At the Sony Gallery is the exhibition "Lehnert and Landrock in Palestine, 1924-1930." European by birth, Lehnert and Landrock first set up shop in Tunis and then moved to Cairo after World War I. Between 1924 and 1930 they had made a number of trips to Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. This exhibition includes a selection of photographs taken in Palestine.

Staged by Lehnert and Landrock, left, and Mia Grondahl's retracing of Hilma Granqvist's subjects, Fatma and Khalil
These black and white photographs by the famous duo (it is purportedly Lehnert who actually took the photographs and Landrock who acted as the business manager even though all their photos are signed "L&L") fall neatly into the category of Orientalist depictions of the Arab world. Indeed, in some ways they and similar photographers defined that perspective.

The selection on show at the Sony includes more buildings than people. In addition to photos of the Dome of the Rock there are also shots of the city wall of Jerusalem, the Damascus Gate, the gold Bazaar and the Via Dolorosa. It also includes photographs from Acre, Nazareth and Hebron. While it is often said that the quality of Lehnert and Landrock's photographs is seldom great the significance of many -- including those viewed here -- lies in their documenting the history of the landscape of Palestine. Not only time but -- and often more destructively -- occupation, has greatly altered this landscape. These photographs are testimony to that destruction but also a potential key in recovering some of what was lost.

The photographs of these buildings are almost free of human presence. The landscape appears abandoned and desolate. Lehnert and Landrock's photographs are also products of the European mindset of that time; a mindset for which "Palestine" was "the Holy Land." Indeed, the romantic image of an abandoned, idyllic landscape was for too long part of the founding myths of Israel championed by Zionist zealots.

During that same decade, the 1920s, another European also visited Palestine with a similar mindset. The Finnish-Swedish anthropologist Hilma Granqvist visited the Palestinian village of Artas as part of her research on the women of the Old Testament. Granqvist, then, arrived in Palestine in order to find the Jewish ancestors of Scripture. What she found instead was a Palestinian people with a distinct culture and way of life. She therefore changed the focus of her research to a full investigation of the customs, habits and ways of thinking of the people of that village.

Granqvist ended up staying till 1931 documenting all aspects of village life. In so doing she took hundreds of photographs. To the villagers she became "Sitt Halima," always "stealing photographs" of them. Granqvist's research was published in several books though it was only later that she received due recognition.

In 1997 the Swedish photographer and journalist Mia Grondahl also visited Artas. It was the villagers who introduced her to the books of Hilma Granqvist. She decided to follow in her footsteps by tracing the people and families Granqvist had photographed more than 70 years before.

In the exhibition at AUC's Rare Books and Special Collections Library Grondahl shows some of Granqvist's photos alongside hers. Like Lehnert and Landrock's, Hilma Granqvist's photos are in black and white. But Hilma was not a professional photographer. For her the camera was a means of documenting her findings and her sources. She took photos of various customs and rituals, though for her the people of Artas were not simply "subjects" to study and photograph, they were first and foremost, "people." Granqvist meticulously named each person she photographed, allowing each photograph an identified subject and therefore a story.

Lehnert and Landrock were obsessed with romantic -- even exotic -- images of the Orient, and hence also of Palestine. The few human images on show here -- the Bedouin girl, the Palestinian woman and the Palestinian shepherd-- are so typical and so staged they could well have come out of an illustrated Alf Layla wa Layla. By contrast Granqvist's photographs -- a girl learning to work clay, wedding celebrations -- seem too mundane. They could, almost, have come out of a family album.

Because Granqvist was so careful in recording the names of the people she photographed, Grondahl was able to trace some of them in the 1990s. Many had died, others were forced to join the Diaspora, but a few had remained. She shows her coloured photographs of these "survivors" next to Granqvist's black and white ones.

One of the most striking photographs is of a sister and brother, Fatma and Khalil, in traditional Palestinian dress, standing firm and triumphant on their land despite their age. Granqvist had known them and photographed them as children.

Mia Grondahl went on to take other photographs of villagers not related to Granqvist's work. But by choosing to title this exhibition "Artas: Portrait of a Palestinian Village Then and Now in Photos By Hilma Granqvist and Mia Grondahl" she has consciously decided to follow in Granqvist's footsteps and follow some of her leads. We get photos of women and girls washing their laundry by the spring then and now; photographs of wedding celebrations and processions, then and now. There are also photographs that don't have their counterpoints: the swaddling of baby Ahmed Ali Khalil by his step-mother (actually the catalogue, and presumably Granqvist, define her as his mother's co-wife); Palestinian children learning in an overflowing classroom photographed by Mia Grondahl.

A bit discomforting in this comparison of Palestine then and now is the almost complete absence of any signs of occupation -- Artas could very well be a village in the Egyptian delta. I say "almost complete" because Mia Grondahl also photographed a man, from Artas, who lost his arm in the 1948 war.

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