Another side of the Nakba

June 4, 2009

“Bil ruh, bil damm, nafdeek ya Filisteen!” (With soul, with blood, we will redeem you, Palestine)

These words were being shouted last week in small pockets across the planet as Palestinians marked the 61st anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophe of their expulsion from their lands and homes that resulted from the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

From the West Bank and Gaza to Jerusalem, from refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria to the  Palestinian diaspora all over the globe, their voices resound in a haunting lament of a tragedy many are keen to forget. It is a selective memory that yields an international silence and tendency to foster an amnesia about what happened, and continues to happen, to Palestinians as part and parcel of Israeli state-building policies that makes remembering the Nabka an act of resistance in itself.

In Shatila camp, Beirut, the slogan floated up to my ears through the mouths of young children. These five and six-year-olds, most not yet of schooling age, were already acutely aware of the their identity as both Palestinians and refugees, a people who had suffered a traumatic exile from their country and were still waiting, over six decades later, for justice to be delivered in the form of returning to a land they still call their own. Dressed in sky-blue and brown boy-scout outfits, black tunics with bright red and orange embroidery and long white Bedouin robes, they marched determinedly through the narrow and shady alleys of the camp, excitedly waving Palestinian flags and chanting the community’s hopes for the future.

The right to return is a focal theme for Nakba remembrance in the Lebanese refugee camps, which is why May 15 is a day which signifies more than just the commemoration of the past.  In Lebanon, Palestinians live in a constant state of both legal and social discrimination.  They are barred from entering over 70 professions, are not allowed to buy property outside the camps’ boundaries and suffer social prejudice on a daily basis.  More than merely a memory, Nakba commemorations come to constitute a ritualised, public moment in which a dispossessed people in existential limbo posit a vision of stability and belonging in their homeland.

It is these notions that are nurtured amongst the young generations; these demonstrating politicised pre-schoolers whose most immediate threat to the status quo was poking someone’s eye out with the flags that they frantically waved in the heated excitement of the moment:

“Bil ruh, bil dam, nafdeek ya Filisteen!”

*    *    *

Later the same day, I attended a lecture at the American University of Beirut by Azmi Bishara, ex-Knesset MP  and National Democratic Assembly party founder, an event organised by the AUB Palestine Cultural Club and the Issam Fares Institute to mark the Nakba anniversary.

The conference hall was jam-packed, yet you could have heard a pin drop at certain moments of his speech, his booming voice so arrestingly passionate that those present compulsively held their breaths.

Bishara touched on a variety of issues, from the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements and the apartheid wall to the importance of a united Arab stance vis-a-vis Palestine. He also denounced the tendency of international rhetoric to describe the Palestinian problem as a “conflict” instead of “occupation” and was critical of the fact that the negotiation process is framed in terms of “peace” instead of a movement for justice.

Finally, he came to the subject of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, saying that there can be no solution to the question of Palestine without the right to return, and that it is the duty of Palestinians in the camps to continue the resistance.

After the talk, I asked my Palestinian friend and colleague, Salam, what she thought of Bishara’s insistence on the responsibility he placed on the inhabitants of the camp to resist. “In principle,” she replied, “I agree with what he said. It is our right as a people who have been dispossessed to reclaim what is ours. But in practice, it is very, very difficult for us, especially in the conditions that prevail in the camps.”

She never specified if she was speaking about resistance in terms of an armed struggle or the task of keeping alive a nationalist cause through constant reiterations, year in and year out, of an identity based on increasingly distant horizons. But she was probably referring to both.

*    *    *

The day’s events, the demonstrating children, the unflinching politician and the diplomatic reaction of one who had suffered as a refugee for her entire life, combined to give real substance to a question of immediate saliance. It is a notion raised by anthropologist Dianna K. Allan in the volume Nakba: Palestine, 1948 and the claims of memory (2007, Columbia University Press): “Do institutionalised commemorative practices […] make it harder for subsequent generations of refugees to articulate a sense of identity and belonging in terms of present realities and their own hopes for the future?” (Allan, 2007, 257)

Alternatively, I contemplated: what space does the rhetorical insistence on the right to return leave for the young generations in the camp to carve out an identity not separate from, but possibly parallel to, Palestinianness as defined by resistance and displacement?

To pose such a question is not saying that it is time to “move on” or for the great injustice of the Nakba to become, with time, silently swallowed. It is, rather, to suggest that present commemorations of the Nakba could be hegemonic, in that they stifle the possibility of young Palestinians legitimately exploring new forms, new expressions of their identity beyond the trope defined by the belonging/displacement or resistance/capitulation dichotomies.

I took my query to 26 year-old Ahmed. Though training to be a boxer, he is one of the only Palestinians I have even met who is ambivalent about resistance based on an exclusively Palestinian identity. Ahmed self-defines as both Lebanese and Palestinian, on the basis that it is natural for him to adopt part of the identity of the country in which he is born and has spent their entire life. However, he is well aware that this is perspective  is harshly looked down upon within the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon.

“When talking to Palestinians, I don’t say I’m Lebanese, they would hate me for that,” Ahmed begins. “Outside the camp, I tell people I’m from Beirut, or from Lebanon. But, I don’t let Palestinians know how I feel, it would be strange for them. They love Palestine so much, they would think that I didn’t love it as well, which is not true.”

When asked if he thought this was a rare phenomenon in the camp, he said “You can find a lot of people that think this way, but they will never say it. They are afraid of the reactions of the community and their friends.”

Admittedly, Ahmed does not exhibit the attachment to his Palestinian roots and history that is stereotypical of refugees in Lebanon. Although he knows the name of his family’s village, that of Tubas near Nablus, he does not know where his father was born, whether in Lebanon or Palestine and he is therefore uncertain about how far removed he is, generationally, from Palestine. He also admits to not knowing exactly when the Nakba commemorations take place, saying that he didn’t even know of the most recent one until one of his friends had mentioned it over the weekend.

Throughout the conversation, it emerged that Ahmed was less concerned with debating the implications of the right of return and the main axes of contemporary Palestinian identity in the camp than voicing his deep desire to leave Shatila.

“Every single day, every single night, I dream about leaving the camp. It is the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning.” He goes on to say that he knows people that have money and could leave the camp if they wanted. “They don’t, and I don’t know why,” but speculates that it is a combination of social expectations and political binds.

Ahmed also dreams about other things. He harbours immense hopes for the simple and taken-for-granted rights to a viable employment, to own property, to travel unimpeded, to marry whomever and be able to pass citizenship, the rights that he has never had, onto his children.

In many ways, with the glorification of a nation that achieves mythical proportions and the ideological insistence on future belonging, contemporary Nakba commemorations in the camps perhaps overshadows the more immediate aspirations and needs of young refugees. For Ahmed, and doubtlessly countless others amongst the several hundred thousand refugees scattered about the country, the real issue at stake in being a Palestinian in Lebanon is the extent to which they are prevented from fulfilling dreams other than those that revolve around an absent homeland.


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