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Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 01.11.2011:

Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced

TWIP November 2011

By Nada Atrash

As Rochelle Davis-an assistant professor of anthropology at the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University-was involved in her research into the narrative of Palestinian life before 1948, she came across books that documented life in destroyed villages in Palestine written and compiled by refugees, who have either lived in theses villages or heard stories about the experiences their parents and grandparents had before being expelled. Her interest in these books drove her, over the course of ten years, to collect 112 books that document the lives of some of the 420,000 people who were displaced by war between 1947 and 1949.

Taking into account that within these villages, houses were mostly destroyed, mosques and churches put to other uses, cemeteries ploughed under, and Palestinians were left geographically dispossessed, Davis analyses how these books recount the lost family histories, cultural traditions, and details of the village life through the eyes of Palestinians. Through a close examination of these books and other commemorative activities, she discusses how history is written, recorded, and contested, as well as the roles that Palestinians’ concepts of their past play in contemporary life. Moving beyond the grand narratives of twentieth century political struggles, she also analyses individual and collective historical accounts of everyday life in pre-1948 Palestinian villages as remembered today by these long-term refugees.

Throughout her book, Palestinian Village Histories, Davis explores the content of these village books and the role they play in the contemporary writing of Palestinian history, and explains their importance in contemporary Palestinian culture and society as evidence of how Palestinians are composing their views of life before 1948. She also seeks to understand and address the meanings of these histories as presented in the village books, the forms that history-writing takes, the sources it uses, and the role that the history of village life plays in the lives of Palestinians today. Palestinian Village Histories does not set out to write history; rather it is a study of those who do write it. To understand these books when the authors are still alive and when the books are circulating in society gives the opportunity to explore the local context of history production.

Palestinian Village Histories examines the process of writing history and not just the reading of the finished product. It considers the choices that authors make, the reactions of readers, and the social, political, and cultural forces and influences that inform style, narrative form, and content. All of these elements offer insight into how these texts shape the subjects and narrative styles that constitute history for Palestinians, as well as the sources that are used and how the past is recorded and presented in written form. Davis’ book also addresses how the authors of the village books are seen within their communities, both during the writing process and after publication, and how these books are subject to intense scrutiny that illuminates what is at stake in the narration of history and the inclusion and exclusion of certain people, events, stories, and information.

As reviewed by Rhoda Kanaaneh, author of Surrounded: Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military, “Davis has written a nuanced and highly readable account of how Palestinians write their own histories and in the process craft strategies for the future. Drawing on research in half a dozen countries, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Palestinians.”

Nada Atrash is the Head of the Research and Training Unit at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem. Nada can be reached at natrash@cchp.ps.

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