Our Homes, Our Story

March 6, 2010
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Lauren Bahary Wilner, Adam Eilath, & Jason Guberman-Pfeffer

The Jewish narrative, as any other, has an evolving story line, composed of the interplay between history and memory. Twenty-first-century digital mapping technology affords a unique opportunity to enhance our understanding of this narrative by making thousands of Jewish heritage sites not just visible, but “visitible.”

Diarna, “Our Homes” in Judeo-Arabic, is a project that harnesses technology, particularly Google Earth, to provide virtual access to the sites of our endangered Jewish heritage across the Middle East and North Africa. In the case of writer Lamaan Herdoon, who left Iraq in the 1970s, and dreamt of returning to Baghdad,  Diarna enables the realization (if only virtually) of a dream long deferred:

I wish that I could fly like a bird with my daughters and show them the home where I grew up, my school, Frank Iny, the college I attended, Baghdad University, Abu Nawas Street, the Tigris River, and our synagogue….

For thousands of years, Jews lived in communities from the edge of the Sahara in Southern Morocco to the Iranian-Afghani border. In the past few decades, and vividly illustrated recently with the flight of many members of Yemen’s dwindling Jewish community, most of these ancient communities have ceased to exist in essence or in fact. But while community members have left, their former structures and sites remain behind. Digitally mapping these places provides insight into the lives and stories of past and current inhabitants, as well as a tangible mechanism for preserving and exploring memories and history.

Documenting sites in this manner also creates an image of one’s heritage not wholly available through text, photos, or stories alone. For Lauren, Diarna enlivens her mother’s roots in a country she couldn’t imagine visiting now, the Islamic Republic in Iran. “I have studied Farsi; I have attempted Persian cooking; and I wear my great-grandmother’s jewelry to try to connect with my identity. But when will it be safe for me to visit the neighborhood where my grandparents met? Now I have a virtual passport to experience the sweep of 2,700 years of Jewish life in Iran.”

Until recently, there existed very limited geographic documentation, in either scholarly or popular works, on the physical parameters of Mizrahi communities. However, today, Google Earth makes available a freely downloadable program that supplies interactive satellite imagery of the entire globe to an audience in excess of 500 million users.

On our Web site, we weave and synthesize satellite imagery (complete with terrain, zoomable perspectives, tiltable views, and 360-degree rotation), archival and contemporary photos and videos, audio- and video-oral histories, panoramas, and even three-dimensional models, to create compelling entry points to these once vibrant, yet largely forgotten communities. Anyone with an Internet connection can travel across the region as if on eagles’ wings, unaffected by the political and interreligious strife on the ground, which often thwarts physically preserving, and even (in too many cases) simply visiting these sites.

Over time, these sites are physically disappearing. And they are at risk of being forever lost both to history and memory as the last generation with personal memories passes on. This reality, as well as the dearth of information on, and accessibility to, Mizrahi heritage sites has left us (in a sense) as orphans, disconnected from an essential aspect of our identity. The story of who we are, individually and as a people, is rooted in the Middle East’s soil. One of our researchers, Adam, whose mother’s family is from the rural village of Nabeul, Tunisia, yearned to discover what Jewish life in Nabeul had been like, only to find that “hardly anyone in my family could give me a good sense of that and, even if they did, the line between myth and history was blurred. It was not until I realized that I could see the places where my family had lived for centuries that this almost mythical place became real.”

Diarna marks a beginning toward preserving and reconstructing a more comprehensive, interactive, and “living” exploration of the heartland of Jewish heritage. In the process, we are, moreover, creating a prototype for digital preservation that can be replicated for Jewish sites in Europe (where thousands of sites are similarly endangered), as well as the cultural heritage sites of other ethnic groups and civilizations around the world. Contrary to the age-old reality, memory may no longer be a place where only those who have been before can go; now, we can all return home.

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Adam Eilath and Lauren Bahary Wilner are Diarna researchers based in Jerusalem, where they are recording oral histories of Mizrahim. Jason Guberman-Pfeffer is the project coordinator of Diarna and executive director of Digital Heritage Mapping, Inc., the project’s parent nonprofit agency. To begin your free trip — no passport or airfare required — explore Diarna’s Web site, http://www.diarna.org.

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