Reflections on my grandmother’s memories of Nakba
Edward Said once eloquently wrote,
To be sure, no single Palestinian can be said to feel what most other Palestinians feel: ours has been too various and scattered a fate for that sort of correspondence. But there is no doubt that we do in fact form a community, if at heart a community built on suffering and exile.
This shared state of suffering and exile has started since 1948 when the Zionist state of Israel waged its so-called War of Independence, which Palestinians call al-Nakba. Then, the series of Palestinian tragedies of uprootedness, dispossession and state of permanent temporality of the exile began; more than 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their villages and currently number more than six million Palestinians dispersed within the Occupied Territories and in exile, mostly in the neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
As Palestinians are commemorating the 67th of Nakba, my grandmother, whose no longer present in my life, feels more present in my thoughts and closer to my heart than any other day. As children, my grandmother brought up my siblings and me while my parents went to work. The more I became aware of the challenging life she led, the more I admired her. She was truly a fighter. The picture above was shot during the first Intifada when Jabalia Refugee Camp was under curfew and no one was allowed to enter the camp. This picture was printed on the front page of Al-Ayyam, a local magazine with a caption reading “Palestinian women arguing with an Israeli soldier at the entrance of the camp”. Armless as she stood without any fear, shouting powerfully at an armed-to-teeth Israeli soldier who ironically seem scared of her. She was filled with anger for being prohibited to enter and go to her home where my grandfather was dying. Dad saved the picture in spite of my grandmother’s rejection. She was frightened of this picture as she thought, “the Israeli occupation can do anything. A picture can make you a convict”.
My generation, the third-generation refugees, was deeply blueprinted with the traumatic events of the Nakba, which for Palestinians, is not only a tragic historical event that resides in the past, only to be commemorated once a year with events that include demonstrations, clashes with the Israeli forces, art exhibits and national festivals among other things. The memories of the old days in our green villages were our day and night stories that we were brought up hearing, our lullabies that always put us to sleep. I am no exception.
Since Nakba, my grandmother led a life of exile, which Edward Said described as, “the unbearable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home”. It always felt to me that she was incomplete, torn in between her physical place Jabalia Refugee Camp, and the place that she was dispossessed and exiled from Beit-Jerja. Nevertheless, my grandmother embraced the dream to return to Beit-Jerja until the last day of her life. She made sure her grandchildren memorize the stories she always repeated of the old days without any boredom as if stressing, “Never forget!”
“It was never one Nakba,” my grandmother used to say asserting that it was never a one-off event that happened in 1948. The Nakba is experienced instead as the uninterrupted process of Israeli settler-colonialism and domination that was given continuity by the 1967 occupation, and which every aspect of daily Palestinian life is affected by. Growing up hearing our grandmothers recount the life they had before, the dispossessed lands that most would never see again, has formed the collective memory of the Palestinian people. My grandmother described a peaceful life in green fields of citrus and olive trees, the tastes, the sounds, the smells that remained only in her memories in our village Beit-Jirja which was violently emptied of its inhabitants and razed to the ground in 1948 like hundreds of other villages. My grandmother, then, was a pregnant mother with a 2-year-old boy when she lived the trauma of the Nakba, a fact that made her deliver her second child before time as she was in panic making her way to northern Gaza.
At the beginning, she thought it would be a matter of few weeks and in no time, she would return and harvest the crops of olives, grapes and citrus fruits that they left behind. But they never did, or – to keep the hope alive – let’s say they didn’t return yet. Though illiterate, she understood the aim behind the United Nations’ ‘humanitarian’ work, which, she argued, wasn’t to ‘solve’ the problem of the displaced people back them, but to sentence them to a life-long refugee status. She could foresee that the aids that the UN provided were part of a systematic process aimed at making Palestinian refugees forget about their political rights and strip them from their past, a deliberate process that seeks to get them locked in the moment waiting to receive some help or charity to survive.
Similarly, the Palestinian intellectual Jabra I. Jabra, who was born in the same year as my grandmother in 1920, reflected on his memories of Nakba and in a very bitter language he wrote, “the dislodged population was to be deliberately called ‘refugees’” and that “the horrific political and human issue would be twisted that the maximum response it might elicit from a then weary world would be some act of charity, if at all”, and “we would be lumped together with them (the Second World War refugees), at worst another demographic case for the United Nations”, and the systematic destruction and ethnic cleansing of Palestine would be “soon to be hailed by hack novelists and propagandists in America and Europe as a heroic ‘return’”. Then the victims, who paid a devastating price for a crime committed in Europe, will be told: “You’re refugees, don’t make a nuisance of yourselves: we’ll do something about it. Refugee aid after a few months will trickle in: you’ll be numbered and housed in tattered tents and tin shacks. And try and forget, please. Hang on to your rocks wherever you are, and try to forget”.
Zionism has been clearly concerned about the Palestinian refugees whose negation is the most consistent thread running through Zionism. It has desperately attempted to erase them from the dominant narrative that reduced the settler-colonial Zionist project to a ‘heroic return’ and a mere ‘re-claiming’ of a land originally promised to them by God. Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir who notoriously once said, “There was no such thing as Palestinians, they never existed”, assumed that time will make the Palestinian refugees forget about their right to return: ‘The old will die and the young will forget’. Similarly, Ben-Gurion once bluntly said, “We must do everything to ensure that they never do return!” However, Palestinians, generation after generation, have demonstrated that forgetting was deemed just impossible and unthinkable. Thus, it is no wonder that the issues of the Palestinian refugees, as well as the Palestinian citizens of ‘Israel’ are the ones that electrify Israel the most.
As Jabra I. Jabra once stressed, “The Palestinian may still be an exile and a wanderer, but his voice is raised in anger, not in lamentation”. Currently, Palestinians, including intellectuals, artists, journalists and activists, are dispersed everywhere, doing every thing possible to make the issue of Palestine reclaim its centrality in the world’s political arena. The Palestinian struggle for liberation has become a global struggle thanks to the collective efforts of justice believers around the world. This anger shall keep resonating as long as Palestinians keep enduring the injustices that were brought to them due to the existence of the Zionist state of Israel, regardless of their geographic location. Countless examples of Palestinians have constantly demonstrated that even if the elderly die without returning, the young will keep on holding the key, embracing their legitimate right to return.