Ron Stockton: This is Ron Stockton. I’m here with Adel Bseiso. We’re discussing the Bseiso Family Archive at Columbia University. It is available online to any person anywhere in the world. I think the potential of this archive for students, researchers, historians, and just regular people interested in Palestinian history is enormous.
You told me about this collection of documents in our last conversation. How your grandfather built up a vast economy in the Beersheba area. He fled with these documents when the Jewish forces arrived in 1948. He hid the documents in the clothing of his children, assuming they were less likely to be searched. Now, you are the family custodian of that remarkable collection which you are sharing with the public. Let’s turn to that archive itself. Could you tell me what’s in the archive?
Adel Bseiso: Yes sir, let me walk you through the site. We leave the home page by clicking on the navigation bar of the archives. When the archive opens, it is comprised of four different sections plus the documents. Mahrous Bseiso, his bio and journey through the documents, the number of documents and Witnesses attached to those documents are detailed from the beginning in 1906 through 1948. To walk you through the witnesses, who they are, what they do, what they’ve done, and how prominent they were at the point and what documents they witnessed and where. Then it takes you through Places documented photos of pre-Palestine dating back all the way to the early 1900s. It can walk you through the visuals of where some of Mahrous’s properties were as well as the other families prior to the 1948 war. Last is the Historical Research & Current Locations, which we’ll be going through. This is a mapping of the current location that we identified through research and their current locations, and we have mapped them. We have displayed maps before 1948 and after and what really is built on top of those properties today. We’ll go into details on all those things as well as. As you scroll down the page, you will see that the documents are displayed in both Arabic and English. In these documents you’ll have contracts and agreements, land deeds, other notes around what Mahrous’s journey was, tax receipts that were paid to all the ruling governance through Palestine starting with the Ottoman empire going to the British moving into the Jordanians and finally the Israelis. You can see all the documents separated or you could see them all together. You can see that they’re all displayed in I-format across the board, and displayed in both English and Arabic.
Ron Stockton: This is remarkable. Why don’t you click on one of those and show us what comes up.
Adel Bseiso: If we start in People & Places and you click on Mr. Mahrous, you will get a full description of when he was born, when he passed, where he was living, what he did in the earlier years, taking you through the mid-years of his exploration and the cultivating of these properties, and who he did business with. You can see the successes, dates, and document numbers. This is where the witnesses are also named, who they were, what dates they signed these documents, and the document numbers. This takes you through the journey with Mahrous’s bio, it takes you through the entire years post-1948, the legacy, and today’s date. So, it takes you all the way through the journey of Mr. Mahrous in those industrial years in Beersheba.
By clicking back to the archives, it takes you right back to the pages. By clicking on Witnesses, it tells you what number of documents that witness documented both by signature and by thumb print to make sure that we get the record straight, as well as stamped by the government there. It also tells you about who this person was, the sheik, and tribal leaders. It describes the tribes, giving you an understanding of the prominence of witnesses at that time. It walks you through all of them, and every one will indicate what year, what document, and what role they played in witnessing or being part of the negotiation of those documents. It walks you through every one of these prominent businessmen, sheiks, political leaders all the way to the chairman of the PLO at the time and generals. It goes through the Ottoman Empire as well as the British ruling. This is how prominent Mr. Mahrous was at that time and that he was the key financier of all the industrializing that had to do with this process.
If you click on Places, it gives you a pre-Palestine map of Beersheba itself. It also takes you through many photos from the early 1930s to 1968 and gives you a description of what, where, and how they looked back then all the way to the wells that Mr. Mahrous purchased and repurposed and rebuilt to address the current situation.
Ron Stockton: Those wells have always fascinated me. In the Midwest a well is something that you sink straight down. This is a very different concept of a well and it also was used for irrigation.
Adel Bseiso: That is correct, and I imploded it and zoomed it out to show the sophistication of utilizing camels to turn the wheels back in those days as machinery. This was introduced by Mahrous. Eventually over the next few years it became mechanically operated instead of by traditional animals.
Ron Stockton: I have a copy of a 1948 Life magazine during the Palestine war and it shows Israeli forces fighting with modern weaponry and it shows the Palestinian forces, a man on a camel. I’m sure there were men who went into combat on camels, but this gives the impression of a very simple backwards society facing a modern progressive force. What we see in these documents, in these images, is this was a very modern, progressive society in many ways. This was not a simple, backward land.
Adel Bseiso: That is correct, and that’s one of the main reasons for sharing this, to really highlight to the world the sophistication that existed back in those days that the Palestinian people had and the prominence of their business people and the thinking of the visionaries and industrialists. If we looked at it to compare, it’s like saying back in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, these would be the same people as the Rockefellers or Carnegies. This is the kind of make-up of these witnesses and Mahrous that they did in that part of the world, just to put it in context. It’s very important that we highlight these documents and witnesses to show that Palestinians are proud of both their indigenous and their prominent citizens. The Bedouins, the tribes are something to be extremely proud of in their tradition, but also are the advancement of education and the visionaries of industrializing farming and agriculture. They were some of the top in the world, let alone in the Middle East, in the way they did things. It’s very important to identify that because it’s been lost in translation. All we know from the history books is that they were Bedouins or tribal, not really sophisticated or educated and lived off the land like they have for thousands of years and were not advancing. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.
Ron Stockton: Do you have any idea how many documents you have in this archive?
Adel Bseiso: Absolutely. There’s a total of 55 documents and they’re broken down by contracts and agreements. They’re broken down that way so if you’re just interested in contracts and agreements, you can click on it and it will display exactly how many exist in this archive. This is the world’s largest to date of original documents ever presented as a Palestinian landowner to the world.
Ron Stockton: Can you click on one of those and show us what someone would find if they looked at one of these documents?
Adel Bseiso: Absolutely. Let’s take Document 0005. When you view details, it’ll open it up into an I-frame window designed to display in Arabic. You can see how well preserved these documents are for being as old as they are. To the left, you will have what type of document it is, what year it was written, where it originated from, what government stamps it has, and it also describes it in English alongside it. So, you have all the descriptions that it needs. Now if you want to review this document, and if you could see what the document says, you can also see it’s been stamped by the government, signed by the witnesses as well as thumbprints of the witnesses. These were all written by Mr. Mahrous and they were written in a way that they were full blown contracts because they had all the provisions that we would know today that makes a transactional, legally binding contract, whether it was land or leasing or what have you. They have all the elements that were needed in today’s contracts to be a legally binding document to those who were receiving money in exchange for a property or a product.
Ron Stockton: Can you read part of that document so we can see what it actually says?
Adel Bseiso: When you flip it over to English
Ron Stockton: Ah!
Adel Bseiso: you can actually see the exact document translated by just pressing English. Now this was written by a linguist professor that’s also a Palestinian who is extremely fluid in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. This is not a Google-translated document, it’s an actual translation of the proper language as close as we could possibly get in an English translation, including the witnesses, their names and how it was done. This has been done for every single document displayed on the site.
Ron Stockton: So, they signed their name, but also they used a thumbprint for further identification.
Adel Bseiso: That is correct. I’ll go back to the original document written in Arabic and you can see that displayed at the bottom where it has the government stamp, it has the witnesses’ signatures, and it has their thumbprints on them as well. [Clicking on the website]. This document here is a lien property agreement. It was registered in Beersheba, Palestine. What’s so important about these documents is it shows an organized court and government for the Palestinians in Palestine. So, we have a court system, recording centers, land registries, and contracts that were converted from agreements to land deeds all organized with a process – stuff that we ignored in the past or said it can’t be done. So, we can go from here to the next one that displays across the board what it is, with a description to the left. If it’s “unknown,” the description will indicate that. If we click through, here’s an example of a tax form. If we don’t have the dates, we don’t have them, so we let you know exactly what it is. But most of these will have dates. Here is an example of a property sales agreement in 1922. There are signatures at the bottom, and you can leave comments if you wish. You can look at the writing of these agreements and the stamps at the bottom, as well as the signatures.
As you continue to scroll down, as a researcher or a student or an interested party you can leave a comment about what you’re reading directly into the site, creating a social environment, and invoking thoughts about what you’re looking at. You can also request to become part of the site by registering your email and sending in your comments and becoming part of the community that is very interested in this on all levels. It is interactive and you don’t have to leave the site and keep going back and forth to go all the way through it. If you’re interested in looking at the wealth of documents in their original form but want to understand what it is and you don’t read Arabic, it has the full description to the left of it telling you exactly what you are looking at.
Ron Stockton: So, you’ve got the original document in Arabic, you have the description of it, which is a summary profile, and then you’ve also got an English translation.
Adel Bseiso: That is correct.
Ron Stockton: Let me ask you, Arabic has different dialects. There’s sort of a Levantine, Lebanese dialect, there’s an Egyptian dialect, I’m assuming that this is probably the Levantine. How hard would this be for someone let’s say from Algeria or Iraq to read this? Would this be an easy read for them?
Adel Bseiso: It would be a read. I wouldn’t say it would be a complicated read, but it wouldn’t be a full comprehension read because of the dialect. That’s why we made the full translation of it in English, because English is the most widely used language among scholars and academia as well as business transactions. Any Arabic language reading person would be able to get the gist of what they’re reading without having to have it completely translated or a different dialect of Arabic.
Ron Stockton: I’m imagining a lot of people in the Middle East will find this of interest, not just people in Diaspora.
Adel Bseiso: This is going to be, our hope, a global attraction to the biggest collection of original documents that’s ever been seen in detail, in contractual form, the way Mr. Mahrous put them together. And the taxes that were paid on these agreements to all four of the governments all the way up to 1977 by my father, who continued to pay taxes on some of the properties to the Jordanians. The site and the way the site has been designed is to really invoke the thinking, invoke the dialogue and challenge the historical documented facts that were really fiction and not fact. This is fact, and this is what’s going to be able to get even a professor like yourself to read this and say, you know, this changes my mind about what I knew based on what I’ve read because now we’re looking at factual artifacts as a discovery. We may have thought a human was one way and then we discover through archaeology that we found something and then after research we found that the bones were counted wrong, and the facts are the facts. Well, this is the same type of thing. It will rewrite history because what was written was not exactly what was true. This is true. And we have had DNA, part of this thing tested as well, we certified the paper, the ink, and the stamps were aged to the proper time. All the way across the board, these are genuine, and we have the original documents. These are digital copies and true digital copies of the originals.
Ron Stockton: This is quite remarkable. People such as I who are not full Arabic specialists, we’re aware of the fact that the Ottomans had titles and they had this sort of thing. But now to see it connected to a person, this is an eye-opening experience for almost anyone. It fills in so many spaces that were simply out there and we never really knew what the spaces were.
Adel Bseiso: Exactly. The reason it’s taken Amine and I years to put this together, we’re going on our third year, is I wanted to make sure that this was displayed in this form. Extremely well organized, well laid out with a great design that talks about the story and the heritage of a very prominent family, and we highlight and focus and honor Mr. Mahrous and his endeavors. These are the documents that tell that story. The lineage that we have attached to it through that ancestry only paves the road and gives you a window through the past. The ancestors and the lineage to this family go all the way back to the Levantines and beyond the Byzantine Empire. It just really identifies how long this family has existed in that part of the world. These are highlights of one of the most prominent members of that family and probably the most accessible and wealthiest that’s ever been in his time.
Ron Stockton: Anyone going through this would automatically think to themselves, there must have been other such families all over Palestine, they were everywhere. These were well-developed agricultural areas with prominent families and prominent individuals. Your father was sent off to England, wasn’t he for education?
Adel Bseiso: He was. As a young man, he was born in 1924, so in the early 1940s he was at the college level and being groomed to take over Mahrous’s empire. He was groomed in business and finance to be able to take over from that perspective to continue to grow, to continue the global thinking on agriculture construction mining that was the business that the family knew better than anybody and was taught from when he was “knee-high.” To further the business endeavor, the focus was to groomed to be what as we know today as a CEO through finance, economics, and an MBA, through very prominent schools and to get the western thinking of that into what Mahrous built alongside with my father. He was groomed to be that guy.
Ron Stockton: You showed me something that was just remarkable. You showed me an image of what a piece of land looked like back in the day and then you superimposed a contemporary image on that. Could you show us what that looks like?
Adel Bseiso: Yes, I know exactly what you’re pointing to sir and it’s the last piece in the archives within the drop-down navigation. It is called Historical Research & Current Location. We will click on that icon, and it will open up exactly to what we have done. With a team of historian legal expert surveyors, we were able to pinpoint within a centimeter of accuracy through using navigation systems and satellite systems to pinpoint where these properties are today and the journey they went through in the movement of being transferred from my grandfather’s name into the Israelis and what they did to do that.
We’ve taken a pre-1948 map that indicates where Mahrous’s properties were back then and we pinpoint them into where the properties are today. By overlaying them it gives a good perspective of what Beersheba looks like today. A lot of the vision that Mr. Mahrous had for industrializing has come to fruition with the expansion of the [inaudible] and the expansion of education, all within this area, the manufacturing. It is known as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East and especially in Israel. We put together historian surveyors and some really leading legal minds to create a step-by-step of where this property was, how it was rezoned and renamed, when and how the custodians of abandoned properties were taken over, and by what instruments the Israelis used to transfer them. Many transfers especially to Mahrous’s properties had to be moved three and four times between land developers to the Israeli settlements to the non-custodians to really cover the tracks of where this property is without knowing that the documents and the taxes and stuff that we just went through existed, which contradicts everything that’s written. We have pinpointed this all the way down to the science. Like today’s world, if you want to find a Starbucks, you go on a map and you find it. We did the same thing by putting the pins to allow you to just click on the pins to see what block Mahrous owned and what parcel numbers they are today and how those dunams were changed, where they’re at and what we have on them. We continue to go down with the data and the tax to really describe the images.
To explore this page in detail I’ll go to Block 38016, which describes in full where it was, how it was done, and what year it was taken over. So here we are looking at Block 3804 and parcel 32, aka Float number 10 and Float 6. This was confiscated and we have the exact date December 16th 1956 and it was transferred to the Development Authority. Now if you click on this map, it will show you pre-taken over when it was Mahrous’s property, this is what it looked like. Here’s where it belonged on the map. We have satellite imagery and copied it to perfection to give you an idea of what’s on that property today. You can see it sits in the middle of downtown and the irony of it is that it has all the Israeli courts, hospitals, government buildings, malls dead in the middle of Beersheba and you can see how accurate we are between the old map and the new map. You can explore this by clicking on it, it gives you a full view of the satellite images, you can zoom in on what the properties are, and this continues with all the properties. This is just a fraction of what we found. We found the jewels of the properties being right dead center in Beersheba. We cannot even put a value on what this property is worth because it is just rich, rich land.
Ron Stockton: I have two thoughts on this. First, I see you have Jonathan Kuttab doing an analysis of this and an evaluation of it. Jonathan Kuttab is a major researcher. He’s a very credible person for those who don’t know his name. He does research that nobody else does. The second thing, just a personal comment, if I have been working with you on this project, never in a hundred years would I have thought to do these overlays. Knowledge of how to do that is very specialized. It’s so creative to see this emerge. You see what was a traditional holding and now suddenly it’s right in the middle of Beersheba and worth millions of dollars. This is such a remarkable collection of archival holdings and how you’ve illustrated it and used it is far beyond any imagination that I had. Did you have technical people helping you with that? I know you’re a technical person yourself.
Adel Bseiso: Yes, sir. The creative part of it, the creation and direction and the content comes from my vision of how I wanted to display this to the world. But I do have a team of programmers and designers that will translate what I want in a technical format. As a project manager or creator I display and architect the way things should be and then of course we hire the construction guys to come in and lay the bricks and build the windows. Amine helped a lot with this as well, but really I wanted to honor my grandfather, the family, and these documents in a display that the world has never seen before. I think we achieve that. I’m glad you brought up Jonathan Kuttab because the entire dialect and text and research about how the movement of these properties and deeds were moved carefully from one entity to the other over a period of 30, 35 years, we found all that stuff through research in many different countries, and many different offices. With the help of Jonathan Kuttab and his many allies, we were able to do this. Jonathan Kuttab is a committed advisor to this project as well.
Ron Stockton: Well, you’ve chosen the right person there. You also worked with Rashid Khalidi at Columbia. He’s a nationally prominent scholar, a specialist in Palestinian history and very interested in pre-State Palestine. He’s written on that subject. What an amazing ally you have working with him. When we first spoke, I told you I hoped you could find a university that would sponsor this and make it a project in their archival collection and you found exactly the right person.
Adel Bseiso: Yes. How this happened was, as you know, Amine is manager of this product. He was a student of Columbia University who studied under Professor Rashid. He introduced us and was navigating us through this. Once we had an introduction to Rashid, both Amine and I had several conversations with him, shared the projects, and shared some of the documents. He was completely impressed and blown away by what we showed him. Immediately he connected us to Dr. Chebaro and Mr Magierski who were the librarians of Columbia and wanted Columbia to house the collection. He spearheaded this by introducing us to that and all of this came together through Amine knowing who to go to at the right time, including yourself, and really put his education background and passion behind this project to work. As to date, just like Jonathan Kuttab, Professor Khalidi is a committed advisor to this project and Columbia is just the first of many to come, including yourself, Professor Stockton, how we all came together with something that’s very, very unique. Although I possess it and am heir to it, it’s a product of all our work to bring it to this kind of display and this kind of visual to the world.
Ron Stockton: This project is new, but I think a lot of universities are going to want to have a link to this on their own website. For example, if there’s a Middle East Studies Center at the University of Michigan they’re going to want to be able to link to this, they’re going to want their students to be able to access this. I think the potential of this is enormous. I think it’s going to be very popular and very widely endorsed and embraced.
Adel Bseiso: Yeah, thank you. Just to add to that, what we’ve done, from a technical perspective, because that’s the world I live in, is made it really easy when we have an affiliate now that wants to be part of this, that we can actually create a bridge for them and plug it directly into their system so they don’t have to build anything. We can give them a DLC, a digital library of this connected to them within minutes of just writing a few codes and plugging it into the back of their servers. So, with your help and the other professors and Amine, the more we get introduced to the right universities, the right scholars, the right educators, and students, we’re going to be able to give them access to this type of documents and these relics that no one has ever seen. These things are building blocks to researchers. It is my hope that we give the tools to the right people to be able to build and research and create the dialog and the awareness that this project deserves.
Ron Stockton: By the way, if anybody wants to access this, it’s called thebseisofamilyarchive.com. That’s the website and that will take you directly to it and I suspect you could also go to Columbia University and go to their archive and find it.
Adel Bseiso: That’s where you’ll find it. You can Google it, you have the link to it, the Columbia link is also on the site, and it’s also from their side, linked to the site as well, so it’s interconnected. We are in the process of doing the campaign awareness and the more people see this, the better it’s going to be. People like yourself and your help is invaluable to getting the word out and really get the building blocks of this project moving.
Ron Stockton: By the way, there are two versions of this interview, one is the audio version and the other one includes all the images of what we’ve been discussing. I hope that somebody out there is listening to the audio version, they’ll consider going to the website and looking up the visual one as well with all the maps and the images and the photos and the documents and that sort of thing. It’s incredibly rich.
Adel Bseiso: I’ll add to that one thing, as you navigate through this archive and this site, one of the things we’ve made very simple for everybody is we created a Blog page that will allow anybody to share their thoughts with the world through this site. There’s no waiting for anything. What we tried to do when we thought through this process is make it a simple, well laid out communication tool that gives you access to never-before-seen original documents of major landowners in Palestine.
Ron Stockton: You know when Facebook came into existence, what I discovered and what so many of my friends discovered and everybody else, was that suddenly you’re in contact with people you knew when you were 18 or with family members that you’d lost touch with. I think you’re going to be making connections with people that you’ve never heard of. People are going to say, I’m a part of this family but I didn’t know where the rest of you were. Is this correct, that your family has been dispersed?
Adel Bseiso: Yes sir, lots of the families in that part of the world in Palestine from 1948, going from being prominent and a great lifestyle to refugees and scattered. Many of the families were disjointed and travelled all over the world, especially after 1967, where, again, there’s 16 different spellings of my last name alone throughout the world and they’ve taken on the heritage of the places they now live. From Australia, to Scandinavia, Canada, Europe, throughout the whole thing. So it just goes to show how far this family and other families, like the witnesses and so on, really have not stayed in contact. Sad as that sounds, that’s the picture of reality. They were just dispersed, they weren’t allowed back anywhere around their land, so they took their talents elsewhere. But by doing that, survival takes over and you lose contact for who you are, where you came from, and lose thousands and thousands of years of existence, especially with the Bseiso family. When you go through the ancestries, written in English and in Arabic, it will take you back through a journey and open a window of history for you that takes us back through the Kayali family, where we originated from and where a branch of that takes you back around 3,000 years of existence within the Levantine and the Arab worlds. What a fascinating thing to know that after 1948 and 1967 this whole thing exploded and imploded and besides just like a half a dozen people here and there in your existent family are close to, lost all contact with everybody.
Ron Stockton: Why don’t you click on that so we can see exactly what is available to people.
Adel Bseiso: There’s a full branches of this tree. Again, it’s written in both English and Arabic. It shows you when the Kayali family was transferred the first time into Bseiso and then it goes into that tree and then it breaks it down for every son and how many sons he’s had from there, and continues to take you through that in a well detailed way. This is just the Bseisos side of it. It’ll take you through everything and all the branches all the way up until the 1990s. Now if you go back to the site and click on the Kayali side of it, it goes back to the [Hazma] and the prophet Mohammed and to his daughter and it connects everything to the religious side and the prominence of the Muslim faith that drove this family until this day. You could click on that. That is completely written in Arabic and will take you through all the scholars, engineers, academia, poets, musicians, doctors and scholars that this family has developed to the world and it will take you through many, many branches. As you could see to the top it will absolutely take you through a journey that takes you back 3,000 years.
Ron Stockton: This is amazing.
Adel Bseiso: All these things are available to you on the site. All of these navigations are laid out in very well organized tabs, ancestries, archives, the blog, the news, and the affiliates. Everything is very simple to use. Easy to contact. We’re available 24/7 for the right people, we’re available 24/7 for anybody that wants to get involved and understand and read about their heritage from the personal pride perspective all the way to human rights, scholars, graduate students, students, and just historians that want to get it right. We’re here and this is where our journey begins.
Ron Stockton: What an amazing gift this is. I’ve often said that there are a lot of good things which will never get done unless somebody says if no one else will do this, I’ll do it myself. You’ve taken that task on behalf of your family and the Palestinian people and the general knowledge of that region in history. You’ve made a remarkable contribution here. I think this is going to open things up that probably none of us have thought about. I think people are going to find this and say, oh, this is something I didn’t know anything about. I think you’re going to start getting a lot of connections from people. I also think you may start inspiring other people. You may find completely separate families, someone from northern Palestine who will say, we have these family documents, I could do something similar and we could create. I hope someday you’ll have in the not too distant future an archive of archives. I can imagine that there would be ten different families which would all be linked together so that someone could go to a single site and say, well, I’m going to look at the Bseiso family or I’m going to look at some other family and they would all be right there together. Suddenly a history would emerge out of these multiple stories that people have of their own families.
Adel Bseiso: I would love nothing more than to be able to do just that. I’ve made it so simple from a technical perspective that through your phone you can take pictures and upload to the site. My hope and vision for this is to be able to create just that in branches of all Palestinians through the site and be able to have a tab that talks about all of the people and who they are and be able to really pave the road day one day to collectively put together true documents that rewrite history about what really happened post-1948 in Palestine and what the journey is today.
Ron Stockton: So, we’re about at the end. Do you have any final thoughts?
Adel Bseiso: Just my appreciation of you and Amine in being part of this project and giving us some unbelievable advice and continuing support is exactly what this project needs, it’s exactly what’s heartfelt from both myself and the family. I leave you with our hearts are open, our minds are open, the site is open. We’re ready.
Ron Stockton: Thank you so much.
Adel Bseiso: Thank you sir.