Testimonies of Palestinian plight

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 25 Oct 2023

The plight of the Palestinians in exile from their homeland from the 1948 Nakba onwards can be read in many works of literature and memoirs.

Nakba Books


“I picked up a map that described Al-Bilad [the land] until 1948. But I immediately folded it again to avoid ripples of pain… the Palestinian villages are still there on the map, but now I see them swallowed up by Israeli names.”

With these lines, the female protagonist of Tafsil Thanway (Minor Detail) by Palestinian writer Adania Shibli sums up a sentiment of piercing-but-accommodated pain that puts Palestinians of successive generations face-to-face with the reality of their loss and bewilderment.

Shibli is a member of the 1948 Palestinians — a widely used reference to identify those Palestinians who managed to escape the Zionist ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine of its non-Jewish population in 1948 to allow for its takeover by Jews.

This meant that villages that carried Palestinian names were replaced by illegal settlements given Hebrew names.

Shibli’s novel was lined up for a prize ceremony at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this month. However, the fair chose to withhold the prize in a show of “solidarity” with Israel following the attacks by Hamas on southern Israel on 7 October.

It decided instead to give more space to “Jewish and Israeli voices”.

The line “out with the Arabs and in with the Jews” is a key one in Shibli’s novel whose protagonists have no names perhaps because the author decided that names are irrelevant in a story of replayed violations, in every sense of the word, and helplessness.

At the start of the book, there is the appalling, even if somehow incidental, violation that Zionist soldiers exercise on Arab land and an Arab woman who is raped, killed, and buried in the Al-Naqab Desert in the south of Palestine “with the blood dripping out of her head to effortlessly and smoothly melt into the land”.

This violation is a sequel to the violation of villagers who lived on the land and that was taken away from them by force.

The incident, which takes place on a hot summer’s day in August 1949, is bound for a “resurrection,” however, “just like a violently uprooted wild plant is bound to come up again in a few years’ time,” as Shibli’s second female character thinks to herself when contemplating the history of this rape and murder that took place 50 years earlier on the same day of 12 August.

12 August 1949 is the day of the death of Shibli’s female protagonist, only called Al-Fatah (the girl). 25 years later, there is the birth of Shibli’s second female character, the narrator of Tafsil Thanway.

Another 25 years down the road, the narrator is “living under occupation with the sound of bullets and the sirens of military patrols, and at times the noise of military helicopters or bombing. These are followed by the sirens of ambulances and are not just the inevitable reports on the news but the inevitable reality of the situation.”

In the background of “the situation” of the narrator and that of Al-Fatah’s rape at the hands of a Zionist officer and soldiers, there is the rippling echo of a barking dog. This is Shibli’s way to give voice to the unarticulated — or maybe forcibly silenced — cries of anger, resentment, and above all fear that her female character and the narrator go through when faced by the soldiers of the Israeli occupation after the Nakba and 50 years later.

Keeping an eye on a “minor detail” is a trick that the narrator uses to cope with the sound of sirens and the Israeli shelling of a nearby apartment building to eliminate three young men who are thought to have taken to the building to hide.

She looks at the dust on her desk or at a piece of paper that carries a remembrance of the gang rape to put up with the situation.

The narrator is living, or trying to live, under the Israeli occupation that has divided the land into zones divided by walls and checkpoints. She wants to find a way to get through these barriers to go back to the Al-Naqab Desert and to depict the untold details of a crime on land that was turned after the Nakba into an Israeli settlement.

On her way, she looks at the Hebrew names that have replaced the Palestinian names of the villages turned into Israeli settlements.


Before becoming a refugee: The names of the villages that were removed after the people of those villages themselves had been removed emerge through the writing of Palestinians concerned with displacement, whether or not they survived the ethnic cleansing that led up to and continued after the 1948 Nakba.

It cuts through fiction and non-fiction alike, but is somehow always articulated in the same words, irrespective of the author or date of publication.

It is there in Tafsil Thanway that was first published in 2017 by the Beirut-based Dar Al-Adab, just as it was there in a volume published in 2002, first by the University of Texas Press and then by the AUC Press in Cairo under the title of “Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memoirs from a Century of Change”.

Collected and edited by academic Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, the book is a collection of testimonies by people born and brought up in the Middle East since the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and to the post-colonial era that saw the Palestinian Nakba, the Arab-Israeli wars, and the first Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty with Egypt.

Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Rafiq Abdel-Rahman are two Palestinians picked for the collection. While Jayyusi has personal recollections of growing up in pre-1948 Palestine “that has taken on the aspect of paradise” in her mind, Abdel-Rahman’s remembrance of his childhood is about a Palestinian refugee camp where his “first memory of drinking milk” is associated with the UN Refugee Agency UNRWA school that he attended.

The testimonies of Jayyusi and Abdel-Rahman tell the story of the storm that hit the Palestinians after the Nakba and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the intimidation of Palestinian people. Jayyusi talks of a time when people “made a habit of picnicking in gardens owned by the Baha’is and tended by Iranian gardeners” and when they enjoyed various festivities, whether Sufi celebrations of the birth of the Prophet Mohamed or Easter Sunday.

Abdel-Rahman talks of having to put up with the cold that hit his family during winter nights in a tin house with no windows. He remembers long walks to UNRWA schools and washing in freezing cold water. He talks of the destitution that hit them and of the “land the family had in Palestine” before they became refugees in a camp in Lebanon.

The pursuit of education is a way of upholding Palestinian rights for both. Jayyusi talks of a father, a lawyer, who “believed that the legal struggle was a sure way of regaining land acquired by the Zionists in an illegal way.” Abdel-Rahman talks of a father who was not preoccupied with the post-Nakba poverty that hit his family, which turned out to be permanent and not temporary as was originally thought, but who was genuinely keen on the education of his children.

“It was the thing on his mind, part of a wish to return to Palestine,” Abdel-Rahman said.

He talks of teachers who saw their work in the Palestinian refugee camps as “a national duty” and who managed, despite the apolitical requirements of the curriculum, to instruct students about the Palestinian cause.

Palestine and the cause were the things that his grandfather and his father, like many in the refugee camps at the time, always talked about in the late 1950s and early 1960s before the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel hit six years after the death of Abdel-Rahman’s grandfather who had hoped that late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser would liberate Palestine.

Refugee brotherhood: The stories of and from the Palestinian refugee camps often reflect on the bond that all the refugees seem to feel even when they dispute about politics. This bond unifies them, not just in the same camp but across all camps wherever they might be.

According to the testimonies shared in the “11 Lives: Stories from Palestinian Exile” which was put out in Arabic in 2017 by the Beirut-based Institute for Palestinian Studies (IPS), a Palestinian refugee in a camp in Syria has a lot more in common with another Palestinian refugee in a camp in Lebanon than either of them would have with people in towns near their camps.

There they would be immediately identified as refugees once they step out of the zone of the camp and into the town.

According to the editors of the book, this is what is known as the “refugees’ brotherhood,” which is a function of the unending Israeli occupation and a place that the Palestinian diaspora has made into a place of its own where refugees, now mostly born after the 1949 Nakba, share memories of “Palestine — this perpetual wound.”

The collected testimonies of 11 men and women who were born during the second half of the 20th century reveal much about the shared Palestinian identity of the refugees — the slogans, graffiti, and incomplete stories of the cities and villages that their grandparents and parents lived in and that are no more as they were turned into colonial settlements with Hebrew names for Jews from all over the world.

These testimonies make it clear that those diaspora Palestinians who were born and brought up in refugee camps are somehow a lot more bonded than other diaspora Palestinians brought up away from the camps.

In her introduction to the stories, Perla Issa, a senior fellow at the IPS, compares the refugees in the camps to drops of rain from a cloud, whereas she needed over 20 years after her birth during the Lebanese Civil War to reconnect with her Palestinian roots.

Issa writes that she “was not exposed to the systematic discrimination and economic marginalisation that the Palestinian refugees have to suffer.” This, she added, has made her feel “unworthy in a sense to be a Palestinian.”

However, she says that she can certainly feel the Palestinian identity that flows through the stories in the book. She felt Salem Yassin’s awkwardness at coming of age, she said, and Nadia Fahd’s unease at being a first-time mother in a camp and the trouble she has to go through to put up with two generations of diaspora individuals, an elderly grandmother, and a helpless newborn.

The collection adds another layer to the story of Palestinian refugeehood with the tormenting story of a torn Palestinian family that has to make a home in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria prior to the new wave of displacement that hit in the wake of the 2011 democracy protests in Syria that soon turned into a civil war.

In a chapter titled “lelhelm baqiya” (“a dream to be continued”), Roba Rahma talks of a family whose children and grandchildren have headed to Europe while the parents have ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon where they are solaced by other older and younger Palestinians who still hold on to the dream to “return”

This can be done even after death and “aboard a very small boat, small as the palm of a hand, where I would lie under the sun until I come close to Akka and smell the scent of cinnamon and be buried there,” as Mira Sidawie writes in her chapter “I Am not Dead Yet”.

Only love: In a later IPS publication from 2019, a selection of short stories called “Love in the Refugee Camp,” love is the way to hold on to sanity, identity, and hope.

In his introduction, prominent Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury writes about the ability of love to give new meanings to things, identity, and existence.

“It is only love that comes from underneath the rubble that can give new meaning to things and revive the desire to live. It is this kind of love that can be turned into a bridge between the refugee camp and the occupied homeland. It is this kind of love that can recall the memories of fathers and grandfathers” and where one can hide from disappointments.

Khoury argues that the love Palestinians find and live through in the refugee camps is what turns these camps from places of exile to places of Palestinian identity, even at the hardest and most challenging moments for the Palestinian cause.

This comes across in the 300 pages of the book, particularly in Samah Hamza’s story “Love under Occupation.” Hamza talks about the desire of the children of a Palestinian refugee camp who go out to work in the Lebanese city of Saida, only to rush back “home to the camp on Friday in pursuit of the ecstatic smell of Palestine that is so dear to the heart of the camp.”

Hamza talks about an identity that only a Palestinian child of the post-Nakba years would use. Samah talks about her grandfather, who gave her name when she was born in the camp. He is “the living memory of the homeland,” she says.

She wants to document every word he says, especially when he talks, with sudden youthful energy, about the days when he fell in love with her late grandmother in Akka before the nightmare of the Nakba in 1948.

When he does talk, Sameh writes, she becomes certain that for the Palestinians of the refugee camps, “love is the only nutrition there is to keep us alive when everything else fails.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 26 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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