Reflections on the Nakba

On May 8, Palestinians will commemorate the Nakba, when their homeland was dismembered exactly 60 years ago that day.

Image Credit:Photos: Reuters, AP, GN Archive; Illustration: Dwynn Ronald V. Trazo/Gulf News
Gulf News


Memory is not what we remember but that which remembers us", wrote Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature. "Memory is a present that never stops passing".

Not quite two weeks from now, on May 8, Palestinians will commemorate the Nakba, when their homeland was dismembered exactly 60 years ago that day. The Nakba is not just a historical moment, albeit sombre, in these folks' repertoire of consciousness, but a searing tableau vivant of a series of tragic events that began in April 1948 and followed for months afterwards.

As the generation that emerged from the crucible of that moment pass away, the Nakba's intimations of horror - the dread fact that a people's home and homeland have perished, that they were compelled to wander the earth or dwell in tent cities and open fields in the manner of beasts - continue to haunt the collective memory of yet another generation.

But how do those few of its survivors and witnesses (and I'm one) convey its trauma to others? How do you meditate on its innermost meaning? How do you explain to others that our reckoning with this defining moment is far from over?


I find it difficult, not to mention painful, at times even impossible, to recall that day, exactly 60 years ago this week, when as a seven-year-old I joined the refugee exodus with my family, on April 24, 1948, from Haifa to the Lebanese border. The images I took with me were apocalyptic.

There was a peasant woman lying supine by the wayside screaming with labour pain as her husband ran up and down the coast road pleading: "I beg of you, is there a midwife in your midst, please, in the name of God, the merciful, the munificent, is there a midwife in your midst?" There were old men, with snow-white hair, who supported themselves on canes as they walked, mumbling verses from the Quran to themselves. There were children who walked alone, with no hands to hold. There were women with babies in their arms who sat under the shade in the bushes, panting with exhaustion and thirst. And there was the unforgiving sun beating down on us.

Yet not one of these people ever imagined that (perish the thought!) 60 years after the fact, they would still be denied the smell of ripened figs and oranges, fruit that they and their ancestors had grown in their homeland since time immemorial.

A few days before the exodus was the massacre of Deir Yassein, on April 8, when Jewish terrorists slaughtered roughly 250 men, women and children, throwing many of the bodies in the village well. And still a few days after the exodus, came the destruction and the land grab: hundreds of Palestinian villages razed to the ground and later settled by Jews, and movable and immovable property left behind by the refugees, from private homes to functioning farms, from public buildings to office buildings, and from small shops to community centres, confiscated. And, yes, the ethnic cleansing of the entire population of the twin cities of Lydda and Ramleh, mounted by Jewish forces, led at the time by no other than Yitzhak Rabin, is also part of the Nakba narrative. And so it goes. And how could we forget or, for that matter, forgive? How could we not commemorate? The ethics of memory, its wilful strategems, continue to press on the collective psyche, in particular the psyche of new generations of Palestinians who, to be sure, were not there, but who nevertheless will not betray their past or dishonour their covenant with those whose suffering they have inherited. Hence we remember. We commemorate. We look, as it were, to the future of our past.

To Palestinians, there are no other coordinates of cultural, emotional and moral reference that touch more urgently on the present contours of their lives, their view of the world, their self-definitions.

I don't have much of a problem with that school of thought that believes we must reflect on the past, not dwell in it. But our issue here is that the Nakba is still with us as an ongoing process. The violence and terror, even in that small remnant of our patrimony left us in West Bank and Gaza, continue.

Case in point

The first task after wrongs have been committed is for the perpetrator to admit to those wrongs. Germany and Japan, as a case in point, apologised and paid reparations to their victims. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought face to face those who practised apartheid with those individuals they had injured.

No such redress is contemplated for the Palestinians. Not only do the wrongs committed against the people of Palestine remain unaddressed and unacknowledged, but they continue, as we speak, to be inflicted on them.

Yes, in 1948, April was the cruellest month of the year. But every April in one's lifetime has been equally cruel, as one lives either as a deracinated Palestinian in exile or lives as a subjugated Palestinian under occupation.

Let me be clear: I yield to no one on the autonomy of my memories.

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nakba this year, in each of us, each in his own way, there lurks the thought of mocking the enemy, of exposing the ethnic cleanser for what he is, a mere scarecrow, a pallid figure whose record over the past six decades spans a gamut of villainy, who implanted himself in our homeland against our will.


Fawaz Turki is a veteran journalist, lecturer and author of several books, including The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile. He lives in Washington D.C.