A Palestinian memoir: An aerial photo of my family house

Amira Howeidy , Monday 15 May 2017

On the 69th anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian 'Nakba', Ahram Online republishes a review of of Salman Abu Sitta's Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir, Cairo: AUC Press, 2016. pp318

An aerial photo of my family house
It has been argued that the Arab Spring’s primary casualty was the Palestinian cause, formerly – and since 1948 – the central issue for all Arab states. Forgotten amid the cascading effect of uprisings across the region, Palestine was nowhere to be found in the adrenalised conversation on youth, democratic transition and the promise of rewriting history.

The wars that transpired exasperated that neglect. Fresh death tolls, migration waves, internal displacement and aerial bombardment of towns in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, or simply political turmoil in Egypt, had eclipsed disappointment in the failed peace process, illegal Israeli settlement expansion and any transgression of Palestinian rights.

If anything Israel — almost the only enemy post-independence Arab states have known and been occupied by — has emerged as an ally of self-proclaimed moderate Arab governments against both Iran and terrorism.

But it is remarkable how an account the lifetime efforts of one man to document historic Palestine and its people’s right of return could be so relevant to today’s refugee crisis, the stories of displacement and erasure of cities and homes of other Arab nations.


In his memoir, Salman Abu Sitta, 78, makes no mention of the post-Arab Spring chaos or its unfolding human tragedies, but by telling his story of displacement – an echo of seven million Palestinian refugee stories – he positions the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the context of systematic colonisation and ethnic cleansing which, starting in 1947, has continued to the present day.  

The publisher describes Abu Sitta’s book as the only memoir in English by a Palestinian Arab who grew up in the Beersheba district in southern Palestine prior to 1948.

Mapping My Return paints picturesque scenes from a rural Palestinian south uncharted in literature; celebrated Palestinian memoirs in English like Edward Said’s Out Of Place or Ghada Karmi’s In Search Of Fatima and Return focus on Jerusalem, whence the authors hail. Abu Sitta, who became a refugee at the age of ten, writes vividly about life in his family’s early 18th-century farm estate, his ancestral home known as Ma’in Abu Sitta (or “the Abu Sitta Spring”): the rolling meadows and gently sloping hills; the sea of wheat stretching over 600 hectares (over 60,000 dunums); seasonal changes in the rich orchard, bird species in the spring and the location of the barns where the crops were stored.   

Attachment to the land, identity and pre-Nakba memory is a staple of Palestinian autobiographies.  Abu Sitta’s memoir is no exception, but it also betrays the purpose of this book – also his life’s mission – to learn and understand everything about Palestinian dispossession and destruction and how to “reconstruct” Palestine.  “If that could be done, would it then be possible to return to our homes?” he writes. “Could we shake off this terrible nightmare and be normal again, living in our country like the rest of the world?”

Abu Sitta is a construction engineer who was pioneering in his field as well as a historian, cartographer, former member of the National Palestinian Congress (the Palestinian parliament in exile), founder and president of the Palestinian Land Society and author the first of its kind Atlas of Palestine 1984 (which weaves the past (a detailed 1948 map of Palestine), the present (today’s existing roads) and the future (Abu Sitta’s vision of how 5 million Palestinians could return home). His life seems to have revolved around that quest.

When I met him 18 years ago for an interview on the Palestinian right of return, a subject on which he was the only authority, it was clear that the information, accumulated knowledge and documents in Abu Sitta’s possession was sui generis.  His dedication was generous and unconditional. Not only was he single-handedly conducting cross-border institutional-level work digging in archives, libraries and interviewing eyewitnesses and survivors of the Nakba, he was also funding it out of his own pocket. When Abu Sitta found out that this newspaper was publishing a special section marking 50 years since the Nakba, he donated a state-of-the-art map (the size of a double broadsheet) of all the Palestinian towns and villages depopulated  in 1948, with succinct statistics on the history of the Palestinian diaspora and where they can return, which Al-Ahram Weekly published as an insert in its first issue of January 1988.

Abu Sitta’s family lost their home and vast swathes of fertile land on the eve of the establishment of Israel on 14 and 15 May 1948.  Zionist gangs in 24 armoured vehicles attacked the estate; they were spotted by the mother of his cousin Abduallah, a resistance fighter. Her haunting cries, “Oh, my sons, the Jews are coming to take you. The Jews are coming,” are almost audible. The men stayed on to fight and the women and children, including 10-year-old Abu Sitta, fled to a nearby shelter in the wadi while the fighting went on all through the night. With first light Abu Sitta could the smoke coming out of the school his father had build in 1920. Abu Sitta’s father, paramount sheikh of the Tarabin, “the largest, wealthiest and strongest tribe in southern Palestine” since the 16th century, which extended to the banks of the Nile, as well as chief judge at the tribal court in Beersheeba, was a pioneer educationalist. Smoke was also rising from his house and other houses, “announcing the destruction of our landscape.”

The Abu Sittas, whose lineage can be traced to Al-Tarabin became refugees in nearby Khan Yunis, Gaza. Abu Sitta was soon sent to his two brothers who were studying in Cairo to continue his education. As he prepared to leave with no papers, Abu Sitta writes, he was engulfed by an anxiety that was never to leave him. “I wanted to know who this faceless enemy was. What did they look like, why did they hate us... Why had they had literally burned our lives to the ground? Who were the Jews anyway? I thought to myself that I must find out who they were: their names, their faces, where they came from. I must know their army formations, their officers, what exactly they had done that day and where they lived later.”

It took him almost 50 years to have his answers. After earning a degree in engineering from Cairo University (not without economic hardship), Abu Sitta moved to England where he completed his PhD in civil engineering at University College London (and had a part time job with BBC Arabic, writing science pieces.) And it was in 1960s England, poring over maps and books in the Royal Geographical Society library, that Abu Sitta began a colossal investigation that eventually led him to the identity of the faceless enemy that had haunted him since the day he left his destroyed home in Ma’in Abu Sitta.

The names of the players in his tragedy finally emerged. Abu Sitta tells us that the Negev Brigade which attacked them was led by Nahum Sarig, whose photograph he obtained. The second player he located by name and photo was Benni Meitiv (Motilov), an officer of Russian decent born in 1926 Palestine. Abu Sitta found and studied Meitiv’s small book about the attack on Al-Ma’in, on which he had been spying for a year and a half.  The depth and skill of Abu Sitta’s decades-long, meticulous search didn’t stop there, however. He wanted to find out what happened after the Zionist gangs took ever Al-Ma’in. And he did.

But in the end the journey is about Palestine. The quest to know and to document has produced this memoir, the magnum opus Atlas of Palestine 1948, hundreds of articles, speeches, maps, documents, aerial images of historic, occupied and present-day Palestine (including Ma’in Abu Sitta before and after 1948), eye witness accounts, testimonies on Zionist atrocities against Palestinian villages and towns and the original landscape of 500 destroyed villages.

Mapping My Return explains how and why this happened. Had he not written it himself, it would have been impossible to comprehend how Abu Sitta was capable of such an astonishing effort – to record and document Israel’s continuous erasure of Palestine – and his determination to resist it. This memoir is crucial to understanding why and how the Palestinian question has not been put to rest after 68 years. It’s Abu Sitta’s answer to Israel’s efforts to inflict on the Palestinians what he calls an “artificial amnesia” to render them a people without memory: this documentation could serve as a road map to the return to Palestine in any future negotiation

When he obtained the 1948 aerial photos of Ma’in Abu Sitta, taken by the British before their hurried departure from Palestine, Abu Sitta relived his childhood. From high up the places looked like small dots but he could see the cultivated fields of wheat and barely and all the seven roads. “Cultivated fields belie the Zionist myth, ’We made the desert bloom,’” he writes. The normal survey maps made up of dots and lines, showed the correct details with scientific detachment. “Photos showed life as it was lived. They do not lie.”

In 1995, Abu Sitta was able to finally visit occupied Palestine with his daughter for the first time since his forced exile 47 years earlier. When his taxi driver approached Al-Ma’in, then a changed landscape dotted with Israeli settlements, he told him exactly where to drive and where to go. The driver asked him if he’d been there before.

“I never left,” Abu Sitta replied. “I am here every day.”

family house


*This story was first published in September 2016

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