Tarek Bakri gives Palestinians around the world a glimpse of their homeland.
More than seven decades have passed since the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The people expelled by Zionist forces at that time – if they are still alive – generally have an acute awareness about their dispossession.
So do their children and grandchildren.
The awareness has remained strong even though huge numbers of the Nakba’s victims have never visited the towns and villages from where they originate.
Most Palestinians living abroad – particularly those in refugee camps – are unable to visit Palestine. Some Palestinians – for example those who hold American or European passports – are a little more fortunate insofar as they have been able to make trips home.
Bakri, a researcher based in Jerusalem, has facilitated such visits.
He regularly receives old photographs from Palestinians uprooted during and after the Nakba or their descendants. Using basic information, he sets out to find the homes of these families.
In many cases, he and his team have then arranged for people to see their homes.
Nasser al-Daqaq is among those whom they have assisted. A Palestinian American, Nasser initially met Bakri when the historian gave a lecture in Kuwait during 2016.
Following the presentation, they chatted about Nasser’s family home, built in Jerusalem around 1890.
The house belonged to Nasser grandfather Chakib. But Nasser had never seen it himself.
Bakri asked Nasser to send him a photograph of the house. He promised Nasser to help the family locate it any time they were in Jerusalem.
Later that year, Nasser and two of his children – Khaled and Yasmine – made a trip to Jerusalem.
With Bakri, they set out to find the house in the city’s al-Baqaa neighborhood.
“After searching, we found the house on a side street,” Bakri told The Electronic Intifada.
“It was a huge three-story building, with a very beautiful garden and a tree over 100 years old. I could see great happiness on the faces of Nasser, Khaled and Yasmine. They said the house was nicer than houses in America.”
As they stood outside the house, a family approached it, carrying bags and boxes.
When Bakri began speaking to the family, it transpired they were Israelis who had just bought an apartment in the building and were about to spend their first night there. Bakri introduced the family to Nasser and said that he was the owner of the house.
The family was shocked and puzzled by that piece of information, so Bakri explained how the al-Daqqaq family had to flee their home during the Nakba.
While the conversation remained polite, the sense of injustice was palpable. A family forced out of their home was effectively witnessing another family move into it.
For many other Palestinians, seeing their actual family homes is impossible as they are no longer standing. Zionist and later Israeli forces destroyed approxmitaely 500 villages during the Nakba and the years that ensued.
When Palestinians cannot be brought to see their old buildings, Bakri nonetheless arranges for them to visit their old villages.
Halima Khaddash, 84, was displaced from the village of Beit Nabala during the Nakba.
In September 1948, the village was almost entirely demolished by the Israeli military. A school was among the few structures spared.
Khaddash was able to find the site of her family’s home when she visited Beit Nabala in 2016. She became very emotional when she realized that all that remained was the well on which the family relied for water, Bakri told The Electronic Intifada.
Beit Nabala is located near Ramle, today a city in Israel.
During her trip, Khaddash became elated when she went to the seaside in Jaffa.
Khaddash took some soil from her home village, placed it in a bag and brought it away with her. When she got back to Jalazone refugee camp in the occupied West Bank – where she now lives – Khaddash planted some mint in the soil.
Many of the people taking part in visits that Bakri organizes take soil from their home villages.
“It is a beautiful thing to bring with them,” Bakri told The Electronic Intifada.
“Many Palestinian refugees living in the camps of Jordan and Lebanon have asked me to send them bags of soil.”
Bakri has undertaken research on the massacre which occurred in the village of Safsaf during October 1948.
Israeli troops entering Safsaf – in the Galilee region of historic Palestine – ordered inhabitants to assemble in the village square. Approximately 70 men were rounded up, taken to a remote location and shot.
The rest of the inhabitants were ordered to leave the village, with Israeli troops firing above their heads as they fled. Eyewitness accounts say that a pregnant woman was bayoneted by Israeli troops, who raped a number of other women and at least one girl from the village.
In 2019, Bakri arranged for Mohammad Zaghmout to visit Safsaf.
His father Saad was a child at the time Israeli troops invaded Safsaf. Unlike many other members of his family, Saad survived the massacre.
Saad died in 2010.
“Mohammad’s father did not stop talking about what happened to the village until the day he died,” said Bakri.
“Mohammad’s father wanted to be buried in Safsaf. But that didn’t happen. His father is buried in the cemetery of the Yarmouk camp. All Mohammad could do was take some soil from Safsaf and bring it back to his father’s grave.”
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.