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Ordeal of remembrance

Image Credit: Hugo A. SancHez/©Gulf News

By Fawaz Turki | Gulf News | 19 May 2012

To meet deadline, an obligation that political commentators, no less than news reporters, are enjoined by editors against toying with, I have to write this column today -- which just happens to be May 15, the time each year when Palestinians, along with sundry Arabs, commemorate the Nakba, the day in 1948 when Palestine was dismembered and Palestinians were expelled from home and homeland.

Commemorative events in the life of a nation are a central pursuit that lies at the core of that nation's assabiya, to borrow a term here from Ibn Khaldoun. It generates possibilities of collective apprehension, a consensus of perceived values and a communal sense of historical reference. We commemorate in order to remember, for memory is as indispensable to modern identity as modern identity is indispensable to memory. With memory, each generation judges anew. It marshals and weighs. It shapes it notions of self and history.

For those who sit back to remember that day, they find the Nakba diffused everywhere in the repertoire of their consciousness. For me it was, as a seven-year-old child, the refugee exodus along the coast road between Haifa and the Lebanese border, an event whose evocations have resounded around every corner of my being ever since.

But I was not there in Deir Yassein when the bodies were dumped in the village well. I was not there when our people were expelled en masse — herded like cattle — from the twin cities of Lydda and Ramleh. I was not there when the villages in southern Palestine were razed to the ground and their inhabitants arrived in Gaza (many of them children who had no adults' hands to hold), rent in spirit and whistled clean of everything they had laboured to build.

Yet, what happened during that catastrophic day of mayhem, when history had set savagery at the Palestinian people's heels, remains an indivisible part of my identity. How could I not remember events whose goal was to hound our name, our identity, our history, into oblivion.

And I remembered them on our day of the Nakba, so vividly, ever so vividly, 64 years after the fact, much in the manner of a man who had lost his sight at an early age and continues to recall his surroundings in remembered images.

And in our exile, where we forever lived close to the door for easy eviction, we recognised each other when we met. Perhaps by the unique accent we kept (for accent is identity), perhaps by the stateless travel documents we held, perhaps by how we had learned to resign ourselves in our diaspora to those gusts of exasperation directed at us for just being who we were.

Heavy cargo

Or perhaps by the casual hubris we affected at times in order to compensate for our sense of alienation. But above all, we recognised each other by that certain darkness we projected from inside our inner selves, by that heavy cargo that history had made us carry on our backs.

Meanwhile, when avatars of Arab nationalism, such as Jamal Abdul Nasser, Hafez Al Assad and Saddam Hussain, along with others before and after them (avatars more spellbound by self-aggrandisement than spellbinding by leadership skills), who professed the Palestine cause to be sacrosanct in their political canon, resented us, it was because we were their conscience. We nagged at them. We left them guilty serfs to ambitions they could not achieve.

We all remember — yes, that word again — when close to half a million Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait in 1991; when the entire Palestinian community in Libya was kicked out of the country in 1995 and placed in camps by the Egyptian border; when that community's counterpart in Iraq, whose members had lived there for decades, was equally unceremoniously shown the door in 2003, where they found themselves stranded at the Syrian border, with no Arab country willing to take them in. (Iceland, bless its Nordic soul, welcomed some of them as permanent residents, mostly single-parent families with small children.)

In the Arab world, Palestinians are to be, if not eliminated, then banished. Their existential being is inadmissible precisely because they are a constant reminder of how Arabs had failed the challenges of modernity. Don't make a man uncertain inwardly, don't remind him of his inadequacies. After all, to be made to feel inwardly uncertain, inadequate at marshalling enough resources to confront that Zionist enemy ensconced in the heartland of your world, builds unbearable hatred within you, not just for the enemy, but for he who torments you daily of your condition. For an Arab, lest we forget, Palestine is the fulcrum, the test case, of the assabiya of the entire Arab world, just as it was in July, 1099, when European marauders established the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Oh, yes, the Arab world would have been better off had there been no Palestinians there, with their incessant demands on that world's conscience, or if Palestinians had simply stopped being Palestinian. But how could Palestinians stop being Palestinian? I could no more sever that immemorial intimacy I had with my native land, that I had brought with me as a child on that day of Nakba in 1948, than my parents — who died in exile with a sense of ‘at homeness' eluding them every miserable morning of their lives there — could have severed themselves from the memories they had had of the sky that sheltered the earth, rock and ash of their acre in Palestine.

That is what the Day of the Nakba is all about. It's about memories. We remember selectively, but we remember. Memories evoked, glossed, stumbled over, exchanged, judged anew. Memories resurrected from the attic of our subconscious. Memories that link the conjugation of verb ‘to be' to our core being.

Today I sit here, in my confortable, safe haven in the US, and remember. For not to remember, and to place on my children's backs that same burden, is to tear up the tree, root and branch, from which our history grows.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.



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