[Picture stolen from Google. I wrote this for Bespoke. Discussion with Nader Abuljebain, author of “Palestinian History in Postage Stamps”]
Nader Khairiddine Abuljebain is a man of stories, with a gamut hidden away in his repertoire. But where many would choose the conventional medium of worlds to express themselves, Abuljebain decided to put together a history in stamps. His book “Palestinian History in Postage Stamps” is one of the first to examine the history of a troubled people through an exclusively Arab, bilingual commentary through postage stamps. For Abuljebain is both an ardent philatelist and activist for Palestinian rights, and realized the ideal project would be a synthesis of the two.
“Palestinian History in Postage Stamps” examines Palestinian stamps in detail with commentary that expresses the Arab viewpoint. It is nothing if not an assertion of Arab identity and Palestinian history through the simple expedience of declaring that a people with over a hundred years of stamps cannot be erased from historical and geographical narrative through occupation. His book and the stamps within cover a period between the initial colonization of the 1870s to the establishment of the Palestinian authority in the 1990s. All the stamps in the book are from Abuljebain’s personal collection, and were assembled lovingly over a period of years.
“Palestinian History in Postage Stamps” follows an interesting structure: the closest metaphor might be the cross-section of an onion. In looking at the world through a very Palestinian-centric viewpoint, it has at its core stamps that come from the troubled territories. The next ring outwards in the metaphorical onion comprises of stamps from countries contiguous to Israel, and in Abuljebain’s mind, offering the first line of defence and support to the Palestinians. These include Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
The next ring outwards has countries that directly support the Palestinian cause in some way or another – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Sudan. Proceeding outwards further still, a chapter deals with other Arab states. Abuljebain feels the Palestinian problem is actually one of Arab identity. Thus, even states that have not played a proactive role to date are still ideological companions solely because of geography and culture. “If Palestine is at the centre of my book, it is surrounded by states that try and confront the occupation, states that support those confronting the occupation, and finally other Arab countries. I’ve tried to express the history of Palestine exclusively through an Arab narrative, for it is very much a pan-Arab issue of identity and social cohesiveness,” he says.
Abuljebain is Palestinian but like many has not been able to reside in his homeland. His parents, he says, were evicted from Jaffa along with thousands others in the events of 1948. They moved to Kuwait, where Abuljebain was born in 1950. He’s an engineer by trade, and combines construction and consultation concerns as a business model. When he’s not shuttling around Gulf States from one consultation job to the next, he’s engaging in his other full-time profession as Arab activist and spokesperson. He moved to the United States post the Gulf War, and has been involved in political work and union activity both as a student and now in his professional life. He belongs to a number of associations and societies in the US where he writes and lectures on behalf of Arab causes.
In fact, his family’s exile in 1948 may just have been a boon to his nascent hobby. “Our extended family split up and travelled all over the world. This means there was a constant flow of letters from different countries, which meant I had a ready source of international stamps to start my collection,” he recalls.
Philately came early to him. “I started when I was a child. Many children start collections, particularly of stamps, and it wasn’t very unusual. But unlike many, I persisted. One of my fondest memories of an early stamp is of a 1956 Egyptian one depicting resistance post the Suez Canal issue. It was a very beautiful brown stamp, with a soldier, a man, and a woman all firing at an incoming paratrooper. I knew then that I was hooked, possibly for life,” he says.
It’s not that the young Abuljebain was only interested in war-like stamps. In fact, one of his other favourites from early life was the unity stamp between Egypt and Syria, with an arch linking the two countries’ maps. “Even aesthetically, I was always drawn to the political stamps,” he notes.
Hear Abuljebain talk about stamps and you are left in no doubt of the enormous passion he has for philately. He describes lovingly the years of toil in completing stamp collections. “Once the last stamp in a set is found, no matter how mundane, the sense of achievement is indescribable,” he says. “Nothing else compares.”
He is keen to dispel the notion of philately as an isolated activity. “It’s a science in itself, and within it encompasses history, geography, anthropology and sociology. Stamps are not just beautiful due to aesthetics. Many carry a political message, or memories of a geographical location. They are evidence of culture at work, of life occurring. And much can be deduced from even the simplest depictions.”
“A Palestinian History in Postage Stamps” is a work spanning generations. Abuljebian gathered the collections depicted within from sources all over the world: from activist friends, the Strand Street in London, swaps and exchanges, and specialist shops in the United States. His motivations behind the compilation are clear, if complex.
“I wanted to establish four things. First, I wanted to give vent to philatelist passion. There are many books on American, British and French stamps, for instance, but very few from the Arab world. I wanted to set a precedent. I also wanted to offer a reading of history from an Arab perspective, to balance some of the other narratives out there. Further, I wanted to argue the inherent correlation between Arab unity and identity, and the Palestinian issue. Last, there was the desire to take the Palestinian issue to an international audience, and make the cause both global and legitimate. I wanted to tell the world about a people with a rich history and culture, who were being oppressed and marginalized.”
Abuljebian’s book has been receiving accolades since it came out in the 90’s, but he’s not done. The philately is going strong and so is the activism. He is currently working on a series of papers, researches and lectures in the States on the history of Zionism and Palestine, the idea the right of return, and the viability of the one state solution were he calls for “a democratic secular state from river to the sea where all reside as equals.”
Between his architectural commitments, unceasing activism and ardent phlately, Abuljebain is a man difficult to pin down geographically. His seasoned voice of reason tells of many years of grappling with geopolitical issues and coming up with conclusions that may not be acceptable to all. But even a short conversation leaves one feeling strangely reassured that there are still a few good men left fighting for what they believe is right. Perhaps they should commemorate him with a stamp. It would only be fitting.