Meanings of the Nakba

Meanings of the Nakba
Transformations through Time and Place

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Nakba Day

Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day.

14 May 2016
Anne Paq

Every 15 May since 1948, Palestinians, wherever they are gathered in the homeland or the diaspora, commemorate the anniversary of the disaster that befell them as a people. The Nakba – the word means catastrophe in Arabic – refers to the eviction of nearly three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their homes and their transformation into refugees, as well as the destruction of more than four hundred villages and towns in what became the state of Israel, and the erasure of the name Palestine from the map.

The Palestinian Nakba had repercussions for all of the Arab countries and peoples. It not only meant the loss of Palestine as part of the Arab homeland, but it also constituted the first of broader Arab defeats – as the establishment of a foreign destabilizing entity, the state of Israel led to the squandering of Arab energies and resources, the obstruction of Arab development projects, and the hindrance of Arab unity.

The Palestinian Nakba gave birth to an Arab political literature that explored from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the meaning, causes and implications of the Nakba as well as ways to resist it. Some analysts, adopting a critical approach, viewed the Nakba as a logical and expected outcome of Arab underdevelopment and the rational result of a long confrontation between traditional or outdated Arab societies and a modern Jewish society supported by European colonialism.

In his book The Meaning of the Nakba (Ma‘na al-Nakba), published in August 1948, Constantine Zurayk argued that the effects of the Nakba could be overcome in two closely connected ways. The first was cultural renewal, meaning that Arabs had to keep up with the current age and create within their countries advanced and scientific societies. The second was nation building, meaning the establishment of a progressive, united national Arab entity.

The Nakba of 1948 may have been the foundational historical traumatic event of the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people, as individuals, families, and society. But it is more than a single event––it is a series of tragedies leading to the dispossession of the Palestinians and their seeking refuge from one country to the next and one region to another: from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, after the aggression of 5 June 1967; from Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982 and during the “War of the Camps” (1985–87); from Kuwait in 1990–91, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; from Libya in 1994; from Iraq in 2003; and from Syria after the beginning of the bloody events there in 2011.

Wherever there are large communities of Palestinians, Nakba Day is generally observed through the organization of Marches of Return and sit-ins in front of headquarters of United Nations agencies. Internally displaced Palestinians who remained in what later became Israel observe the day by gathering at the ruins of their destroyed villages. For many years, the Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Internally Displaced has organized Marches of Return to demolished and abandoned Palestinian villages (e.g., Iqrit, Kafr Bir‘im, Ijzim, Sabbarin, Saffuriyya, al-Birwa, al-Damun, al-Lajjun). Thus, through their communal remembrance of the anniversary, Palestinians in the homeland and in the diaspora affirm their unity as a people and renew their lasting commitment to their historical rights, especially the right of return. The year 2008 marked a turning point in Palestinian consciousness surrounding the Nakba, and the passage of sixty years since the event’s occurrence. Since that turning point, collective awareness of the importance of commemorating Nakba Day has increased year after year: what it symbolizes, the magnitude of its various dimensions, and its implications for politics and nationalism. 

Such observances, needless to say, are anathema to Israel. The Zionist movement has denied the Nakba since its occurrence in 1948 and has forbidden commemorations or discussions about it. Each year, on the 5th of Iyar according to the Hebrew calendar (which corresponded to 15 May 1948), it celebrates instead what it considers to be a day of “independence.” In 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that prohibits public organizations funded by the state from commemorating the Nakba, and imposes economic penalties on local authorities and educational, cultural, and social institutions that organize or participate in commemorations of the Nakba.

This law (merely one in a series of discriminatory laws that violate the rights of Palestinian Arabs in Israel) is aimed at controlling the historical narrative. In banning teaching of a history of Palestine that would depart from the official Zionist narrative, it aims to erase the memory of the Nakba from the consciousness of generations of Palestinian youth.

In recent years, Israeli authorities have insisted with increasing stridency that the Palestinian people and their national leaders acknowledge Israel as “the state of the Jewish people.” This not only denies the historical roots of the Palestinian people in their own homeland and renders forgotten the tragedies they have suffered since 1948, but it also eliminates significant dimensions of their legitimate national rights––especially the right of return to the homeland. Meanwhile, Israeli authorities continue to seize the property of Palestinians in Israel, whether their owners are citizens in the state or living as refugees in the diaspora. This process—a continuation of the Nakba of 1948––is underway in the Negev, where tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens have been relocated from their homes, and in historically Palestinian cities like Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa, where the advancement of Jewish settlement projects aim to empty these cities of their Palestinian residents.

However, there are some Jewish forces standing in opposition to these official Zionist policies. Among the most notable is Zochrot (memories in Hebrew), an Israeli organization, founded in 2002, that participates in Nakba commemorations and focuses its activities in particular on commemorating destroyed Palestinian villages by organizing marches of return to them and holding conferences and photographic exhibitions about them. Its goal is to increase awareness among Jewish citizens about the ongoing injustices of the Nakba; it advocates for the right of return and the decolonization of the state, the key to peace and reconciliation between the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian peoples.

Palestinian culture, as custodian of national identity, reflects the evolution of the meaning of Nakba within the Palestinian consciousness. Literature provides an example of the effect of the Nakba on Palestinian consciousness. Literature after the Nakba is different from that before 1948; and literature from within the homeland is distinct from that of exile. The literature produced within Palestine is dominated by the theme of resistance. The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Tawfiq Zayyad, and others became the battle songs of the Palestinian Arabs against the national discrimination practiced by the Israeli authorities.

Palestinian writers and artists in the diaspora dealt with themes of exile, the reality of the pressures and hardships of homelessness, nostalgia, and anticipation: longing for the lost homeland and anticipation of return to it. Palestinian authors portrayed the tragedy that befell their people, reflecting in their poetry, stories, and novels the pains of the Nakba: homelessness and loss, psychological torture, feelings of exile and alienation. Among its most sincere expressions are the stories of Samira Azzam, published in Beirut between 1953 and 1960, and the poetry of Harun Hashim Rashid, which includes the lines later sung by Fairuz: “Someday we will return to our quarter/and drown in the warmth of hope/we will return, however much time passes/or distance comes between us.” It can also be seen in the art of Ismail Shammout, particularly “Ila ayn?” (Where to?).

In the early 1960s, with the publishing of Ghassan Kanafani’s novel Men in the Sun, the spirit of rebellion began to dominate the literature of exile as well. This literature witnessed a new outburst with the birth of Palestinian resistance after the defeat of June 1967. Since that time, resistance has become the primary subject of literary production in the homeland and in exile, on an equal basis. Under the auspices of this resistance, new forms of artistic expression like cinema and theater emerged alongside visual art.

In recent years, Palestinian culture has moved toward independence from these historical conditions. Its ambitions have moved towards deepening its universal, humane, and open nature. This was what Mahmoud Darwish, for example, was expressing, when in the last years of his life he began aspiring to write “pure poetry.” It can also be seen in what filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad expressed in his film “Omar,” which won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and which delves beyond political rhetoric into the complex world of daily Palestinian life. However, the Nakba, as the tragedy of the Palestinians, will remain an inexhaustible well and a spring that will never go dry in Palestinian culture.

Selected Bibliography: 

Darwish, Mahmoud. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems. Translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche; with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.

Kanafani, Ghassan. Men in the Sun, and Other Palestinian Stories. Translated by Hilary Kilpatrick. London: Heinemann, 1978.

Khalidi, Walid, ed. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. 2d ed. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006.

Nofal, Mamdouh, Fawaz Turki, Haidar Abdel Shafi, Inea Bushnaq, Yezid Sayigh, Shafiq al-Hout, Salma Khadra Jayyusi, and Musa Budeiri. “Reflections on al-Nakba.Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no.1 (Autumn 1998): 5–35.