Reading 'Palestine': A book guide

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 4 Jan 2024

One way to decipher the complexity of the Palestinian situation and understand the atrocious nature of the Israeli war on Gaza is to go deeper into the history of Palestinians in Palestine. Below are reviews of six titles that have been put out during the past 20 years by the Institute of Palestinian Studies.

Gaza

 

The books remind us of the pre-Nakba established Palestinian identity and explain the agonies of Palestinians in the post-Nakba and post-Naksa decades – not only as individuals but essentially as members of a nation

Gaza: A social history under British colonial rule, 1917-1948
 

325 pp, Abaher Al-Sakka

The essential thing about this book is that it reminds the world of the way things used to be for Palestine and Palestinians, including those in the now impoverished and aggressed Gaza Strip, in pre-Nakba years.

The title itself should bring to attention the three decades before the Nakba (Palestinian catastrophic dispossession) of May 1948 when Israel was created by force over half of historic Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire before the 1917 British colonial rule.

According to the author, Al-Sakka, his volume, which is both thorough and compact, is based on diligent research in family archives and albums that are a witness to the pre-Nakba era, when Gaza was never poor or lumped up like today’s severely overpopulated and underdeveloped Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip, Al-Sakka wrote, was never a thing before the second half of the 20th century when Egypt became in charge of civil administration of this Palestinian segment, which was thoroughly stripped out of the mainland upon the Israeli takeover of Palestine.

According to Al-Sakka, Gaza was mostly used as the very vibrant, colourful, and beautiful Gaza City which had its first municipal council in the late 19th century, where members of leading families were assembled. The rest of the land, which is now labelled in the international political lexicon as “Gaza Strip,” the author argued, is the ultimate function of the Israeli occupation of Palestine – upon the Nakba in 1948 and later upon the Naksa (the 1967 war dubbed in Arabic as “The Setback”).

Thus, this book is essentially about Gaza City rather than the Gaza Strip. It is specifically, he wrote, about the social history of this particular part of Palestine under British colonial rule, which opened the door wide for aggressive migration waves of non-Palestinian Jews to the corners of the land promised by the Balfour Declaration as a Jewish homeland.

For centuries, Gaza was a prosperous trade harbour city, which connected Africa and Asia. It was called by some traders the “Lady of Spices.” The very name “Gaza,” according to the book, means “the cherished one.” This volume refers to archival documents that reveal the interest of the then-competing colonial powers, Britain and France, to build a railway line to connect Egypt with Gaza for facilitating trade from Africa to Asia and vice versa.

According to the book’s narrative, by the last years of Ottoman rule over historic Palestine, Gaza City was the fourth most important city after Jerusalem, Haifa, and Yafa (Jaffa). It was a city dotted with gardens. As early as the 1920s, Gaza had seen elements of modern cities like potable water pipelines, cinemas, and roads for private cars.

It was Gaza, Al-Sakka wrote, that gave Alexander the Great a tough time and four consecutive months to conquer as its people resisted hard and built tunnels under the walls of the city to help with the war against the invasion. Napoleon Bonaparte also had to go through military hardship in his attempt to conquer the city. It was Gaza that launched the first sparkle of Palestinian resistance against the Zionist takeover of Palestinian territories.

Because the book is based on the personal archives and photo albums of Gaza families, it ends up telling two parallel stories: one of the city and one of the families of the city in the pre-Nakba and pre-Naksa years.

According to the IPS introduction, this book “delves uniquely into daily life details, social and cultural expressions of the city's inhabitants, civil institutions, social relationships, consumer habits and relationships among families as well as urban formations between the city of Gaza and other Palestinian cities.”

The author of the book is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Birzeit University

Emerging to the light

Pp187, Nabil Anani

Nabil Anani, the founder of the new Palestinian art movement, was born in the Palestinian countryside, Latrun, in 1943, practically on the way to the Palestinian Nakba, which transformed his family’s destiny from prosperity to hardship, being “displaced” first and “refugees” later – sometimes even “unwanted refugees.”

During the early years of his destitute childhood, Anani used to listen to his mother’s stories about the Palestinian revolution of 1936 against British colonial rule. At this early age, he was introduced to stories of British soldiers killing Palestinian revolutionaries and protecting non-Palestinian Jews who migrated to Palestine in the early decades of the 20th century.

Anani also listened to other stories from his grandfather about the Ottoman rule, which forced Palestinians into conscription. His grandfather was one of those forced conscripts, who had to cross the Mediterranean to join the Ottomans’ army and who only made it back to Palestine after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Anani’s early youth was marked by the heavy imprint of Israeli wars against Arab armies. In his book, Anani wrote that in one of his early works, he painted an Israeli jet fighter of the 1967 war.

His book is a straightforward tale of a Palestinian generation whose lives were intimately twined with a certain confusion that the Nakba imposed on the Palestinians who were forced away from their cities and villages. It is the same generation whose lives are strongly associated, for better or worse, with neighbouring Arab countries.

Anani himself belongs to a family of Egyptian descent. His great-grandfather fled Egypt into Palestine to escape a revenge killing. He also studied and graduated at Alexandria University, which he joined a few years before the Naksa.

According to Anani’s narrative, Egypt held a prominent place in the hearts of many Palestinians – of many generations. This included his grandfather and a dear friend of his, Walid, who once visited Anani during his Alexandria years and who, upon arrival to the country, bowed to kiss the land of Egypt. “It was all because of Gamal Abdel-Nasser,” who was the idol of Palestinians in the 1950s and 1960s – even after the military defeat of 1967, Anani said.

His book is a testimony to his Palestinian generation’s ability to keep on dreaming even if they had to be displaced over and over again. His years in Alexandria were never an opportunity to escape the endless Palestinian diaspora; rather, it was a chance to immerse in what was then a vibrant city, where he rubbed shoulders with prominent Alexandrian painters like Seif Wanli, Hamed Ewis, and Moustafa Kamel.

Ultimately, Anani’s book is an enlightening read on one of the most ignored elements of the Palestinian “story”: the art movement. Certainly, concise as it is, the book is an eye-opener in this respect.

Therefore, the book is not at all divorced from the evolution of the Palestinian political story. To the contrary, given Anani’s return to Ramallah in the wake of the Oslo Accords, the stories that this artist shares with his readers show exactly why these accords, signed in 1993, never really managed to undo the trauma of the Nakba or reverse the humiliation induced by the Naksa.

When Anani once went back to the place where his family lived before the Nakba, the entire neighbourhood was gone and so were the houses. There was just an open park which was built to replace the lives of his family and other Palestinian families forced into the diaspora

Jerusalem and I: A personal record

Pp 181, Hala Sakakini

Hala Sakakini, an educator and author, lived in Palestine before the Nakba. She was born in a West Jerusalem quarter to a well-off family in 1924. The book is about the story of her life in Jerusalem and life in Jerusalem before 1948. Until the age of 24, she was full of ease, joy, culture, and later worries over her city and the entire homeland as a result of the intense actions of the Zionist movement to bring non-Palestinian Jews to Palestine.

This book shows that it was very normal for a Muslim Palestinian to deal with a Jewish Palestinian. Sakakini’s father, Khalil Sakakini, a prominent Palestinian scholar, was once sent over to Damascus to serve a sentence in jail for providing refuge for a Jewish young man who declined to join other young men who were under conscription by the Ottomans during World War I. Another old Jewish lady used to frequent the Sakakini’s house to provide kosher food, whose recurrent visits gave the secret away

Three mothers and three daughters: Palestinian women’s stories

Michael Gorkin and Rafika Othman

Michael Gorkin, a Jewish psychiatrist, and Rafika Othman, a Palestinian Muslim writer-researcher, met to work on a joint project that examines the layered stories of six Palestinian women – three mothers and three daughters – who lived under Israeli occupation or as refugees in the diaspora. The objective of the project is quite multiple. Their book is walking a thin line between a collection of oral history and documentation of changes in the lives of Palestinian women, their relationship with their womanhood, their society, and both the Israeli occupation and the Jews who came to live in what became Israel.

For example, the three mothers have hardly had any luck with education – only one attended a few years of elementary school. They were all married off at a very young age. They all raised so many children, and they all wanted and managed to give a better chance to their daughters. This applies to the mother who was interviewed at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and a village within the pre-1967 borders.

At one level, this shows the limitations put on women's growth in Palestine before the Nakba – due to traditions and not because of the British colonial rule or later the Israelis. At another level, however, this negates the Israeli propaganda which claimed no social Palestinian cohesion upon the establishment of the State of Israel on the land of historic Palestine. It shows a social cohesion within the Palestinian society – shared by other Muslim-majority societies that were part of the Ottoman Empire before the defunct of Ottoman rule by the second decade of the 20th century.

Moreover, the stories of the mothers defy the claim propagated by Israel about the inevitable hostility between Muslims and Jews. The book shows that Palestinian Muslims never had a problem with Palestinian Jews, but the problem was with the orchestrated migration of Jews to take over Palestine.

For example, Om Mahmoud talks with no inhibition about the Jewish weaver who made the bed covers for her house upon her marriage; she talks about a Jewish customer who would drive from West Jerusalem, “where the majority of Jews used to live” in the pre-Nakba years, and who would cycle his way to East Jerusalem to buy milk from her husband’s dairy. She also talks about shopping to buy shoes from a particular Jewish shoemaker.

Also, in her narrative, Samira, one of the daughters, talks about the “incredible support she got from an incredible Jewish lawyer,” who defended her rights when she was taken to jail upon being indicted for attacking Israeli soldiers.

Regarding social norms and choices, the three mothers and the three daughters agree on some things and disagree on many things. However, there is one thing they seem to all agree on: the Palestinians who fled their houses and villages would not have done this if they were not scared to death, and they regret doing it although they know they had no choice at that point but to run for their lives.

Om Mahmoud talks about the horror of Nakba times, especially after the massacre of Deir Yassin in April 1948 on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where Zionist paramilitaries killed many Palestinian children, women, and men to intimidate residents into leaving their houses and villages. Intimidation massacres worked; so many families left their houses to be taken over by Jews brought over from across the world.

A worse attack came in the wake of the 1967 war that completed the full Israeli occupation of all the historic Palestine, she recalled. As a result, some Palestinians fled their houses and villages going to Jordan to find refuge from the Israeli attacks. “At the time some said people should not leave their houses to be taken over by Jews, but it was a very difficult time and people were petrified with fear; the attacks were heavy. A Christian neighbour who got wounded during these attacks told my husband, who was trying to help with the wounds, that our family should take refuge at the church,” she said.

“Leaving was a big mistake, but we were so scared, especially after what happened in Deir Yassin. I often think of how things would have gone if we had not left our house,” said Om Abdallah.

Furthermore, Om Khaled, who lives within the pre-1967 Israeli domain, is grateful that she managed to convince her husband to let her and the children stay with him. “He wanted to stay to protect the house because Jewish settlers were taking over the houses and belongings of Palestinian families who fled. I declined to bow and said we would either live through this together or we die together like those many people killed by Jewish settlers,” she recalled

The audiovisual Palestinian heritage: origin, dispersion and digital preservation

Preliminary studies and future prospects

200 pp; Bashar Shammout

Israel has not just taken over the houses and belongings of the Palestinians, but has also, often deliberately, destroyed archival materials that documented the lives of Palestinians before the Nakba. However, there are other ways to collect the pieces of the audiovisual Palestinian heritage that need to be preserved to remind the world of the Palestinian narrative of their own homeland’s history.

Digging out the archival material and preserving it with the use of modern technology is the way to deny Israel the chance to fully erase the Palestinian cultural identity and bury the collective Palestinian history, particularly in the pre-Nakba years.

According to Shammout, there has already been some hard work to collect whatever material that could be found from the archives of the Ottoman Empire – now within the possession of Turkey. There were also, he said, the private collections of some families who managed to spare their documents and photo albums from the Israeli destruction scheme and the material in some European archives.

From the private collection of an Armenian photographer who lived and worked in Palestine, Shammout got a photo that captured the forced displacement of Palestinians from Jaffa aboard boats in the Mediterranean by Zionist Jewish settlers.

Shammout, however, is not just interested in the political side of the Palestinian story. For him, the Palestinian dispossession is a much more layered story. There is also, he wrote, the cultural side. Almost all the musical recordings that Palestinians made in the early decades of the 20th century are hard to place – assuming they were not destroyed by Israel.

Attempts to dig out some of the recordings, he said, were executed by a Jewish musician, who left Germany for Palestine before the launch of Israel and was later condemned in Israel for his work that testified to the established presence of a Palestinian identity. Then, there was the work of a Palestinian musician from Jerusalem who fled his homeland to Lebanon upon the Nakba.

In its introduction to the book, IPS stated that this “study is amongst the first studies to address the issue of the Palestinian audiovisual heritage, not from the political or historical background of the Palestinian cultural production and movement, but rather from the scientific and pragmatic perspective of modern archiving sciences; in doing so, it paves the way for more substantive and in-depth subsequent studies.”

The author of this book is a Palestinian born in the diaspora. He studied engineering and musical recording in Germany

The Khalidi Library in Jerusalem

87pp, Walid Khalidi

This is a very small but very important book about the role of leading Palestinian families in keeping the Palestinian narrative intact through financial and cultural means.

Housed in an old Mamluk building not far from Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the Khalidi Library, attributed to the Khalidi family, was originally launched in the early decades of the 18th century before its proper establishment in 1900.

The earlier documents of the library relate to the history of the Khalidi family. However, this is not strictly “a family affair” because what these documents stand for is an element of the social history of Palestine and its evolution through successive generations that lived in historic Palestine.

Eventually, the Khalidi Library grew into a venue for some serious documentation about the early worrying signs of Zionist settlement schemes for Palestine; the attempts of members of the Khalidi family and other leading Palestinian families to stand up against the Balfour Declaration; and the documents proving the Palestinian ownership of properties that were taken through force by Jewish settlers.

In addition, this library, which is arguably one of seven key libraries in Palestine, has an incredible collection of titles that were acquired throughout centuries as further clear evidence of the established and enduring Palestinian presence in historic Palestine.

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