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Adel Yahya

Appreciation by
Sandra Scham, Susan Pollock, Reinhard Bernbeck & Rob Sauders

Dr. Adel Yahya (Photo: Kjersti Nordby; Source: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/12/remembering-pioneer-palestinian/)
Dr. Adel Yahya (Photo: Kjersti Nordby; Source: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/12/remembering-pioneer-palestinian/)

With deep regret, as well as profound appreciation for his contributions, we wish to acknowledge the loss of Adel Yahya, founder of the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange (PACE), dedicated advocate for the preservation of Palestinian history and culture, and highly valued friend and colleague.

Adel served as a constant reminder, by example, that the kind of empty rhetoric that often surrounds heritage in academic circles belies the passion and emotional attachment that real people have for their patrimony. For Adel this was a birthright in the truest sense, as his work reflected his personal history as well as his scholarship. In one of his publications, he poetically described his mother's distress at the stray dogs barking outside the tent as she gave birth to him (Yahya 2006: 19). Such were his beginnings in the Jalazone Refugee Camp—an experience that stayed with him throughout his life.

He did not, however, permit the sense of despair that has overwhelmed so many of his fellow refugees to follow him into his adulthood. Attending Birzeit University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Free University in Berlin, he achieved his doctorate in Archaeology and Middle Eastern History in 1995 and returned to Palestine to make his home in Ramallah. This was a hopeful time in the Middle East and he began PACE with optimism for the future and hope that true Palestinian nationhood might yet be achieved. Sadly, this was not to happen in his lifetime—although he did live to see the inscription of Bethlehem and the cultural landscape of Southern Jerusalem as the first Palestinian UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Ever a close observer of current events, he was not unaware of the subtle ironies of his situation as a Palestinian archaeologist working on Biblical sites. In one publication, he argued that, because of the occupation, such sites were becoming a symbol of "negative heritage" for residents of the West Bank (Yahya 2005: 69). Documenting a past to which so many had laid claim, with less justification in most cases than he had, was a passion. He worked consistently to provide education for local schoolchildren and employment for their parents at Beitin (Bethel) and Al-Jib (Gibeon). He engaged local workers in cleaning the sites, restoring their remaining structures and building retaining walls to curb erosion—under the rubric of a cooperative Israeli-Palestinian peace project sponsored by the United States Department of State.

Crucially, he argued and demonstrated in practice that making archaeological sites usable by people who live near them, whether as parks, playgrounds or something similar, changed them from quasi-alien places to part of the local community. In keeping with his concern about promoting Palestinian heritage to benefit his community, he was a co-organiser of the WAC Intercongress that took place in Ramallah in August 2009. He was a driving force behind the organisation of the event, making sure that as many as possible of his Palestinian colleagues would take part. He arranged and led the tours taken by the group, leaving a lasting impression in everyone's minds.

He was tolerant of people from many different backgrounds. In the tours Adel organised through PACE, he made people aware of 'facts on the ground' by showing them the effects of current politics on archaeological and heritage sites as well as on the lives of people in the communities who live around them. Adel was also pragmatic and it was this latter quality that impelled him to join an unlikely coalition when he discovered that the infamous 'separation wall' was slated to cut through Al-Jib, the site he had so painstakingly helped to preserve under the State Department cooperative project. A group protest that included the Deputy Director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, two American academics and a well-known right-wing archaeologist who lived in one of the contentious West Bank settlements saved the site.

The wall was diverted, but Adel was, nonetheless, fond of showing visitors the place where it would have been built. His personal tours also frequented Qalandia, where the most photographed section of this remarkably unphotogenic concrete barrier stood. Serving as an illustration of the rather smarmy axiom 'when life hands you lemons, make lemonade!', a flourishing market had been set up by Palestinians on their side of the barrier as so many waited to cross through the checkpoint. Sadly, that market has gone the way of the peace process—it no longer exists.

Displaying a remarkably prescient concern for preserving what is now referred to as 'intangible heritage', PACE under Adel's direction was engaged, since its inception in 1996, in reviving native industries for making pottery, soap, embroidery, and even wine (in some of the Christian villages of the West Bank). With deep roots in the land, Palestinian archaeologists since the 1920s have focused on ethnographic research, and Adel continued in this tradition both through his sponsorship of artisans and his work with oral history. His more recent projects included recording the stories of looters of archaeological sites in the West Bank. He understood better than most that poverty and unemployment were the primary motivators for these activities.

As a scrupulous chronicler of individual as well as collective pasts, Adel also painstakingly recorded the stories of people residing in refugee camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza, beginning not long after he returned to the Middle East. As he wrote in the 1998 report on his study and continued to emphasise in his later work, "history is the property of the winners. The stories of the defeated are often left out" (Yahya 1998). Continuing throughout his life to rise above circumstances that many of us cannot even begin to imagine, Adel made it his lifelong quest to bring international attention the history of a nation that had been denied a state, and a culture that that had been denied a past.