Dancing in the streets, remembering a catastrophe

May 19, 2009

(An abriged version of this piece appeared in the Daily Star on 16 May 2008 under the title “Palestinians mark 61st anniversary of Nakba with artistic activities)

The bright festive scenes that graced the usually subdued main alleyway of Shatila refugee camp on Friday were, on first glance, misleading. With over 150 hyper-active children wielding paintbrushes and pens, drawing upon metres of paper scrolled over the walls and dancing Palestinian dabke to the booming Arabic beats that reverberated between the cramped appartments, it was hard to imagine that a catastrophe was being remembered.

Thursday 14 May marked the 61st anniversary of the Nakbe, a date signifying the beginning of the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands and homes which occurred as part of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Organised by the Palestinian NGO Najde Al-Ijtima3iyya, the artistic activities taking place in the streets of Shatila on Friday were just one of several events over the past few days geared towards commemorating the Nakbe, including theatre and music productions in the UNRWA schools and demonstrations.

Maissa Akkileh, coordinator of vocational training at the Nadje centre in Shatila, says that the importance of holding events to mark the Nakbe is two-fold. “Firstly, it is essential for new generations to know what happened to their families and their ancestors. Secondly, it is about insisting that, as Palestinians, we have a right to return to the country that was forcefully taken from us.”

Indeed, for the estimated 400,000 inhabitants of Lebanon’s many refugee camps, many of them third and fourth generation Palestinians, remembering the Nakbe is about more than just paying abstract homage to a country suffering from over six decades of occupation and apartheid. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the painful and persistent reality of their displacement and consolidate hope that they will one day be able to return home.

“It’s my country,” sighs 17 year-old Dima, “even if I’ve never seen it. We need to inform the world that we have not forgotten our right to go back”.

The dream of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to return to a home is accentuated by the difficulties they face here. Unlike in other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Syria, children born of Palestinian descent in Lebanon are not eligible for Lebanese nationality, and they face a string of legal hurdles and social stigmas which prevent them from leading sustainable livelihoods.

“We are not people anymore,” laments Dima’s father, Imad. “No one remembers the Nakbe, except for the Palestinians. This is a sad and painful day for us.”

Surprisingly, Imad, Maissa and many others are optimistic about the eventual return of Palestinians to their homeland. “If not today, then tomorrow,” says Imad reassuringly. “If not for me, then for my children or grandchildren.”

It is this positive vision for tomorrow that shines through in today’s event. By providing a creative place for the children of the camp to focus on an eventual resolution to the tragedy of exile that underlies their history and their identity, Najde’s remembrance of the Nakbe seeks to nurture hopes for a better future that can lift these children beyond the often dismal realities of refugee life.


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