Salman Abu Sitta’s Mapping My Return is much more than a personal memoir. Although the author says that it is not a research work, it does intertwine personal tragedy with the Palestinian national Catastrophe known as the Nakba. It tells the story of the author’s struggle and that of his people, against all odds, to maintain their identity and regain their patrimony. Abu Sitta became a refugee at the age of ten and has dedicated the rest of his life to identifying those who were responsible for burning his family home and occupying their land in Al Ma’in, Beersheba District, in May 1948.
The book demolishes many of the founding Zionist myths about Israel, such as the claim that it was only the Zionist state that made the desert bloom. Abu Sitta describes the scenery he remembers seeing as a youngster on his homestead: “The meadows were like a carpet of green as far as you could see, dotted with all the colours imaginable.” The landscape, he adds, brought forth scarlet posies, yellow daisies and yellow and white chrysanthemums; “a vast bouquet created by the good earth.” Everything revolved around the land.
There is a tinge of bitterness that runs through the entire fabric of this book. The author speaks of the death, destruction and dismemberment that European imperialism and the Zionist movement brought to the region. In later life, as a student and professional engineer, whenever he had the opportunity, he would remind Westerners and the Inglizi especially of their seminal injustice.
There is, moreover, a deep sense of betrayal that confronts the reader. Abu Sitta contrasts the arrival of the British in 1917, as victors bearing a promise of “their sacred trust of civilisation” to prepare Palestine for independence, with their departure three decades later, abandoning Palestine and its defenceless people to the mercy of well-armed Jewish militias and terror gangs.
His commentary of the attack on Al Ma’in is as vivid as you could imagine. Confusion and mayhem reigned supreme. “The hail of bullets tracing arcs in the sky, the hurried confusion, the agonising cries, and the shouts for a missing child heightened our fear of impending death.” When his mother cried in desperation, “Where are you?” he cried back reassuringly, “I am here.”
Abu Sitta concludes his chapter, The Conquest, with a resounding cry; that if the future was vague, the past he had just left behind was frozen in his mind and became his present forever.
A striking feature of this memoir is the ability of the author to maintain friendships. Whether it was with his immediate or extended family members, childhood friends, teachers, locals or foreigners, he never lost contact. Letters written from these relationships would, in the fullness of time, provide invaluable information for the book.
From its opening chapters it offers a clear explanation for the author’s academic achievements. The thirst for education was, and still is, a distinguishing feature of the Palestinian character. Abu Sitta says it is the only territory that Palestinians could capture and hold without any fear of conquest or occupation.
Long before the Nakba, his father Shaikh Hussein Abu Sitta planted the seeds of education when, in 1920, he built the first school in his area. Using the proceeds from his land he financed the project as well as the education of his sons. When the land was conquered by the Zionists in 1948 the old man was left distraught and financially broken. During a visit in 1995, Dr Abu Sitta recalled the eucalyptus tree which his father planted in the school yard; it still stands majestically as “a witness to the presence of its absent family.”
Once in exile the persecution never ceased. After their village was overrun and captured, Abu Sitta’s family took refuge in Khan Yunus in the Gaza Strip. There, like the tens of thousands of other refugees, they were pursued relentlessly, becoming victims of one massacre after another. This has been a pattern that has continued until today, despite which their will to survive and return to their stolen homes has never been broken.
On 3 November 1956 Khan Yunus was the scene of one of the worst massacres. His childhood friend, Nadid Hafez, with whom he was corresponding regularly, was the victim of what was clearly a gratuitous act of murder during a raid on his family home. Despite pleas from the child’s mother, “the soldiers emptied their machine gun magazines into the boy’s chest.” And with a victorious smile, they left the scene. In the aftermath the town died; it became a place of widows hidden behind closed doors.
Incredibly, Abu Sitta produced samples of the long letters that Nadid wrote to him while he was then a student in Egypt. They expressed a burning ambition to join young Salman in Cairo to further his education. That dream was cut short brutally by the Zionist colonisers. If their purpose was to drive fear into the hearts of the refugees and make them forget their homeland, they failed miserably.
Despite their savagery, the massacres committed in Gaza in 1956 did not get any coverage in Western books, or in Moshe Dayan’s diary. There was no international tribunal, no meeting of the UN Security Council, and no media reports.
Reading Abu Sitta’s memoir is by no means a journey through a dry chronicle of unending tragedy and pain. It is about the coming of age of a young man growing up and having all the natural encounters and fun that young boys are expected to have. He recalls acting as the postman for his elder brother as he pursued his future bride. It reveals his own personal flirtations as a student and describes with exquisite precision the attractions of his wandering eyes.
The book also has its elements of adventure and suspense. Against the wishes of his father and unknown to his brother in whose care he was entrusted, young Salman once escaped from Gaza with his sister to El Arish in Egypt, fleeing the constant Zionist attacks.
And there is an element of humour, such as the weekends that he spent with a childless Egyptian couple. He had a “terrible fear” of the sleeping arrangements, as he slept between them in the same bed. The man, Salama Salem, was big and fat; and Salman could not see beyond his round belly. Worse still, “he snored in short burst like a machine gun.” They were sleepless nights.
For the politically initiated the book is somewhat less than candid on some matters. Although Abu Sitta met Yasser Arafat, the future chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, as far back as 1948 he offered very little information about the activities of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and Arafat’s role within it. In fact, years later, in Kuwait, Arafat never approached him to join the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah). No member of his family was asked, and no explanation was given.
He recalls how in 1974, when he was selected to be a member of the Palestine National Council, he was unable to attend the Twelfth Session in Cairo where the Ten-Point Transitional Programme was adopted. He gives no reason why he did not attend this important meeting. Did he know what was being plotted behind the scenes? He describes the Ten-Point Programme as a naïve and misguided policy, “the first of many calamitous concessions that were to follow.” Despite this, Abu Sitta concludes strangely on the same page that he thought Arafat “was a true patriot and would not sell out.”
In 1988 when the PNC adopted a resolution in Algiers to declare an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, Abu Sitta voted against it. A few years later, after the Oslo “hoax”, as he calls it, he wrote a long letter to Arafat in Tunis, delivered by hand. In it he reminded the PLO leader that 85 per cent of the people of Palestine were uprooted from their ancestral home. “You know, Abu Ammar, that Palestinians have never before signed any agreement, armistice, or any accord of any kind, in which they agreed to forfeit any part of their country or their rights. You cannot do this today under any pressure.”
By this time Abu Sitta had begun to work closely with Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu Lughod, Hisham Sharabi, Naseer Aruri and Shafiq Al Hout to ensure that the PLO returned to its founding principles. Sadly, as a group of illustrious scholars, time was not on their side. All of his compatriots in this group have passed away, leaving Salman Abu Sitta as the last one standing.
Nevertheless, he continues to soldier on. He has not lost hope. In 1995 Abu Sitta took his daughter, Rania, the twelfth generation of his family and the first of her generation to be born in exile, to his home village in Al Ma’in. Ben Gurion, he says, must have turned in his grave because although many of the old have died the young have not forgotten their patrimony.
Abu Sitta’s sojourn as a refugee has taken him from Palestine to domiciles in Egypt, Kuwait, England and Canada. The research for this book took him to libraries and archives in great cities such as Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, London, Paris, Leipzig, Munich and Berlin, to name but a few.
Now he knows who the present occupants of his land are, their numbers and how they have divided all of its 4,750 acres. After decades of persistent struggle and research, he has been able “to put faces to the enemy.”
His one remaining dream is to have a tombstone in his native Al Ma’in with the epitaph: “Born here, torn away from his home at a young age, he spent the rest of his life flying in the skies of the world on the long, arduous journey to return home – and he made it.”
Although it lacks an index, this is a book that should be a mandatory study for young Palestinians and all those who believe in the justice of their cause and their right to return.