In the middle part of the last century the inhabitants of the village of Al Walaja, not far from Jerusalem, considered themselves very lucky.
Fertile hills, terraced for growing vegetables and fruit, led down to a valley where an Ottoman-era railway line connected Jerusalem with the Mediterranean port of Jaffa. Close to a station, Al Walaja’s farmers always had buyers for their lentils, peppers, and cucumbers. Mohammed Salim, who estimates he is approaching 80 as he was born “sometime in the 40s”, remembers vast fields owned by Al Walaja families. “There was nothing else here.”
Today, Salim lives in what has fast become an enclave. In 2018, Al Walaja sits on a tiny cusp of the land it commanded when he was a child. During his lifetime, two wars have displaced all of the village’s residents and swallowed most of its land. More was later confiscated for Jewish settlements. And in the past two decades a towering concrete wall and barbed wire have divided what remains of the community as Israel claims more territory.
Every year on 15 May, Palestinians mark the anniversary of the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands were forced out of their homes or fled amid the fighting that accompanied the creation in 1948 of the state of Israel after the end of the British Mandate. For the residents of Al Walaja, the Nakba was the beginning of a seven-decade struggle to survive. [Continue reading…]
I could have been born in one of my grandfathers’ villas on the southern beach of the city of Jaffa. Instead, I was born in a squalid, overcrowded refugee camp to the north of Gaza City. My European friends often say: “So what! Many more people were displaced during the two world wars and went on to build prosperous, new lives for themselves.” This is true, but at least those conflicts were settled, entire economies were rebuilt. What was left of Palestine was never allowed this happy ending. Most European countries, and of course the US, refused to even recognise Palestine as a state. What chance did it have? Even Britain, which devoted its policies in post-1917 Palestine to replacing Palestinians with Jewish emigrants – thus violating their own mandate to prepare the country for independence – recognises Israel and still refuses to recognise Palestine without conditions.
My family’s home town wasn’t entirely lost to me, growing up. The camp I lived in – Jabaliya – was (and still is) divided into neighbourhoods named after the towns and villages their occupants hailed from. So I grew up in the Jaffa neighbourhood, listening to tales of fishing adventures and stories set in orange orchards – memories of life in one of Palestine’s most vivid cities during the first half the 20th century. I always had the feeling that the tellers of these stories were in actual, physical pain as they narrated; I imagined them with some covered wound, which quietly bled as they spoke. It was not that they were still living in the past, nor that the past haunted them. It was that they had been abandoned by the past, they had lost it somehow, and needed to reassure themselves that it had ever happened at all.
My grandmother Eisha was one of these storytellers. When she was forced to swap her spacious house on the beach for a small, white tent on the hot sands of Gaza, she also had to walk over 100 kilometres for the privilege. Whenever I listened to one of her stories, I felt it was my duty to keep retelling her stories, and to tell them the way she did. Thus, at the age of 12 my first attempts at writing began. I jotted down a version of the story she always told about visiting her doctor in Jaffa. Then I realised there were other stories I could also share and elaborate upon. As a result of the Nakba, my own family is scattered across Gaza and Jordan, as well as Jaffa, where a few relatives managed to remain. The reunification of the family became the goal of my writing: in spirit at least. While Eisha healed the family’s wounds through testimony and remembrance, my mission was to irrigate the present with hope. I write to keep the life of this family moving forwards. But that’s a very personal way of surviving. Each Palestinian has their own private strategy to keep themselves and their loved ones going. The Great March of Return has been one of the rare occasions when people have found a collective strategy for this survival. [Continue reading…]