Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/23/2014

“. . . the [in]ability to tell their story. . . ” (Elias Khoury)


The beginning of Nakba.

The beginning of Nakba.

Imagine, if you can, a history of the United States that leaves out the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, “taxation without representation,” the siege of New York, the British “prison ships system;” or a history of World War II that leaves out the blitzkrieg, the Holocaust, or D-Day; or a history of the Viet Nam War without My Lai or the Tet Offensive.

Yesterday I searched the (in my opinion) most useful academic database, EBSCO’s Academic Search Complete which indexes 13, 780 academic journals and provides online copies of most of the articles in them–10,000,000 articles. I was looking for articles about the Nakba (Wikipedia’s description is faulty at several points and incomplete, as Wikipedia is wont to be–to say nothing of unbalanced).

Academic Search Complete did not find (in 13,700 journals) a single reference to the Nakba. I was able to search all of the databases available to me at the SMU Library and found many informative and academically sound articles. (Some writers of American history have included the Boston Massacre, fortunately.) I have provided extended quotations from one such article. You needn’t be put off by the term “academic.” The writing is perfectly clear. Khoury is a literary critic, so his historical writing is in reference to a couple of literary works; the passages I have copied below are part of the history, not the literary criticism.

(To gain a limited understanding of the importance of the Nakba to Palestinians today, I suggest you read this short article before you begin reading the Khoury essay.)

Displaced Palestinians arriving in Ramallah

Displaced Palestinians arriving in Ramallah

The following (except for the last sentence) is from:
Khoury, Elias. “Rethinking the Nakba.” Critical Inquiry 38.2 (Winter 2012). One of the Chicago Journals, published online by JSTOR.

The facts about 1948 are no longer contested, but the meaning of what happened is still a big question. Was it a struggle between two absolute rights, as Oz formulated it? Before tackling this issue, I want to point out that I am questioning the approach of dealing with the nakba as a historical event that happened in the past and once for all. My hypothesis is totally different: what happened hasn’t stopped happening for sixty-two years. It is still happening now, in this moment.

In 1948, the Palestinians lost four main aspects of their lives:

  • 1.They lost their land, which was confiscated by the newborn Israeli state. Eight percent of the Palestinian population was peasants who became refugees, living in camps in the outskirts of different Arab cities, in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Even in Israel, the peasants of destroyed Arab villages became refugees in other villages and had no right to return to their original homes, although they had become citizens of the new state.

  • 2.They also lost their cities. The three major coastal cities—Jaffa, Haifa, and Aka—were occupied and their citizens evacuated. Jaffa, the biggest Palestinian harbor on the Mediterranean and the cultural center of Palestine became a small, poor suburb of Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was divided along new borders in 1948, and the Palestinian neighborhoods of west Jerusalem were evacuated. Haifa faced the implementation of the first Palestinian ghetto in Israel. Israeli historian Tom Segev gave a full description of this process in The First Israelis. Aka became totally marginalized, and the historical old city became the home of many Palestinian refugees. The destruction of the Palestinian cities left the Palestinians without any cultural reference and created a huge cultural vacuum. We had to wait until the 1960s to witness the emergence of a new Palestinian culture that arose in Haifa and Nazareth in the milieu of Al Ittihad newspaper (the organ of the Israeli Communist Party edited by Habibi) and in Beirut with the emergence of a new Palestinian consciousness and Kanafani as its leading figure.

  • 3.They lost their Palestinian name. Suddenly a whole people became nameless and had no right to use their name and refer to their national identity. This was one of the most painful elements of the 1948 war. One can argue that Palestine has never existed as an independent state. This is true not only for Palestine but also for most of the countries of the region. But this land was known to every one as the land of Palestine. Even in the Zionist documents, this name was used. The people who inhabited this land are known as Palestinians. Suddenly the name has vanished. The small Palestinian minority in Israel were renamed Arabs of Ertz Israel by the new authorities. The Palestinians of the West Bank that was annexed to Jordan after the war of 1948 became Jordanians, and the others who were scattered in Lebanon and Syria became simply refugees.

  • 4. They lost their story or the ability to tell their story. I want to refer to the replacement of muteness by deafness in Yehoshua’s “Facing the Forests” and Kanafani’s “Men in the Sun.” The narrator of the Israeli story begins with the hypothesis that the Arab (this is how the Israeli Palestinian is named) is mute, and his tongue was  cut. On the other hand, the narrator of the Palestinian story ends his novel with the water-tank driver Abul Khaizaran shouting, “Why didn’t they knock?”

(section about details of the literature is omitted, HAK)

I want to suggest an outline that permits us to read the different pages of the nakba from the expulsion of 1948 to the Wall and settlements in the West Bank and the expulsions that are taking place nowadays in Jerusalem.

  • 1.When we think of the confiscation of Palestinian land from 1948 onwards, two villages, Akrat and Bir’im, are an example of the destinies of those who stayed as strangers in their homeland and lived under military rule as second-class citizens in the democratic Jewish state of Israel until 1965.

  • 2.As the infiltrators were limited by Israelis, Palestinian peasants tried to return across the borders in order to rejoin their households or to collect their harvest. Habibi gave us examples of these cases in The Secret Life of Saeed, and Darwish’s autobiographical text In the Presence of Absence relates his personal story as a boy of eight when he crossed the Lebanese border with his parents and siblings to discover that their village al-Birwa was demolished.

  • 3.The refugee camps were structured as a combination of slums and ghettos, and the Palestinians suffered various kinds of oppression in different Arab countries (in politics, work, education, travel, and so on).

  • 4.The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and the new structure of settlements—including the Wall, the continuous confiscation of land and property, the uprooting of trees, laying siege to villages, and so on—make the occupation a continuation of the war of 1948. Even the retreat from Gaza became a way to create a ghetto under siege and fire.

  • 5.The massacres in Palestinian camps—Jordan (1970), Lebanon (1975), Tal Al Zaatar camp (1976), and Shatila and Sabra (1982)—are a continuation of the massacres of 1948.

(HAK note: And, I might add, the massacre in Gaza today.)

The Nakba continues.

The Nakba continues.


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