A peek into the past

Talat Mahajna and his museum tell a tale in Umm el-Kutuf.

October 18, 2006 09:37
3 minute read.

In recent years a number of small "museums" have sprung up in Israel in the Arab sector. In an effort to retain some of their more than fruitful past agricultural methods, history, tradition and folklore for future generations of Arab children born and brought up in a state that emphasizes the history, culture and heritage of the majority Jewish population, it is mainly individuals who have taken it upon themselves to preserve a little of Arab yesteryear for tomorrow. One of those individual keepers of the past for the future is retired schoolteacher Talat Mahajna, who began collecting items of Arab interest many years ago. He was eventually pushed into looking for a home-away-from-home for his collection after his wife began complaining about artifacts here, there and everywhere in their village abode. The Mahajnas live in the Muslim village of Mus Mus, situated on either side of the Wadi Ara highway - Route 65. However, Mahajna's exhibits are on display not in Mus Mus but another Wadi Ara village, Umm-el-Kutuf near Kibbutz Barkai. Umm-el-Kutuf (which means "mother of harvest" in Arabic) sits atop two neighboring hilltops overlooking the kibbutz and main road winding its way between the Menashe Hills and Amir mountain range. On the other side a superb view from above is offered of West Bank Palestinian villages, the pre-1967 border with Jordan and relatively new security fence in the area. On a clear day, the West Bank Jewish settlements of Mevo Dotan and Hermesh are visible tucked in behind the Palestinian village of Kafin, and in the distance on top of another range of mountains, the settlement of Reichan. Just a quick movement of one's head and the Mediterranean coastline pops into view, incorporating Netanya, Caesarea and the chimneys of the Hadera Power Station, or the Lights of Rabin, as it is now officially known. The majority of visitors with whom Mahajna graciously shares his collection, tales of yesteryear and cups of coffee are Israeli-Arab schoolchildren and teachers. He also has his fair share of Jewish pupils and other visitors, as his reputation has spread farther afield than Wadi Ara. Folks are finding their way to the restaurants and fruit stalls of Wadi Ara, as well as to Mahajna's exhibits crammed in to a little house on a hill in Umm-el-Kutuf. When I popped in to see Talat Mahajna's collection of utensils, agricultural and work tools, weapons, clothes, coins, musical instruments, water pipes and antiquated Singer sewing machine, he was entertaining a group of Jewish teens. The teenagers at Mahajna's that particular day were soldiers on a one-day seminar dealing with the Arabic language, history and culture. The young men and women listened to 74-year-old Mahajna verbally paint vivid pictures of a way of life that he had known in his childhood but has now all but disappeared. "I began collecting items of interest almost 30 years ago," Mahajna, a teacher and school principal for more than 40 before retiring in 1996, explains to his guests of the day. Apart from what he salvaged from the Wadi Ara area, the former formal educator and present-day informal educator also began to buy artifacts during his travels to neighboring countries. "I brought back items from Jordan and Egypt a number of times and, as the collection grew, my house seemed to get markedly smaller," he grinned. The Mahajna memorabilia is housed in a 90-year-old two-room round-ceilinged abode situated near the village well. There is a taboon for baking pita bread in the back courtyard, and a number of small rooms along one side of the front courtyard, the wooden doors of which are painted blue and green against the "evil eye." When the owners of the structure offered him a place for his beloved collection, the charismatic storyteller found a natural home on the hill stage for sharing his and his people's agricultural and cultural past. Among the coins in the Mahajna money box are some from the Greek, Roman and Ottoman periods. There is also a wide range of pottery and other utensils from various bygone eras. An impressive saddle from Syria, embroidered dresses from Jordan and work tools are all neatly arranged on the walls. Two huge snake skins stretched out over the doorposts nearly caused me to jump out of my own! After another small cup of extra-strong coffee and the soldiers went outside, picked up their weapons and were on their way. Mahajna was well pleased with the uniformed youngsters' visit. "They showed a great deal of interest and asked good questions," he summed up before disappearing back into his museum with the empty coffee cups.

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