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Once upon a time: Preserving history and heritage in Palestine Open in fullscreen

Amal Awad

Once upon a time: Preserving history and heritage in Palestine

The project sees the youth document oral history in Palestine [Suheil Dahdal]

Date of publication: 2 May, 2018

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Feature: A filmmaker hopes a new series of recorded oral histories of elders in pre-1948 Palestine will preserve culture and history in the region, writes Amal Awad.
Fifteen years ago, Suheil Dahdal ran a summer camp with 80 Palestinian children and it proved to be a formative experience for the UAE-based filmmaker and media teacher. For two weeks, the attendees of Hakawati summer camp listened to stories from elders atop a mountain, creating artwork, painting sculptures and making movies inspired by the stories.

"Every night there were new stories and every day the children created artwork inspired by it," Suheil Dahdal tells The New Arab

"This project was close to my heart and the connection and bond I witnessed working with the elders and the children stayed with me all those years."

Two years ago, it led Australian-Palestinian Suheil to reconnect to the idea of engaging Palestinian youth to their history, influenced by his own experiences.

"As a child, I used to come to Palestine every summer and my fondest memories of my childhood is my grandfather telling stories from his youth in the 20s and 30s."

The "time-critical project" Kan Yama Kan project was soon born, a three-pronged initiative that sees the youth document oral history in Palestine.

We only have a small window to capture those stories before they are lost forever... 70 years since the Nakba, we owe it to ourselves to preserve this rich local village heritage

"We only have a small window to capture those stories before they are lost forever," says Suheil, "and 70 years since the Nakba, we owe it to ourselves to preserve this rich local village heritage."

The Kan Yama Kan initiative, translated to "Once upon a time" in Arabic, has three projects in one. First, it is directed towards documenting pre-1948 oral histories of local villages in Palestine.

"This is done by interviewing elders living in their villages, most of whom are now in their 90s and 80s so there is a sense of urgency to do it now before it's too late," he tells The New Arab.

The second aspect is engagement with Palestinian youth and their culture.

"This is done by training them and empowering them to capture their own village stories by interviewing elders in their villages and also engages them in digital storytelling," Suheil adds.

The third part of the project is presenting the stories once they are captured, via an interactive documentary that lives online but also as a virtual reality touring installation.

Engaging the youth

In order to find suitable candidates for the project and to carry out training, Suheil partnered with the Palestinian organisation Sharek Youth Forum. A call-out delivered 400 applicants, but only 20 were chosen based on location, gender and commitment.

"The result is 20 passionate youngsters from across Palestine who are motivated, trained and ready for the task ahead," says Dahdal, who he believes are inspired by the opportunity for empowerment and the value of being trusted to document these stories.

"Once they are trained then they are in a sense empowered to decide who to interview and how to get the most memorable stories from them. Not an easy task but that was the main focus of the training. This trust and the idea that they can capture an important history gives them motivation." That and a professional kit to further inspire a sense of trust.

While Suheil has worked on cultural documentaries and with the youth on digital storytelling, this is his first foray in Palestine at such a large scale. It is a daunting task – capturing thousands of village stories, which then need to be created into a transmedia documentary to bring them to life.

Hakawati was a different experience, explains Suheil. "We did some similar things but with younger participants and it was more about connecting the youth with their heritage than documenting it professionally," he says.

"Kan Yama Kan goes one step further, combining the engagement with the preservation and then exhibition and reimagining of this heritage."

The project aims to engage the Palestinian youth with their culture [Suheil Dahdal]
It is a daunting task – capturing thousands of village stories, which then need to be created into a transmedia documentary to bring them to life

Preserving Palestinian history

Suheil emphasises the importance of recording pre-1948 village oral history before it is lost.

"By interviewing elders in villages across Palestine we are getting stories that might have been lost forever once this elder passes away," he says.

"Those micro stories are not often not recorded elsewhere and our goal is to capture as many [as possible] because they form an important part of the Palestinian heritage and of pre- creation of Israel Palestine."

It is also a very Palestinian practice to tell stories. Suheil cites the days of elders telling stories to their children, a transference of oral history from one village generation to the next.

"These days the youth are gathering less and less with family members to listen to stories," Suheil notes. "Instead they are on social media, so we are encouraging them to connect with their heritage but also helping them build a relationship with the elders, a bridge between the past and the present to preserve a culture for future generations."

Suheil emphasises the importance of recording pre-1948 village oral history before it is lost [Suheil Dahdal]
By interviewing elders in villages across Palestine we are getting stories that might have been lost forever once this elder passes away

The challenges of documenting histories

But a project of this magnitude has its challenges – cost, time and training, for starters. Suheil Dahdal says the greatest challenge is finding elders who were teenagers or older pre-1948 who are still alive and able to tell those stories. Another challenge is in interviewing the older generation.

"Especially when we are looking for complete stories not just fragments," Suheil says. "To keep the elder focused is not an easy task, and to tease the right stories is even harder. We trained the youth on this art of interviewing elders but more work still needs to be done."

Training is but one expense he has to consider in his ambitious project. Suheil is also determined to equip the interviewers with appropriate equipment to record the stories.

"Last summer I volunteered with a youth organisation in Palestine to train 20 youth from across Palestine on the art of interviewing elders. We actually started doing interviews and the results were promising, but as mobile phones were used, the quality was not as good as we hoped for."

Suheil says some of the youth borrowed equipment from Palestinian NGOs but that it proved "difficult and restrictive".

"So I decided that I should try to raise funds to buy equipment for them so they can have the freedom to shoot high quality interviews whenever they want or whenever the opportunity is presented."

Suheil took the step to creating a crowdfunding campaign, believing that equipment funded by the "crowd" is empowering – global support that will make the youth participants feel a sense of validation that they are on a noble mission.

But he adds that raising the money hasn't been easy and hopes the campaign will help buy 20 kits for the participants.

"That is only the beginning of the road," Suheil says. "The other challenges are creative in terms of how can we bring those stories to life.

"That is why I'm working with animators to find ways to animate old archival images that relate to the stories told and use new VR techniques to bring it to life. We are pushing the boundaries technically and creatively."

You can support the Kan Yama Kan project here.


Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

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