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About the Archive

The Palestinian Oral History Archive is a project to digitize, index, catalog, preserve, and provide access (through a searchable digital platform) to an archival collection of around 1,000 hours of testimonies with first generation Palestinians and other Palestinian communities in Lebanon. POHA documents the life stories of Palestinians residing in refugee camps and different communities in Lebanon. The Archive's main focus is personal accounts surrounding the Nakba, a defining moment in Palestinian history and collective experience. Furthermore, the collection contains life narratives of the pre-Nakba period in pre-1948 Palestine, folktales and songs, as well as stories of the women in Ein el-Helwe camp after its destruction in 1982.

The Partners

The project is a collaboration between the AUB Libraries, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), the Nakba Archive and the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (AL-JANA). AL-JANA and the Nakba Archive have independently conducted and collected oral history interviews with members of the Palestinian community in Lebanon, while the AUB University Libraries have taken the responsibility to digitize, index, catalogue, avail and preserve the collection.
The project has been funded through a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2016-19), and previously by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Welfare Association, and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

The Collections

The project goes back to the mid-1990s, when the Nakba Archive and the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (Al-JANA) conducted oral history interviews with members of the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. The Nakba Archive team, which operated between 2002 and 2006, comprised two coordinators and 26 interviewers and field-workers; AL-JANA’s team, which operated from 1994 to 2009, comprised two coordinators and ten interviewers. Interviewers affiliated with both projects were trained to conduct oral history interviews in accordance with established best practices. Questionnaires were custom developed; interviewees were selected through chain-referral sampling; research into the interviewees’ villages of origin and the historical periods at stake preceded the actual interviews; interview formats were standardized; and socioeconomic as well as data on places of origin were systematically collected.

The two organizations’ efforts resulted in the creation of over eight hundred video and/or audio testimonies, which have now been consolidated into one collection housed by POHA. The POHA collection is organized into four subcategories:

1. “Uprooting,” constituting the majority of the collection, comprises the entirety of the Nakba Archive series (558 hours of video recordings) and a part of AL-JANA’s (136 hours of audio recording). Here, the focus is on the refugees’ experience of mass displacement during the Nakba, their “uprooting”; this section also comprises accounts of life under the British Mandate and during the 1948–49 war, including the experiences of exile and displacement in Lebanon.

2. “Folktales” (172 hours of audio interviews) encompasses pre-1948 elements of intangible culture in the form of Palestinian folktales, storytelling, traditional songs, proverbs, and poems.

3. “Ayn al-Hilwat” comprises 36 hours of video recordings of women from the ‘Ayn al-Hilwah refugee camp in South Lebanon talking about their occupations, their family lives, and their roles in the establishment of the camp.

4. “Biographies” includes 160 hours of audio, recording the life stories of men and women who played important roles in their communities, or served as models and inspiration there.

Goals & Objectives

The project's immediate goal is to produce a multi-media online database for Palestinian Oral History featuring multi-format interviews, indexed thoroughly, retrievable through a user-friendly search engine and accessible through a state-of-the-art web interface.

The medium-term objective of the project is to expand and include additional Palestinian oral history collections, of which there are many in Lebanon and the Arab world.

The medium-term objective of the project is to expand and include additional Palestinian oral history collections, of which there are many in Lebanon and the Arab world. The long term objective is to build an initiative around the archive that engages with the local communities and the academy; optimizes the use of oral history sources and disseminates the knowledge and experience accumulated; and that opens up new angles and venues of exploration in the official discourses of historiography, and of the history of modern Palestine.

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Project Background

During the 1948–49 Arab-Israeli war, 418 Palestinian villages were destroyed and about 750,000 Palestinians living in Palestine were displaced and driven from their homes to neighboring Arab states or other localities in historic Palestine. The state of Israel was declared on May 15th, 1948 and it then controlled 77 percent of the territory of Mandate Palestine, with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip falling, respectively, under Jordanian and Egyptian authority. That period of Palestinian history has become known to Palestinians and Arabs in general as al-Nakba (the Catastrophe). Of the 750,000 displaced Palestinians, approximately 110,000 sought refuge in Lebanon. The majority were registered with the newly established United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and housed in twelve refugee camps operated by UNRWA throughout Lebanon. Today, more than seventy years later, the camps continue to serve as confined spaces for Palestinian refugee communities whose numbers have swelled manyfold over the decades.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Beirut-based Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (AL-JANA) and the Nakba Archive (an oral history collective established in Lebanon in 2002) launched initiatives to systematically record the experiences of this first generation of Palestinian refugees who were forced out of Palestine during the Nakba. The two organizations were driven by a sense of urgency given the time elapsed since 1948–49 and the aging of the population. They were also committed to giving voice to people at the grassroots: interviewers were recruited from local communities and participated in developing questionnaires and identifying interviewees, thus ensuring that the project was rooted in the very communities whose stories they sought to document. Interviewees, of various socioeconomic backgrounds, originated in over 130 Palestinian villages, cities, and localities, and comprised an equal distribution of men and women.

POHA came to AUB in 2011 when AL-JANA and the Nakba Archive approached the AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) with a partnership proposal to archive and preserve their oral history collections and make them accessible to the public. The first stage of the collaboration resulted in data conversion and file digitization from analog files (cassette tapes) to audio and video files. Once the archive was digitized, IFI teamed up with the AUB libraries and the planning phase was completed between 2014 and mid-2015. The digitization and planning phases of the project were made possible through the generous support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Welfare Association, and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.In 2016, POHA received a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities Award in the amount of $260,000 over three years to support the implementation and development phase of the project.