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The story of my family's Nakba

How strange is it to see the events that defined the lives of three generations of my family as a mere paragraph in a book? How strange is it to discover that your family’s lived experience is considered merely a footnote on the pages of history?

By Nooran Alhamdan

Palestinians stand inside a makeshift train, symbolically heading to the homes and lands they left in 1948, as they commemorate the Nakba day in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on May 15, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinians stand inside a makeshift train, symbolically heading to the homes and lands they left in 1948, as they commemorate the Nakba day in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on May 15, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It is a sweet July night, with the smell of citrus heavy in the air. The sound of women ululating and laughter echoes through the hills. The center of the village of Qazaza is a celebration, with men jovially drinking bitter coffee and children chasing after one another. My grandfather was one of these children, screaming in delight and trying not to trip over the bare earth.

The village had gathered in a pre-celebration of a much anticipated wedding between my grandfather’s older brother, Abdulla, and a woman who was said to be of the most beautiful in the village. The year is 1948. Despite all the hardships the village had seen with recent political upheaval in Palestine, Qazaza remained a simple place, full of families whose duties never extended beyond harvesting their crops.

The air was pierced by a sudden shout; the voice was shrill and the language foreign. Three men appeared in front of the gathering. They spoke again and the foreign language revealed itself to be broken Arabic. The villagers understood who these men were, but strained to understand what words were shattering the air, until eventually the shards formed “etlaa o bara” — “get out.”

Abdulla, the soon to be groom, stepped forward in an attempt to speak to the men. No, we won’t leave. Why are you here? You should leave.

The words barely left his mouth before a gun appeared, then a bullet, then the sound of the shot. It reverberated between the hills, replacing the sound of children and ululations. There was now only silence, a silence that began on that July night in 1948 and has hung over the village since — a stillness unbroken for over 70 years.

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I first heard the story of my family’s Nakba, the “catastrophe” that upended the lives of millions of Palestinians, from my father. He told it to me in passing, I don’t recall exactly when or for what reason. I do remember the surprise that I felt. I must have been no older than 10 years old, because I recall that my most pressing concerns involved fitting in with my American peers. I didn’t understand what Palestine was or why we couldn’t return to our village. I forgot about the story for a long time after that.

My mother came to the United States as a teenager, fleeing Kuwait and the Gulf War, where Palestinians were paying the price for politics they had little to do with. My father came here as a university student, one of the first in his family and in his refugee camp community in Jordan to accomplish the dream of receiving an education in the U.S. I knew that my parents were immigrants, that I was the first to not be born in a refugee camp. My perception of my identity began to change with every summer trip my family took to Jordan, where I would spend my days struggling to learn Arabic and running errands with my grandparents.

Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in the March of Return to the village of Lubya in northern Israel, May 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in the March of Return to the village of Lubya in northern Israel, May 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

I heard the story of my family’s Nakba the second time from my grandfather. This time, I was a teenager. I knew more about Palestine but had yet to feel any connection to its place in my family’s story. I was sitting with my grandfather in the courtyard of his home in Amman, the smell of jasmine and citrus and peaches from his garden intoxicating him with the memories of the past. He told me the story. This time, I was hearing it from a survivor. I had never seen my grandfather cry before. He shrank into a boy who had just witnessed his older brother be shot by the Haganah on the night before his wedding.

Years later, as a college student, I learned that the ethnic cleansing of my grandfather’s village was part of a broader campaign of premeditated expulsions conducted by the newly formed Israeli military. In a book by the Israeli historian Benny Morris, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,” I found written in curt academic language the story of my own family’s tragedy. Over the span of a mere 1o days, from July 9 to July 18, in 1948, a wave of ethnic cleansing had destroyed the lives of hundreds of Palestinian families like mine. I recall reading in horror: “On 16 July, Giv’ati HQ informed General Staff/Operations that ‘our forces have entered the villages of Qazaza, Kheima, Jilya, ‘Idnibba, Mughallis, expelled the inhabitants, [and] blown up and torched a number of houses. The area is at the moment clear of Arabs.”

I learned that the story of my grandfather’s Nakba and our village Qazaza was one part of a broader campaign to empty the Palestinian cities of Lydda and Ramle, located today inside Israel proper. How strange is it to see the events that defined the lives of three generations of my family as a mere paragraph in a book? How strange is it to discover that your family’s lived experience is considered merely a footnote on the pages of history?

Israeli soldiers in battle with the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee, October 1, 1948. (GPO)

Israeli soldiers during a battle in the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee during the 1948 war, October 1, 1948. (GPO)

Too often the Nakba is either denied or hardly acknowledged. It is said that the Palestinians chose to leave their homes, or that they deserved to be expelled for opposing the settlement of their land. Stories of survival are hardly told, yet that moment of trauma continues to define the lives of millions, condemned to a life of exile and rootlessness.

My grandfather is still alive and lives in his house with a courtyard in Amman, a house my father and uncle bought him decades ago. Prior to that, he lived in an Amman neighborhood teeming with Palestinian refugees. Before that, he lived in Baqaa refugee camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the Middle East.

We are not a people confined to the pages of history. The Nakba is not a catastrophe that is contained in the space between paper and ink, one we can only hope will one day be remembered rightfully as the crime that is was. The Nakba is alive in every child who lives under occupation in the West Bank or blockade in Gaza, in every Palestinian refugee who is condemned to the life of a refugee camp. It is ongoing. It is not an unfortunate consequence of war; its victims are not collateral damage or the product of a moment of political uncertainty. The Palestinian people are still here, despite the wishful thinking of some that they might disappear.

Israeli right wing activists protest next to the annual Nakba Day ceremony in Tel Aviv University, May 14, 2018. of the Jewish state. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Israeli right wing activists protest next to the annual Nakba Day ceremony in Tel Aviv University, May 14, 2018. of the Jewish state. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

I have searched relentlessly for more information on Qazaza, my grandfather’s village. A Wikipedia stub informs me that the village lies in territory considered a closed military zone within Israel proper. There are also some online forums that seek to connect Palestinian refugees whose roots trace to other nearby villages. Most speculate that only a train stop and some buildings remain in the village.

I don’t know how many more generations of my family will be born in refugee camps and exile. I don’t know if Qazaza will forever be held frozen in time, standing still in an inaccessible military zone, or if one day it will succumb to the fate of so many Palestinian villages and towns. I don’t know if the greater Israeli public or the world will ever fully recognize the Nakba for the catastrophe that it was and for the misery it inflicted and continues to inflict on millions. I don’t know if within my lifetime, Palestinian refugees will be granted the reparations and repatriation, in the form of the right of return, that could correct this historic injustice.

Abdulla was buried that same night. The people of the village had no time to mourn. The men and women rushed into their small homes and collected only a few of their possessions. The children were scooped up into arms, strapped onto backs. My grandfather held his mothers’ hand as they tripped over dirt roads, running over damp earth while the night turned to dawn. Maybe this is why, for as long as I can remember, my grandfather would wake up as the sun was rising to tend to his small garden. He would dig down to the roots of the few olive trees and water them with special care. He would mist the branches of the peach trees with a spray bottle, as if perfuming them. Every morning, living the morning that he should have lived as a child in his village.

The remains of Qazaza. (Ynhockey/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The remains of Qazaza. (Ynhockey/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nooran Alhamdan is a Palestinian-American student of economics and political science at the University of New Hampshire. 
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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      I think it’s relevant to this story to point out that the Nakba isn’t some long-ago historical event, it’s ongoing right now, the Nakba continues –

      “Israel Okays Major West Bank Settlement Roads, Seizing Large Tracts of Palestinian Land…Civil Administration approves two roads leading to isolated settlements, in a move activists say is ‘part of the government’s ongoing surrendering to settlers’ demands’… Peace Now, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, protested the plan, saying it is “part of the government’s ongoing surrender to the demands of the settlers, who know full well that good roads are key to further development” of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.”

      https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-okays-major-west-bank-roads-seizing-massive-tracts-of-palestinian-land-1.7223992

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      Re:”I don’t know if the greater Israeli public or the world will ever fully recognize the Nakba for the catastrophe that it was……”

      I will be happy to recognise the Arab Nakba if the Arabs will recognise the Jewish Nakba.
      That is the massive expulsion & ethnic cleansing of Mizrachi Jews from the Arab World.
      The Jewish Nakba must be recognized for the catastrophe that it was.
      FAIR IS FAIR.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: I agree, and everyone should have the right to return to wherever they were nakba’d out of. Also, we should stop any ongoing nakbas, no?

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Bruce.
          Have you thought about the logical conclusion of your idea ?
          Croats & Serbs will return to their “old homes” in pre-civil war Yugoslavia.
          Ethnic Greeks & Turks will “swap places” in Cyprus
          Millions of Hindus & Muslims will return to where each lived before 1948.
          In the Caucasus, millions of Armenians & Azeris will return to their original homes.
          etc etc etc

          There will be chaos in the World!

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            So says the repellent advocate of genocide by cyanide. Most ethnic-Croats displaced by the conflict in Croatia have returned, and 133,000 of 300,000 displaced Croatian Serbs have returned. Just for example. Return is feasible even in the most bloody, savage, hate-filled conflicts. By comparison, the return of one third of the Palestinian refugees to their homes in places like Qazaza is eminently feasible. You should likewise busy yourself with negotiating the return of one third of Mizrachi Jews to the Arab world. Oh? You don’t want to do that? I see. So all your bluster was just that, empty bluster, showboating, victim-pretending for propaganda purposes. Duly noted.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            right, because partition in these places caused so much peace.

            Reply to Comment
      • S King

        Similarly, when Holocaust deniers minimise the Specifically Jewish experiences of mass murder and torture, ethnic cleansing supported by a ‘Brother community’ … we know your pain, grief, fear and hopes for a peaceful existence in an ancient and dreamed homeland.

        Reply to Comment
      • Jan

        The Jewish Nakba from Arab countries was the direct result of the ethnic cleansing or Nakba of the Arabs from Israel.
        Both expulsions were terrible. The leaders of all the countries involved in the ethnic cleansings should have been taken to The Hague and tried for war crimes.
        In addition, the families of all those expelled should have the right to return.

        Reply to Comment
        • Amir

          Exactly, most jews started to move to israel in the 50’s and 60’s and many went to Europe, especially to France.

          They were calling themselves immigrants and not at all refugees

          Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        Looks like you’re playing the Oppression Olympics, Lewis-leh.

        Reply to Comment
      • Tom

        You don’t care about jewish nakba Lewis, you only use it, to deny the historical right of return of the arabs that was deported.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Joel Berman

      Thank you for sharing this heart-rending story of your family’s expulsion from its ancestral home. In her book “Erased from Space and Consciousness”, Jewish Israeli researcher Noga Kadman states: “Focusing on the memory of villages and their remains may seem anachronistic and irrelevant, with the present being so violent and bloody. Nevertheless…it is essential to deeply know and understand the past…in order to deal in a full, responsible, and tangible manner with the present, which is the product and continuation of the past; in order to know, understand, and comprehend the roots, the loss, the absence, to see the events since then as a single historical sequence; to acknowledge the dispossession and the injustice, to assume responsibility, to bring about a value-based discussion. From there, one could try to go on a path that would allow for a different future, a future with more well-being, growth, equality, and partnership.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Yes, I would like to know more about the consciousness that has been erased.

        Specifically, the details of the famous “fakestinyan” nation.
        1. Who was their King ?
        2. Where was his Royal Palace ?
        3. Where was the Capital City ?
        4. What is unique about its language ?
        5. What was unique about its religion ?
        6. What was its native currency called ?
        7. Can you name a famous Fakestinyan General ?
        8. What was its distinctive about its pottery ?

        Reply to Comment
    4. Lewis from Afula

      The fake entity of “fakestine” did not exist in the centuries after the Mohammedan conquest. It had no borders, no capital, no flag, no constitution or distinct language. The entire Middle East was controlled by empires called Caliphs. These had their capitals in Mecca, Kuta or Baghdad. These coins were not “fakestinyan” but “Byzantine-Arab” coins, ie they were coins representing the defunct Byzantine Empire that was recently conquered by the Mohameddan invasion.

      Mufarrij ibn Daghfal ibn al-Jarrah was a governor of South Syria with its center in Damascus. He has nothing to do with “fakestine” – an ethereal entity that only exists in Amir’s imagination.

      Amir’s accusations against the State of Israel are too pompously self-delusional to seriously respond to. The guy needs to join the real World before his deranged fantasies of a phantom peoplehood consume his soul.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You are a crank, nothing more.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          croaks the Vacuous one

          Reply to Comment
      • Tom

        Whatever you call them (fakestinian or jordanian) it doesn’t change anything, the country has been arab during more than a thousand of years, and arabs (muslim, christians, and mizrahim jews) used to live before the europeans came in the late XiXe.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Re: “….the country has been arab during more than a thousand of years,….”

          Yes. please tell me more about this COUNTRY ?
          1. Who was its King ?
          2. Where was his Royal Palace
          3. Where was its Capital ?
          4. Where was its borders ?
          5. What was the name of its native currency ?
          6. What was distnictive about its religion ?
          7. Can you name a famous Fakestinyan General ?

          You see, this famous “country” was NOT a “country” in any sense of the word.

          Reply to Comment
          • Tom

            I didn’t say than a palestinian state existed before, most of the countries in the world was under the vast empires rules.

            I’m talking about the people who used to live the country since centeries, even millenias. The people who used to lived there was arabs (chritstians muslims and mizrahim jews) in vast majority before the europeans came.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Tom of course makes perfect sense. Popping Lewis’s incessantly floated balloon.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            ……………….croaks the Loony Leftie

            Reply to Comment
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