Testimonies1 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Nakba, the collective tragedy, in the spring of 1998 flowed in a manner that confounded both narrators and listeners.2 The former were perplexed at having kept silent for what seemed like an eternity before releasing their concealed stories. The latter were confused at having failed to explain those stories - whether they were expressions of divine retribution or because they demonstrated a collective inability to face a superior enemy.
The most poignant Nakba oral testimonies were contemporary eyewitness accounts of the war of 1948. In the main, these were unembellished episodes of events lived by the narrators, mediated only by the problematic prism of their memories, and by the presence of a younger audience and their recording machines. Most of those narratives were distinguished from intellectual discourse by their spontaneity, their simplicity, and by their distance from the world of politicians and intelligentsia.3 Most of the narrators were "average" people, involved in the events while on the margin of society - mainly as drivers, fighters, mukhtars (notables), sheikhs, peddlers and the like. Many of them were, and still are, illiterate.
The dominant characteristic of those narratives was the emphasis on the dramatic nature of the incident, as if the war itself and the displacement that followed, was not dramatic enough. Siege, confrontations with the enemy, fighting, massacres, martyrdom, and expulsion were at the core of the stories. The following is a typical example:

"...When the training period in Syria was over, we entered the country via the Allenby Bridge. We then headed to Jaffa via Ramla and then to Yazour. Two hundred and forty of us fighters gathered in Al-Ajami in four detachments. We witnessed several skirmishes in Tel Al-Reesh, from where we moved to Manshiyya, where the situation started to deteriorate. I recall a Yugoslav group that included three Christians who committed suicide at Hasan Bey Mosque, each of them by allowing himself to be shot by his colleague. After that, I left Manshiyya to Ajami for the second time with Musa Al-Qattan who was an explosives expert, and from there, we went to the Salamah Duwwar (traffic circle). When we tried to withdraw, car drivers refused to take us with our weapons, and we refused to withdraw without our weapons. This continued until the British secured our exit in a caravan that included 21 fighters. I then returned to Silwad where I joined the fighters. The last scene I witnessed was the departure of most Jaffa inhabitants in motorboats and light barges to the steamers waiting at sea."4

What is absent from this story - and numerous ones like it - is the fabric of daily life, which could have provided a framework and an explanation for these incidents. There is an assumption here, it seems, that what is "normal", in the perception of the narrator, is taken for granted and needs no recalling. The moderators of these testimonies, mostly academics, tried in vain to provide the social and political background that engulfed the dramatic moment, and to give it the necessary context, but they invariably collided against a barrier of astonishment, denial or forgetfulness.
Above all, however, there is an overriding sense of localism. What happened then is seen as having happened to this town or village in isolation from the onslaught that affected Palestine as a whole. While the narrators recognize that the Nakba happened across the country, this is not reflected in the protocols of narration - nor in the stories retold. There is an astounding absence of an overall picture and of the interconnection that affected the lives and behavior of combatants and onlookers alike. Thus in these narratives, the siege of Jaffa and Lydda, the massacres of Deir Yasin and Dawaiymeh, and the exodus from Safad and Haifa - they happened as disparate incidents, unconnected to the general saga of war.

The Vision Transformed

With hindsight, we can explore the transformation that eventually differentiated the consciousness of exiled Palestinians from those who remained in Palestine, to examine the shifting concepts of what the "homeland" meant to those who left and how they understood notions of return to the homeland.
In the first era of dispersion (1948-1967), the concept of a categorical "Return to Palestine" was created and linked to an abstract vision of liberating the land. This dream/vision was personified in the paintings of Tamam and Ismail Shammout, which focus on the image of a Paradise Lost and idyllic peasant landscapes. In Shammout's paintings, all internal conflicts in Palestinian society are obliterated and a pastoral picture based on the collective memory of Palestinian refugees in the Arab host countries created. The most salient traits of this vision are found in the tortured relationship between the exiled refugees, who are continuously seeking a return to their homes/homeland, and their usurped homeland. In this sense, their homeland was their home, in the extremely localized sense of the village community or the town neighborhood. The people who remained on their land, on the other hand, were excluded from this vision in a magical act, as if their staying in Palestine was no more than a coincidence unworthy of consideration.
In the period of the second conquest (after the war of 1967), the relationship between the Palestinians in exile and those who remained in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Arab communities of the Galilee, was reformulated. The Palestinians who had remained in the Galilee - as well as in other Israeli territories, were looked upon as heroes, albeit unsuccessful ones. This motif prevailed until the Land Day incidents broke out in the Galilee and the Negev, when their status was "upgraded" and they were given an epitaph equivalent to that of the "heroes of return" (abtal al-'awda), a term until then reserved for Palestinian refugees living in exile.
This relationship morphed yet again after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority and the signing of the Oslo Accords. The return of tens of thousands of exiles to the occupied territories signified a shift in the weight of Palestinian decision-making and self-identity towards a new territorial base inside the homeland. As a result, the Diaspora Palestinians - especially those in refugee camps - now found themselves marginalized.
With this political/demographic transformation, the concept of return to Palestine has acquired different nuances. This is because the vision of an abstract liberation has collided with a "realistic" political vision of limited and qualified repatriation. Tension emerged immediately after the signing of the interim accords as a result of a possible "return" to Palestine - but only through individual visits, and the impossibility of returning collectively due to the existing balance of forces between Israel and the Palestinians.5
This qualified return to the homeland was mediated by two new developments. The first involves the rediscovery - or actually the "discovery" - of Palestinians still living in their homeland: living communities which had retained their social fabric, their specific cultural traditions, and their own literature and art. This presence presented a new problem for the Palestinian society in exile, which in the past had hardly acknowledged its existence.
The second phenomenon involves what may be referred to as "visiting encounters" by the third generation of Nakba victims. This generation lived the Nakba through the imagery of their parents and grandparents. The members of this third generation had only lived in a Palestinian society, which had either been colonized (in the West Bank and Gaza Strip), subjected to military invasion (Lebanon), or lacked normal daily life (exile in the Arab countries).

A Vindictive Return

In the summer of 1994, a number of intellectual activists, who had returned to Palestine with the PLO cadres following the Oslo accords, began publishing a series of essays on the experience of return from exile.6 These pieces collectively constitute a rich body of discourse on journeys towards the reformulation of identity. If there is one theme that unites them, it is the shock at the rediscovery of their homeland. They seem to have landed after a prolonged flight, but it is unclear in whose homeland they have landed. The poet Ghassan Zaqtan portrays the homeland as the new exile. He returns to his village Zakariyya, now the Hebraicized Kfar Zakariyya, and tries to recall the stories of his forefathers:7

"Zakariyya did not look as it was described at all. The hill was not as astonishing as in the description, and the Jews who were wandering along the roads did not relate to the place; rather, there was a distance separating them from it...the body movement...shoulders in particular. It seemed to me that they were totally removed from what was happening...I said something I no longer remember. I did not abandon it. I have no right to do that; I have no right to abandon it. This is a knowledge that is more sublime than the vehicle of yearning that brought me here, or rather the
exile that brought me to my father's place."8

Zaqtan extrapolates from his testimony, falling back on Arab exodus from Andalusia:

"We have become the new Andalusians. It seems very appropriate. The text has chosen its language, comparisons and exile. All of a sudden 'our return' seems like a white lie. It seems like a treachery of exile, text, and the idea of Andalusia, the land we inhabited for centuries. We had to take back our suitcase and leave without any notice. We had excluded Awda from our Andalusian condition but have yet to find Andalusia."

Zaqtan refers to the disintegration of the concept of holiness when imagining the sacred land as he confronts the Israeli Other:

"Sacredness here presents another problem when facing the holiness of the other who cannot be expunged from the scene. The ability of the other to propagate his own sacredness and make it part of the contemporary universal scene cannot be negated. I was never convinced that the sacred... stands on our side. The 'other' had already established his mythology, reformulated it as a racial doctrine, and descended on our villages, towns and roads like a huge silver plate coming from a neighboring unseen mythology. This was at a time when our own myth was collapsing and disintegrating on the ground with the lapse of time, forgetfulness and a fading conviction."9

This fetishism of the homeland dominates the imagery of poet Zakariyya Mohammed. Contrary to his colleagues, however, he decided not to philosophize. He chose instead to use literary metaphors to describe the dilemmas of the returnees.
The aridity of the new Palestinian return is equivalent to the arid soil left to the remaining part of Palestine after the Israelis appropriated the coastal regions:

"I thought I would double my idols and mirrors in the homeland. What is this homeland? It is no more than a piece of land that is left for us. It is a piece of stone. It is a land of mountains and hills...a land of stone and rock. They took the coast and left rocky hills for us. No, in fact, they did not leave it; we try to make them leave it. What can we do with stone? We can at least bear our agony."10

Hasan Khader, by contrast, attacks Palestinian narcissism and its accompanying self-pity. This narcissism, he claims, lifts the concept of return to the level of a cult, which needs to be transcended in favor of "normalizing" daily life through a new praxis.

"What we lived through in the past was a time of transitional culture of contingencies [thaqafat tawari'], the culture of transforming refugees into a people. The problem now is to how to transform those people into a new normalcy away from the domain of the 'miraculous children'." 11

This search for "normality" is viewed as the problem of a culture that has finally shifted from attempting to rise to focus on an "exemplary homeland" to coming to grips with a "flesh and blood" homeland - that is to say, towards a shift from ideology to reality. "This is a shift that requires the writer to depart from the illusions of a 'stolen homeland'."

"There is no possibility of reproducing the homeland as a paradise lost. The homeland is at hand, disfigured and distorted and waiting for salvation. We have an identity that is still in the formulation stage. This identity will become larger with every meter we are able to extract from the occupier, with every road we construct, every book we print, every woman we free (sic), every window we open in our life, which is so burdened with stagnant air, and every decision we take in the fields of social and political organization and human rights."12

Of all the returnees, Khader is the one most obsessed with the process of return to the normalization in Palestinian daily life - which he sees as a categorical pre-condition for normalization with his protagonists.
Mureed Al-Barghouthy is arguably the author with the utmost inner peace among the returnees. He is probably the only one among them who is not a refugee, or whose family did not leave coastal Palestine. He is also the most relentlessly self-critical when viewing his own past.
"How can we explain today," Barghouthy says in I Saw Ramallah,13 "after we have grown and become mature, how we in the towns and villages of the West Bank treated our people who were expelled by Israel from their coastal cities and villages...and came to stay in our mountainous towns and villages. We called them refugees, we called them immigrants!"
Barghouthy's return to Palestine involved a qualified sojourn to his village of Deir Ghassaneh (formerly a feudal estate in the Ramallah district). But it was Jerusalem that became the focus of a nostalgic recollection of the sensuous memories of his adolescence:

"That vague enjoyment we felt when our adolescent bodies touched the bodies of European tourist women on the Saturday of Fire [Sabt enNour, during the orthodox celebrations of the day before Easter Sunday], when we shared with them the darkness of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and carried the white candles that illuminate the darkness, just like them. This is mundane Jerusalem, the city of our little times that we had forgotten too quickly. Because it is normal, just as water is water and lightening is lightening, and just as our hands were lost, it has now emerged as an abstraction."14

To a poet who grew up in the socially repressive milieu of the highland villages, the Old City evokes a keen sense of eroticism. Thus tragedy for Barghouthy is not the Nakba itself, but rather the loss of the city which gave rise to it. "The occupation has left the Palestinian villages as they were and reduced our cities to villages".15 At the end, the writer preserves his Palestinian identity in his imagination, returning to his promised land in Cairo.


This discussion has attempted to bring together several experiences of exile and the reconstruction of the homeland in the imagination of Palestinian writers. The most striking feature of this reconstruction is the delayed reaction to the experience of war and uprootedness, and the accompanying repression of those memories. When the waves of disclosures did emerge, as happened during the commemorative ceremonies of the Nakba, half a century after the event, the ravages of war appeared as localized events, disconnected from the larger tragedy that engulfed the refugees.
I have discerned several trends prevalent among the exiled writers. In the earlier generation of exiles, there is a dominant tendency to 'freeze' the homeland into frames of pastoral idyls. This is especially true of artists and poets, but it was also a natural flow from the nationalist historiography of the period. Within the second and third generations of exiles, a more radical current appears, questioning the conventional experience of exile and the causes of the exodus. Of particular interest here is the manner in which these critics interrogated the composition of the pre-1948 society which allowed itself to be defeated and dismantled. The bourgeois nostalgia was seen as a blindness that joined pre-war fragility to its impotent behavior in the war itself.
The turning point in this nostalgic narrative was the return of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its intelligentsia to Palestine in the mid-90s. Here we encounter the shock of returning to the homeland, but under conditions of political compromises and physical confinement. Its main impact was to de-mystify the ideological discourse on the right of return, turning it into political realism, and initiating a new discourse, which centred around notions of normality and the normalization of daily life. Here normality is related to the question of carrying on with a dual (and conflicting) intellectual agenda; on the one hand there is the consolidation of a new social group based on building statehood; on the other hand, the conceptualisation and practicing of a mundane, normal society out of the "heroic" images of Palestine whose intellectuals had become addicted to their status as exiles.
The main victims of this have been those Palestinians who were not exiled, those who remained as an Arab minority in Israel. Their portrayal in the literature of exile has shifted from the forgotten to an abstract heroic status that remained marginal to the Palestinian experience. The turning point referred to above is therefore both a conceptual and historic benchmark. It refers to the beginning of a Palestinian narrative that attempts, under the conditions of the new, and tenuous, normality to synthesize these different experiences of exiles, of three generations and three geographies. In doing so, it will have to deal with exile as a permanent condition for those who returned and experienced an internal exile, and for those who did not return and established their lives as part of the cultural scene in their diasporas.

1 This piece is a shorter version of a paper that will appear as a chapter in Homelands (edited by Bo Strath and Ron Robin, European University of Florence, Florence, 2003).
2 An earlier Arabic version of this essay appeared in al Karmil (Ramallah) no. 54, "Ad-Dhakira al-Mu'adhabah."
3 These impressions are based on my attendance of the major Nakba activities that took place in March, April, and May, 1998, in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. The most prominent among these activities were organized by the Khalil Sakakini Center in Ramallah, the Popular Art Center in Al-Bireh, and the local universities. The reader can obtain a list of those events from the Sakakini Centre published as "Commemoration of Nakba Events: Lectures, Films and Exhibitions," Ramallah, 1999.
4 Testimony by Hajj Hussein Abdel Rahman Al-Hilmi from Silwad, Khalil Sakakini Center, May 2, 1998.
5 At the end of 2000, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators were wrestling with a formula over the interpretation of UN resolution 194, which allows those refugees who, "will live at peace with their neighbors to return to their homes" in the context of final status talks. The refugee issue, more than Jerusalem and settlements, proved to be the decisive factor in the collapse of the Camp David and Taba negotiations.
6 Al-Karmil magazine in Arabic started publishing them in spring 1997 (Shahadat "Testimonies" - Al-Karmel No. 51) and continued doing so until the summer of 1998 (Al-Karmel No. 56/57 - "The Memory of the Place ... The Place of the Memory"). See specifically Shafiq Al-Hoot "Jaffa The City of Stubbornness", Hasan Khader "Al-Ghurba - Absence from the Homeland", Mohammed Ali Taha "Time of the Lost Childhood", and Elias Sanbar, "Return to the Homeland."
7 All references, unless otherwise mentioned, are to the respective Karmil issues identified above.
8 Ghassan Zaqtan, Nafi Al-Manfa [The Banishment of Exile] 141-145, in Arabic.
9 Zaqtan: 144-145, in Arabic.
10 Zakariyya Mohammed, Bone and Gold: 137, in Arabic.
11 Hasan Khader. Were You There? 124, in Arabic.
12 Khader, ibid.
13 Madbooly, Cairo. 1997, in Arabic.
14 Mureed Al-Barghouthy. Living in Time: 156, in Arabic.
15 Barghouthy: 158.