Rona Sela, Like a Hunter Venturing out on a Safari

Like a hunter venturing out on a safari, the colonialist or the soldier goes out to a war, to occupy. On behalf of the sovereign he serves, he plunders cultural, artistic and historical artifacts, and often does not hesitate to loot on his own. Like a bird of prey, he engages in what Simon Harrison called “souvenir hunting” (2008). The loot hangs proudly in his home like a stuffed animal for all to see, externalizing power, symbolizing the occupier’s victory and superiority, the power relations between ruler and ruled. The loot glorifies the game in the hunter society. When the native is subordinated and subsumed under the colonial relationship, their cultural heritage is proudly presented in the glorious of the museum’s halls, uprooted from their country and culture of origin, detached from the indigenous context of their creation. The plundered artifacts are presented and interpreted in the white, sterile cube, in the grand galleries of Europe and North America. Men and women dressed in their finest, caption the seized items using colonial codes, charge them with foreign-sounding words and meanings, to be consumed as self-evident truths by White children. Chanel suites and haute couture domesticate indigenous knowledge, control its production, and disseminate it in translated, transfigured, disfigured form.

When the hunter hunts for land, not only to exploit its resources but also to uproot its inhabitants, settle it and (try to) become a native ex nihilo, the cultural and historical loot often decorates his estates, his courtyards – testifying to his power. In many cases, however, this is not an individual but a sovereign mission – archives, documents, photographs, films and art objects are collected for intelligence purposes, in preparation for occupation of land and people as well, as tools for its perpetuation. The main purpose of this violent practice, however, is the erasure of indigenous history. The treasures are not just removed from the public sphere, but reappropriated and carefully studied in the colonial dungeons of the archives. They are deliberately cataloged, censured, hidden in the dark. The very act of their seizure is often denied by the new settlers and his bureaucratic representatives – archivists, censors, legal- advisors and public servants. There in the dungeons, indigenous history is erased, rewritten and a new history is reborn – native free. It becomes the history of the new settlers, the new man and women, the owners of their supposed ancient history of the place.

Sometimes, usually after a strenuous activist or legal struggle against it, the colonial bureaucracy deigns to leak out a drop or two of genuine indigenous story. But these too are colonized to fit in with the new narrative, so as not to burden the new settler’s conscience. The intractable native is demonized as a malevolent primitive, the new settler eulogized as a benevolent modernist. The images and documents are charged with words and concepts foreign to their indigenous origins.  

The archive functions as a site of erasure, concealment, rewriting, and reinterpretation – a site for the control, reconstruction and reproduction of knowledge. A well-oiled machine. Indigenous history, however, is not preordained to remain “a history without documents” always incomplete, always unknowable, as Omnia El-Shakry states with regards to the absence of materials and documents in Middle East archives (2015). The archive can, and even must become, a site of resistance, and the researchers –activists. First, the activist-researcher will pinpoint the destructive moves directed against the indigenous past and culture – the erasure on both the physical and conscious level. They (she/he) must reveal how the new settlers plunder and loot cultural and historical treasures, how they deliberately remove them from public space. Next, they must trace the hidden paths of indigenous history and culture in the settler-colonialist archive – how it is concealed, erased, rewritten, subjected to tendentious strategies and norms. They will fight against censorship and limitations on of the materials, let alone the prevention of their returning to their rightful owners. They will raise the imperative of correcting this wrong and call upon the newsletter to take responsibility, to ask for forgiveness, to end the game and face history. They must struggle to make the past of the indigenous their own. The indigenous must speak out in their voice!

It is thus the duty of the activist researcher to shed light on hidden wrongs, to point out all manifestations of the violence exercised against the indigenous archive and indigenous mind and act to return the treasures to their owners. For twenty years I have been struggling against the IDF archive, and unfortunately my successes are limited. These have included the opening of the films of the PLO’s Cultural Arts Section, presented in Looted and Hidden. But many, all too many, are still confined to the military archive of occupation.

As Israel hides what it holds, the challenge is to compile a list to track what has been taken by force. Although I have been personally involved in a number of cases of returning materials to their owners – such as the photography archive by Ibrahim and Khalil Rassas (Chlil Rissas) and Ali Za’arur – completing this mission seems utopic and impossible. The Israeli military archive refuses to provide a list of plundered materials. To overcome its denials and subterfuges, the activist researcher must “invest” in a range of alternative strategies to discover what has been taken and from whom, and what has been the fate of the seized materials – have they been disposed of, and if not, where are they held. At best, they (she/he) would construct step by step, in a long Sisyphean way, a partial list. The entire scope of the plunder will not be known until such time as an official inventory is provided and validated – that is, never.

This monumental task requires, as Homi K. Bhabha suggested “an alternative set of questions, techniques and strategies in order to construct it” (1990, 75). It calls for an oppositional force to the oppressive actions of the colonizer/the new settler and its efforts to conceal, hide or manage the past. For alternative methods and sources, that is, digging into the different layers to extract information – in many cases disguised, biased and inaccessible – to reconstruct the historical and cultural context, to unmask it and view it in its original form. This painstaking task is also carried out on a conscious level – the activist researcher must reveal how the new settlers imagines and invents a new history upon the ruins of the indigenous ones. They (she/he) must expose the weak points in the archive’s rationalization structure. They must reveal the sophisticated mechanisms whereby the raw materials of history are kneaded by their new owners into a completely different bread. And they must disrupt this disruption, resurrect the past and present it in its original light. Thus for example, if ethnically cleansed inhabitants acting to return to their lands are presented as “infiltrators”, as “trespassers”, this settler-colonialist terminology that presents the native as criminal must be neutralized, with the returning refugees presented as home comers exercising an indisputable right. Or, as stated by Derrida (1996 [1998]), “Radical destruction can again be reinvested in another logic […] radical evil can be of service, infinite destruction can be reinvested in a theodicy”. Accordingly, my work as an activist-researcher is to turn the archive into a site of resistance (Sela2017 [ 2018]), nullifying its colonial features, reforming its functioning and returning its original contexts, to lead a process of re-imagination while turning hidden into visible, “selective forgetting” – in El-Shakry’s words – into remembering. It suggests establishing “archive partisans” to liberate the archive, to develop processes for “democratization that tackles the state ‘in its own house’”, as Sonja Hegasy suggested (2019).

I argue that reading official colonial records requires reading through the colonial archive’s multiple overt and covert layers, neutralizing its colonial biases, and exposing information that often contradicts and challenges its official goals, illuminating its blind spots. This will alter our knowledge of the past, providing new tools to confront the present –, challenging and “changing conditions of meaning”. In Ahmad Aijaz’s words (2000), “If the Western archive has done nothing but silence, misrepresent and fabricate false images of non-Western culture, the task, necessarily, is to restore the authenticity of those cultures through their own practices, rituals, and representations.”

Aijaz, Ahmad. 2000. “Between Orientalism and Historicism.” In Orientalism: A Reader, edited by Alexander Lyon Macfie, 285–297. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Bhabha, K. Homi. 1990. “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism.” In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, edited by Russell Ferguson, 71–87. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Derrida, Jacques. (1996) 1998. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harrison, Simon, 2008. “War Mementos and the Souls of Missing Soldiers: Returning Effects of the Battlefield Dead.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, no. 4: 774-790.
Hegasy, Sonja. 2019. “Archive Partisans: Forbidden Histories and the Promise of the Future.” Memory Studies 12, no. 3: 247–265.
Sela, Rona. (2017) 2018. “Genealogy of Colonial Plunder and Erasure”. Social Semiotics 28, no. 2: 201-229. Published online 3 March 2017.
El-Shakry, Omnia. 2015. “‘History Without Documents’: The Vexed Archives of Decolonization in the Middle East.” The American Historical Review 120, no. 3: 920–934. doi:10.1093/ahr/120.3.920.