One question has always haunted Salam Mounir Diab: While most Jewish Israeli towns, no matter how small, have a museum or archive, his Arab hometown of Tamra has nothing.
Diab, 42, is an artist, photographer and educator who has spent the better part of the last two decades poring over old photos. Beginning from his own photos and those of family and friends, his passion project slowly expanded until it encompassed every resident of Tamra. Today, Diab has gathered some 4,000 images and documents, which tell the story of his town from a variety of historical, social, cultural and political perspectives.
In February, Diab (working with graphic designer Alaa Sammer) published “100 Years of Photography in Tamra.” The book, his third, is divided into seven sections: Architecture and aerial photography; the Nakba – the Palestinian term for when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence – and politics; customs and weddings; family albums and characters; work, jobs and professions; women and children; and sports and education.
Diab explains that these groupings seemed the most natural to him. They allow for side-by-side juxtapositions of different eras, bringing both the linear and cyclical natures of history into clear view. “There are many things to investigate in the book, or that you discover: customs that have disappeared; how things were; how people acted,” Diab says, his eyes lighting up as he points to a photo of an elderly woman pointing two pistols skyward at a wedding.
He captured the majority of the images digitally, “because it was important to me to be faithful to the people, to preserve a sense of trust,” Diab notes. “A photo for many people has enormous value. And so, they’re not willing to give you the photo of their mother or their father because it’s the only copy they have. So, I took care to come to people’s houses, after work, with a laptop and portable scanner and to scan on site. I didn’t want people, God forbid, to think I was trying to steal the pictures from them, their memories – because I know people preserve their connections through pictures, the connection with their values.”
Was sitting with the families and going through their photos part of your process?
“I am proud of this. I always used to go for one photo, or two. But I would never leave someone’s house in under two hours,” Diab laughs. “To my joy, I was able to return people’s photos to them. Someone even told me, ‘I have no photos of my wedding, how did you find this? I lost it 20 years ago!’ And I told him, ‘I found it at that guy’s house, but here, now you have a copy in the book, and a digital copy – let me send it to you on WhatsApp.’”
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“I tried to make, how should I put it, a family album for the people of Tamra,” Diab reflects. “It’s a source of pride for people to have an album that represents them.”
He points to a photo of a man with a bicycle surrounded by smiling children. “For example, there was this guy who sold ice cream when there was no refrigeration in Tamra. He would go around with a bike with a box on the front and he would put ice in it. And, you wouldn’t believe it, I found a photo of him in the United States. When I published it online, it was shared more times than any other photo I posted. So many people recognized it, so many people called me saying, ‘Where’d you get that photo, I want to print it, I want to hang it up at home’ – as if it was a photo of a great leader, because he left such an impression on the kids.”
Identifying the people in the photos was a communal effort, Diab recounts. As he published photos on social media, residents would recognize their parents or grandparents, their sisters and brothers and friends, discovering hidden connections along the way.
Tamra is a majority Arab Muslim city in Israel’s Galilee region. The northern town’s some 35,000 residents live in a densely crowded urban area that lies atop former farmlands, shaped by decades of Israeli building restrictions, demolitions and rebuilding. “Diab” is the largest and oldest family clan in town, making Salam a natural candidate for the unofficial role of local archivist.
In 1948, with the destruction of nearby Arab villages, many Palestinian residents fled to Tamra, sparking rapid growth and expansion that turned a small, unique village to an urban center. It made a rare appearance in the national headlines in February amid mass protests against crime and violence in Arab society following the shooting death of 22-year-old nursing student Ahmad Musa Hijazi.
History, identity and politics have always been an integral part of Diab’s art. “In my MA work, I wanted to write my thesis on how the young people imagine the future Palestinian museum. But then, my adviser told me, ‘Salam, this is a big project, it’s a national project, and it needs a big budget.’ Basically, he told me: ‘You’re out of your league.’”
“Yeah, it was,” he smiles. “I didn’t give up on the idea to take a first step for a future museum or archive, so I told myself, ‘At least start collecting.’ And I regret not starting sooner. I didn’t have the forethought, or the maturity, or the right mentor. I should have started sooner,” he says, hanging his head for a moment.
“They call it nation-building. In order to build a nation, we need certain basic elements. This [the archive, the museum] is one of the things that are important to that.”
One of your chapters was devoted specifically to politics and the Nakba. How does that fit in with the rest of the book?
“It was important to me, as I was researching, to discover the oldest photo I could find. You remember, Golda Meir once said ‘We arrived in a place without a people’ – as if there was no right of existence to anyone here, as if it was an empty place. But through the pictures, there’s proof that there were people here. And yes, in Tamra, there were people who lived and worked. Every photo has a story.”
He points to an old photo of a large family: a father, seven sons and two little girls. He explains that it’s a photo of a Tamra family that was living in Haifa. “When they took a family photo, they posed with two young Jewish girls, who were their neighbors. And this, essentially, is the oldest photograph. That shows that people, before the war, lived in peace and without violence, without war, in good relations. And in this photo, they’re one family. I don’t like to poeticize things, but this is the truth.”
“There are people who say that Arabs and Jews were always in conflict – and that’s not true,” Diab says, adding that the descendants of the families kept in contact until about 15 years ago.
He picks out another photo, of a funeral procession in Tamra for former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970. “No one stayed at home, they all went out into the streets and mourned. Because to them, they were searching for a leader who could lead after the Nakba. After the Nakba the people felt dispersed; the people who remained, they didn’t have many leaders,” he says.
“For me, as a person and as an artist, it’s part of my identity. What happened influences me until today. Whether I want it or not, the Nakba is still here. But it changes, it comes in variations.”
One small lament
Diab often laments that the townspeople never took an interest in preserving Tamra’s history.
“On one hand, there are things that we are guilty of, the people of Tamra, in regards to the lack of an archive. And on the other, I understand why things are this way. People are more concerned with having enough to eat, with chasing their daily troubles – because most of the residents weren’t [of that socioeconomic status]. Like I said, most of the people didn’t have cameras. Cameras cost money. Developing photos, in order to document, wasn’t something that was readily available. But I’m also certain that there was a policy of not preserving the memories of Palestinian people in Israel, because it didn’t line up with the Israeli narrative.”
There’s an element of power in it, building an archive.
“Exactly. In Ramallah, for example, there is one. In the Palestinian society in the occupied territories, they are concerned with archives and museums. Because there, a city like Ramallah is a city not just because of its size, or the number of people. Rather, it has the characteristics of a city – urban spaces. It’s more developed than, say, Tamra or Nazareth. Let’s talk about Nazareth, which is one of the biggest cities in Israel. Look at it, there are no big parks or any of those [public spaces]. It was declared a city due to the crowdedness. Are people going to build a museum when they don’t have space to build houses?”
Diab is deeply sensitive to issues of narrative and identity. “As a Palestinian Arab artist in Israel, I have an advantage, because I know both languages. I can see what’s happening both here and there. To see both narratives,” he says.
“I see it as a human issue. I try to look at everything from a humanistic perspective. Each person has enormous value, it doesn’t matter if he’s Jewish or Arab, they have the same value. And they must be equal. But here in Israel it’s not equal, I’m sorry to say. It doesn’t matter if a person is white or Black, what religion. We need to see people as people. Humanity is the primary value in my life. That’s why they call me Salam. Which means ‘peace.’”
I tell him that I hope his book encourages others to adopt his approach.
The next generation
Last month, when I arrived in Tamra to interview Diab, large banners bearing images that spanned a hundred years were hung around the Miftan Muftan School – a beautifully kept building covered in mosaics, atop a hill rising out of Tamra’s industrial zone.
Two teenagers stop to ask me if I’m lost, and walk me to the school. The school serves at-risk teens, teaching them professional skills and affording them professional accreditations. It is the largest of only 14 such schools left in Israel, serving 96 students in the last year, and is the only one with a 100 percent graduation rate.
As Diab prepared to publish the book, he gave a lecture at the school and the students excitedly joined in his efforts. The exhibition at the school includes photos from the book and the students’ own photos.
You wrote in the book that many people, mainly young people, aren’t interested in history. And it’s so nice to see the project continuing, particularly led by the younger generation.
“Right, right. You know, you see people taking pictures constantly, but without the awareness of preservation of the place. So, we tried with this project to encourage and raise awareness about the importance of documentation and preservation and printing photos, and not just keeping them digitally. And even to try and share it in an educated manner – meaning, with the details: who took it, the location, the date. These are things that are necessary for preservation and documentation of our history and legacy.”
He adds that there are plans for a second volume of the book as residents turn up with more and more photos.
The school’s principal, Abdalla Abu Alhige, takes enormous pride in seeing his students work.
“I always say that these students have abilities, they have talents, and we need to encourage them and let them be artists. That’s what we do in this place; Salam has succeeded in bringing out their strengths. [Seeing the process] from the moment he identified their strong suits and then to see their art up on the walls – that’s my success. It’s our success that we can reach something like that.”
“100 Years of Photography in Tamra” is available to purchase at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and local bookstores in Tamra. Orders can also be placed with Diab at email@example.com. The book was created with the support of the Tamra Community Center, the IBDAA Association for Improving Art in Arab Society, Mifal Hapayis Council for the Culture and Arts and others.