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Born Among Mirrors: Fifty Years After

Najib Joe Hakim | Lebanon

These five B&W photographs were shot by my father on November 6, 1956, the day we embarked on our journey to the United States aboard the Cleopatra. They show our relatives from both sides of the family seeing my parents, my infant brother and me off at Beirut Harbor. The uncut film was rolled in a film tin and lost for almost 50 years when my mother re-discovered them and asked me to take a look to see if anything interesting was on it.

Ever since he left Palestine, my father wanted to go to America. He was a very ambitious person, and in his younger days not afraid of making big gambles. The departure date was approaching quickly and we had yet to receive our visas from the American Embassy in Beirut. In fact, we missed the original ship we had planned to sail on because of the bureaucratic delay. According to family lore, that first ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean. My father used to joke that the moral of the story was “bureaucracies aren’t all bad”. Finally in November the Cleopatra took us safely to a new world.

These photographs are taken 50 years apart by my father and myself. His B&W pictures document his young family's emigration from Lebanon to the US in 1956. My color images explore Lebanon in 2006 after the latest war with Israel.

Yet, this is not a project about Lebanon.

In 1948, when news spread of the massacre of over 100 unarmed Palestinian villagers, including women and children, at Dir Yassin by Zionist terrorist groups, a mass exodus of native Palestinians began toward the surrounding countries.

My father Elias, from Jaffa, was part of this exodus. He left for Jordan making his way overland to Lebanon. My mother, Josephine and her family left their hometown Haifa by sea for Beirut.
In 1956, we left Lebanon.

The title is borrowed from a Federico Garcia Lorca poem. For me, it describes the experience of someone born to two worlds, struggling to cope with each identity as if inside a carnival’s dark hall of mirrors where he doesn’t know which of the reflections is the real him.

These photographs of Lebanon are taken 50 years apart by my father and myself. Elias Hakim's B&W pictures document the young Hakim family's emigration from Lebanon to the United States in 1956. My color photographs explore the country upon my return in 2006 after the latest war with Israel.

Yet, at its core, this is not a project about Lebanon. Just as Lebanon served as a bridge for my parents fleeing the Zionist takeover of Palestine and eventually immigrating to the US, it also serves me as the launching point for my quest to turn a personal lens toward one Palestinian family’s story. Through Born Among Mirrors, I hope to provide insights into our successful journey through arguably the most intractable conflict of the last 100 years. And hopefully, perhaps it could also chip away at the many misconceptions about Palestinians that are perpetrated by Hollywood, the media and the national political culture.

I am a San Francisco-based photographer born in Beirut, Lebanon. In October 2006 I returned to my birthplace after a 31-year absence. Barely three months had passed since the latest war with Israel. While my project began as an exploration of a war-ravaged country, through coincidence and personal tragedy, it became a journey into my own family history: from refugees out of Palestine to thriving American citizens. In the post-1948 era, we were among the first 100 Palestinians allowed immigration visas to this country. Out of fear, my parents never told us we were Palestinian, nor did they speak Arabic to us. It was as though somehow we were invisible even to ourselves.

When I returned from my trip, I discovered two things. The first was a roll of B&W negatives of images taken by my father Elias in 1956 at Beirut harbor as we were embarking on our voyage to America. The other shockingly, was learning that my mother, Josephine had just been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Life was changing rapidly and so was my project.

There was sudden urgency in learning stories before they disappear forever with my parents. And I have added prints from my father’s previously lost 1956 harbor negatives to my own series from 2006 for this exhibit. Each set of images is an exploration of a people determined to survive.

In addition, I selected from my parents’ papers amazing documents relating to our journey and Diaspora: British Mandate of Palestine passports; Lebanese identity documents for Palestinian refugees; US naturalization papers; letters from then governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller and other officials congratulating us on our newly acquired US citizenship, and more. These documents also testify to our roots and our denied rights.

On our last Thanksgiving together, Mom couldn’t cook. It was my turn to take over the kitchen. And she could no longer share her story.
She needed us to take that over too.

The result is this developing exhibition.

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