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Post-Nakba Euphemisms and Humour

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 29.05.2012:

Post-Nakba Euphemisms and Humour Al-Hijrah, Salamah, and Wadha

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

This Week in Palestine

May 2012

If I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide.

Mahatma Gandhi

To build a house outside the refugee camp is a critical decision. Almost seven decades have passed since the hijrah, the forced migration, and over three generations have already been born and grown up outside the motherland. The grief over the lost homeland lingers. Reason and emotions are central factors underlying individual and collective identity. To the question, “Where are you from?” any Palestinian from any age group would identify himself/herself using the ancestral home as the point of reference. The refugee camp remains the temporary bridge pending the imminent return home. To build a home outside the refugee camp is a critical decision among Palestinians almost tantamount to betrayal. First and foremost it is a decision to move on with life pragmatically. It is a tacit avowal of the end of the dream to return to the homeland.

Euphemisms placate the drudgery of living with the grief of severance from the motherland. Whereas historians, beginning with Constantine Zureik, codified the cataclysmic event as Al-Nakba, the Palestinians referred to the events culminating with their forced deportation as Al-Ahdaath, loosely translated as the days when the events (hadath) took place or, alternately, Ayyam al-Hijrah, the days (time) of the exodus. Al-Nakba, the grievous catastrophe, is a term rarely used by the migrants waiting for their return home. Similarly the political term laji’, usually a derogatory term, is rarely used to describe themselves. Rather it is a political term that guarantees their status as war victims pending the resolution of the conflict. Similarly, the local usage of the alternate words, muhajarin, muhajereen, naziheen, confirms the historical view of their forced migration as a temporary historical condition. No refugee will use the word mankube, inflicted with grief, from the word Nakba, to refer to his or her condition outside the homeland. The terms muhajereen and al-hijrah, derived from the root hjr, to abandon and to leave behind, are more common. Moreover it draws parallels with Al-Hijrah al-Nabawiyyeh, the prophet’s forced migration from Mecca to Medina when his life and that of his early supporters were seriously threatened. In fact, the Muslim calendar uses the Hijrah al-Nabawiyyeh to mark the beginning of a new historic era: a new calendar and a new beginning. In fact, the Hijra calendar can be translated as the migration calendar.

The ordeal in the refugee camps assumes a transcendental value; it becomes a religious ordeal with a mystical spiritual dimension. The lost land remains the paradise from which they were expelled and the return to which is the dream that sustains them.

As the economic conditions of the average Palestinian family have vastly improved, registering their relative success, the need for comfortable, spacious living space outside the refugee camp has become acute. The new generation of doctors, lawyers, professors, consultants, and professionals in the various fields are gainfully employed and can no longer endure living in the crowded squalor typical of the camps. The conflict between emotional attachment to the symbolism of the refugee camp and the rational need to move on with life has become critical. The Oslo Agreement was a turning point. Torn at the axis of pragmatic logic and the emotional dream of the return home, humour emerges to lighten the tragic proportions embedded in the practical need to build a new life outside the ancestral homeland.

The human person cannot live life in tragedy and grief. Even in the bleakest first days of al-hijrah, the noun nakba (the tremendous grief) could never be used to describe the migrants, al-mankubin, grief-stricken people. Arafat, by coining the term sha’ab al-jabbarin, brilliantly transformed the defeat into victory and the sorrow to success. The steadfastness in the refugee camp became a stoic choice expressing the unrelenting dream of the return. The endurance of the malaise was shrugged away with his diffident adage, Ya jabal ma yihizzak reeh, i.e., the wind will not shake the mountain.

Euphemisms and humour prevent one from becoming a tragic figure even though one is involved in tragic events.

Salamah is a village lying somewhere between Jaffa and Tel Aviv.

Um Ahmad, a robust augusta genitrice in her seventies, cannot give up her memories of her cottage in the orange grove in Salamah. Penniless and destitute she sought refuge forty years ago in a refugee camp outside the town of Ramallah. Strong-willed and with great organising ability, she now sees that her sons are all schooled – one a doctor, another a lawyer, and the third a school principal. Her daughters have married well, and she is now in the process of supervising the new villa where she will move, “God-willing, before the end of this summer.” She will share the house with her eldest son Ahmad, his wife, and their children.

Her authority is undisputable, her wishes are their commands; but that does not leave out the possibility of respectful teasing and joking in Ahmad’s interaction with her.

“I would stand at the threshold of the house in Salamah…”

“It was not a house, Mother,” Ahmad teased her. “It was a cottage, a mere hut. Do not forget I have seen it.”

“That was the stable for the animals next door: the house stood behind it. We had a real house…”

In order not to give him a chance to interfere again she quickly continued, “And I would stand outside the door and look for Badriyyeh, our dog, to feed her the leftovers. I would look in all directions, in the open space in front of the house, under the trees, but she would be completely out of sight.”

“The moment I would call out her name, Badriyyeh, she would dart from under the trees in my direction like an arrow and in no time be at my feet wagging her tail.” A cloud of sadness covers her face as she wonders aloud, “I wonder how she survived after we left. I hope the Jews fed her…”

After 1967, when the frontiers separating Palestine into two parts were removed, she returned homesick to Salamah. An Iraqi Jewess lived on her farm.

“She was very kind and hospitable. She took chairs out into the garden, seated us under the trees, and offered us tea and cake. I looked around at the trees, the ground, the house, and a deep sigh of pain came involuntarily out of me.”

“Don’t grieve,” the old Iraqi woman told me. “It is true that I live in your house, but do you think I am happy? I had grown up in a wealthy family in Baghdad. My father was a well-to-do merchant, the biggest in Baghdad; then, all of a sudden we received orders to evacuate the country within twenty-four hours. We left penniless for Israel, by force too…” Then, by way of consolation, she added, “Have faith, you must not lose your faith. God works His will in unpredictable ways. His logic is mysterious.”

The previous lightness in the room was displaced by a heavy gloom. I never know how to respond to these stories. I felt uneasy.

Um Ahmad was sharp; she quickly saved the situation from becoming morbid.

“But I will never know whatever happened to Wadha.”

I was too shy to inquire about the identity of Wadha, but her oldest son Ahmad winked at me and nodded his head as though to say, “Here she goes again,” and explained. “This is her cow back in Salamah…”

“It was not just any cow, she was a Dutch cow. I bought her as a calf and saw her grow up. I used to pick the grass from under the orange trees and feed her with it. She used to give twenty litres of milk. She was young.”

Her eyes wandered into the distant past and her voice assumed a dream-like quality.

“I wonder whatever happened to Wadha! I last saw her tethered to the tree in the garden.

I asked Abu Ahmad to look after her and he promised that he would. Two weeks later when he joined me, he came without the cow.”

“The battles escalated and it became dangerous for the women and children to stay. They were sent away to wait it out with relatives, in more secure villages,” Ahmad clarified.

“But I could never extract an answer from Abu Ahmad about Wadha. I asked him about her when he first arrived. But it was chaotic and everybody was very upset by the result of the war. I never received an answer. I kept asking him whenever we were alone, but he would not answer. Finally, when he was on his deathbed I asked him, ‘Whatever happened to Wadha?’ Once again he changed the subject and did not answer me.”

“Did it occur to you, Mother, that he might have sold it for cash?”

“No. He would not dare sell my Wadha.”

Um Ahmad will never find out what happened to her cow Wadhah during the Nakba, but she admits, “I should have never returned to Salamah, it was a mistake. Once one moves on, one should never look back.”

“But I cannot help wondering,” she said with a smile, “whatever happened to Wadha?!”

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 Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at


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