Surviving through culture in post-Nakba Palestine

Deprived of statehood in the most traumatic fashion, Palestinians have kept their right of return alive by building a dynamic and thriving national culture. Through literature, art, music, fashion and theatre, the Palestinian dream lives on.

Nakba is Arabic for “catastrophe” and refers to the 1948 dispossession and displacement of nearly 750,000 Palestinians in the wake of Israel’s inception.

Even though “catastrophe” suggests a singular past event, the Nakba for Palestinians is an abridged word for a series of disasters that befell them, beginning with the First Zionist Congress in 1897, peaking in 1948, and continuing today as an evolving system of military occupation and apartheid.

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

“Stateless, disoriented, and lacking sufficient material or political tools, post-Nakba Palestinians saw in their cultural symbols, emblems, and physical artifacts alternate sites of power to keep the Palestinian story and identity alive”

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

Yet, beyond the statistics lies the more disturbing reality of the Nakba as a violent interruption of Palestinian life and near-obliteration of Palestine’s social and cultural fabric, the likes of which no society in modern history has experienced.

Palestinian children wear traditional dress 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 alternate sites of power to keep the Palestinian story and identity alive.

As Edward Said in The Question of Palestine (1992) points out, after Palestine was lost, it continued to exist as an idea, a political and human experience, and its existence relied on acts of sustained popular will.

Through cultural representations, this will be sustained and given context, and with them, Palestinians transformed their refugee camps and diasporic existence into a parallel Palestine.

The cultural artefacts included but were not limited to folklore music and dance (dabkeh), anecdotes, oral poetry, embroidery, cuisine, and at later stages, literature and visual arts.

Palestinians preserved even their pre-Nakba patterns of social interaction and structures. The 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 class that defined pre-1948 Palestine are, too, still somewhat visible today.

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

“Over the past two decades, the maintenance of Palestinian culture began to transcend the historical accounts and existential anxieties toward a deeper universal and humane nature, beyond the pure political rhetoric into the abnormality of Palestinian daily struggles”

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

Palestinian cultural artifacts have been and are routinely decontextualized and presented as “Israeli.”

Of these are Palestinian Arab traditional dishes (eg hummus, tabouleh, msakhan, kubbeh) and, more notoriously, embroidered clothing, which is an intricate form of Palestinian village art and a source of national pride.

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

What could not be appropriated has been subjected to systematic erasure, from stealing manuscripts and hiding historical archival materials to looting and destroying archaeological traces of Palestinian history.

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

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

This is why in Palestinian popular culture the Zionist takeover of Palestine is likened to the “occupancy of a fully furnished house.”

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

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

The core strength of literature – novels, poetry, and short stories – lies in its ability to mold Palestinian memory, both historically and experientially, in a form that can be seen and identified by the public. It has, in other words, helped preserve Palestinian culture by entering the Palestinian experience into the world’s collective memory.

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

One of the most prominent works of the era is Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Returning to Haifa (1969). It describes the journey of a Palestinian couple who after the 1967 war return to their hometown 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 had been found and raised by this family, now Jewish and serving in the IDF.

Kanafani fictionalises and personalises a historical account that features the Nakba exodus and the sense of mass disorientation thereafter. He tragicomically illustrates how, like most Palestinian refugees, the couple were severed from their home, left only with memories as proof of their existence.

They cannot retrieve their son – symbolism for the land – but all they can do is keep talking about him to create a sense of continuity as if nothing happened, and because forgetting, goes the message, is akin to national oblivion.

The novella was published at a transitional point in Palestinian history when memory began to transform from the narratives of victimhood to those of resistance.

In his earlier work, men in the sun (1962), Kanafani, laid the ground for such transition, but Returning to Haifa presented literary maturity and, as such, introduced a more realistic diagnosis of the Palestinian condition. In it, he accepts the reality of victimhood while simultaneously condemning it as insufficient to foil the Israeli erasure of Palestinian existence.

Over the past two decades, the maintenance of Palestinian culture began to transcend the historical accounts and existential anxieties toward a deeper universal and humane nature, beyond the pure political rhetoric into the abnormality of Palestinian daily struggles.

The trend has been especially 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 cinematic production of Palestinian filmmaker Hani Abu-Assad, especially his films omar (2013) and Rana’s Wedding (2003).

Against enormous odds, Palestinians have succeeded in preserving their cultural heritage after the societal collapse following the Nakba and, through that, they accumulatively restitched together their scattered national identity.

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

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

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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