A view of al-Majdal, Palestine, in the 1930s, from the American Colony photographic collection. (Library of Congress)
A few months ago, I tried to analyze an encroaching feeling of dislocation in my Palestinian identity.
My long-held conception of what makes a homeland and what it felt like to have one was suddenly interrupted over dinner in Turkey. Ever since, I have been trying to explain how this sense of dislocation was formed and molded over the years.
What strikes me most as I trace my family’s past is the degree to which my sense of myself has been shaped primarily by colonial encounters.
A marriage of its time
For years, my grandmother’s stories offered a cocoon within which I could enjoy a Palestine that is now so distant in time and physically unknown to me. I would feel anxious and somewhat galled each time she mentioned a village or place I had never heard of before.
In her living room, a large photo frame of her grandfather in a tarbush – a fez – and enormous arched mustache, hangs on the wall.
Her grandfather, Daoud affendi (the Turkish term used for a gentleman of social standing), was a Turk who served as an officer in the Ottoman army in Syria and Palestine, a “pious” man as she often describes him. His son, Yusuf, looked after the family’s property until 1948.
Having been a man of wealth and status himself, Yusuf married a well-off Damascene woman, Ruqaya al-Naamani. This explains something I always felt intrigued by but, for some reason, never asked my grandmother about; my grandmother’s Arabic dialect was never totally Palestinian – it was Syrian – and she always cited proverbs in Turkish.
What fascinates me at this stage is precisely the power structure that made marriage lineages between natives and colonizers possible. An answer to this, I think, lies in the relatively narrow cultural differences between the Ottomans and Arabs.
For one, both peoples were predominately Muslim, and even linguistically, many common phrases between Arabic and Turkish can still be found today. Another answer could be the higher social class from which my great-grandmother came. Historically, the wealthy have been more willing to compromise questions of national concern for social or financial gain.
This marriage, which in 1936 produced my half-Turkish, half-Syrian grandmother, Nadra, was given a Palestinian chapter when Yusuf decided to join the Palestinian guerilla groups in their resistance against the Zionist colonization of Palestine. It was 1948 when, in Gaza, Yusuf was finally killed.
My grandmother’s personal memories
My grandmother’s memories of the period before 1947 are largely personal, characterized by social events such as the istiqbal – the women-only reception that a woman of a certain class might hold at her house every week.
She recalls certain individuals with whom she visited and socialized. Her reminiscences also include movements between Gaza, Jerusalem, and Jaffa, and tools for bread-making such as the babour, an ancient portable stove that was common across Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.
Amid all the violence and rage that swept Palestine in those years, an intimate bond between one man and one woman was being woven. My grandfather, Akram, a refugee from al-Majdal – now called Ashkelon in present-day Israel – doted on a pretty young woman who lived nearby: Nadra. Soon, Akram and Nadra decided to get married.
Erasing our history
These intimate details that took place in the aftermath of 1948 are damning evidence of the existence of an entire people whose lives, their very marriages, have been shaped by yet another colonial event in Palestine, this time it was the Zionist ethnic cleansing of more than 500 Palestinian villages and towns, known as the Nakba.
The May 1948 declaration of the “State of Israel” and the fledgling image of Israel as “young” and “powerful” impressed the West which was quite jubilant to have finally rid itself of the Holocaust burden. Israelis, meanwhile, were very keen on moving away from victimhood to “heroism.”
As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe reminds us in his excellent book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, the Irgun – a Zionist militia – used posters that featured what he refers to as the “new Jews.” As Pappe notes, these posters depicted “muscular” men aiming their rifles at “Arab invaders,” beside slogans such as “Brothers in Arms” and “The Fist of Steel.”
“Did you say Pakistan?”
The net result of all this was the appalling disappearance of Palestine and Palestinians as a country and a people. “In any case,” writes Palestinian author Ghada Karmi from her exile in the UK, “no one in England seemed to remember Palestine either. It is remarkable how quickly the word went out of general use.”
In her breathtaking memoir In Search of Fatima, Karmi also reflects on her personal experiences in England. She remembers that while sometimes she had to hide her origins, when she did not have to Palestine was often mistaken for other countries. “Did you say Pakistan?” Karmi quotes someone as saying when she named “Palestine” as her country.
If a history as complex and incredibly rich as that of Palestine can vanish from people’s consciousness, then this is a brutal reminder that unless the Palestinian narrative is recognized and fully acknowledged, nothing, especially the discredited “peace process,” can stop Israel’s continued ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
To Israel’s chagrin, the September 1970 hijacking of planes made it inevitable that the existence of such people as the Palestinians would have to be acknowledged. Israel, therefore, had to find a way to address the Palestinians without compromising its official narrative.
All of a sudden, the Palestinians emerged as terrorists, barbarians and anti-Semites bent on the destruction of Israel. That these Palestinians were forced out of their lands by this Israel did not seem to hold any truth. Palestinians were reduced into static Arabs frozen in time and space unable to move on and develop.
The only way to deal with these barbarians, therefore, according to the orientalist discourse adopted by Israel, is force. The kind of logic that Israel continues to fully employ explains why the Palestinian point of view is deliberately belittled if not completely ignored.
Narrative is existence
Narrative forms my sense of belonging to the Palestine I am unacquainted with. My grandmother’s memories are in stark contrast to Golda Meir’s notorious claim that the Palestinians, as a people, did not exist.
Nadra’s recollections empower my imagination to transcend borders, checkpoints, barbed wire and allow me to roam the olive groves, attend weddings and get a glimpse of people who are my ancestors.
This time a new dimension has been added to my identity; somehow, I too am the product of a marriage, perhaps a love story, between a colonizer and colonized: Ruqaya and Yusuf. Yet, this past, continues to be systematically denied.
Rediscovering Palestine through narrative and writing it down is, I believe, crucial to ensuring that Palestine is not erased.