The home I grew up in was 6 blocks away from the Denver Museum of Natural History and so we visited weekly. I memorized the opening movie at the dinosaur exhibit by heart and I took morbid pleasure at looking at the cautionary-tale-blackened smoker’s lungs in the Hall of Life. The mummy corridor was my area of expertise; I learned to spell my name in hieroglyphics. I learned the behind the scenes secrets (For example, to change the lightbulb in the exhibit of the African watering hole, the museum janitors wore special boots that made animal footprints in the sand) and knew the difference between real gold and fool’s gold thanks to the gemstone exhibit that displays Colorado’s mining history. I know where all of the secret, painted gnomes are located in the taxidermy exhibits displaying local Colorado flora and fauna. The museum was my playground and a formative place of exploration, education, imagination, and discovery for me.
It was with this childish excitement in the back of my mind that I joined a group to visit the Palestine Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem. This museum is only one room; it doesn’t have any flashing multimedia explanations or gift shop. But it has heart.
I read about the museum a few years ago in a fantastic piece in Brownbook, but I hadn’t thought of visiting it until an invitation from the Israeli activist group De-colonizer arrived in my inbox. I excitedly RSVPed to join the carpool to Bethlehem and cross the borders with a group of over 20 Israelis and internationals—a moment of civil disobedience for many Israelis who are prohibited from legally entering Bethlehem (Area A). You can see more photos from the day here.
On a Saturday morning, a caravan of Israeli cars made a sharp turn down a steep hill and there at the bottom was a man waving. Narrow faced, sharp cheekbones, his checkered shirt tucked into blue pants, smiling eyes, Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh greeted us warmly and led us into the air conditioned building.
The museum was founded 2 years ago by Mazin and his wife. A native of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town next to Bethlehem, Mazin is a remarkable man. An accomplished biologist, educator, and activist, Mazin returned to Palestine after teaching for many years at Duke and Yale in the United States. He raises his eyebrows over his skinny framed glasses and smiles at the group "Ahlan wa-Sahlan, welcome, welcome." He is humble in his speech, but his ideas and his actions speak louder than his words. He has written several books about the biodiversity of the region including The Bats of Egypt (1985) and Mammals of the Holy Land (1996). He also wrote an in-depth analytical history of Palestinian non-violent resistance, and yet another book called Sharing the Land of Canaan. He has published many scientific articles in reviewed journals—several focus on the impact of occupation on biodiversity and ecosystems of Palestine. He has been arrested several times for engaging in protests, activism, and non-violent actions including riding the Freedom Bus. He mentions all of this casually as he introduces himself to the group. After making a grand political statement about justice or mentioning that he was at a pivotal event in Palestinian resistance history, he quickly shrugs his shoulders and remarks in a self-deprecating tone, “But anyways…”
"The museum was founded on the tenant of respect," explains Mazin. "Self-Respect, Respect for others, and Respect for nature." He goes on to explain how the Palestinian community needs "a revolution in our way of thinking" and the museum aims to create a space for this change. "The wall is nothing if the people put it in their mind to remove it. We tend to hang everything on occupation. Yes, it is a part of it, but we are also a part of it. Change has to start with our own actions."
A teacher at heart, Mazin is currently a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universitites. The Museum serves as a center for internships, research, and volunteer opportunities for his students. They have established a research lab and he works closely with students to do research and co-publish papers.
One of his students led us on a tour of the surrounding grounds—a large part of the Museum project has been to develop the land around the Bethlehem University campus. Mazin and his volunteers have been planting a botanic garden of native species to the region. Olive trees, fruit trees, sage, thyme, and zatar, each plant will be labeled with its Latin name, and the local names from several different Palestinian dialects. There was an area for beekeeping, and a building for rehabilitating wild birds. The student led us around a bend and there was a small pond which the group had been meticulously cultivating to create a diverse ecosystem of frogs, algae, and plants and had begun to attract kingfishers and foxes. Flanking the pond were several greenhouses--we entered and I was overjoyed to see fully functioning aquaponic systems! Having worked for a summer at The GrowHaus in Denver, it was a familiar sight to see fish swimming in a pool of water next to flourishing plants. The water from the fish is used to water the plants (full of nutrients from the fish's excrement)—the plants then clean the water (nitrogen rich water makes for happy plants)—the clean water is returned to the fish tank. Since the plants are planted in a bed of porous rocks, it is a more efficient way to water them and they grow quicker because they are directly exposed to the water and nutrients. The cycle is a beautiful manifestation of using what you have.
Hot and sweaty, we were then led through the exhibition room. We pressed our noses to glass cases and looked upon the pinned butterflies, the classified snail shells, the rocks and gemstones, the stuffed birds. There was pride in the labels: Snails of Palestine. Butterflies of Palestine. Scorpions of Palestine. I began thinking about the emotional importance of naming and claiming things. Especially here in a place where existence is a constant competition and narratives are erased, replaced, and proclaimed loudly through shouting matches. This room was a quieter, but definitive stake of ownership, history, and a nexus of knowledge.
We returned to a classroom and Mazin launched into a clear, succinct analysis of the Israeli and Palestinian conflicts. "Let me share with you my view of the world. You can disagree."
He began in a way that was reminiscent of that introduction to the dinosaur exhibit back in Denver, "The universe is very large, we are but a tiny blue dot in the Milky-Way." He then specified, "And this region is but a tiny corner on that tiny dot. Our conflict is but a tiny blip in the history of existence. We are small," he continued, "Yet we seem to think that we are special." After tracing the arc of civilizations in the Fertile Crescent, he arrived at modern day Israel and Palestine. "Conflicts arise when there are attempts to force one idea on people."
He confided in us that he is not a nationalist; he is a humanist, a biologist. The problems facing Israelis and Palestinians are not Israeli problems or Palestinian problems, they are human problems. This is not to say that he is not political and does not support Palestinian national self-determination. Mazin clearly upholds the BDS boycott and refuses to work with Israeli institutions (he does not mind personal relationships with Israeli individuals, but he follows the lines stipulated by the BDS movement). And here he was, speaking to a room full of Israelis. To explain this differentiation, he tells the story of how his family lived on the Jordanian side of the border after 1948. The 1967 war rolls around, the borders shift, and a few days later there is a knock at the door. An older man, a Jew, asks for Mazin’s grandfather. The moment they see each other they begin hugging. The two had been best friends before 1948 and had not seen each other for 19 years. “But anyways…” He continues on with his lecture and the next slide about the water crisis in the Jordan Valley and describes bringing the museum to children in poor areas or unrecognized villages in Area C so that they too could learn about butterflies.
Mazin repeated again and again the importance of biodiversity: both in relation to the natural and human worlds. “A monolithic biosphere is not healthy. Neither is a monolithic society. Diversity is strength.” He launches into a metaphor about a garden of only blue flowers and how boring that would be. "Would you want to live with people only like yourself?" He chuckles, "Hell, I can't live with only myself."
By encouraging science education and environmentalism, Mazin believes that humanism will follow as a side effect. The museum serves as a place to educate and allow students and communities to engage in a way that restores personal and communal dignity. “The way I see it, he concluded, “This museum is resistance.”
I haven't been this excited about a project or an individual in a long time. Please consider donating to keep the Museum going and to help them in their efforts to expand. They also have many volunteer opportunities (here's looking at all my permaculture and sustainable agriculture friends!) To learn more about the museum, visit their website here.