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Palestinian Village Histories
GEOGRAPHIES OF THE DISPLACED
By Rochelle A. Davis
Stanford University Press
Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter One GEOGRAPHIES OF DISPOSSESSION
Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel: 2004
I am looking for the Palestinian villages of Bayt Mahsir and Suba, which were physically destroyed and emptied of their residents in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, in which the state of Israel was created. I have been told that a few of the houses and recognizable landmarks remain. The villagers of Suba and Bayt Mahsir have written four village books that record the pre-1948 history of life in these villages. In the books, the authors describe the villages in ways that are meaningful to them today: the location of the villages; the livelihoods of their inhabitants; and their agricultural practices, historic sites, natural resources, family genealogies, folklore traditions, and cultural customs. The books also include long documentary sections of wedding songs, maps of the village lands and houses, reproductions of Otto man and British Mandate era documents, and photographs of the village then and now.
I find and interview the authors of the two books about Suba village: Ibrahim 'Awadallah, a refugee living in Jordan who self-published his book in 1996; and Muhammad Sa'id Rumman, whose carefully detailed, historically sourced 331-page book appeared in print in 2000 in the West Bank. Rumman's book has a striking cover of glossy contemporary photographs of the archeological ruins (a Crusader castle) at the heart of the village. The two books about the village of Bayt Mahsir are from refugees living in Jordan; one was written in calligraphic longhand and published in al-Baq'a refugee camp in 1988, the second was published in 2002. These books inform me that the villages have been largely destroyed, and replaced by two Israeli towns: Bayt Mahsir is now named Beit Meir and is a religious moshav (cooperative farm), and Suba has become Kibbutz Tzova.
I locate contemporary maps of the areas west of Jerusalem and discover that Kibbutz Tzova/Suba and Beit Meir/Bayt Mahsir are located in the Martyrs' Forest (Ya'ar HaKdoshim). Established by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 1951, the Martyrs' Forest commemorates the six million European Jews who died in the Holocaust. The JNF map of the Martyrs' Forest shows the commemorative locations, along with picnic areas, biking paths, archaeological sites, and the Israeli towns that have been built there. The geography is such that without knowledge of the Palestinian villages' existence in the past it would be impossible to know that they were once here.
As I continue to research other Palestinian villages, the palimpsests of twentieth century geography reveal the layers of destruction, renaming, and rebuilding that have taken place in Palestine/Israel and that connect around the globe. Saffuriya, once the largest village in the Nazareth district, was depopulated in July of 1948 and completely destroyed; today it hosts an archeological park for the ancient Roman and Jewish town of Tzippori, as well as a JNF forest commemorating Guatemalan independence on September 15, 1821. The small Palestinian village of Biriya, near the city of Safad, was emptied on May 2, 1948, and is now enveloped in the Israeli Biriya National Forest, part of which was renamed in 2007 in honor of Coretta Scott King, the widow of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Twentieth-century maps of Palestine from the 1940s show hundreds of villages, along with cities, towns, kibbutzim, and moshavim. Today the maps of Israel reveal a new geography of Israeli towns, farms, fields, factories, water parks, and universities replacing the majority of Palestinian villages that used to be within its borders.
The geographies of dispossession that accompany and contextualize these names in the twenty-first century cross global and historical lines; render subjects that provoke deep emotions, historical victories, and injustices; and engender no easy mapping process. I am keenly aware that mentioning commemorations of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and destroyed Palestinian villages in the same paragraph, not to mention opening a book with such a vignette, places the subject of this book—Palestinian refugees—and me and my scholarship in the unenviable position of being "controversial," as if talking about these subjects itself is problematic. My point is not to engender controversy, but rather to show the dispossessions of the twentieth century, the victims of which cross many geographical borders. I tread lightly here, with the intent to focus on the devastating effects on people of ideologies, state policies, and armed movements. My point is not to compare suffering, provoke comparisons, or invoke blame. It is to understand how we record history, make sense of our pasts, and map the geographies of the displaced in our world today. It is also to show how we reconnect across our geographies as we take active roles in the present and create new futures.
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Suba, Saffuriyya, Bayt Mahsir, Biriya—their stories illustrate how throughout Israel the more than four hundred Palestinian villages that were conquered and depopulated in the 1948 War have been renamed and put to different uses; most of their houses have been destroyed or taken over, their terraces left to disintegrate, their mosques and churches put to other uses, and their cemeteries plowed under and planted over. Palestinians have carried these village and city names (not to mention their memories, hopes, tragedies, and possessions) with them into the diaspora. Despite the destruction of the physical landscape, the village names continue to be part of Palestinians' everyday lives, evoking memories of the past. In the act of recalling and commemorating their villages and cities, Palestinians have also re-placed these names into their current landscapes.
Today, driving up the main road of Jabal al-Mareekh (Mars Mountain), one of the seven "mountains" of Amman, the capital city of Jordan, shopfront signs announce "al-Sarees for Electronics" and "the 'Aykirmawi Grocery." In Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, people buy the latest fashions on Lubya Street, gold on Safad Street, and the best fruits and vegetables on Palestine Street, and they live in the Tarsheeha or Saffuriyya neighborhood. In the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon, every morning children pour into to the Faluja and Qibya elementary schools. If you did not know that al-Sarees, 'Ayn Karim, Lubya, Tarsheeha, Saffuriyya, Faluja, and Qibya were Palestinian villages, you would not be aware of the geography of dispossession mapped into the contemporary fabric of the Palestinian diaspora. Unlike in other parts of these countries, where the streets are named after famous people or historical events and the shops are named after owners or adjectives that describe their contents, in Palestinian communities it is not uncommon to find shops and streets named after the Palestinian villages and cities that were emptied and destroyed in the 1948 War.
In this geography of dispossession, names and references from the past, seen and spoken with regularity, visibly and verbally landmark daily life. These names commemorate the Palestine that is their history, what they knew and what was lost in 1948; using the names for new places in the diaspora thus becomes an embodied and communal act of remembering. In telling people where you bought your refrigerator, explaining where you live, or walking your daughter to school, you are not only recalling the places of the past, but you are also investing them with new meanings and associations in the present. Even as they serve as reminders of the general Palestinian dispossession of 1948, these names also reference new associations and stories tied to life in the diaspora.
This book chronicles the geographies of dispossession in modern Palestinians' lives by analyzing how Palestinians in the diaspora maintain their knowledge of pre-1948 Palestine by transforming stories, documents, and family experiences into formal histories for their communities. These histories take on many different forms, expressing the intertwined generational, gendered, and embodied knowledge of the past and the roles that knowledge plays in the present. I focus on the transformational processes that are taking place primarily in Palestinian written compositions of local history—village books—because these works reflect on the past from the perspective of everyday life, which itself reflects the larger social, political, cultural, and natural environment.
Written by Palestinians displaced from their homes who today live in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, these village books chronicle everyday life in the village before 1948 from the perspective of the refugees; they also provide firsthand accounts of the events of the 1948 War and, on occasion, information on the refugee community in the diaspora. The detailed and local subject matter and perspectives expressed in the village books allow us to understand how people's lives are enmeshed within political, social, economic, and religious relations. "It is in daily experience, in the settings of ordinary desire and the trials of making it through, that the given power relations are contested or secured, in an always-incomplete process of negotiation, which is rarely unambiguously 'lost' or 'won.'" As products that reflect everyday life, the books form a major body of historical and social knowledge on village life that is entering the public sphere when the only other sources for such knowledge—those who lived in the village—are dying. They are evidence of the active concern and efforts of Palestinians to record and preserve the histories of village life.
This book examines local Palestinian understandings and consumptions of these histories within the larger historical and political contexts of their production. The goal is to analyze how village histories are written, recorded, and relived, and the roles that Palestinian conceptions of the past play in contemporary life. In this context I also discuss other commemorative activities—local museums, celebrations, village days, marches of return, school assignments, and Web sites, among others—that urge people to remember and celebrate elements of local history and communal life that both fill in and fall outside of the larger frameworks of Palestinian national history and politics. I focus on the activities of non-elite actors—neither the politically powerful nor the globalized professionals. Although the authors, school teachers, and civil servants who write the village books and design the commemorative activities I describe form an educated local elite, they remain enmeshed in and an inextricable part of their small communities. Thus, by exploring these myriad sources from different locations and in different media, this book provides everyday views of Palestinians on their own histories and on what they want to accomplish by producing books and events that propagate those histories.
Despite being about history, this book is not intended as a book of history. Instead, it describes and analyzes Palestinians' conceptions of their own histories and the role those histories play—in oral, visual, performative, and especially written forms—in their lives today. Neither is it a strict work of historiography, for in this book I use anthropological theories and methods to communicate the contexts and environments in which information about the Palestinian past is produced, made public, and consumed. I weave into the book and into my analysis the interviews with authors and the ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank. Understanding the intentions and interests of authors in writing about the past allows me to explicate the ways that history is conceived of and portrayed by individuals. Through the interviews and through living among a community of village-book readers I was provided with the opportunity to explore the local forces that constrict and restrict certain subject matter and encourage engagement with other subjects, the influence of gendered concerns on representation, and the roles that living memory and written books play in Palestinian communities.
WRITING PALESTINIAN HISTORY AND THE NAKBA OF THE 1948 WAR
Dr. Haidar 'Abd al-Shafi (1919-2007), Gaza, June 1998: "It is difficult to forget the years of the Catastrophe, 1947-1950, when Palestinians lost three quarters of their homeland and when half their society was expelled by force and terror to become homeless refugees."
Reuters, July 22, 2009, "Israel bans use of Palestinian term nakba in textbooks"
The Palestinian village books describe life before the 1948 War in the villages that had been within the borders and jurisdiction of British Mandatory Palestine (often referred to as historic Palestine). In these books and in other forums, Palestinians often portray their history according to how others have made decisions about their fate. Prior to Western colonial rule in the form of the British military occupation that began in December 1917, geographic Palestine had been part of the Ottoman Empire for more than four hundred years. During this period, the inhabitants formed their local leadership; lived under a variety of regimes, such as Jazzar Pasha's rule of Acre and the surrounding lands; revolted against oppressive rulers; and experienced invasions, such as that of Ibrahim Pasha from Egypt, which occupied Palestine from 1831 to 1839. These people, regardless of how they thought of themselves, were drafted to fight in the Ottoman army, participated in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and suffered from, died in, and survived the epidemics and famines that accompanied the war. The major markers of late-Ottoman-period Palestinian history appear in stories, in family histories and migrations, and in recollections of village life in the village books.
When the lands of the former Ottoman Empire were divided following World War I, the European imperial powers divided up control of the Levant, and the British Mandate over Palestine began in 1922. The division of these lands roughly followed the outlines of the British and French Sykes-Picot agreement, imposed against the wishes of the population, who desired self-rule and independence in one form or another. The British Mandate marked a period, from 1922 to 1948, that witnessed economic and administrative growth, large Jewish immigration to Palestine, and political repression of the indigenous population. During this time, the percentage of the Jewish population in Palestine went from 11 percent to 33 percent; they came to own nearly 8 percent of the land and they created separate social and political institutions for the Jewish community. At the end of this period, the British government turned to the newly formed United Nations to provide a solution for the end of its era of colonial rule over Palestine.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which contained a plan to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, with an international zone (called a corpus separatum) for the "holy areas" in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to be administered by the UN (see Map 1). The Arab state, which never came to fruition, was to have a population of 725,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews on some 43 percent of the land of Palestine. The Jewish state was to have a Jewish population of 498,000 and an Arab population of 407,000 on 56 percent of the land. The population of the International Zone was to be 105,000 Arabs and 100,000 Jewish inhabitants. Communal fighting through this period until the armistice agreements were signed in late 1949 resulted in the expanded borders of the Jewish state, declared to be the state of Israel on May 15, 1948, and the expulsion or flight of the majority of the Arabs living within its borders. From this point until 1967, Israel existed in some 78 percent of historic Palestine; the rest—the West Bank and Gaza—was under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, respectively.
Excerpted from Palestinian Village Histories by Rochelle A. Davis Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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