Faisal Saleh, a Palestinian-American entrepreneur, is no stranger to taking on ambitious ideas and turning them into success stories. With years of experience in business and consulting, including as a business owner, his latest project is already under way: PalestineMuseum.US, the first permanent Palestinian museum in the United States, located in Woodbridge, Connecticut.
Born only three years after his family was displaced from Salama, east of Yafa, as a result of Israel’s establishment in 1948, the Nakba to Palestinians, Saleh recently began to wonder what life was like before then, and what it would have been like had his family not been forced to flee marauding Zionist gangs. For nearly 40 years since his undergraduate years at Oberlin College, these questions seemed distant as Saleh was preoccupied with work and life in America. But, with interest in Palestinian history and culture growing among American audiences, he feels it is time to give back.
“I believe the Palestinian story has never been told right in the U.S.,” Saleh explained. And so, answering those once-distant questions is a cornerstone of the mission of the museum: to research and preserve Palestinian history and to tell the Palestinian story, before and after the Nakba, in a compelling way. “We can communicate our story using our culture, art, and our literature,” he added.
Too often, Saleh feels, Palestinian history is on display for people other than Palestinians themselves, something which can be remedied by nurturing the connection of diasporic Palestinians to their homeland. He hopes the PalestineMuseum.US will become a space where Palestinians can be proud of their history. “We want every Palestinian to feel that they belong,” he continued.
Set up as a nonprofit institution, the PalestineMuseum.US is located in a 4,000-square foot space comprising seven distinct galleries. “It’s a modest space, but it’s a good start as the nucleus of the museum,” Saleh commented, and construction is on schedule for completion by mid-November.
Simultaneously, Saleh is working on finalizing three exhibits for the museum’s opening.
The first exhibit features Manal Deeb, a Palestinian-American artist who draws inspiration for her contemporary paintings from diasporic poetry. The exhibit, “Heart/Homeless,” recreates an acyclic image of Palestinians in diaspora through layers of Arabic calligraphy, paint, and fabric. This multilayered approach conveys a sense of the varied identities and complex realities Palestinians navigate as their stories unfold.
The complexity of these realities is perhaps most evident in the plight of Palestinian refugees, the subject of the second exhibit, “Marking Time,” highlighting the work of Margaret Olin, a senior research scholar at Yale University’s with joint appointments the Departments of Religious Studies and of History and Art. Within this intersection of history, religion, and art, Olin has explored visual and photographic practices in both Israel and Palestine. “Marking Time” is a selection of photos she has taken during time spent at the Dheisheh and Arroub refugee camps in the West Bank. The exhibit features many murals painted across the narrow streets of the camps that explore political and historical circumstances giving rise to their production by often anonymous street artists. Indeed, murals have been a staple means to popularize the Palestinian story and the resistance struggle.
Last but not least, the third opening exhibition, “Pre-Nakba Palestine, 1898-1948,” features a photographic portrait of life in Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel and the concurrent expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. Relying on photographic archives from private and public collections, the exhibit promises to captivate viewers as they gain insight into Palestinian life during this often forgotten period. One such collection is Before Their Diaspora, a narrative-in-pictures comprising nearly 500 photographs that, together, reveal the rich fabric of Palestinian history. Another resource Saleh is utilizing is the American Colony Collection, which comprises over 20,000 photographs from that period.
In addition to working with historiographers and artists, Saleh has also started to seek out opportunities to cooperate with the Palestine Museum in the West Bank and the Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem, among others. In establishing these relationships, Saleh’s goal is to ensure that diasporic Palestinians as well as Americans have an opportunity to view works by Palestinians based at home through PalestineMuseum.US.
No doubt, these are all ambitious goals and much work is ahead, but Saleh is both optimistic and confident. “Everyone I talked to about PaletineMuseum.US is excited,” he said. In fact, he is often asked why a project like this hadn’t already seen the light of day.