The erasure of Palestinian memory is often wrongly associated with the past. When combined with narratives that exclude Palestinians from their ongoing displacement, it is imperative to challenge both the sources and the parameters of how, and from where, knowledge is gained. “An Oral History of the Palestinian Nakba” (Zed Books, 2018) commences with such a premise to dispel the myths created by power and reveals how oral history is vital in constructing the Palestinian narrative, while ensuring it can withstand the concentrated efforts of oblivion.
By painting “the Nakba as process and not an event,” the contributors make an important point – the responsibility for reclaiming Palestinian history should be substantiated by efforts that prioritise Palestinian narratives. Masalha states: “there is no doubt that the Nakba was a key event in the consolidation and reconstruction of a strong, clearly defined and vital contemporary Palestinian identity.”
The book is divided into five parts – each building upon the central themes discussed by editors Nahla Abdo and Nur Masalha in their contributions: theorising the Nakba and the Nakba as genocide respectively. Authors in the subsequent chapters illustrate the Nakba through the relationship between knowledge and experience, the voices of Palestinian women refugees and the oral transmission of history in Palestinian communities, specific Nakba stories of villages and towns, as well as Nakba memories from Gaza and the diaspora. Each essay highlights specifics of colonial violence as a historical and ongoing process, thus elucidating upon the fact that Palestinian anti-colonial struggle and the preservation of memory are continuous.
Reclamation of memory starts by acknowledging the prevailing dissemination of history, as Masalha states: “conventionally, history has been written by the powerful, the conqueror, the coloniser; the discipline of history has long been a tool of dominant elites used to reinforce hegemonic narrative and existent power relations.”
The history of the coloniser is inundated with the absence of the colonised. For Palestinians, whose lives were ruptured not only due to ethnic cleansing but also through the erasure of memory, oral history is a powerful tool that defies Israel’s enforced oblivion. The victim, as the primary subject, becomes a main source of narratives that are capable of countering the various strands of oblivion – from Zionist erasures to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)’s efforts to marginalise refugee testimony.
Himmat Zubi contributes to the discussion in her chapter, remarking that in the absence of Palestinian archives, oral history is of profound importance. She also shows how counter readings of Zionist narratives can also contribute to an understanding of Palestinian history – reading beyond the propaganda helps in solving what she calls “the absence box” – a term coined to define the absence of Palestinian narratives post-Nakba due to the trauma caused by ongoing colonial violence.
Masalha describes the Nakba as “a key event in the consolidation and reconstruction of a strong, clearly defined and contemporary Palestinian identity.” Palestinian identity is also strongly associated with land, and memories of the land. Nahla Abdo observes that “the loss of land in this case constitutes the utmost violence inflicted upon indigenous peoples as a group.”
Memory in relation to land and the experience of land was evoked by Palestinians whose testimonies are published in this book. One participant states: “This is history, and history is merciless.” Diana Allen’s sensitive analysis brings out the difference between memory and academic expectations of structure due to dissociation from experience. A question that seeks a definite answer is expanded upon through the experience of one’s own history. Allen illustrates this, giving an example of a question asked to a Palestinian: “When I asked if he had ever visited the border by boat in his many decades of exile, he responded that he no longer had the right nets to fish in those waters.” Oral history is rooted in experiences of place, as well as feeling. Referencing Darwish, Allen remarks that “place is not simply geography, but a state of mind.”
The emotion that is triggered through absence gives meaning, in this case, to the relationship between the people, history and the land. One common narration in this book is how Palestinians attempted to stay close to their villages. Return is fuelled by attachment to land and this is also reflected in the language used by Palestinian refugees when narrating their experiences. Rosemary Sayigh draws upon women’s memory as based “around the experience of loss in the community.” The refugee camps, intended by the Zionist colonisers as a space of exclusion, became a space for resistance to counter ongoing colonisation.
Language recorded in Palestinian oral history also fights against the dehumanisation imposed upon Palestinians by the colonial narrative. Contrary to Zionist claims, Palestinians did not voluntarily leave. The book, however, substantiates Palestinian resilience and their imposed forced displacement by showing how the refugees consciously made use of language that reflected their predicament. As Faiha Abdulhadi shows in her chapter, refugees highlighted the difference that is implied in “leaving”: “They used terms such as expulsion, transfer, forced displacement and elevation, all of which help enrich the Palestinian discourse and narrative, which is a counter-narrative to the false Zionist history.”
The incompatibility of Zionist and Palestinian narratives, as articulated by Sayigh, is mostly associated with the silencing of the Nakba and the promotion of the propaganda industry surrounding the Holocaust, which made the colonisation of Palestine, in Western terms “a legitimate reward for victimhood rather than an act of colonialism consciously projected along European lines and intended to support Western hegemony over the Arab east.”
Oral history is also activist and active. The ongoing trauma caused by a perpetual Nakba has led Palestinians to resist their erasure by several means. Territorial identity for the Bedouin challenges the Zionist narrative of a nomadic community and barren land. Women in the Bedouin community, according to Safa Abu Rabi’a, “educate their children on land attachment and territorial identity as a significant factor that defines their link to the place.”
In Gaza, oral history is critical. The enclosed space defined by a refugee population is brimming with Nakba narratives. Again, the testimonies indicate the Palestinian perception of a brief phase that turned out to be permanent forced displacement. Mundane details attest to their decision being a reaction to the immediate circumstances, without long term plans. In her testimony, Sadikka Talash says: “The maklooba [a traditional Palestinian food dish] was ready to be eaten, so I wrapped it in a hurry in a blanket to stay warm.” It is always the immediate events prior to the Nakba that are recalled with detail, while the link between the refugee and the place left behind is illustrated by narratives of Palestinians going back to see how their relatives who stayed behind were faring, only to find, as in one narrative, “your grandfather shot dead next to his plate with bread and eggs.”
Malaka Mohammad Shwaikh’s observation summarises the essence of oral history and its impact: “For Palestinian refugees, memory of the past represents the fuel for their survival, and acts as a force in maintain[ing] and reproducing their rights as the sole owners of Palestine.” Throughout the book, the authors have conveyed this truth in remarkable detail, with impeccable analysis and utmost respect for those voices whose history many are determined to talk over, whether consciously or unconsciously. There is no separation between the land and the people; this clarity in itself also constitutes a challenge to the Zionist narrative which plays upon division to enforce oblivion. Apart from its prestige as an academic work that stays authentic to the voice of the Palestinian people, the book is also home to a simple truth from a Palestinian whose narrative is included in the book and which, in itself, contains enough power to validate the analysis and, indeed, transcend it: “I am Palestinian, and I do not have another land.”