Preserving memory amid a war that still rages

“If we lose our memory, hyenas will eat us,” Salman Natour once wrote. A novelist, playwright and cultural critic, Natour died after a heart attack on 15 February. Natour’s funeral in his hometown Daliat al-Karmel, near Haifa, was attended by thousands, including writers, activists and public figures.

Natour was a warrior in the battle of narratives. He was fixated on documenting oral Palestinian history and telling the human stories of three Palestinian generations as they physically and emotionally oscillated between home and exile.

Since its foundation 68 years ago, Israel has constantly worked to erase Palestinian memory and rewrite history exclusively from an Israeli point of view.

This process has been witnessed by Palestinians who survived and remained on their land with Israeli citizenship after the Nakba, as the 1948 ethnic cleansing is known.

They have seen Israel rename their streets and villages in Hebrew. They have been separated by new borders and checkpoints. Their identity has been repressed by Israel’s attempts to redefine them as “Israeli Arabs” — gradually pushing a segment of them to internalize that pejorative profile.

And they have been isolated from their Palestinian and Arab brothers and sisters and culture.

Collective memory and identity, like land, became a significant battlefield between Zionists and Palestinians. Many Palestinians living in present-day Israel have assumed the task of liberating that memory.

Hunger for writing

In February 2005, Natour suffered a heart attack. That led him to reconsider his career and change some aspects of his life.

Before then, Natour had, in addition to writing regularly, held executive and editorial positions in Palestinian cultural associations and publications in Haifa and Ramallah. Following the heart attack, however, he decided to dedicate much of his energy to writing and spend more time with his family.

“I will reduce my administrative activities in associations, symposiums and lectures and will write more,” Natour told Palestinian writer Ala Hlehel in 2005. “I feel a hunger for writing. I want to write all that I have failed to write before. I will complete a novel that I have started many years back and will immerse myself in literature instead of journalism.”

The novel Natour was referring to is Memory, which he went on to publish in 2006. The novel tells stories of the Nakba and its aftermath through the eyes of a wrinkled-faced sheikh. The sheikh resembles Natour in many ways.

Memory is the first installment of the trilogy Sixty Years: A Desert Journey, published between 2006 and 2009. None of the books have yet been translated into English.

The three volumes — Memory, Travel over Travel and Waiting — cover different angles of the Palestinian experience and portray different generations grappling with the Palestinian catastrophe. Yet they are intimately interlaced. All three draw on a simple yet poignant Palestinian dialect and everyday lexicon interwoven with a rich, endearing literary Arabic.

Natour moves back and forth between fiction, nonfiction and oral history documentation, between individual voices and the collective Palestinian narrative and between the stories of those who have fought and lost and those who still have a lot to fight for.

Travel over Travel describes the interactions, struggles and identity crises of two younger Palestinians.

Salim is an internally displaced political activist who lives in Jaffa. Fadwa is a refugee artist who hails from Bisan, a city in the north of historic Palestine, and lives in Morocco.

This volume, like the other two, highlight the dialectic relationship between Palestine and the diaspora, between emotional and physical uprooting, internal and external displacement.

Despite living on his own land, Salim was no less of a refugee than Fadwa.

Beyond victimhood

In the trilogy, Natour breaks away from the victim-survivor binary. And even while telling the tragic stories of displacement and fragmentation, he retains his trademark sarcasm and dark humor.

Author Mahmud Shurayh said that Natour combines the anguish of Ghassan Kanafani — a writer assassinated by Israel’s spy agency the Mossad — with the cynicism of Emile Habibi, author of the novel The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist.

Natour’s trilogy came a long time after his first work on memory and oral history. In fact, the trilogy closes a circle that dates back to the beginning of the 1980s when Natour wrote his book And We Have Not Forgotten, which focuses on the ethnic cleansing and the Judaization of Haifa, a coastal city in historic Palestine.

Natour wrote several plays and adapted many of those novels to the stage out of his conviction that they cannot remain confined to the pages and that theater gives his characters a much-needed human voice and dimension.

“What is wonderful about the theater is that you directly address the people face-to-face and you can see their initial reactions during the performance,” Natour told Palestinian journalist and blogger Rasha Hilwi in a 2012 interview. “Theater does not accept chatter. Everything on stage is essential, which makes the production deeper and more integrated.”

The homeland remains

Natour’s novels and plays deconstruct the concepts of statehood and homeland. “The homeland remains while the state is temporary,” he wrote.

He believed that while Zionists possess the state, it is Palestinians who are the legitimate owners of the land. He relied on their voices and everyday struggles to reclaim, restore and rebuild spaces stolen and wrecked by the occupation.

Natour’s lifelong project of preserving and documenting Palestinian memory is reminiscent of the late Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.

The two have sharply different writing styles and life stories, but they both write about the person rather than the cause. They both use the everyday stories of individuals to tell the story of a people.

They use overlooked Palestinian oral history to refute Israeli propaganda, understanding that memory is a highly political and politicized terrain.

Natour, however, was far more politicized than the self-taught, Saffuriya-born Ali. Formerly a member of the Israeli Communist Party, Natour was involved in the struggle to overthrow compulsory military service forced upon his fellow Druze.

His activism and writings led to his arrest on several occasions. His play The Swamp, written in 1982, was banned by Israeli censors and its inaugural performance in Nazareth’s municipal theater was attacked by Israeli police.

An outspoken opponent of Israeli military and national service, Natour tackles the issue of conscription of the Druze community in his book You are the Murderer, Sheikh, which critiques the Druze leadership’s collaboration with the Israeli state.

A progressive writer, Natour was highly critical of conservative social norms and the attempts of some religious hardliners to control the public sphere and restrict personal freedoms and artistic expression. Natour spoke out against sectarian attitudes that have increasingly afflicted Palestinian society while arguing that Israel exploits and exacerbates those tensions to further divide Palestinians and undermine their national identity.

Shaped by war

Born in the mountainous village of Daliat al-Karmel only a year after the Nakba, Natour majored in philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He worked as an editor of the cultural supplement of the Haifa-based al-Ittihad newspaper and of the cultural magazine al-Jadid.

As well as having written numerous political articles and translating books from Hebrew to Arabic, Natour has more than 30 volumes to his name. His writings also include short stories and children’s books.

Natour succinctly described himself in Waiting, the final part of his trilogy, when he wrote: “I was born after the 1948 war and attended university after the 1967 war. I got married during the 1973 war and my first child was born during the war on Lebanon. My father died during the Gulf War and my granddaughter Salma was born during a war that is still raging.”

Budour Youssef Hassan is a Palestinian writer and law graduate based in occupied Jerusalem. Blog: Twitter: @Budour48