Living the Nakba
Photo Credits: Palestineremembered.com
“But that was before. Before…”
A heavy silence filled the bare-walled room in East Amman where I sat with three generations of Palestinian refugees. A moment before, we had sat rapt as Abu Nizar, a broad-shouldered man of eighty-five, shared animated tales of growing up on an olive farm outside Jerusalem. As a young boy, he’d tended to the groves with his father, mother, and siblings, learning the rich lore of the ancient crops.
In 1948, Israeli military fire sent his family scrambling to escape. Fleeing from the invading forces, they abandoned their farm and their several-dozen beloved trees.
Abu Nizar’s story halted there.
I gave a slow nod, respecting the familiar, heavy wave of grief that accompanies the memories of pre-war Palestine. I watched the man’s wrinkle-wreathed eyes glaze over and sink towards his empty, upturned hands.
I’ve seen that gaze too many times to count.
I recalled the way my grandmother’s grey eyes filled abruptly with the same mixture of love, longing, and unspeakable pain at the mention of her life as a young woman in southern Palestine before 1948. When Zionist forces invaded her village, Ibdis, she and her three young sons fled their home, never to return. Today, the remains of her town—a well, a cemetery, small stone homes—lie half-demolished in an empty field, marked only by the jamayza tree that has miraculously survived the ensuing decades.
My grandmother never saw the rubbled remains of her childhood home, but spent the next sixty-two years in exile, moved by history and circumstance from Gaza to Egypt to Saudi Arabia where she died in 2010. Before her passing, she lived to see her sons grow into men, marry, and raise their own families—but no measure of time seemed to alleviate her longing to return “home.” For her, Palestine was forever her most beautiful dream and her most searing sorrow. In her drawn face and quickly-misting eyes, I’d see the collision of joy and loss and the inescapable weight of the ever-present past.
For Palestinians, history is never behind us—it is as near as the blood in our veins, the dog-eared photos in our closets, the names of vanished villages that dangle at the tips of our tongues. In our universe, the present is always mingled with what came before, and the Nakba—“the catastrophe” of 1948—is an inheritance we must reckon with each day.
Each year on May 15, Palestinians observe “Nakba Day”—often at great peril— to commemorate the approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who were displaced by the establishment of the State of Israel. Today, over 5 million Palestinians make up the diaspora worldwide—the living legacy of the Nakba. In the West Bank and Gaza, several million more face daily military occupation and deprivation, while their counterparts within Israel live in a state of political and social ghettoization.
For Palestinians, the Nakba is always with us. The injustice of the past continues to sow tragedy in the present, and it is only by recognizing the ongoing “catastrophe” of oppression that we can begin to hope for peace. May we realize that our hope for future change rests on our honesty about the past, on our commitment to tell the truth about the legacy of loss so that we might, at last, move beyond.