Saffourieh Museum for Heritage and Return

The destroyed village of Saffouriyah

Saffourieh then and now. In the foreground, a photograph of pre-1948 Saffourieh. In the background, the Piney hillside that today hides the remains of the destroyed village.

This museum, located in a storefront in Nazareth, is dedicated to remembering the destroyed towns and lives of pre-1948 Palestine. It was created by Nakba survivor Amin Muhammed Ali (also known as Abu Arab), who is originally from the town of Saffourieh. Over the years Abu Arab has collected objects used in everyday life from destroyed Palestinian villages. He displays his collection in an informal museum in an apartment adjacent to his own, and uses these materials to teach younger generations about life in Palestine pre-1948 and about the Nakba.

In a 2009 biography of Abu Arab’s brother Taha Muhammed Ali, Adina Hoffman described the museum and its political-historical project: “One floor of Amin’s Nazareth house is home to… a remarkable, single-room museum…filled almost to bursting with the…paraphernalia of pre-1948 Galilee village life: baskets and mortars, shaving kits and wooden dowry boxes, a gauzy woman’s headscarf, trimmed with a dainty, handmade menagerie of silk-thread birds and flowers. Amin has, it seems, paid for much of this collection out of his own pocket, and driven himself into debt in the process. When he sees an old Palestinian object, he must have it for the museum–rescue it, as it were, from near-certain oblivion and so somehow restore it to its proper place in the order of things…He has also single-handedly performed a kind of oral-history triage, as he realized that he had to act right away or else the older people would take with them to the grave irreplaceable information about the village–the popular names, for instance, for the different parts of town. Almost every plot in Saffuriyya was known to the villagers by a name based on its past or present owners (Khallet is-Sheikh Hassan, Sheikh Hassan’s Knoll), what grew there (Juret iz-za’tar, Hyssop Gulley), or some more mysterious association (Balatet il-hayyeh, the Stone of the Snake).”

Saffouriyah artifacts

An old phone, a rusted key, scissors, and other objects on display in the museum.

Amin himself explains that he first began doing this work sometime in the early 1990s. He realized that “the old people are dying, and those names will disappear. I told myself I have no choice, I’ll ask them: What do you remember of the names from the village? I’ll write it down. From here ten names, from there twenty names, from there thirty, from there fifteen…Then I’d go back and say, Okay, we’re in Saffuri, we want to go to Shafa ‘Amr [the next large village]–what is the name of the first block? The first parcel of land, what’s it called? And what’s after it? And after that? And after? And how big was this one? And this? It wasn’t exact. But how much, approximately? I worked on this list for maybe two years. And the names I didn’t write down are gone.”

Hoffman notes that Amin also meticulously canvassed houses in the city of Nazareth–“where today some fifteen thousand of the city’s sixty thousand residents count themselves as Saffuriyyans, or descendants of Saffuriyyans–and transcribed what the older people remembered of the names and owners of the village thoroughbreds, the names of the teachers in the village school…

Objects on display at the Saffuriyya museum.

Objects on display at the museum.

As he worked, word of his fascination with the town’s history spread, and aging former villagers sought him out and presented him with priceless documents: one man had been responsible in the early 1940s for water distribution in the orchards and had kept a detailed notebook, listing the sizes and owners of the various plots. When the Israeli army occupied Saffuriyya in 1948, the man fled to Nazareth, but in the days immediately following the conquest, he managed to sneak back into his house and rescue the notebook, whose previously humdrum subject matter (irrigation) had been transformed in the course of that fateful week into the most valuable sort of written proof–…legal proof of land ownership.” –from Adina Hoffman, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century (Yale University Press, 2009)

Here’s a short video of Abu Arab, talking about the museum during our 2013 delegation’s visit: