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Odysseus, Al-Nakba, and the Sea

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 06.07.2010:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

This Week in Palestine, June 2010

“The regal nymph Calypso,

once she’d heard Zeus’s message, went off to find

great-hearted Odysseus. She found him by the shore,

sitting down there, with his eyes always full of tears,

because his sweet life was passing while he mourned

for his return.… That great-hearted man sat crying on the shore,

just as before, breaking his heart with tears and groans,

full of sorrow, as he looked out on the restless sea

and wept.”

Homer, The Odyssey, Book V

Summer glistens with the shimmering waves of turquoise-blue sizzling into white foam which fizzles into splinters as it breaks against the sun-baked yellow ochre beaches stretching from southern to northern Palestine. Gaza, Jaffa, Haifa, and Akka, the jewel coastal cities of Palestine, punctuate this immense stretch of blue hemmed in by the golden shores and provide an outlet from the scorching heat of the mountainous hinterland. The Mediterranean, once a symbol of infinite horizon and a promise of boundless adventure, has become the symbol of Palestinian grief. The sea now is inaccessible to West Bankers. In the sweltering summer heat in Jenin and Tulkarem, close to the coast, they smell the sea but cannot reach it. The Wall stands as a barrier, a witness to the twentieth-century historical political processes that have displaced and alienated millions of Palestinians from their motherland – and sent them into exile all over the world. In the quiet of the night, between the ebb and flow of the cascading waves, the promenade between Jaffa and Tel Aviv still echoes with the last moments of panic as mothers and fathers, carrying the young and the elderly, rushed into the small boats in search of safety from the Jewish terrorist groups. As the final moments drew to an end, a majority left their homes in haste. The image of a terrified mother running into a Jaffa boat believing that the pillow in her arms was her swaddled baby is a recurring theme in the mythology of Palestinian refugees.

The loss of Palestine is a trauma that our longing for the sea has come to symbolise. The sea breeze, once associated with the citrus blossom from the orchards that stretch along our coastal plains, dissipates under the weight of the tragic accounts describing the flight of the frightened Palestinians from their homeland to shores of safety in foreign lands. Following our defeat in the 1967 War West Bankers could once again visit their homeland along the Palestinian coast. Reconnaissance visits to their villages and ironic encounters with Israelis who had moved into their homes deployed a new discourse with a fairy-tale mythological quality.

As a Jerusalemite whose destiny chose that the 1948 War should stop one kilometre from his ancestral home I was always puzzled by the endless love between my friend Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Jaffa. The great scholar, driven by the dream of the return, came at an advanced age to teach at Birzeit University. Every Sunday he would go to his hometown to swim. I could never understand how he could return to the city of his childhood, now a mere shell, emptied of family, friends, and the life that once populated its homes, markets, and streets.

“As I swim, once I am deep in the sea,” he told me, “Jaffa becomes alive. I see it as it has always been.” He became sentimental and laughingly told me, “Al-Hajjeh (his old mother) always kept the keys of the Jaffa house. I would tease her: Why don’t you throw them away? … You know you will not return.”

“Even were I to be paid millions, I would never sell my home in Jaffa.”

The key to a house either already demolished or inhabited by Israelis and the deed to the land of the ancestors are invariably the only concrete mementos that furnish the proof that the homeland was a reality and not a phantasm. The nostalgic narratives conjure the way of life and the landscape they have left behind. These anecdotal tales provide cathartic outlet for the grief over the lost paradise and recreate a way of life and an urban and agricultural landscape from which they are now distanced.

Summer warm weather and the balmy fragrance of the night allows for long evening visits. Apart from extending traditional hospitality to the visitor, both host and guest regale each other with anecdotal narratives. Among my refugee friends folktale-quality stories pertaining to the lost homeland assume an elevated position. Through the story, told on the balcony or terrace saturated with the aroma of jasmine, ful (gardenia), and the sweet fragrance of colonia, the past is regained. The blatant absence becomes a presence. The emptiness of being, the manque à être, regains its fullness. Distance and time dissolve under the spell of language in a moment of great intimacy. Reality is deferred in preference for magic.

Though the English term “nostalgia” is modern, it was coined in the seventeenth century by a Swiss scholar, J. Hoffer, who juxtaposed the Homeric word, algos, “pain” and nostos, “homecoming,” into the compound “nostalgia”; the idea itself is as ancient as humanity. Imprisoned on an island by the Goddess Calypso, Odysseus’ longing for the homeland, his Ithaca, gave expression to the human sense of territoriality bound up with the sense of identity and meaning long before the term was created. On the other hand, Al-haneen ala al-Awtan (longing for the homeland) is a classical theme in Arabic prose and poetry and is the title of one of the books by the great ninth-century Abbasid scholar, El Jaheth الجاحظ.

The sense of personal identity is inextricably linked in Palestinian individual consciousness to group identity. To the existential question, “Who am I?” the answer is resolved geographically. “I am from Salamah, Jaffa, Yazure, or Haifa.” Despite the six decades since the Nakba, neither the elapsed time nor the distance from the fatherland, now accentuated by the Separation Wall, has succeeded in building a buffer between the refugee and his/her homeland: the village whence the family was forced to flee in terror in 1947/48.

It is the aroma of his soil – spring, summer, winter, and fall – for which the refugee yearns. It is his sky, his sun, his moon, the birds in the field, the sunrise dew on the grass, the breeze that ruffles the leaves as the sun sets imprinted in his heart that sustains his solitary life away from the motherland. Reconstructing the way that life used to be in the form of a folktale – albeit cathartic – has deployed a rich discourse that passes the memory of a place, a time, and a society which shapes the identity of second, third, and fourth generations of refugees into a socio-cultural-ecological map of Palestine. In my repertoire of collected oral accounts, the story of the family picnic in the ruins of Innabeh stands out.

During the summer of 1990 a family reunion took place in Al-Jalazon Refugee Camp for the first time since the 1967 War. Three brothers in their sixties were able, within the summer programme that allows Palestinians a one-month visitor permit, to gather in the homeland. The eldest, the hosting brother, lived in the Occupied Territories while his two brothers lived in Al-Wahdat Refugee Camp in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. They came with their respective spouses, children, and grandchildren.

Before the visit permit expired they decided to take a trip to their birthplace in the village of Innabeh on the outskirts of Ramleh. They rented a few cars and drove from the West Bank through the Green Line to their ancestral town near the Palestinian coast. They parked the cars under the shade of some wild carob trees on a promontory on the outskirts of the village. The children started to unpack their picnic food, the kanoon (charcoal brazier), the coal, the icebox, the meat, their vegetables, their fruits, and the ever-present watermelon. They were still unpacking the blankets, the footballs, the arageel (water pipes), the coffee, and the tea kettles when an armed Arab suddenly appeared.

“What are you doing here?” he asked belligerently in a Bedouin dialect.

“What do you mean?” the host answered in surprise. “Obviously we are having a family picnic. Itfaddal, welcome, welcome…”

“No, you have come to steal my fruits. All of you West Bankers think that the land is still yours and keep on coming in droves to steal my trees. Yes, do not look surprised, they are mine. I rent all these lands from the Israeli government.”

They showed him the quantity of food they had brought for the occasion. The sight of the preposterous amounts they had considered necessary for a one-day trip put him to shame.

“All right; you may stay.”

They invited him to join them. He would not. He walked away but remained in the vicinity keeping an eye on them.

The fire was lit. When the flames subsided and the charcoal turned into red embers they proceeded to grill the kebab and shish kebab. As soon as the first skewer was cooked, a sandwich was made and the eldest son, Walid, took it to the guard. The Bedouin initially refused the hospitality. But later he joined them under the cool shadow of the ancient carob tree.

The three families had come with the special intention of visiting the remains of their hometown. Unlike the majority of the Palestinian coastal towns and villages, Innabeh had not been bulldozed and levelled to the ground. Its buildings were left intact and were not integrated either within a kibbutz or into a moshav compound. After the Palestinian inhabitants fled in terror in 1948, Innabeh remained deserted; only erosion caused by the natural passage of time had made some of its house walls and ceiling beams give way and collapse.

The three brothers walked in the desolate streets of Innabeh trying to find their bearings and remember the people who once populated the forlorn houses. The elementary school, a landmark, was easily recognisable. The homes, however, required specific cues and some guesswork in order to remember their proprietors.

“The lemon tree was in the hakouret (courtyard) Um Isa,” the youngest brother Fat’hy told his children who were born in a refugee camp in Jordan. “You know her, the woman living next door to your aunt ‘Afifeh in el-Baq’a.”

“The mulberry tree, this must be Al-Haj Yasser’s house.” Abu al-Walid, the eldest brother, looked at Yihya and continued teasing him. “Do you remember when you got caught up in the branches and could not come down?”

“Not in front of the children,” Yihya smiled awkwardly. He looked fondly at the tree, sighed deeply and added, “So much time has passed since those days. But God bless his soul, he was the best father one could ever hope for.” Changing the sentimental mood, he pointed to some dry branches and reflected, “Look, it is old and dying.”

The sun was still high on the horizon and they felt thirsty.

“Ah, this is a problem,” said the Bedouin. “Whenever I have my sheep I always have to walk them to a well ten kilometres away from here.”

“Let me see,” Abu al-Walid said. He bent down and picked up a broken branch that had fallen from the mulberry tree. “Follow me,” he gestured to him.

A few metres away in the shadow of an extremely dilapidated house, he started to tap the branch on the floor listening attentively as though for a familiar sound. Suddenly his face beamed and he said excitedly, “Over here!” He started clearing the dust from the ground. Soon enough the rusty metal lid of a well appeared. He lifted the cover. The well was filled to the brim with crystal clear cold water. They drank happily. The Bedouin, no longer a roaming nomad, was especially delighted since the discovery would save him a lot of trouble.

Back in the cool shadow of the carob tree they smoked their arageel, drank coffee, ate more watermelons, and lounged around talking and remembering the old days.

The sun began to fall quickly into the horizon. It was time to leave. They started to pack their belongings, fold the blankets, and gather the garbage they had produced. At that moment the two brothers from Al-Wahdat Refugee Camp in Amman took out two clean plastic bags that they had specially brought along. They bent down to the ground, scooped soil into each bag, closed them tightly, got into the car, and drove back to Al-Jalazon Refugee Camp.

Longing for the motherland is constitutive of Palestinian collective identity. The post Nakba Palestinian has developed an identity as an image of his/her homeland’s landscape, as one who knows all its paths, its hidden corners, every mound, every ravine, and every flower and plant. The yearning for the lost paradise has become an unequivocal expression of a generations-old tradition of keeping alive the memory of the landscape, the physical and chronological dimensions of the Land. Though the post Intifada generation has never been to the motherland, it is thoroughly familiar with the name of every valley, water spring, well, wild bird, and hairy cassia – let alone every planted tree and house. In Innabeh trees had proper names. Al-Aroos, the bride, is the name of a huge olive tree whose branches reached to the sky. As the grandfather described to me how a ladder was mounted on the camel back to reach its lofty branches the grandchildren gathered, hanging on very word he said, to hear the magic of the country they were forced to leave behind. In a photograph from the seventies an aged couple on their visit to Innabeh pose next to another ancient olive tree which carried the proper name, Al-Sheikha, the old woman.

More than sixty years have passed and the memory remains fresh through oral sagas. Reality is that of the heart. Palestine and the homeland are a wound that time will not heal. The love of the fatherland is a chronic condition and not a passing illness.

Before the Wall, before the Oslo Agreement, we often went to Gaza where we would stand at the seashore inhaling the sea air. We would stare wistfully into the distant horizon to where the sea and the sky dissolved into one blue line. Standing by the seashore of Gaza we would feel a mysterious sense of freedom

The political conflict has circumscribed our vision to such an extent that the sea itself has acquired an ethnic identity. In Gaza, the Mediterranean is Arabic. For what a great difference we feel between the sea of Tel Aviv and the sea of Gaza! There in Tel Aviv, barely five kilometres from the empty shell of Jaffa, the sea stands as a blue wall and reminds us of our grim reality. Both sky and sea close in on us. Standing on the seashore of Gaza, we would breathe deeply and sense our freedom. The sea becomes an endless horizon wherein our dreams soar high.

It is summer 2010. We have lost our last sea. The Nakba continues.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilizations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at

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