In Praise of Al Nakba
Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 761, 22-28 September 2005.
New exoduses could mean new beginnings. Tracing the Palestinians' path from being refugees to determining their own fate, Salman Abu Sitta* celebrates the tenacity of a people who refused to disappear
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FROM DISPOSSESSION TO SELF-ASSERTION: the Palestinians take centre-place on the world stage. Clockwise from top left: David Ben Gurion announces the formation of the State of Israel in 1948; troops clash with civilians during the British Mandate; Palestinian refugee children line up for school (courtesy of UNRWA) ; Palestinian students at Bir Zeit University garnering attention to their cause
To Palestinians, as well as to an increasing number of people the world over, Al-Nakba represents the largest, longest, planned ethnic cleansing in modern history for which reason the title under which this article appears may appear at first sight cynical, if not downright offensive.
The trauma of Al-Nakba is imprinted on the psyche of every Palestinian, on those that witnessed it as well as those that did not. They have all suffered, and in a multitude of ways: they lost their livelihoods, nationality, identity and, above all, their homes. In order to survive Palestinians were forced to defend themselves, fighting on many fronts.
The sheer size of Al-Nakba is overwhelming. Over three quarters of Palestine was conquered in 1948 by Israeli forces that staged their attacks from bases on land acquired during the British Mandate, as a direct result of British policy or with British collusion.
Some 675 towns and villages were seized and their populations forcibly removed or massacred. On the day that Israel came in to existence 85 per cent of Palestinians whose homes had been on the land occupied by the newly created state found themselves refugees, and remain so until today.
Al-Nakba goes on. It continues every day, in different places and through different means. Whatever the legal cover fabricated by Israel the process remains the same. People are uprooted, and thrown to the four corners of the earth; their land is taken, their landscapes and history obliterated.
So how can Al-Nakba be praised?
It can be praised only because, from the ashes, the Palestinians have risen like the proverbial phoenix. They realised that with no home, no military power and no powerful friends they would have to depend on that greatest of gifts, the human spirit.
Immediately following Al-Nakba I saw boys walking up and down the only asphalt road near their refugee camp studying their books. With no rooms to go back to, no light and no space in which to study they would sit at night under a lamp post on the same road, its dark macadam acting as a blackboard, using a soft stone as chalk, solving algebra problems for next day's classes.
Do not suppose, though, that there were classrooms for these classes. At the time they were held in the open air, under a tree, where the teacher stood by a board explaining the lessons. The children's clothes were in tatters. Many were barefoot. Many came to school without breakfast. All were eager to learn.
The teacher -- himself a refugee -- was not much better off. Initially he was paid by his UNRWA employer a salary of loaves of bread or a sack of flour.
He was probably one of the lucky few during the British Mandate, when only a third of children aged between five and 14 found places in schools, who received an education past sixth grade. The brightest were taken to Jerusalem -- three dozen at most throughout all of Palestine -- to complete their secondary education and obtain their Matriculation Certificate.
The British were too busy handing Palestine over to the Jews or else quelling Palestinian protests against this injustice. In the Public Records Office I found a Palestinian request for ¨200 to upgrade a school: a senior British official, after expressing his reservations on the risks involved in education had added the note: "I dislike all something for nothing schemes in connection with Africans or Arabs. They do not appreciate it."
The celebrated Palestinian painter, Ismail Shammout, himself a part-time teacher, had to supplement his income by selling candy in the afternoons. With a tray hung from his neck he would walk for miles selling his goods. Once he almost strayed into a minefield. With the little money he could save he bought crayons and drawing paper and a painter was born.
Eventually the number of high school graduates would mushroom from dozens to hundreds and thousands. Gamal Abdel-Nasser opened the doors of Egyptian universities. Soon, thousands of engineers and doctors had been trained and they went on to form the backbone of development in the Gulf -- especially in Kuwait -- during the late 1950s and 1960s. Today there is hardly a university in the western world which does not have a Palestinian professor or more on its staff.
It is ironic to note that the educational achievements of these refugees compares favourably with that of Jewish Israelis who receive infinitely greater resources. It is, perhaps, even more ironic to note that the refugees' education is far better than that of their compatriots who became Israeli citizens and were subject to discrimination in spite of the benefits claimed of a modern democratic state.
When the Ottomans took over Palestine in 1517 they recorded 955 villages in their dafteri-mufassal. In 1871 the Survey of Western Palestine listed a similar number of villages, most retaining the names they had used for centuries. Under the British Mandate over 1,000 towns and villages were recorded. The average distance between villages was two to three miles, though the differences in village life, between accent, dress and especially women's embroidery, were often marked. It was, and in some cases still is, possible to distinguish the origin of a person from his or her dress or speech. It was an unusual event for a girl to marry into a village 10 miles away. Thus they lived and survived for centuries. Dispersion, and the severance of this bond with the land, was an unforgivable blow. It was the fuel that turned the fellahin into revolutionaries.
When a Palestinian delegation arrived in London in 1922 to protest against the injustice of the Balfour Declaration not one member was fluent in English. The Zionists, who were European, born and bred, had a field day. Not only could they speak the language but they had businesses, or else occupied influential positions, were members of parliament, senior government officials and journalists.
Attempts by Palestinian delegations to explain their case were met with prejudice, political expediency and a colonial readiness to dispense the fate of colonised people. Such is the spirit that lies behind Balfour's notorious statement with regards to Palestinian self-determination: "We do not," he said, "propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country... [who are] totally barbarous, undeveloped and disorganised black tribes."
Today Palestinians can be found in London, New York and Los Angeles. Copenhagen and Berlin have small but thriving Palestinian communities. Palestinians run shops in South America. They are businessmen in China and Uzbekistan. There are long-time Palestinian residents in Botswana and Peru. When, in Cyprus, Amman and London families frequently meet to celebrate weddings, it would be a safe bet to assume that the assembled family members hold half a dozen different passports.
A number of foreign parliaments have Palestinian members or staff. So do many foreign societies and NGOs. Arabic newspapers, big or small, and Arabic TV stations with Palestinians on their staff, are headquartered in a host of European and American cities.
Today you can find Palestinians in every western, and in many eastern, countries. They speak the language of their exile and understand its culture. They are confident, articulate, efficient and highly educated. They sometimes blame their forefathers for not having done more for Palestine.
These Palestinians could not afford to be passive in their exile. Dispersed, education was their only protection, and they had to struggle twice as hard to succeed in the lands in which they were exiled.