The Nakba Palestine
2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the mass displacement of Palestinians known as “the Nakba” or “the Catastrophe” Image Credit: Gulf News

For the first time in its history, three quarters of a century after it passed a General Assembly resolution partitioning Palestine, behind the back and against the will of that country’s native people, the United Nations on Monday held an event to commemorate the Nakba, effectively the catastrophic consequences that later flowed from that resolution.

The event, billed as one meant to “serve as a reminder of the historic injustice suffered by the Palestinian people”, was held at the UN headquarters in New York and live streamed. It included a keynote address by Mahmoud Abbas, followed in the evening by an immersive experience of the Nakba through live music, photos, videos and personal testimonies.

Thirty countries, including — spoiler alert — the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, voted against the resolution adopting the commemoration.

Read more by Fawaz Turki

One prefers not to impute malice to why they did so and to charitably imagine that the reason was that they simply misunderstand what this commemorative day, held annually on May 15, is all about; why it is of such momentous significance both to the Palestinians as to their fellow-Arabs; and how the day came to be called by its given name, the Nakba, which, if the term translates at all, translates as “catastrophe” in English.

So let me, as a Palestinian, as an octogenarian who at age 8 lived through the ravages of the Nakba and — here I reveal, in the interest of full disclosure — as the keynote speaker at a large rally held last Sunday on the Mall in Washington to commemorate the event, tell you what it’s all about.

In other words, let me, in short, in the first person singular, in this column this week, tell you why the Nakba is a mere commemorative day observed by Palestinians.

Uniquely Palestinian event

It is a uniquely Palestinian event anchored in a tragic moment in the modern history of the people of Palestine, one that had wrought havoc on their internal psychic economy, both as individuals and as a collectivity.

Nakba may be anchored in time, but for Palestinians everywhere, whether in exile or the homeground, it is felt reality in their quotidian lives. Thus, it is not without reason that they call it by its given name, the “Catastrophe”, for at the core of that event lies the most catastrophic adversity that could befall a human community: the dismemberment of home and homeland — home and homeland being the outward sum of a people’s nobility, the place where a people’s cultural heritage and mythology of hope are born and where the bones of their poets and prophets are buried.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas speaks during a high-level event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba at the United Nations headquarters in New York on May 15, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

To this day, 75 years after the fact, the Nakba continues to resound around every corner of our being. And it does so because it has acquired permanent habitat in the essential repertoire of our historical consciousness. It speaks to us. It speaks about us. And it speaks from us.

I’ll tell you:this: as a eight-year-old, I joined my family, along with tens of thousands of other Palestinian families, in the refugee exodus on that fateful day in May, 1948, the day we call the Nakba, where I saw a woman sitting under a tree, by the wayside, screaming to heaven with labour pain as her husband ran up and down the coast leading to the Lebanese border, hollering, “Brothers, is there a wife in your midst, in the name of God, the Munificent, the Compassionate, is there a midwife in your midst?”

Well, that searing memory is one among many others that comes to mind when I solemnly commemorate that day.

Look, this is a day that has a lot to do with how we rebuke history, with how we daily remind ourselves that being Palestinian is both our pride and burden, with how we have long since proven that John Foster Dulles’s assessment of our national character was way off the rails.

People attend an observation of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations on May 15, 2023 in New York City. A day of observation of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba was held at the UN with performances by Palestinian singer Sanaa Moussa, Grammy Award-nominee cellist and composer Naseem Alatrash who was accompanied by the New York Arabic Orchestra and directed by Eugene Friesen

Dulles’s assessment? 

In the Spring of 1952, while on an official visit to Lebanon, the then American secretary of state, gave a speech at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in which he said: “The Palestinian problem will be solved only in time, when a new generation of Palestinians had grown up with no attachment to the land”.

In those days, they defined us as a people whose attachment to the land was fickle. Today, they want to deny us the right to call the catastrophic fate that had befallen catastrophic.

Forget about it. Next year, representatives of 163 out of the 193 member states sitting in the General Assembly will commemorate the Nakba with us at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.