Where Commemoration Meets Celebration
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 07.10.2011:
By Mazin Qumsiyeh
On 15 May this year, a teenager climbed the abandoned house of the original Al-Walaja Village and raised a Palestinian flag as Israeli jeeps arrived. Ahmad had a big smile on his face as those gathered clapped their hands and sang a national song. We were young and old, male and female, Christians, Muslims, and even some Jews. We had crossed the mythical Green Line, and we celebrated this achievement as we commemorated the Nakba. Later in a holding pin at Atarot, we felt freer than our captors. Palestinians in Syria had also crossed that mythical line into the occupied Golan Heights. Hassan Hijazi, 28 years old, not only crossed but kept going to arrive in Jaffa. He told Israeli TV: “It was my dream to go to Jaffa because it is my homeland.” This young man also had a smile on his face. He had done it albeit for a brief period and was expelled just like his family was expelled. In the middle of Jaffa, he said without blinking an eye that “This isn’t Israel, this is my country … I want to stay here where my father and my great-grandfather were born, and I want to bring my family here.” Hassan added that his success was indeed symbolic but significant because it shows what individuals can do. Israeli authorities reacted violently to the peaceful infiltrations this year and murdered many nonviolent activists and imprisoned many of us.
How does one characterise such events? The human language, by definition, tries to set boundaries on concepts that defy borders and boundaries. Words such as commemoration, celebration, and demonstration sometimes appear artificial and certainly limited in telling us about what actually happens. We are a species that uses language that reflects thoughts that are shaped by our experiences, both personal and inherited (experiences of our parents and grandparents). By nature we experience events that we call celebrations or commemorations in unique and personal ways. No two individuals can share exactly the same perception of any event. Yet, for us Palestinians, personal history and national experienced history are intertwined as a reflection of a common narrative that includes dispossession, survival, and longing for return.
We the disinherited Palestinians fought for survival at many levels, but perhaps one of the most important aspects is that of memory, which constructs our narrative. Our narrative is simply what we as a people put together from our memory and from history to make sense of what happened to us. Narrative links the temporal and the spatial with the human. In this context dates become important and have particular meanings. This, of course, happens at the personal level where people commemorate certain dates (the death of a loved one, for example) or celebrate others (a birthday, a wedding anniversary, etc.). But even here the language fails us because giving a name to an historical event is a very poor way of reflecting our feelings and the understanding of its significance. That feeling (of happiness, joy, sadness, or love) can also change from year to year in recalling the same event. If this is true for individual and personal events, then surely it is even more complex for group events.
Palestinians remain the largest refugee population on earth. We are experiencing the longest remaining occupation – the suffering has endured for 63 years. We have a history of 130 years of colonisation and a far longer history of conflicts, wars, and occupations going back over 4,000 years. It is thus not surprising that we have plenty of history to relate to in our memory, much of it is unfortunately sad. But we also have the most amazing story of survival and persistence (sumud). Like the yin and yang of Eastern philosophies, it would be hard to imagine us commemorating a sad event without also celebrating another (including our positive responses to tragedy). Our struggle was and will continue to be against a mighty military machine that is backed up by a strong, worldwide Zionist lobby that deployed a narrative based on myth and propaganda. That struggle is strengthened by our memories of our history with all its ups and downs.
For us Palestinians the most pressing and most indelible of our experiences is the Nakba. We all know that our catastrophe (Nakba) began with Zionism long before May 1948 and has continued since. May 15 is not the date of the Nakba but is merely a date that became symbolic of the Nakba, the date on which we “commemorate” it. Nakba is not a day but a lifetime of the country over 130 years. Each of us experiences our Nakba in different yet related ways. Many experienced it when being loaded onto boats in Jaffa and literally pushed into the sea. Others survived massacres or survived a march east over days. Even today and for people not even born until after 1948, the Nakba is still experienced. It is experienced in the look of a hungry child in Rafah and in the funeral of an old man in Nablus. It is experienced in a wedding in Arroub, a birth in Jalazone, a baptism in Bethlehem, and in kneeling at prayer at Al-Aqsa. It is experienced in our blood and in the depth of our bones.
Nakba is commemorated in various ways. Some read names of martyrs. Some remember destroyed villages. Others symbolically raise banners with pictures of those villages. Perhaps a quilt or a flag. Some write songs or poetry. Some march back to those villages. May 15 became a time to gather and to review where we have been and where we are heading. But can we commemorate and celebrate it at the same time (with all the baggage that these imprecise words carry)? Is it not true that there was resistance in 1948 and before it and after it? Is it not true that there were heroic acts of such resistance? Is it not true that without these acts, the Zionist project would have achieved its stated goals from the beginning: a pure Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River?
Many of us know stories of Palestinians who left their villages and tried to come back to them after the cease-fire lines were drawn. The first military order given in the nascent Jewish state was to shoot on sight any person trying to go back to his land or home. Thousands were injured or killed when they tried to do that. Yet thousands succeeded. This is indeed a success that we ought to celebrate as part of our history. That, against all odds, 150,000 of our brothers and sisters stayed inside what became the state of Israel is a miracle of sumud. That they number now 1.5 million and that Zionists are panicking about the “demographic danger” is indeed something for us to smile about when we rightly mourn our dispossession. This is all part of that tapestry that we call the Nakba. So we find that, indeed, it is deserved that we both commemorate and celebrate. Perhaps the best way to express it is to say that we “mark the Nakba date.”
Naksa is similarly marked in June and signifies for us the setback of the 1967 Israeli occupation of the rest of Palestine (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) as well as the Golan and the Sinai. Here the Zionist project made additional inroads into Palestine, though not in the ways it anticipated. Did this Naksa represent a mere historical event that we can relegate to the pages of history or is it ongoing? The answer is rather obvious to each and every one of us because we live it daily. I live it every morning when I get up and drink my coffee as I look at Jabal Abu Ghneim. It used to be a green hill until 1997, but has since been transformed into the concrete jungle otherwise known as the Jewish colony of Har Homa. In my youth and during my work as a biologist, this was a place where I hiked, watched birds, and studied mammals. I remember also as a child seeing Israeli tanks rolling down the valley near that hill towards our village in 1967. The look of fear on my parents’ faces is imprinted in my mind and will not be erased until I die. My Naksa experiences include sleeping as a child with my clothes and shoes on in case we had to leave in the middle of the night. It includes the convincing arguments against leaving that my mother gave to our neighbour on 6 June 1967. “If you leave now, you may not be allowed to come back,” and “It is better to stay here than go live in a refugee camp in Jordan.” It includes later the suffering of my family but also strengthened ties and persistence and success. These collectively (good and bad) are my Naksa experience. Every Palestinian has his or her tales to tell. Collectively, that is our Naksa narrative.
From June 1967 till today, we have helped each other, we have survived wars and repression, we have challenged the occupation, and we have defended homes, institutions, and livelihood. Approximately 800,000 of our people spent time in Israeli jails and thus got the education of their lives. These realities all are part of our Naksa experience – part of the collective memory that shapes our destiny both as individuals and as community. Is it any surprise, then, that we indeed celebrate the resilience – the sumud – of our Naksa generation as we also celebrate those of our parents’ and grandparents’ Nakba generation? Celebration and commemoration become intertwined, perhaps become one and the same as we mark these defining chapters in our history.
Pessimism or optimism
We are the sum of our experiences. What holds meaning for us comes from our history. Of course we have choices as to what to emphasise in this history. We can choose to emphasise the negative, and there is lots of it: massacres and ethnic cleansing in 1948-1949, massacres in the 1950s, the occupation that began in 1967, the Black September events in 1970, the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, and many others. We can also choose to emphasise the positive: the achievements of resistance, the sumud/persistence of our people, the unity and solidarity of families and communities, and the achievements of education, culture, and knowledge. There are also millions of heroic stories. The unrealistic pessimists would focus on the negative and forget the positive. The unrealistic optimists do the reverse. Some of us simply retort: “Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” Some people are optimists because their religious practices dictate it; others because they know that it is a biologically useful characteristic to be optimistic. Even the most unrealistic pessimists are still with us; they did not commit suicide, so at some (perhaps subconscious) level they still hold hope for the future. I think that at a deeper level, what educated people do is adapt and survive, and that requires at least a modicum of optimism about the future.
Humans are amazing in their ability to survive under the harshest of conditions. Palestinians, having suffered so much, have also achieved much. Adversity forces people to evolve. I contend that we do not have to choose whether to celebrate the fact that we have 5.5 million Palestinians living in historic Palestine or to commemorate the ethnic cleansing that keeps millions of us as refugees or displaced people. We can do both and we can do both at the same time. At the funeral of my father, I said that we are “celebrating his life.” I still believe that this is the ultimate complement to our ancestors: to celebrate their achievement while, of course, mourning losses.
I know that Palestine will be eventually freed. Whether it is in my lifetime or my son’s, it is worth asking: What sort of national dates will we choose to emphasise when this freedom comes? And HOW will we choose to mark these events then? On 15 May 2030, what will be the words uttered in front of memorials in villages and towns whose people have returned? I hope they will be words that recognise the goodness and beauty of humanity while shedding a tear for those who lost their lives, their land, and/or their livelihood. I hope that they will be words that those who sacrificed so much for us and did not live to be there at those future events would be pleased to hear.
Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, of Bethlehem University, is author of Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli Palestinian struggle and Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment.