Seventy-three years since the Nakba: generations of memories, refugees, diaspora and homes destroyed
This year marks the seventy-third anniversary of the Zionist occupation of the land of Palestine, and the dispersion of its people across the occupied territories in 1948, within neighboring countries, and way beyond them in the diaspora countries.
As days go by, the refugees’ dreams of returning to their homeland and establishing an independent Palestinian state are narrowing down, as are the crises of the host countries, which are doubly reflected in their living and legal reality. Jousour interviewed the generation of the Nakba, which became a shared memory for all of the sons and residents of Palestine in 1948, a Palestinian and a Lebanese expelled from that country, with their memories, and many dreams and imagined images. It conveys the story of a Palestinian-American young man who visited Palestine to recall his father’s memories of a house that no longer exists.
The Nakba through the diaspora eyes:
Thirty-four-year old Tariq longs for a home he will never know
I have only seen my father cry twice. The first time, I was eight years old, and we were driving up to Boston, a trip we made every year at Christmas time to visit my mother’s family.
My father was blasting Fairuz in our 1995 Volvo station wagon, and Fairuz’s balmy voice seemed out of place against the relentless miles of icy, cracked highway and gray New England frost.
My father sang along until his baritone voice cracked, and his shoulders began to quiver. My mother reached over, ruffled his hair, and turned around to wink at me and my sister in the back seat.
“Baba, why are you crying?” I asked, leaning forward to catch a glimpse of him. “It’s just some old lady singing!” I don’t remember what he said.
The second time was several years later, in 2008. My father sat on the edge of his bed in our old, cramped New York City apartment, gripping the TV remote and staring at the screen with his brow furrowed. Israel had just launched Operation Cast Lead, which would devastate the Gaza Strip. Images of piles of dead bodies, explosions, and mounds of rubble flashed across the screen, scenes my parents wouldn’t even let me see in movies.
My father eventually stood up. He rolled up his sleeves and approached the TV screen like it was a window that he could pry open and climb through. But all he could do was grab the house phone and try calling his sister, who lived in Gaza City, to see if she was okay. Each time he would get her on the line, she couldn’t hear him.
“Hello?” I could hear her repeatedly say, her voice muffled by the distance. “Is anyone there?”
“Rawya!” he called. “I’m here. I can hear you. Can you hear me?”
I remember what he said to me that night. Eventually, he pulled me over, pointed at the small TV screen, and, with the same shaky voice I had heard in the car years before, said, “That’s our home, baba.”
Until then, I had never thought much of what “home” meant, and as a 13-year-old, I rarely had to explain my background. We moved around a lot back then, and whenever anyone asked where I was from, I would shrug and name wherever we had just left. But after watching the destruction of my father’s home on TV and seeing the ruins of my aunt Rawya’s house, I started associating “home” with a place I had never lived in — a feeling I would later realize I share with millions of other members of the scattered Palestinian diaspora.
I was born in New York City, and although I spent several years living in countries across the Middle East, I only spent a few short months in Gaza and was far too young to remember it. I grew up listening to my father’s stories of what it was like “back home” — of clementine and olive trees, boys who sold dates on the beach, and, of course, war and occupation. Despite my physical distance from Gaza, it came to occupy an almost daily presence in my life. Still, Israel’s 2008 invasion made me cognizant of the forces actively trying to erase part of my heritage, albeit far removed and unfamiliar.
From then on, I began calling myself Palestinian. I translated song lyrics to tie together my broken Arabic, read every history book on Palestine that I could get my hands on and became deeply involved in advocacy for the Palestinian cause — the decades-long struggle for fundamental human rights, self-determination, and an end to Israeli occupation. Above all, I came to yearn for a “return” to the elusive home I had heard so much about over the years, and now, I am the one who can be brought to tears after hearing a few lines of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish or Tawfiq Ziad.
But how could their words, so intimate in their claims to the land and lives they lost, resonate with me — someone whose only connection to Palestine was through the stories I’d been told?
Nostalgia is a yearning for the past or an embellishment of a bygone time, sometimes justified but, more often than not, tinted by positive associations and the subconscious filtering out of the darker moments. Our imaginations, eternally unsatisfied with present reality, tease us with false memories of what was; we often make the past seem larger than life, better, maybe even somehow synonymous with an ideal future.
But how can one long for a past they’ve never experienced?
How do we decide where to grow our roots? Today, the Palestinian diaspora has grown to over 7 million, which includes the descendants of those who were forced from their homes in 1948 during the Nakba as well as those like me, Aya, and Diana, whose families were lucky enough in a sense to decide for themselves to leave and establish lives far away from military occupation. Although our experiences diverge, we share a common resolve to return, only strengthened by the counterforces that push us away. Many of us are prevented from visiting Palestine by Israeli authorities who call us security and demographic threats for our activism and rightful claims of displacement.
I last visited Palestine in 2016. It was my first time back in years, so I did not know what to expect when I tried crossing over to the West Bank on Jordan’s King Hussein Bridge. I deleted all my social media accounts, erasing any proof of my activism, anything that could give the Israeli border guards pretext to turn me away. I dropped off my Arabic books at my cousin’s apartment in Amman, shaved my beard, and wore my bright red Rutgers University T-shirt, all part of my plan to play the role of an innocuous American college student. I took a taxi to the crossing at 7:00 a.m. to beat the crowds, but everyone else seemed to have the same idea.
“Want me to wait for you?” the taxi driver asked as we pulled up to the buses shuttling people back and forth through clouds of dust.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Take my number just in case,” he insisted.
The border crossing felt like a bullpen. Heavily armed guards, some in oversized green military fatigues and others in civilian clothing, stood in the shade smoking cigarettes and watched as we shuffled off the buses and rushed into what looked like a dilapidated airplane hangar.
“Shawa?” the Israeli border guard grunted at me as he looked up from my American passport in surprise. “You are Arab?”
“I’m Palestinian American,” I replied.
“Then go over there,” he said, pointing me to a long line leading to a heavy metal door.
I was interrogated for hours, strip-searched twice, and forced to unpack and repack my bag while a soldier, who looked no older than I, searched through every article of clothing, every pocket, every corner. By sunset, I became confident that the Israeli authorities now knew more about my family and me than I did. And it was all for nothing.
“We’re not letting you through today,” said a uniformed officer after he asked me, for what must have been the 10th time, what my plans were in Israel and if my family or I had ever been in contact with members of Hamas.
“Why not?” I asked. “I’ve been here all day, and you’re not going to let me in because I’m Palestinian?”
“I don’t know what that is,” he replied, almost as if waiting for a chance to say it. “Border is closed.”
I was glad I took down the taxi driver’s number; he did not sound surprised when I called. He even agreed to drive me back in the morning to try the crossing again. After another almost identical day of inane interrogations, I was lucky enough to make it through.
While I hope to return to Palestine, thousands of Palestinians my age are desperate to leave, and for good reason. In Gaza, growing poverty rates, the persistent threat of war, and the seemingly endless Israeli blockade have made life unbearable for many young Palestinians. Why would I, with all my privilege, want to go where they cannot leave, no matter how hard they try?
The “Palestine” we have grown attached to is simply not there waiting for us for many of us. Just as some Palestinian refugees still cling on to the heavy, rusty keys of homes they were expelled from in 1948, hoping to return someday and find life as they left it, we all adhere to an idea that is just as illusory today, a vision constructed not around reality but the stories passed down to us and a unified political struggle that has shaped our perspectives. The truth is, what we hope awaits us, just beyond the heavily armed soldiers who turn us back at the border or the contemptuous airport security who gleefully send us packing, may simply not exist.
Almost as if set up for disappointment, precluded from a sense of closure, we are actively barred from reaching. We are instead forced into itinerancy, disconnect. Am I Palestinian American or just American? Can I claim to be Palestinian if I have never lived there long enough to call it “home?” Can I claim it if I have never personally shared the day-to-day struggles of life under occupation that encapsulates so much of what it means to be Palestinian? We are pressured to choose a uniform identity and stick with it. Still, we will always be unable to fully immerse ourselves in either identity, excluded from being fully Palestinian by our physical separation, yet desperately pursuing it all the same.
Where do we go from here? And what is it that we want? We want to be able to see and experience the “home” we have heard so much about from so many different angles so that we can finally justify our perceptions. But more than that, our nostalgia has established a through-line that has come to shape our aspirations and, more importantly, gives us a sense of purpose. I hope that by sharing our mutual nostalgia, imagined or otherwise. We can unify our diaspora community in our efforts to end the occupation and find an answer to the Palestinian question. And someday, my father can show me his home no longer hidden behind the walls of occupation and blurred by my imagination.
Tariq Kenney-Shawa is a Palestinian American researcher in international affairs at Columbia university – Extrait of his article in Newlines Magazine, published the 4th of May 2021:
The Nakba through Palestinian eyes – with 81-year-old Muhammad (81 years old): “Three to four weeks, said my father, and we shall return”
Seventy-three years ago, nine-year-old Muhammad rode in an overcrowded bus with passengers sitting and standing with his father, mother, and seven brothers- five girls and two boys. The crowd was alive with the cries of youngsters and weeping of women who hastily packed some luggage. They had locked the doors of their homes and left.
“’We shall return soon’, the men said”, recalls Muhammad Abdullah Ibrahim. Adding, “And we all believed them.”
After leaving Ijzim, 28 kilometers from Haifa, on July 24, 1948, the family of Muhammad settled in southern Lebanon.
Muhammad remembers hearing his father talking to his mother about the necessity of leaving due to the state of fear among the Palestinians after the horrific massacres committed by the Jewish Yishuv forces in many Palestinian villages, including the Deir Yassin massacre.
Muhammad’s father was a dairy and grain merchant. He regularly accompanied him on visits to Lebanese villages and towns near the border and to the markets of Bint Jbeil and Juwaya to buy goods to sell in Ijzim.
“My father had good relations with Lebanese families. When the Israelis occupied the village and my father decided to leave – recalls Muhammad, who now lives in Al-Bass camp – he told my mother, ‘We will go to Lebanon. When the situation in Palestine is stable, we will return’. He guessed it would be a matter of three to four weeks at most. And we all believed that.”
The next day we went to Haifa and took a bus to Juwaya, where many other Palestinian families had arrived before us. In Juwaya, my father had a friend from the Fawaz family, who hosted us for a week, after which my father went to Tyre, where he found his cousin, who had sought refuge in the Al-Bass area along with other Palestinian families, and where the International Red Cross was providing them with relief aid.
We moved to the ‘Hawasa’ gathering near the Al-Bass camp, where Armenian families lived. My father rented a room, a kitchen, and a bathroom from an Armenian family, and he started selling milk and cheese – which he hawked from a donkey – before opening a shop of his own in the camp.
Then UNRWA opened schools for the education of Palestinian refugee children, Muhammad adds. “I completed my studies, got a job with UNRWA, got married and had children, and I have grandchildren now.
“I’ve told them about Palestine, about the Nakba, and the return.
“Yet I am still living in Al-Bass camp, and I am waiting to return to Ijzim, my hometown. The mantle of waiting was passed to me by my father, who died here and is buried in the Al-Ma’shuq gathering.”
The Nakba through Lebanese eyes – Abu Rashad (81 years): Tyre flourished with the arrival of the refugees
In the Al-Bass camp, the first camp in Lebanon to receive Palestinian refugees resides Suhail Muhammad Taha Qadado. Born in Tyre in 1938, Suhail is Lebanese.
As a ten-year-old, he was in Haifa in July 1948. With his mother, he was visiting his two brothers, who owned a barbershop in the Al-Jerba area. News of Haganah gangs entering and perpetrating massacres in Deir Yassin, Kafr Qassem and other Palestinian areas spread.
When the shelling began on the city of Haifa, they fled by boat towards the city of Acre, and from there, they rented a car that took them to the city of Tyre. After that – Abu Rashad recalls – more boats began to come to the port of Tyre – all carrying Palestinian refugees – and where Tyre residents hosted them in their homes.
Suhail’s father was the commander of the Internal Security Forces in the city of Tyre, where he resided with his parents, three two brothers and three sisters. Suhail was the youngest of the family.
“Every Lebanese family used to host one or two Palestinian refugee families, and they lived in the same house and shared food – says Abu Rashad. His family hosted two families – the al-Khatibs and the Ismails – for six months before moving to Beirut and northern Lebanon.
Suhail says that the Palestinian refugees initially chose to stay in the Lebanese border areas close to their villages in Palestine because they believed they would soon return home. Many of them had social, family and economic ties with the Lebanese.
The Lebanese of the south worked in cross-border trade or the agricultural sector in the Galilee region. After the Palestinian refugees settled in Tyre and its suburbs, recalls Abu Rashed, the city and suburbs prospered. Some of the refugees had money, especially in the Arab Bank and the British Bank.
With this, some of them bought houses and shops, and some worked in trade and construction, and they had experience growing citrus and bananas, and they mixed the soil with sand because the earth here was harsh. Thus they improved the cultivation of the lands of the southern coast with citrus and bananas.
In Abu Rashad’s opinion, despite all the conspiracies against the Palestinian people for seventy-three years, no one has succeeded in erasing their national identity nor their historical right to return to their homes and lands.