You may have wondered in recent weeks how Palestinians, a stateless people who have for the last 75 years lived in an existential homeland of the mind rather than, like other mortals, in an independent polity of their own making, remain defined by a collective national consciousness, by their shared grief of the Nakba [catastrophe] and by their common conjectures on the future.
You may also have wondered, more importantly, how this teleological spirit — and no other word here will describe this spirit’s nature — has come to embody the identity of Palestinans everywhere.
We’re talking about diaspora Palestinians, whom you find in places in between and as far apart as Australia and Iceland (where, in the latter, a small community has lived since the government in Reykjavik granted its members asylum after they were expelled from Iraq in April and May of 2004) and about Palestinians who stayed behind in the old sod in 1948 and became Israeli citizens.
When Palestinian strangers meet in the strange world they inhabit, they recognise each other at a glance, it is because they carry a kind of darkness around them.
And we’re talking about Palestinians who live in the West Bank with an occupier’s boot over their neck as well as Palestinians who, as we speak, are living their tragic lives like so many Samsons, as John Milton put it in Paradise Regained (1671), “eyeless in Gaza”.
Consider this: The American, and to a lesser extent the European media, made an issue earlier this week of the fact that, in the midst of smoke rising over Gaza, a hush fell over Bethlehem, where Christmas celebrations — in this ancient town a hallowed tradition for centuries — were cancelled. Save for bells tolling in Manger Square for midnight mass, there was no towering Christmas tree to be seen anywhere. No feasts and carols. No bands and music. No pilgrims and Christmas lights. And Santa? It would appear he called in sick — too sick at heart to come to Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Prophet Jesus, in order to improbably lead the crowd in singing “Joy to the World”. Even Santa can’t unsay reality.
Christian Palestinians, who are joined every year by their Muslim counterparts in the annual festivities, opted to forgo even the hint of being seen “celebrating” anything — even Christmas.
United for same cause against same enemy
And I need here to be pardoned for saying “Palestinian Christians” and “Palestinian Muslims” because it is considered bad manners — indeed the height of gaucherie — to bring up, let alone make an issue of what faith your fellow-Palestinian adheres to. There, your religion is your spiritual world, but your sense of self in the objective world you inhabit is anchored in your identity as a Palestinian — and you grow up with that perception like you grow up with your own skin.
Here’s a case in point: I did not know that my friend Osama Doumani, whom I attended high school with (and who in later years went on to teach anthropology at UC Berkeley) was a Christian till our senior year, when I attended his father’s memorial service in a church.
There’s a reason in that objective world to account for the organic emergence of that sensibility. You see, since the very outset of our struggle for national independence in the early 1920s, Palestinians of both faiths fought together and died together as fallen patriots, for the same cause against the same enemy — all the stuff of which rich, shared historical experiences that bond a people as one are made.
In 1948 after the dismemberment of Palestine and the displacement of its people, grief lodged deep in the chest of every Palestinian in equal measure and in the same way, leading to that collective trauma in our historical narrative we call the Nakba...
And in 1948, when we were being expelled from our homeland, that enemy who effected the expulsion did not ask if we were Muslim or Christian, nor did ask whether we were rich or poor, peasants or professionals, residents of rural or urban regions, young or old, academically endowed or unlettered, men, women or children, and the rest of it. That enemy asked if we were Palestinians, making our identity cause in and of itself. It is thus no surprise that at one time in our history that identity acquired a leading positional value in our lives and went on to shape both our sense of selfhood and our view of the world.
In short, the grief that lodged deep in our chests in 1948 after the dismemberment of Palestine and the displacement, en masse, of its people, lodged deep in the chest of every Palestinian in equal measure and in the same way, leading to that collective trauma in our historical narrative we call the Nakba — which our children have inherited from us and which now they are passing on to theirs as remembrance.
And if, in the words of French poet Charles Baudelaire, “to remember is a new form of suffering” (“Se souvenir est une nouvelle forme to souffrance”), then so be it. Three generations of Palestinians have, I say, suffered alike, in equal measure, as they struggled together to achieve the same human right — the right to be a free, independent people, freely and independently determining their own political destiny and their own chosen place in the global dialogue of cultures.
So if, when Palestinian strangers meet in the strange world they inhabit, they recognise each other at a glance, it is because they carry a kind of darkness around them. The darkness of a people who live under occupation in the West Bank, where parents walk closer to their children than other parents elsewhere in the world do because they know death stalks them at every turn and settler savagery can easily be set loose at their heels. The darkness of a people who live in the diaspora where parents know they need to be adept at guiding their children on how to survive the terrors of being “the other”.
And then there’s the darkness of parents in Gaza who know that to be a parent there these days means you are passing a death sentence on your children — a place where now the horrors inflicted on both parents and children have made what Hanna Arendt called “the banality of evil” come into sharp relief, a place where “satellite imagery [of the Strip] shows how Israel has waged one of this century’s most destructive wars”, as the title of a news story on the front page of The Washington Post screamed on December 24.
When Israeli Foreign Minister Yoav Gallant declared in October that Palestinians were “human animals”, it was clear that he was not familiar with the theory of projection in psychiatric literature, which has it that sometimes dreadful attributes within an individual are disavowed and attributed to another.
— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile