This slim volume of testimonies from Palestinians who experienced the Nakba emphasises several factors which are vital to the preservation of Palestinian memory. It counters Zionist myths about Palestine being barren before Israel came along; a deep nostalgia for the homeland is sensed immediately. Palestine was thriving, abundant and beautiful; the reminiscences of Palestinians in this volume assert this fact, particularly with regard to the affinity of the indigenous people for their land.
“Living Memories: Testimonies of Palestinians’ displacement in 1948” (2017) should also be read as an important exercise in oral Palestinian history and a means through which it is possible to challenge Israel’s eradication of Palestine and its people. It must be remembered that not only did Israel ethnically cleanse Palestine of its inhabitants, but it has also altered the landscape through the building of hideous colonial-settlements and the destruction of the natural landscape and agriculture; the latter has been by favouring imported European species. Israel has also attempted to annihilate Palestinian history by looting and destroying historical documents and literature in order to construct its own, fabricated, narratives.
Oral testimony, if documented well, can preserve Palestinian memory. This is essential in light of the Nakba and the absence of any accountability for Israel upheld by the international community, which has also influenced misinterpretations of the Palestinian right of return. This collection, compiled by female researchers from Palestine and the diaspora, demonstrates this possibility. As the introduction states: “The stories of the exiled Palestinians convey not only the harsh details of displacement but also the power of right, represented in the determination to return irrespective of the passage of time.”
The six interviews in this book show how a common heritage was massacred and plundered by Zionist paramilitary groups and then the state of Israel, to create a spectrum of fragmented Palestinian experiences. Territory represents relevance to all interviewees, as do culture, traditions, family life, education and Palestinian folklore. The Nakba resulted in a permanent rupture which forced Palestinians to categorise their lives, memory and experiences into “before” and “after”. Within this timeline, however, the Nakba and Palestinian memory are shaped in ways that frame the ongoing violations. The historical events are enshrined within their space, yet the vivid recollections transcend the concept of time due to the psychological and social trauma involved.
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In their descriptions of the Nakba and its aftermath, Palestinians recall the persistent persecution by Zionist paramilitaries. Listen to what Amin, from Safforiyeh, has to say: “I remember we were walking and they were shooting at us from behind, we walk and they shoot from behind until we reached Beit Jbeil.”
Hamdi, from Qalunya, recalls the British mobilisation against Palestinians during the 1929 rebellion and how Britain’s collaboration with Zionist paramilitaries enabled the colonisation plans to take shape through violence. His displacement from the village is echoed by memories of other ethnically cleansed villages during the search for alternative shelter. Hamdi, who later joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine after a meeting with George Habash, was arrested several times by Israel and placed in administrative detention. “Every time I am arrested,” he says, “my conviction and love for my homeland is strengthened, so is my faith in the justice of my cause.”
More specific acts of violence committed by Zionist paramilitaries are narrated by Rasheedah: “They began intruding on the women as they baked bread. They would throw soot on the dough, they were totally vindictive.” Rasheedah’s recollection contrasts with her description of the abundance available prior to the Nakba. In the aftermath of 1948, there is a grotesque juxtaposition of Palestinians attempting to resume a semblance of normality only to be murdered and disappeared by Israel.
Another interviewee from the diaspora, Firyal, who ended up in Chile, also evokes the macabre disruption of everyday life. “We were bombarded while we were picking olives,” he explains. This is not an isolated incident, nor one limited to the past; just this week, Jewish settlers have burned hundreds of olive trees in the occupied West Bank. The systematic Zionist targeting of Palestinian people and villages was (and remains) intended to eliminate any hope of safety and thus deter people permanently from trying to return to their land.
The road to exile is perhaps described most poignantly by Labeebah, also from Safforiyeh. The relentless persecution by Israel led to journeys much longer than the Palestinians could have imagined, “until we found ourselves in exile.”
The most harrowing story in this collection of testimonies comes from Mohammad, who was 12 at the time of the Nakba. Psychological trauma – a consequence of ethnic cleansing – takes on a new dimension as he tells the story of a woman who gave birth in a wheat field during her exile journey and, due to shock, abandoned her baby as she sought to rejoin the other fleeing villagers.
While academia categorises for the sake of research, this project manages to portray the real-life stories behind such classifications. Human rights violations — a catchphrase used by many and, due to its prevalence, rarely thought about deeply — are presented here as the personal experiences of real people which Israel has sought to conceal, not only diplomatically as it embarked upon concentrated efforts to insist upon assimilation to its narrative, but also by destroying the evidence. Mohammad, from Gaza, sheds light upon the massacres in Al-Kawkaba, where elderly people were murdered by Zionists before their bodies were thrown down wells.
Palestinian memory necessitates additional efforts to preserve oral history. This book has provided readers with the opportunity to try to picture how the Nakba disfigured Palestine and fragmented the Palestinians. Making these experiences more accessible may prove to be an initial step in drawing attention to Palestinian rights, instead of Israeli propaganda.