Nakba-themed anthologies dispel the concept of linear time and chronology. The brutal and abrupt halting of pre-1948 Palestinian life remains a reference point in Palestinian history, memory and literature, as this collection of writings in Saqi Books’ recent publication, “A Map of Absence…”, shows. What has been disseminated is never enough, because among the many narratives shared and made public by the Palestinian people there are millions of other stories waiting to be heard, others have been lost because Zionists have massacred their narrators.
In his introduction to the anthology of writing by Palestinian authors and others writing about Palestine, editor Atef Alshaer describes the collection as being “preoccupied with the same unanswered questions concerning the dispossession of the Palestinian people and their conditions of being occupied.” The writers, he says, “inhabit their own stories not only as victims of a major historical injustice, but also as agents in the development of Palestine – the idea and the living reality.”
The idea of Palestine and its current reality intertwine precisely due to the fact that there has been no recognition of the ethnic cleansing and colonial violence unleashed upon Palestinians to pave the way for Israel’s creation in Palestine, let alone justice for its victims. While it is possible to identify the main political processes that have shaped Palestinian literature — the Nakba, the Palestinian national movement and anti-colonial struggle, as well as the Oslo Accords and their aftermath — there is a unifying feature common in all strands of writing. The preservation and dissemination of memory is both an incentive to move forward and a reminder of what was stolen. For Palestinians, loss has a different connotation. It is not defeatist, but rather an unfinished stance which seeks to overcome itself and move towards fulfilment.
Book Review: The Book of Disappearance
The ultimate as a collective would be the fulfilment by the Palestinians of the right of return to their land. However, several strands of memory are woven into those rights, which give the reader insight into the various experiences, recollections and inspirations in this anthology. Refugee narratives by renowned Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani point towards the meagre possessions and expectations troubling Palestinians in the camps, but Kanafani writes of detail so mundane that it might be disregarded were it not for the value perceived and experienced by the writer: “I remember nothing except the cold, and the ice that manacled my finger, and the can of soup.”
Kanafani’s writing depicts Palestinian refugees as exposed to harsh situations most of the time, without even temporary respite. Rashid Hussein’s poetry also reflects this exposure: “I learned that he whose land is stolen / does not like the rain.” Naomi Shihab Nye explores the metaphor of absence by showing how Palestinian refugees have little to cling to but their own narratives: “But I know we need to keep warm here on earth / And when your shawl is as thin as mine is, you tell stories.”
Likewise, Elias Khoury writes of memory as an intimate process linked to the land. “You used to tell me that you knew the sites because they were engraved on your eyes like indelible landmarks.”
Palestinian land holds many truths, most of which remain concealed, regarding the fate of the people massacred or disappeared during the Nakba. Impunity for Israel, upheld by the international community, has transformed the Nakba into an ongoing bludgeoning. Nathalie Handal writes of her desire to know: “but a question still haunts me at night: / where are the bodies?” For other Palestinians who know what happened to their loved ones, there is still no closure. Writing about the Kafr Qasem massacres, Samih Al-Qassam insists, “Their circling ghosts have still not ceased / Digging up graves in Kafr Qasem’s debris.”
Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s contribution to the anthology details the attack on a village and its aftermath, where the narrator frantically searches for his fiancée among the ruins and finds her hand. “Then I felt something soft hit my hand, I dug it up. It was a hand torn off the wrist.”
For the Palestinian refugee, exile and return cannot be separated. The journey outwards, which started through violent coercion, must be completed by a return, as Salman Abu Sitta expounds, “I knew the end destination, and that the only way to it was the road of return I had decided to take.”
Book Review: The Palestinians Who Built Israel
The refugees also view themselves from the lens of the external actors who decided their displacement. Ashraf Fayadh writes, “Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line / to get a fraction of a country.” Standing at the end of the line is a truth; getting a fraction of a country is only existent in diplomatic rhetoric which has shackled Palestinians to the possibility of remaining without any shards of land.
Yet, despite the distance between the refugee and the land, there is no distance between refugees and memory. Maya Abu Al-Hayyat ruminates, “How bitter it is / to search in the map for a memory / and find its corpse still fresh…”
In exile, uncertainty permeates all. The routine of waking up where one does not belong is in itself a trauma. Jabra’s verses attest to this: “What, then, are we doing with our love? / When our eyes and our mouth are full of frost and dust?” Stagnation becomes a perpetual tribulation, exacerbated by the ramifications of dispossession and its effect on Palestinian identity.
In excerpts for this anthology, Edward Said’s experience of the Nakba describe the Palestinian experience “as a human – evolving human thing, trajectory.” Throughout this book, it is the human experience that stands out, elsewhere discarded to make space for the politics that have disrupted and ruptured Palestinian lives. The political solution as presented in Rabai Al-Madhoun’s contribution utilises a quote from Mahmoud Darwish: “Get out”. At the end of reading this book, there is one question the reader ponders: what trajectory might Palestinian memory take after decolonisation?