What’s the difference between looting and collecting?
In Munich, Steven Spielberg’s fictionalised account of Israel’s response to the massacre of 11 of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, Makram Khoury plays the writer and PLO spokesman Wael Zuaiter. Unaware he’s the first of the 11 Palestinians targeted for assassination by Mossad, he gives a talk on his Italian translation of the Thousand and One Nights at a café in Rome, does some shopping, and is gunned down in the hall of his apartment block. At the end of the movie, the chief assassin exiles himself to Brooklyn, wondering if he has merely inspired more violence. He is told that he is a small part of a bigger story: Mossad had other teams on the job. The newly completed World Trade Center is visible in the final shot of the New York skyline.
When Munich was released, the artist Emily Jacir had begun Material for a Film (2004-), picking up Janet Venn-Brown’s uncompleted plans to memorialise Zuaiter, her partner, in the 1980s. Currently installed at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of Jacir’s retrospective, Europa, it includes a black-and-white photograph of Zuaiter lying in a pool of blood, images of his library, recordings of his voice, his appearance as an extra in The Pink Panther, and pages of The Divine Comedy he carried in his pocket. Material for a Film suggests that Zuaiter was killed because his polyglot cosmopolitanism was winning Europeans over to the Palestinian cause. An exile from the West Bank who enjoyed Mahler, Jean Genet and T.S. Eliot, he was a friend of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alberto Moravia as well as Ghassan Khanafani.
Jacir’s ex libris (2012-) is another open-ended project: a response to the tens of thousands of Palestinian books taken by Israeli settlers in 1948. Thousands are in the Jewish National Library, categorised as ‘Abandoned Property’; Jacir photographed their inscriptions on her phone and exhibited them as prints and graffiti on buildings.
The Great Book Robbery, a documentary by the Israeli-Dutch filmmaker Benny Brunner released in 2012, includes footage of Brunner’s producer being denied an interview by the Israeli state custodian of abandoned property. The people Brunner does manage to interview include Mohammed Batrawi, a Palestinian who found himself pressganged into looting his own house on behalf of the occupying forces, and the historian Ilan Pappe.
Another of the talking heads, Gish Amit, recently published a monograph in Hebrew on the subject. Ex-Libris: Chronicles of Theft, Preservation and Appropriating at the Jewish National Library considers the stolen Palestinian books along with two other collections in the library – the books and manuscripts taken from Yemenite Jews who went to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, and those stolen from European Jews by the Nazis – in the context of the broader history of Zionism.
What’s the difference between looting and collecting? Reviewing Amit’s book in Haaretz, Tom Segev dismissed the connection between the fate of the books and ‘the destruction of the abandoned Arab villages’. He regretted the non-return of the books, but called it ‘not such a terrible story’. For Segev, the books are no different from ‘most of the cultural treasures that have been looted in wars throughout history’.
Zuaiter never finished his translation of the Thousand and One Nights, a book structured around the idea that stories have the power to ward off death. He was carrying an Arabic copy of the second volume when he died. One of the photographs in Material for a Film shows its spine nicked by a bullet.