Stories from the Nakba: Memories of Stolen Lives

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A Palestinian girl holds a replica of a house key, representing the front door key of am abandoned home, as she attends the 65th Nakba day or "Day of Catastrophe" rally in Gaza City, on 15 May 2013. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Abed)

By: Malik Samara

Published Thursday, May 16, 2013

At heart, the Nakba is a collection of stories and memories that, passed on from generation to generation, Palestinians never tire of retelling, even after 65 years of dispossession.

Far from the ceremonies and festivals, there are those who commemorate the passing of the Nakba quietly. In the West Bank’s Askar refugee camp, the elders still recall that painful day when they were forever driven from their homes, as if it were only yesterday.

Plums of Qalonia

In July of 1968, twenty years had passed since Fatima Khatib tasted the sweet plums of her village Qalonia. Her house there was full of trees of all kinds, but the plum tree rooted on the edge of her property had a special place in her heart.

Her Jewish neighbor who had fled the German concentration camps to the “promised land” would take advantage of her trips to the fields to climb the tree and fill his basket full of plums. When she caught him once, he refused to return what he had picked and told her in broken Arabic: “Go, go. Tomorrow you will go on pilgrimage to the Hejaz and all this land will be mine.”

After the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, it became possible for Palestinian refugees there to visit their villages. So, the following summer, Fatima decided that she, along with her daughter Umm Imad, would go back to visit Qalonia.

When they arrived on the edge of the village, it took Fatima some time to understand what had changed in this place she knew so well, having spent three decades of her life in its fields and orchards.

She soon realized where she was standing, and it dawned on her that the settlers had built a broad road through the village cemetery which, in turn, led to blocks of tall buildings that sat on top of the fields she used to plant. As for Qalonia’s houses, nothing was left of them but some ruins.

As soon as they entered the orchards, an armed man stopped them, saying in a heavy Arabic accent, “You’ve come to steal, you Arabs.” Fatima immediately remembered him – it was none other than Abraham Berg, her old Jewish neighbor. It was a painful scene: the old plum thief was warning the original owners not to steal.

Fatima barely pulled herself together and said, “Abraham, put your gun down. Do you not remember me. I am Fatima al-Khatib from whom you used to steal plums. I hereby declare that the Arabs betrayed us and all this land is now yours.”

According to Umm Imad, who accompanied her mother on that fateful trip, Fatima found the remains of their home. She threw herself on the pile of old stones and cried. It was the last time her mother went Qalonia. It was as if the visit reopened an old wound inside her from which she never recovered. Soon, she became ill and died.

Umm Imad, who is now approaching 80, was only 12 when she left Qalonia. She remembers those last years of her life there as if they were yesterday.

She remembers how they escaped that day under a blaze of bullets from the invading Zionist militias. “We spent a whole year there hearing the same words over and over again: ‘A couple of days and you will return’ – until we found ourselves living as refugees in Askar camp.”

Qaqun Map

Deep in one of Askar camp’s alleyways sits the house of Abu Adnan al-Hafi. The first thing that you notice upon entering is a detailed map of the village of Qaqun covering a wall. The village looks exactly like it did 65 years ago when Hafi was expelled from it at the age of 13.

Abu Adnan stands before it and points to their house, their neighbors around them, and the school. He shows us the road they used to take their harvest from the orchards to the coastal city of al-Khudeira, where they sold it.

He keeps staring at the map as he remembers those last days in his village: “The coastal towns were falling one after the other until it was our turn. We hid in the orchards watching the battles between the Iraqi army and the rebels, on one side, and the Zionist gangs on the other, until the news of defeat reached us.”

He believes that it was the Arab leadership that betrayed them and holds them responsible for the loss of Palestine. “The Iraqi soldiers were fierce and they used to train us on how to use weapons. In turn, we would help guide them, pointing out enemy locations to attack,” he said. “But there was little they could do – they would always say, ‘We don’t have the orders.’”

He doesn’t wait to be asked about the right of return: “If they give me all the treasures of this world instead of a small patch of Qaqun’s soil, I would refuse.” He doesn’t have much trust in today’s leaders either and fears they will sell out the struggle as they have before.

Reminders of Home

Over six decades have passed and Abu Mohammed still waits to return to his hometown of Jaffa. He married and raised a family working as a construction worker, until he lost one of his eyes.

“You don’t remind us except on this day,” he says. “What is it that you want to know? That we were deceived, and we believed them – that is how we lost our country, like yesterday’s dinner...We once owned land, or were fishermen or farmers. The oranges from our orchards were more than enough – today, we beg for our food. Simply put, that’s our story.”

Everything in Askar camp reminds you that you are a refugee. From the pictures of martyrs on the walls to the names of the lost towns and villages written above the doors. The local shopkeeper, who hangs a picture of Palestine in his store, can give you his opinion on nearly every issue in the world before returning your change.

The whole scene is a reminder of something the late poet Mahmoud Darwish once said: “As long as Palestine is occupied, it will always occupy me.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

It is interesting that this link is blocked in Saudi Arabia.

I wish this article could be published in U.S. papers, but how?
Many Americans do not know, or understand what happened very well, or what is happening now.
There is hardly anything on the mainstream media. It is becoming more exposed on the internet, and that is good.
A home is sacred.

The Palestinian message of independence has appeared several times in Canadian, U.S. and even in several European newspapers. The true tragedy of this story and real culprits on this issue, are the Palestinian leaders who all they need to do to get their independence and the return to mostly to the pre-1967 borders was for Mr. Arafat and now Abbas, to recognise Israel as a Jewish nation. You have the Syrian Arab Republic, The Islamic Republic of Iran, thus if a country can identify itself to the world as being Islamic and/or Arab country, why not for the sake of peace and economic Arab prosperity, recognise Israel as being a Jewish state, and exchange war and hatred between both sides by starting afresh. Jews and Arabs originate from the same person. Abraham, or Ibrahim as it’s pronounced in Arabic, He is the father of both Jews and Arabs, only the mothers were different. Hopefully this message brings some sense to both sides. Freedom is everyone's right. But freedom is achieved by being pragmatic rather than being short fused.

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