Surviving through culture in post-Nakba Palestine

Stripped of statehood in the most traumatic way, Palestinians have preserved their right of return by building a vibrant and thriving national culture. Through literature, art, music, fashion and theater, the Palestinian dream lives on.

Nakba means “disaster” in Arabic and refers to the 1948 dispossession and displacement of nearly 750,000 Palestinians following the establishment of Israel.

Although “catastrophe” suggests a singular past event, the Nakba for the Palestinians is shorthand for a series of catastrophes that have befallen them, beginning with the First Zionist Congress in 1897, culminating in 1948 and continuing today in as an evolving system of military forces. occupation and apartheid.

One could even say that it is a past event occurring in the present, acting both as a collective traumatic memory and as a signifier of today’s struggle for self-determination.

“Stateless, disoriented and lacking sufficient material or political tools, post-Nakba Palestinians have seen in their cultural symbols, emblems and physical artifacts alternative sites of power to keep Palestinian history and identity alive”

Scholars have often analyzed the Nakba through its statistical and political repercussions, focusing primarily on the destruction of property, villages, and urban centers, as well as turning most Palestinians into refugees.

Yet beyond the statistics lies the most disturbing reality of the Nakba as a violent interruption of Palestinian life and near-erasure of the Palestinian social and cultural fabric, unlike any society in modern history. known.

Palestinian children wear traditional clothes ahead of the 74th anniversary of the Nakba [Getty Images]

Stateless, disoriented and lacking sufficient material or political tools, post-Nakba Palestinians saw in their cultural symbols, emblems and physical artifacts alternative sites of power to keep Palestinian history and identity alive.

As Edward said in The question of Palestine (1992) points out that after the loss of Palestine, it continued to exist as an idea, political and human experience, and its existence was based on acts of sustained popular will.

Through cultural representations, this will was supported and contextualized, and with them, Palestinians transformed their refugee camps and diasporic existence into a parallel Palestine.

Cultural artifacts included, but were not limited to, folk music and dance (dabkeh), anecdotes, oral poetry, embroidery, cuisine, and at later stages literature and visual arts.

The Palestinians even retained their pre-Nakba patterns of social interaction and structures. Old intra-village or intra-clan stereotypes, competitiveness and grudges, as well as village-specific customs, seem to have survived the test of time.

The subcultural differences, social divisions and social class that defined pre-1948 Palestine are also still somewhat visible today.

Consider that even with the existence of a modern form of governance, the traditional model of clan leadership, known as the mukhtar (the elderly householder of the same village/town in historic Palestine), remains a common practice in inter-family disputes and civil matters such as marriage.

“Over the past two decades, the maintenance of Palestinian culture has begun to transcend historical narratives and existential anxieties into a deeper universal and human nature, beyond pure political rhetoric into the abnormality of Palestinian everyday struggles. “

But ensuring a cultural continuum has never been without challenges, partly because of the initial lack of an official Palestinian archival capacity, but mostly because of Israel’s appropriation and erasure of the Palestinian history.

Palestinian cultural artefacts have been and are regularly decontextualized and presented as ‘Israeli’.

These include traditional Palestinian Arabic dishes (eg hummus, tabbouleh, msakhan, kubbeh) and, most notoriously, embroidered clothing, which is a complex form of Palestinian village art and a source of national pride.

The last straw, and the most ironic, was the appropriation of the kuffiyeh (traditional head covering), the very symbol of Palestinian anti-colonialism.

What could not be appropriated was subjected to systematic erasure, ranging from the theft of manuscripts and the hiding of historical archival documents to the looting and destruction of archaeological traces of Palestinian history.

Israeli scholar Ilan Pappé accurately defines the phenomenon as “memoricide”, which, according to Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha, is a process of “desarabizing Palestine and erasing its history and collective memory. .a cultural genocide that is no less violent than physical ethnic cleansing”. of the Palestinian people“.

Without such elimination, current Israeli historiography would have been different and Zionist claims of “indigeneity” unthinkable.

This is why, in Palestinian popular culture, the Zionist takeover of Palestine is equated with “the occupation of a fully furnished house”.

Palestine was culturally, politically, architecturally, and administratively an established country, and all the new European Jewish immigrants did was rename the “furniture” as their own.

It would take more than a decade after the Nakba for the Palestinians to realize the gravity of their loss. At this point, a more educated first post-Nakba generation would come of age, giving rise to “revolutionary literature” as a renewed but more articulate mode of cultural representation.

The main strength of literature – novels, poetry and short stories – lies in its ability to shape Palestinian memory, both historically and experientially, into a form that can be seen and identified by the public. In other words, it helped preserve Palestinian culture by inscribing the Palestinian experience in the collective memory of the world.

Palestinians gather with national flags along a beach as they mark the Nakba in Gaza City [Getty Images]

One of the most important works of the time is the short story by Ghassan Kanafani Back to Haifa (1969). It describes the journey of a Palestinian couple who, after the 1967 war, return to their hometown of Haifa to search for their child, Khaldoun, whom they lost during the Nakba.

They discover that their old home is now occupied by a European Jewish family and that their lost son has been found and raised by this family, now Jewish and serving in the IDF.

Kanafani fictionalizes and personalizes a historical narrative that presents the exodus from the Nakba and the ensuing sense of mass disorientation. It tragically illustrates how, like most Palestinian refugees, the couple were separated from their home, leaving only memories as proof of their existence.

They can’t get their son back – symbol of the earth – but all they can do is keep talking about him to create a sense of continuity as if nothing had happened, and because forgetfulness, says the message, is akin to national oblivion.

The news was released at a pivotal moment in Palestinian history when memory began to shift from accounts of victimization to those of resistance.

In his early works, men in the sun (1962), Kanafani, laid the foundations for such a transition, but Back to Haifa presented a literary maturity and, as such, introduced a more realistic diagnosis of the Palestinian condition. In it, he accepts the reality of victimization while condemning it as insufficient to thwart Israel’s erasure of Palestinian existence.

Over the past two decades, the maintenance of Palestinian culture has begun to transcend historical narratives and existential anxieties to a deeper universal and human nature, beyond pure political rhetoric into the abnormality of Palestinian everyday struggles.

The trend has been particularly visible in the literary work of Palestinian writers like Susan Abuhawa, Mourid Barghouthi and Ghada Karmi, among many others.

It is also seen in the film production of Palestinian filmmaker Hani Abu-Assad, especially his films Omar (2013) and Rana’s wedding (2003).

Against all odds, the Palestinians managed to preserve their cultural heritage after the collapse of society after the Nakba and, through this, they cumulatively reconstituted their dispersed national identity.

And yet, even though 74 years have passed, the Nakba continues to be the inexhaustible well from which Palestinian culture draws meaning and charts a course for the future.

Dr. Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer specializing in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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