Citation Information: Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies, Volume 18 Issue 1, Page 121-126, ISSN 2054-1988 Available Online Apr 2019
Nahla Abdo and Nur Masalha (eds) An Oral History of The Palestinian Nakba (London: Zed Books, Kindle edition, 2018). Pp. 315. Hardback. ISBN-13: 978–1–7869–9349–6
To start with, let me absolve myself of professionally judging the contributors to this valuable book: An Oral History of The Palestinian Nakba. I am neither a historian nor a social scientist. At the turn of the millennium, when I switched occupations from public health and medicine to writing, the jump seemed too wide. Yet, I rarely write free from my medical knowledge and clinical acumen.
Genocide's Body Politics
This was the case as I read this volume. Especially the earlier parts, including the chapter entitled ‘What bodies remember: sensory experience as historical counterpoint in the Nakba archives’, sounded to me like another case study from Dr Bessel van der Kolk's best-selling psychiatry opus on trauma and how to deal with its aftereffects, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma(2014)2. The current Nakba case study is a collective one of a whole people rather than of an individual patient. In his pioneering work, van der Kolk goes on to demystify the use of movement therapy to counter the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of trauma sufferers showing up at his office, be they survivors of childhood sexual abuse or American veterans of the Vietnam War. When I raised my objection to the focus on war veterans instead of war victims, especially the children among them, my colleague explained that funding considerations impose certain limitations on research priorities in the field. That sounded like another direct link to the case of the Palestinian Nakba: Across-the-board collusion to enforce memoricide.
The current compendium of Palestinian Nakba oral narratives and the in-depth analysis the authors/collectors accord them are sure to evoke support and approval from Palestinian readers who can access them. What is hoped-for, one can presume from the authors' repeated statements, is that the impact of the rich scientific analysis they offer will lead the Palestinian public everywhere to accept and promote the art and science of oral history, whether as participating narrators or expert collectors of such testimonies. Thus, the authors are gaining, or perhaps hijacking, the permission to narrate that Edward Said had advocated for the Palestinians. In the process they attempt to render their joint task ‘a site of hope, liberation and decolonisation’. All along, the reader senses the uphill struggle of these efforts.
Take for example the following twist of logic, typical of its author: The book quotes Benny Morris blaming the Palestinians for their Nakba while softening the fall of his statement on the conscience of the readers by calling the Nakba ‘the Palestinian exodus’. That evokes the subconscious positivity of the legendary escape of Jews from their slavery in Egypt and their eventual arrival to ‘their promised land’, no other than Palestine itself. And if the Nakba is an exodus, you may well expect us to pen down our Aggadah in the present volume. Kafka would be proud.
In his introductory contribution, Nur Masalha opines: ‘However, the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, their ongoing plight and trauma, have brought me to the conclusion that there is a need to nurture and establish an interdisciplinary subfield to be called Nakba Studies. This subfield would bring in historians, both literary and theorist, and scholars of trauma studies. It would continue documentation and expression of the embattled popular and cultural memories of Palestine as a liberating scholarly and ethical imperative’. Likewise, Rosemary Sayigh advocates ‘an anti-colonial feminism as the feminist methodology appropriate for analysing, understanding and acting on the context of indigenousness and settler colonialism’.
These two suggestions and the many other lofty ideas in this volume elevate it to an academic yet practical level, one of engagement and challenge to others in the field. At the same time, it is another testimony to the Palestinians' ‘heritage, suffering, resistance and endurance’, which recalls a short vide on Facebook3 in which several young Gazan amputees, including the slingshot-swinging child leader of the group, join a traditional Palestinian line dance, jumping in the air and raising their walking sticks to the sky in rhythm to the music. If that doesn't qualify as Dance Movement Therapy, advocated by my colleague, Dr. van der Kolk, I do not know what does. Perhaps such defiant responses are the reason Israeli snipers oftentimes shoot to kill and not only to maim Palestinian youth.
The Need to Popularise the Academic
The book has three levels of discourse in descending order of comprehensibility to the general Palestinian public and hence of significance in achieving the goal the authors set for their project: Oral testimonies by Nakba witnesses and their descendants, comments about and interpretation of such oral accounts with particular emphasis on feminist content and analysis, and the academic discourse that lays the theoretical background to the field as a whole. Throughout the book, there is a sense of mission: To popularise and sell the important field of oral/aural history to the Palestinian public and to the world as the ultimate target audience.
Reading this book brought me face to face with the shortcomings I opened with. From the start I realised that the high price tag targets libraries and learning institutions, not the casual reader. Then, as I surveyed the table of contents, I knew I would be reaching for the dictionary frequently. It seems to this humble reader that much of the material covered in this book is of the essence in convincing our public of the wisdom and need for widening the popular base for the art and science of oral history production, the seeming basic premise of the book. And yet, at several points in the discussion, especially when addressing the wider field of oral history and not only as it applies to the Nakba, it falls short on speaking to the non-academician and non-specialist. I, myself, survived but emerged with an urge to preach to the good authors and the publisher: The subject matter, the analysis and the intellectual debate are all superb. The volume has much information that would benefit our public and not only academicians. Oral history is promoted throughout the volume, as an ‘important methodology of decolonising hegemonic history’. Many of the narrators reinforce this statement in their oral accounts even though they lack the academic skill to articulate the principle. One aspect of countering the coloniser's efforts is to let the subjects willing to make their voices heard comprehend and appreciate the effects, practical and theoretical, of their speaking out and sharing their memories with supportive researchers. It is the researcher's duty to facilitate this and to demystify their scientific discourse, to reciprocate to their source persons by offering a simplified version of the analysis and discourse to which they subject their accounts. The book, to my mind, fails to fulfil this calling. That is why a special effort should be made to ‘popularise’ it, both stylistically and pricewise. It would be helpful if a wider section of our public could benefit from such a treasure in an easily accessible presentation, perhaps even in Arabic. From what I read in the last part about the Tamer Institute, perhaps it has the experience, skilled staff and contacts to make a go of the needed ‘popularisation’ attempt.
Food, Fields and Nostalgic Memories
The theme of the ongoing Nakba for its sufferers, whether in parts of historical Palestine, in refugee camps across the Middle East or in the wider diaspora, is revisited repeatedly by most contributing authors in this volume. The Nakba's primary 1948 ‘big bang’ continues to reverberate in the memory and the daily lives of all Palestinians. Several narrators address the live sensorial memories, the physicality of their remembered trauma decades after the events, another connection to van der Kolk's PTSD analysis.
The authors also point out that the severance of the Palestinians' connection to their land is a form of genocide since it has erased a major part of the identity of the agrarian majority of Palestinians. Comprehending this essential principle should suffice to cement a solid connection to other colonised indigenous nations still struggling to resist their genocide at the hands of settler colonialists. This is particularly true in the case of women who are closer to the land, as is duly observed in the book. One aspect of this genocidal process seems to receive less attention than it deserves, severing the cultural, especially the culinary, connection of indigenous women to their land. Palestinians draw much sustenance directly from the land and its natural treasures, the traditional foods we forage for from the fields and the wilderness, whether greens and wild herbs gathered in spring and eaten fresh or cooked, or wild fruits in the summer, cactus fruits being a lead delicacy and wild carob a close second. To this day, in my home town, Arrabeh of Galilee, tales abound about the older generations' expert palates, expert enough to pin down the specific field from which a wild fruit, a cucumber or a dish of okra came. Perhaps a hungry child's open access, say to wild summer fruits, without the competition of others during the one main meal of the day, must add a sense of satiety and a measure of flavor to the memory.
The Dead and the Living: Deir Yassin, Saffourieh and ‘Eylout
In an atypically poetic gesture, historian Nur Masalha overshoots his target and crosses linguistically from the horrific to the beguiling oration of beauty and awe: ‘The irony of Yad va-Shem and Deir Yassin’, he declares ‘is breathtaking’. I can hear him screaming. He then goes on to inform us briefly of the infamous premeditated massacre and of the no less deliberate, continuing and overwhelming memoricide. The stupendous weight of the holocaust and its entire ‘industry’ is brought to bear on effacing the memory of the qualitatively no less horrific Deir Yassin massacre.
The mechanism and process of the systematic erasure of Palestine's memory is well documented in Noga Kadman's book, Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 (2015).4 As leftist and academic as Kadman tries to be, she falls morally short on some major points, seeming to prove Israel's success in its erasure attempts of Palestine from Israeli, and perhaps from the world's consciousness. Her book opens with a most appropriate epitaph by Amos Kenan, another Israeli leftist literary figure. In her text, Kadman covers both Deir Yassin and al-Dawayma massacres. Yet nowhere does she mention that Amos Kenan took part in both. It is akin to the current glossing over by most Israelis in their eulogies of Uri Avnery of his participation in the Deir Yassin war crime. The mental aggression of memoricide is widespread in Israel. But I have never heard of anyone before grasping the essence of its cruelty as breathtaking.
Then there is the example of Amina Qablawi Nasrallah's personal memories about her family's saga admixed with her grandmother's account of her life of resistance. It illustrates the futility of Israel's systematic memoricide practices. I had a hard time appending my notes in the margins as I read her contribution because of the tears I shed. Now, donning my MD hat, I know this to be the elderly's emotional lability. The account spoke to me in a direct, personal and intensely emotional way. It reminded me of the life story of my late friend, Palestine's village poet, Taha Mohammad Ali. Unable to gain permission to erect a memorial for him in his demolished hometown of Saffourieh, fellow refugee youth pasted his photo on a pile of old masonry stones, remnants of demolished homes, a true memorial to a loyal son and avid lover. Nasrallah's account has many other reality connections for me. It is the oral exposé of what underlies the iconic image of the Palestinian old woman farmer facing the blade of the bulldozer while protecting and holding on to her olive tree for dear life. The back-and-forth personal account informs the reader in much deeper and more eloquent ways than any detached academic discourse using specialised terminology. Again and again, I read in this account much more than its simple words say: There is the casual, comment-less exposure of our experience and understanding of Israel's democracy, marketed to the world as our due compensation for the loss of our land: Speaking of a local collaborator, she quotes her grandmother, the uncontested heroine of the account, as saying simply ‘He was also made a member of the Israeli Parliament’. Then there is the reality of Apartheid in practice: A native family living on its land in a caravan nearly seven decades after the Nakba while vindictive Zionist settlers splurge in plush homes of Tsepori, the new all-Jewish Saffourieh.
But nothing is harder to forget than the image of little Yosra, the diligent schoolchild, walking to school in a neighboring village, being robbed of a lettuce she had carried from her family's field for her teacher, the classic polished apple gesture. Or young Amina herself as a pupil, having walked miles on a rainy morning to the bus stop on the road to Nazareth, being left there by the bus driver who recognised her as Arab. What could a little girl do but walk back, sit under a fig tree in the yard and cry for her father, the perfect Palestinian father, loyal son and family man, murdered by another Tsipori settler.
And there is the powerful image of the mother from ‘Eylout, the site of another of the Nakba's many massacres, ‘bussing’ her two barefoot children daily back and forth on donkey back across the mountain to Nazareth for them to attend a nuns' school, receive a meal and learn metalwork and piano: The little girl survived to tell us that ‘[I sat] for the piano exam and then I sat for Brevet’.
God have mercy! How do Zionists plan to deal with such prodigies?!
1 Author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel: The Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2008) and Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor's Tales of life in Galilee (Washington DC: Just World Books, 2015)
2 (London: Penguin Books).
4 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).
The Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies (formerly Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal) was founded in 2002 as a fully refereed international journal. It publishes new, stimulating and provocative ideas on Palestine, Israel and the wider Middle East, paying particular attention to issues that have a contemporary relevance and a wider public interest. The journal draws upon expertise from virtually all relevant disciplines: history, politics, culture, literature, archaeology, geography, economics, religion, linguistics, biblical studies, sociology and anthropology.
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