For Martin Luther King Day, we hear from an artist who makes civil rights heroes leap off the page.
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
This June, another museum was added to the District’s lengthy roster. The Museum of the Palestinian People in Dupont Circle shares the stories and culture of Palestinians through art and everyday objects. The creators of the museum say they want the exhibits to focus on personal stories rather than political history.
We’ll sit down with two people behind the museum to learn about the exhibits, the response from the local community and what the museum means for Palestinians in the diaspora.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
SASHA-ANN SIMONSNow we're going to switch gears and let's talk about a new museum that opened near Dupont Circle just last month. The Museum of the Palestinian People is one of the few museums in the U.S. that shares Palestinian arts, culture and history from the Palestinian perspective. Joining us to talk about the museum is Bshara Nassar. He is the Founder and Director of the Museum of the Palestinian People. Hi, Bshara.
BSHARA NASSARHi. How are you?
SIMONSAnd Nizar Farsakh is the Chairman of the Board of the Museum of the Palestinian People. How are you doing, Nizar?
NIZAR FARSAKHI'm going fine. Thank you for having me.
SIMONSThanks for joining us. Have you been to the Museum of the Palestinian People? We want to hear from you. Give us a call. Do you identify as Palestinian perhaps or Palestinian American? What was your response to the Museum of the Palestinian People? Now, I'll start with you, Bshara, the Museum of the Palestinian People can actually trace its roots back to a project that you started back a few years ago in 2014 called the Nakba Museum Project. What was that project and why did you start it?
NASSARYeah. So, again, I'm Palestinian and I was born in Jerusalem and was raised in Bethlehem. And I came to the United States in 2011, and I came directly to Washington D.C. And what struck me about D.C. -- what really struck me is the museums, the monuments, and memorials that -- of course, the Smithsonian that was all over the city. And when I -- you know, walking down Constitution Avenue and like just like exploring the museums, I could not find a museum to share our story, to share our culture, to share the story where I grew up in Palestine. And I know that so many people have come to this city like Greeks, Italians, Jews, African Americans, the Native Americans that build institutions that can tell their story over and over again.
NASSARAnd I just wanted to do something that similar to all these immigrants, who came that would share our story not just one time by one event, but over and over. So in 2014 we actually started that first step of having an exhibit that was in D.C. And from that exhibit we started traveling around the country, and, you know, the idea started evolving. We formed a team. We formed our non-profit status. And it started slowly through the past four years, it really turned out into a permanent space.
SIMONSSo the Nakba Museum Project, which is what it was originally called. What does Nakba mean by the way?
NASSARSo Nakba, it's a Arabic word for the catastrophe, which is in 1948 where Palestinians were displaced from their homes and villages and lands. And actually that almost 7 -- 800,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1948. Now they turned into more than five million Palestinian refugees in Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
SIMONSI see. Nizar, the museum is just north of Dupont Circle in a space that's about 900 square feet, so not very huge. How did that traveling exhibit find a permanent home in D.C.?
FARSAKHIt was just by hap stance. It speaks to the power of the museum. As Bshara mentioned, he started with one exhibit and people were really impressed and it got invited to 50 other locations in the U.S. in those three and a half years. And in one of those exhibits, the American family that owned the current space in D.C. were so touched by what they saw. They said, listen, guys, we have this space in Dupont. You can have it two years rent free, just have a space. So, of course, we were very elated, because we had a five year plan or three year plan for a traveling exhibit. We scraped that and we said, now we have a space. Let's use it.
FARSAKHSo what we did early on -- first it's just to be present to the, again, the miracle of what the museum is about, like the fact that we didn't plan this. It's happening as we're doing it, because this is story whose time has come.
FARSAKHAnd there's a hunger for it. So we were just going with the flow, going where the energy is. And we said, okay, now that we have this space, yes, it's 900 square feet. What do we need to have in it so that the visitor goes in experiences something and comes out with more questions than answers? Comes out curious realizing how much they don't know all Palestinians and wanting to Wikipedia the hell out of it, right? But also being inspired and wanting to meet Palestinians and wanting to eat Palestinian food. If we do that then we would have achieved our mission. And that's what we're targeting.
SIMONSAnd this question you can both answer, you know, the name itself as I mentioned it is a significant one, because you're the Museum of the Palestinian People not the Museum of Palestine. How does the museum tell the story of the Palestinian people? So those folks that you talk about that come in and they walk away with the experience, but how is it coming from the Palestinian perspective?
NASSARYeah. So I just want to start by -- and Nizar, can add. So when -- for instance, when you Google about Palestinian people, what do you find? And this is a question for all of our audience. Many of the things, the images that we find online it's associated that Palestinians are violent people or Palestinians even are victims, like, oh, poor them, you know, they don't have anything, or like what shows up is always the news -- negative news, like that shows Palestinians in negative stereotypes.
NASSARSo why is it Museum of the Palestinian People, because we really would like to transform the conversation about the Palestinian people themselves, and showing the Palestinian people as human beings, as people who have a rich culture for thousands of years, who are artists, who are entrepreneurs, who are business, who are even in Hollywood. Like we have an exhibit that's called "Making their Mark" or the wall of fame that shows DJ Khaled, who is a famous DJ in the U.S., Bella Hadid, she's a model in Hollywood, who are Palestinians and many people walk in and say, oh, my God, I didn't know these people were Palestinians.
FARSAKHOf course, Rashida Tlaib, the new Palestinian woman in Congress, the first Palestinian woman in Congress, and so really people are touched by their view that has transformed of the Palestinian people themselves.
FARSAKHExactly, just to add to that. One of the things that I think that are similar -- when I just met Bshara it was in I believe February or March 2017. We had a common friend, (unintelligible), and she told me, Nizar, you have to meet Bshara. He has this amazing project. And I'm person who, you know, I was a diaspora Palestinian born and raised in Dubai. I worked in Palestine in Civil Society. Then I was part of the Palestinian negotiating team. Then I came to the U.S. In the U.S. I was part of the Palestinian Diplomatic Mission here.
FARSAKHSo I was very involved in all sorts of ways to help Palestine. When I saw what Bshara was doing and when I saw the poster he was showing me for the museum, I thought, that's exactly what we need. This is what's going to overhaul the conversation of Palestine, because the problem is that we are a news item. People don't see us as human beings. People either see us a problem to Israel or this thing that Arabs or Muslims rally around. We are a thing.
FARSAKHAnd what we need to do is to make that human connection. Like one of my inspirations is Chimamanda Adichie, her TED talk about the single story, the dangers of the single story. And that's what we think is the challenge for the Palestinians that we're reduced to that single story. So what the museum is trying to do and that's why we changed it from the Nakba museum, Nakba being an event into the Museum of the Palestinian People, right?
SIMONSFocused on the people.
SIMONSAnd speaking of people, let's bring in some callers. We have Frank from Vienna calling. Frank, you're on the line.
FRANKYeah. Hey, thank you. So this museum was introduced as the Nakba Museum at the beginning of the broadcast. So that's a historical event that's inherently connected with the formation of the State of Israel. So as someone, who might come into the museum to see what's there, I'm just curious if you would have the following in any of your exhibits such as any stories about the Grand Mufti of Palestine, Amin al-Husseini, who obviously was complicit with Hitler, the Three Nos of Khartoum.
FRANKI'm curious what we might see there about the four times that Fatah walked away from peace deals with Israel, and then, of course, all of the years leading up the formation of the State of Israel. I mean, I'm curious about what we might find out about word Palestinian itself, which really wasn't even invented until 1967 when Arafat used it for political reasons.
SIMONSOkay. Let's give them a chance to respond, Frank. Thank you so much for your question. Go ahead, guys.
NASSARSure. So that's kind of why the museum is being created, because we want to move away from those labels and those reductionist expressions of who are the Palestinians and what is Palestine about, right? So, of course, people from Jewish heritage or people, who are pro-Israel perceive Palestine and Palestinians through that lens as a problem to Israel or the people, who are fighting Israel, right? And we don't think that that's a constructive conversation. We think what we need to talk about is, of course, the history, as much history as we can in that small space, but those elements of history that are important for the visitor to understand what is it like to be Palestinian.
NASSARWhat is the Palestinian experience like? What are things that show up for Palestinians, right? So without even going into correcting the historical record, right, just how long have the Palestinians been there as a people, the people who lived in the area east of the Mediterranean Sea. Why is the 1948 Nakba so important for Palestinians? And what was the impact on how Palestinians identify? So there's a sense of, you know, this overwhelming catastrophe that happened and then the abandonment of the international community, the continuing suffering, right? So being stateless what was the impact of that, being othered, as a refugee and therefore a social status these things show up a lot in Palestinian lives.
NASSARSo when you're looking at Palestinian art you won't understand what's the significance and symbolism of a key or why are Palestinians obsessed about passport stamps, right, because movement is an issue for us -- continues to be an issue 70 years after the Nakba. Like I'm an American citizen, I got naturalized. And I still get stopped at Dulles Airport for that, you know, random screening, right? Again, we were very deliberate in not trying to be an authority. We know how to point people to the Institute for Palestine Studies or the Palestinian Museum back in the West Bank. But this museum here in D.C. is about the Palestinian people, a space where Palestinians from all walks of life get to tell their story their own ways, and for visitors to come engage it and connect to it at whatever level they want to.
SIMONSAnd before we take a short break, can you remind us where is this museum; what's the address so that folks can come and visit you?
NASSARSure. The address is 1900 18th Street. It's literally at the corner of 18th and T.
SIMONSWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Bshara Nassar. He's the Founder and Director of the Museum of the Palestinian People. And Nizar Farsakh, who is the Chairman of the Board for the museum. And we're talking about the Museum of the Palestinian People, which just opened last month. What parts of Palestinian history and culture do you want to see highlighted in museums? And do you think Palestinian culture and history can be shared without focusing on the geopolitical conflict? But to tell us a bit more about the Palestinian diaspora in D.C. and the U.S. we are actually joined now on the phone by Omar Baddar. He is the Deputy Director of the Arab American Institute. Hi, Omar.
OMAR BADDARHi. How are you?
SIMONSGood. Thanks so much for joining us. Can you first give us a quick sense of the Palestinian community here in D.C. and across the country and what challenges does the community face?
BADDARSo I think that there's a vibrant Palestinian American community in the U.S. in general spanning all professions. You know, there are doctors, lawyers, comedians, activists. There are restaurant owners and blue collar workers and I think that that's reflected in Washington D.C. as well. And, you know, obviously the challenges that Palestinian Americans face are not different at all from the challenges, you know, as individuals, are not that different from the challenges that Americans in general face. You know, whether be it jobs or health care or education or things like that.
BADDARBut as a community there is an added challenge that has faced -- that is unique for the Palestinian American community, which is this assault on their identity and their entire existence really, which one aspect of that is unfolding on the ground as part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but another part of that is unfolding politically and culturally here in the United States. You know, when you have political leaders like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on the Republican Party, who say openly that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.
BADDARYou have attempts to get a Palestinian's children's book withdrawn from public library. There's a famous controversy right now around a book called "P is for Palestine." And frankly, anybody who's politically active on the issue of Palestine particularly activists on college campuses are facing a real threat to their right to free expression on this issue. So I think merely talking about Palestine is instantly a magnet for controversy and opposition.
BADDARAnd I think there was a really, you know, very insightful demonstration of that with the first call that came into your show a little bit earlier. Where you're simply talking about the history of the Palestinian people and the first call is invoking Hitler and claiming that the Palestinian identity is invented identity that did not come along until the 1960s, which is utter nonsense, but it really is a sign of the kind of challenge that Palestinians face simply by asserting their identity and existing in this country.
SIMONSSo in non-Arab countries like the U.S. who is controlling that narrative then of the Palestinian story?
BADDARSo, you see, it's so hyper politicized that nobody has control over it, right? Like we would like -- it would be ideal to get to a point where you can talk about Palestinian history without the sudden, you know, the level of hostility that makes it seem as too controversial to discuss, and I think that that's precisely the problem. Because Palestinian history, you know, when we were talking about the Nakba early, because it is only a historical fact that the creation of Israel happened to be at the expense of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who were driven out and hundreds of villages that were destroyed to simply recount that story, to attempt to tell the Palestinian story in a historically accurate way is immediately seen as a political attack on Israel.
BADDARAnd in some cases even portrayed as someone being anti-Semitic and therefore it's so charged and controversial that it is simply impossible to have a conversation about Palestine or to tell the Palestinian story without that instantly being seen as something that is too toxic to talk about. And therefore it does not get talked about enough, I think in mainstream culture.
SIMONSAnd, Omar, I know you haven't been to the museum just yet, but what does it mean to you personally that there's now a Palestinian museum in the District?
BADDARI think, yeah. It's only because of my travel schedule that I've not had a chance to go yet, but I absolutely intend to and I'm looking forward to it. And I'm really excited about it, especially right now in the political climate where the Trump administration has, you know, shut down the Palestinian Embassy here in Washington D.C. and is effectively become a full participant in the right-wing Israeli government, Netanyahu's government's war on Palestinian existence denying Palestinian statehood and self-determination that we see this assertion of Palestinian identity here in the capital of the United States at this time.
BADDARYou know, Palestinians often use the slogan "Existence is Resistance" and I think that this is a really apt example of that. Is that at a time when there are clear attempts at erasing Palestinian identity that we're seeing it come in with further complexity here in Washington D.C. I do think that that's kind of a powerful statement.
SIMONSAnd, Omar, you're certainly getting a thumbs up here in the studio from Nizar. So thank you so much for joining us. Omar Baddar, the Deputy Director of the Arab American Institute.
BADDARThank you very much.
SIMONSI'm going to jump to the phone lines. Peggy has been waiting so patiently. Peggy from Washington. How are you doing, Peggy? What's your question?
PEGGYYeah. Good afternoon. I much appreciate this segment. I've been to Palestine. I've been to Israel. And I had asked about the address and somebody else picked up on that. So I was delighted to know that. Also what about access, those steps are a little steep. And I think Golda Meir -- I think she also said there's no such thing as a Palestinian. And, you know, the statelessness has tremendous relevance even today. So thank you very much again.
SIMONSSo that's a question about access. Bshara, can you answer that for us?
SIMONSAccessibility in the museum, so just getting around the physical space. Is that something that --
NASSARYeah. Absolutely. So the way it was designed and built, like ADA accessible, handicap access with bathroom. And we are still working on getting access with the stairs. That's something that we are working towards, but inside of the space the bathrooms and the space is designed to be accessible for everyone.
SIMONSNow the museum -- you've sent out a survey to Palestinians throughout the diaspora to inform the artist's work for the exhibits inside. Why was that community engagement so important?
NASSARSo, yeah. You know, we -- so the first exhibit is about reimagining the future. And one of the things that Ahmed Hmeedat, who's our former artist in residence and the team really wanted to give this idea and do this idea of challenging and inviting Palestinians and visitors to imagine something that's different from what we're living right now. So as any oppressed people and like being Palestinian myself like living in Palestine for, you know, 23 years it was really hard for me and my friends and my family, you know, to imagine something that's different from the current reality.
NASSARWhen you're living, like any oppressed people around the world, when you're living in a situation where you're desperate to survive, you're desperate to go to school, to cross the checkpoint, it's really hard to imagine something -- to imagine like freedom to imagine your rights being given, to imagine going to school without checkpoints, to imagine going to other cities without any hazard.
NASSARSo what Ahmed did and the team was like we want to know what is the vision. Let's go and challenge people and with the questions of like, What would you like to see in the future? What in 30 or 50 years what is your vision for Palestine? What is your vision as even Palestinian American living in the U.S.? And that was really important, because having their feedback and having their answers to inspire the art was really key in actually doing something that's accurate and not just your imagination, but also imagination and participation. So that created the big participation in the exhibit itself.
SIMONSSo can you tell me -- because we don't have a lot of time. Tell me about the feedback that you've been getting from visitors and I'm curious is there any pushback from Palestinian people?
FARSAKHSure. So just to add on that participation part is that we were also very deliberate on not being an authority and not creating this museum where there's a group of elite that decide what is or is not Palestinian. So we want to have activities that are as participatory as possible. We want to be this hub that any Palestinian feels is their space is their Palestine house to come and tell their story their own way.
FARSAKHSo the pushback we had was mostly just exactly that, like this is such a novel idea. People are used to traditional, you know, heavy on presentation museums, and we're thinking we will be low on presentation high on conversation, right? We want to engage people. We want to learn from them, right? And a lot of the energy that's around the museum is about how we get touched by people, who see something and then say something about the museum that we feel like all this effort was really worth it, right?
FARSAKHLike even the people who donated some of their artifacts, their passport, like there's one person -- Bshara and I took a full year to persuade him to give us the passport of his father. The father passed away. And to see these people so honored and even touched and even have tears in their eyes to see those artifacts exhibited, right? It's like the vindication of their family story.
SIMONSSo very quickly we're running out of time. I want to know what's next. Currently you're open Thursday through Sunday, right? Let's make that clear.
NASSARThursday, Friday, Saturday from 12:00 to 6:00.
SIMONSAnd so what's next? You're trying to get the museum into a larger space perhaps?
FARSAKHSo several things. We are going to have activities around the exhibit. The space allows itself to be, you know, move some stuff and have activities in it. But we're doing a lot of things with other -- in partnership with other organizations. There happens to be actually a building close to us that is four stories -- like it has four stories. So if we get a funder, we'll buy it and just have extra space to do more stuff, but ultimately what we are dedicated and committed to is the impact. We'll do whatever it takes to have the impact we want to see. We're really agnostic about the vehicle.
SIMONSAbsolutely. Bshara Nassar, Founder and Director of the Museum of the Palestinian People and Nizar Farsakh, Chairman of the Board. Thank you so much for being with us.
FARSAKHThank you for having us.
SIMONSYou're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, WAMU's Race and Identity Reporter. We'll be back in a moment. Stay with us.
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