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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
15 May 2008

Opening Address: “I come from there and remember”
Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner General of the United Nations
Rehabilitation Centre for the Visually Impaired, Gaza, 15th May 2008

Friends and Colleagues:

Thank you all for being here today to share with us the unveiling in Gaza of this special exhibition, “I Come from there and remember”, which commemorates and celebrates Palestinian life before the Nakba. It is a pleasure to welcome you all.

Many would say that today Gaza is experiencing its own unique Nakba, a catastrophe brought on by the cruelties of continuing occupation and the tightening blockade which adds to the misery of one of the most stringently applied closure regimes of modern times. This is, equally, a Nakba of the mind. In my almost eight years in Gaza, I have watched hope drain, with its incalculable impact on the spirits of the people. But we in the United Nations family have been at the forefront of efforts – in our private diplomacy and public advocacy – to change a situation which is unconscionable. As we have done throughout the six decades since the Nakba, UNRWA is here, standing shoulder to shoulder with Palestine refugees.

I opened a similar exhibition last evening in Jerusalem, and I am delighted to be doing the same in Gaza and to offer some insights into how this exhibition was conceived. This photographic show is remarkable in its approach to this subject, the Nakba. As we all know, between November 1947 and July 1949, over seven hundred thousand Palestinians were expelled, or fled in fear, from their homes in historic Palestine, setting in motion the wrenching pain of dislocation, the terror of dispossession and the corrosive effects of exile and isolation - all of which remain a part of the Palestine refugee experience to the present time.

The events of the Nakba engendered a plethora of images in the global imagination, among which is the iconic picture of the fleeing Palestine refugee, struggling with the exertions of forced flight, with a countenance etched as much with suffering as with the steadfast will to survive and overcome the horrors of the day. Over the years, this image has merged with others, similarly compelling, often moving, frequently tragic, as Palestinians continue to endure the effects of occupation, deprivation and recurrent armed conflict.

Six decades on, “I come from there and remember” is UNRWA’s small contribution to affirming the humanity and strength of the Palestinian spirit - attributes too often obscured or forgotten in the turbulence of the continuing Palestinian struggle. As a UN Agency dedicated to assisting Palestine refugees achieve the highest standards of human development, it is our duty to see the people we serve as just that: people, human beings, with real lives and, just as important, with real histories of high human achievement and cultural wealth, grounded in their ancient bonds with historic Palestine.

Thus, the exhibition takes as its starting point that image of the fleeing Palestine refugee. But instead of working forward to tell the story of the consequences of the Nakba, it works backwards, in a photographic journey, exploring the richness and complexity of pre-Nakba Palestinian life in all its glorious contradictions: its sadnesses and exhilarations, its simplicity and sophistication and, underlying all of this, its wonder at the joys of life and its confrontation with the wider realities that befell the Palestinian people.

As you view each photograph, I urge you to spare a thought for the lives and the humanity that lie behind them, the sheer human resourcefulness, the sense of lost potential. These are real people, people whose history cannot be air-brushed away. Indeed they are a people with a past, a history that will not be denied.

While looking back through the prism of these images, we must keep in view the way ahead, the possibilities of where the past might lead. Let us acknowledge the worldviews in contention, two narratives bound inextricably in history, as by geography, but separated by a tortured, complex legacy of conflicted currents. It is incumbent on each and every one of us to consider how these narratives might be infused with precepts of mutual understanding, compassion and tolerance. Surely an acceptance of the humanity of the “other” is an essential first step in this journey; a first step of which I hope this exhibition is a small part.

And so I would like to end with words on which this exhibition is based, from the poet, Mahmoud Darwish, a man, more than any other, whose writing has come to express the voice of his exiled and stateless people – and a man, incidentally, who had a very nuanced understanding of “the other”. Before reading it in English, I would like to ask my colleague, Milina Shahin to recite the original Arabic version. (Milina reads, Karen begins as soon as Milina gives her a sign that she has finished.)

I am from There

I come from there and remember

I was born like everyone is born, I have a mother

and a house with many windows,

I have brothers, friends and a prison.

I have a wave that sea-gullls snatched away.

I have a view of my own and an extra blade of grass.

I have a moon past the peak of words.

I have the godsent food of birds and an olive tree beyond the ken of time.

I have traversed the land before swords turned bodies into banquets.

I come from there.

I return the sky to its mother when for its mother the sky cries,

and I weep for a returning cloud to know me.

I have learned the words of blood-stained courts in order to break the rules.

I have learned and dismantled all the words to construct a single one: Home

* * *

Thanks to all of you for being with us.


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