Bshara Nassar has organized many exhibits and conferences in the US about the Palestinian people most notably the ‘Nakba Museum’ and ‘Bethlehem Beyond the Wall’. He is currently working on the opening of the ‘Museum of the Palestinian People’. His family founded and manages the ‘Tent of Nations’ a farm visited by people from across the world who come to help the Nassars in their struggle to prevent the confiscation of their land by Israel and to learn about the realities of life on the West Bank.
Could you describe your childhood in Bethlehem?
I was born in Jerusalem but raised in Bethlehem. My childhood was idyllic; I enjoyed going to school and playing soccer in the streets of Bethlehem. This all changed in the year 2000 when I was eleven years old and the Second Intifada erupted.
During the Second Intifada the Israeli army reoccupied Bethlehem and placed my city under several curfews, which prevented people from leaving their homes. Our homes became our prison cells. During the longest curfew I could not attend school for 40 days. It was these events that shattered my blissful childhood. At the age of eleven I knew what it meant to live under occupation.
Your family founded the Tent of Nations, could you tell us about how this came to happen and the ethos behind it?
My family’s struggle began in 1991 when Israel declared that our land was state land and it continues to the present day. It is characterized by resistance and resilience in response to the settlements, their expansion and ongoing land confiscations. One of the hardest setbacks our farm, the ‘Tent of Nation’ suffered was in 2014 when the Israeli army uprooted over 1,500 trees as result of a court order.
My family have title deeds to the land going back to 1916 from the Ottomans, the British Mandate and the Jordanians. Despite this, as far back as I can remember I watched my father constantly in and out of Israeli courts to fight against attempts to confiscate our family’s farm. This legal battle was a cause of great stress and continues to be so for our entire family.
At a very young age my father started to take me to the family farm to plant Olive trees. He taught me we need to live off the land. I will never forget his words “We plant so our children can eat. We plant hope for the next generation.” It’s these words that shaped who I am.
The Tent of Nations was established so we could share our message with the world. Each year 10,000 people, of different faiths, come to our farm from all across the globe to help with farm work and to plant trees. They see how our farm is surrounded by five settlements. Our message to them and the world is that we refuse to be enemies. They become a part of our campaign to prevent the confiscation of our farm. Our farm is continually under threat of confiscation, yet we continue to educate thousands of people.
Local children also visit our farm. It helps them deal with the trauma and violence that the occupation exposes them to. Their visits to our farm and their help with planting trees further strengthens their connection to the land.
What inspired you to be one of the founders of the Museum of the Palestinian people?
I came to the US in 2011. Like most visitors and tourists, I enjoyed visiting the many museums and monuments. As a Palestinian I could not find a place which told the story of my people, the Palestinian people.
The Palestinians were portrayed in America in a way filled with misconceptions. Palestinian were either violent terrorists or helpless victims according to this erroneous narrative. This simply wasn’t true, I knew I had to do something that would change this.
I wanted to be able to show Americans that Palestinian are their own people. We have our own culture, art and history. We have also endured the Nakba and over half a century of military occupation, the longest in modern history. I knew that there were many Palestinian Americans who wanted their story told. They could be anything from an artist to a teacher to an entrepreneur.
In summer 2014 as soon as I graduated from University I started discussing my ideas with Ahmed Hmeedat an artist from the Dheisheh refugee camp. Both of us wanted to change the false narratives about Palestinians that existed in the US. Ahmed decided to send me two art works. The first was of a man holding a key (a symbol of the right of return). The second was a picture of a woman holding an ID card, she could have been from the West Bank, Gaza or a refugee camp in Lebanon or Syria.
I took these two pictures to many conferences and churches across the US where they hit a chord with the American public. They wanted to see more. I started to work on setting up a museum and I was encouraged by Americans as well as Palestinians.
In 2015 we opened the Nakba exhibit in Washington DC and many more Palestinian artists sent us works of art to be displayed. The exhibit was very popular what’s more Americans came to us and told us they wanted to bring the exhibit to their hometown or community. They wanted others to learn what they had learnt.
In response to these requests, over the past three years we have held over 50 exhibits, concerts and presentations based on the Nakba Museum exhibit.
With the help of a curator from the Smithsonian we were able to create an exhibit titled ‘Bethlehem Beyond the Wall’. This exhibit was launched in two locations Manhattan NY and Rochester NY.
Although our exhibits were successful we still didn’t have a location to house the museum of the Palestinian people. The cost of land in Washington DC is very high and that was our major obstacle. This all changed when we were approached by a couple who owned a building in DC. They had read about our idea to establish a Museum of the Palestinian People in the ‘Washington Report’. They were very interested in our project and offered us use of their building. This was a huge step forward towards realizing our vision.
Our ideas from setting up the Nakba Museum exhibit to deciding to establish the Museum of the Palestinian People have been shaped by feedback from the public and are still continually evolving. This is made possible as we are not sponsored by a government, a single entity or a person. We are a truly grassroots Museum.
At present we are looking to partner with individuals and organizations and we are still fundraising. Every donation big or small is important to us. Our aim is to raise $200,000 by 1st of October 2018. Once we do this we plan to open the doors to the Museum of the Palestinian People, which will be a Palestinian landmark in the Capital of the United Sates, by the end of 2018.
Mr. Nassar earned his undergraduate degree from Bethlehem University (Palestine) in Information Systems and Business Administration in 2010. He earned his Master’s Degree in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, VA) in 2014. As the fourth generation of the Nassar family, Mr. Nassar was deeply involved in his family’s educational farm, Tent of Nations, in Palestine, including education, communication and social media. In 2014, he founded the Nakba Museum Project, where he developed the concept, worked with artists, prepared artwork and exhibits, negotiated exhibit space, coordinated the setup of the exhibits in locations across the country, and raised funds.
He has played an integral role in educating international visitors about Palestinian rights and livelihoods. He has spoken publicly on these topics in diverse forums, including the French Embassy, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a number of churches and universities around the country. Mr. Nassar developed the concept for the Museum of The Palestinian People while working with artists and other contributors on the Nakba Museum Project. He is deeply passionate about peace building. Mr. Nassar is “a people person” who enjoys biking in Washington DC and meeting people from all over the world.
Interview by Nadia Aburdene 2018