Forced after the 1948 war to come to terms with the unbearable burden of exile, it was almost as a way of denying their exile that Palestinian refugee families zealously guarded the keys to their old houses (probably already nonexistent) and the deeds to their land, like outcasts who cling to the memory of stolen honor. Visitors to the camps told of the refugees' rever¬ence for any and every document that attested to their association with lost homes: identification cards from the period of the British Mandate, leases, certificates of appointment as a mukhtar, business licenses. They held on to these documents as though they might need them at any moment. And even if not, at least they proved that the owners were not merely derelict nomads but people with status and rights, the owners of houses and property.
There has never been anything abstract about the longings of the Palestinians. The object of their longing has always been well defined: the places that had been left behind. For these places were, and to some degree still are, the dominant component of the Palestinian identity. The Palestinian Arabs were never distinguished by a language, a religion, or historical memories of their own. None of these features set them apart from the rest of the "great Arab nation." The sense of shared destiny that the villagers and city dwellers of Palestine felt toward their fellow Arabs in the country and with the "great Arab nation" as a whole, was vague com¬pared with their strong devotion to the members of their village and clan.
The scholar Fawaz Turki, who in 1948 was a child living in the town of Balad Esh Sheikh (on the outskirts of Haifa), claims that he had no sense of being a Palestinian until he fled with his family to Beirut.1 It was there that the Lebanese would point to him and call him a Palestinian. In a sense every one of the Palestinian refugees was, and remains, a native of Faluja or Jaffa or Sataf or Abassiya. His special attachment to the dunes of Isdud, the citrus groves of Zarnuqa, or the terraces of Saris are of greater impor¬tance to him than any of their ties. Allegiances of this kind are typical of a conservative society in which the inhabitants of each village have distinct traditions and blood ties, usually augmented by a special dialect.

Different Priorities

Often Israelis have difficulty understanding these components of the Palestinian identity. Under similar circumstances groups of Jews were also left homeless by the 1948 war, as well as by its long prelude. This is not a reference to the members of agricultural settlements like the Etzion Bloc, Atarot, and Kfar Darom, which had been inhabited for only a few years, but to the members of old and established communities such as the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and Hebron. They, too, were dispossessed, but the State of Israel did not look upon them as refugees, and they did not nur¬ture powerful dreams of returning to their ancestral homes and property. The Jew had a different order of priorities. No Jew can be a refugee in the land or the State of Israel. The dominant components of his identity are sovereignty in the land of his forefathers, the Hebrew language, and col¬lective historical memories, not an attachment to a specific house or address. The society of Jewish immigrants in the land of Israel forged a specific, sep¬arate identity that is fundamentally different from that of the Palestinians.
In their incessant yearnings, the Palestinian refugees glorified every detail of the places from which they had been cast out, their "lost par¬adise." In a protracted pageant of nostalgia, they spoke and wrote in com¬pulsive detail of every tree, every stone wall, every grave, house, mosque, street, and square they had left behind. "The pomegranates that grew on the tree in Uncle Hassan's yard were the sweetest and juiciest in all the land," wrote Abbasi.2 In a TV documentary made in the Aqbat Jaber refugee camp near Jericho in 1988, forty years after the start of the exile, one could still hear the older refugees making statements like: "The motor in my orchards was particularly powerful, twenty-five horsepower" (an old man from Saffuriya, near Ramle); "In the whole of Kufr Ana there wasn't a single house as spacious as ours" (a woman who left the village when she was still a child).3 "In our village of Ein Azrab the water was so pure and healthy," a woman from the Deheishe refugee camp confided to writer David Grossman, "that when a dying man walked into it, took a few sips, and washed himself, he was cured immediately."4
Traveling along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway at the end of the summer, one can see Arabs harvesting olives by the road near Sha'ar Hagai (Bab el¬Wad) at the entrance to the Judean Hills. They used to live in the now-destroyed vil¬lages of the area - Beit Mahsir, Deir Ayub, and Beit Tul - and still come from afar to harvest the olives from trees that were once theirs. To them these trees - their olives and no others - are the best in the world. Touching the trees dissolves some of the shame of their lives as refugees, for as the Palestinian peasant saying goes: "What has a man but his God in heav¬en above and his land on the earth below?"

What Are We Dreaming of?

Only occasionally does this almost-crazed glorification meet with a response of cynicism or contempt among Palestinians. Some refugees have ventured that there couldn't possibly have been so many orchards in their homeland unless they were stacked one on top of the other. One poignant story concerns a refugee who visited Israel and found his family's home in a Jaffa suburb. Having borne vague memories of the old house and been raised on stories of the wonderful palace the family left behind, he was appalled to find a small, pathetic-looking building. "Is this what I yearned for?" he asked sarcastically as he stood before the ravaged building. "This ruin is what we're still dreaming of?"6
Such apocryphal stories are spread by word of mouth, however; they never find legitimization in Palestinian writings. The same is true of paral¬lel stories in the Zionist canon. One has to do with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a leader of the Labor movement, Israel's second president, and an enthusi¬astic scholar of ancient and remote Jewish communities. He was excited to discover that a Jewish family, the Zeynatis, was living in the Arab village of Peki'in (al-Buqei'a) in the Galilee. According to Zionist myth, they were the only Jews who had remained in the land of Israel throughout the 2,000 years of exile. Ben-Zvi persuaded Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first pres¬ident, to accompany him to the village and meet this remarkable fami¬ly. With great difficulty the two men reached the remote, hilly area and made their way through Peki'in, which had fallen into neglect and, like so many other Arab villages, lacked roads, electricity, running water, and all the other amenities of modern life. The Zeynati family, like their Arab neighbors, lived in the most primitive conditions, without sanita¬tion, and in close proximity to their domestic animals. Upon leaving the village, Ben-Zvi bubbled over with enthusiasm, but Weizmann coun¬tered soberly: "You know, Ben-Zvi, we were lucky to have gone into exile. Otherwise we'd look and be living like that family."

The Experience of Loss

Cynicism of that sort was hardly ever voiced by the Palestinian refugees. Instead, they aired erotic metaphors of everlasting love and eternal ties to the land of the village of their birth. Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer from the West Bank city of Ramallah whose family lost considerable property in Jaffa in 1948, claims that his love for the land is rife with erotic feeling. He wanders over the hills, savoring the scent of thyme and the feel of the hard soil under his feet, and catches himself gazing at length at an olive tree. The suffering of the land being taken over by foreigners (Jews), with the aid of bulldozers, arouses such intense feelings of jealousy in him that he defines himself as the country's lover. The experience of loss taking place before his eyes is the root of this powerful sensation.7 The scent of the land in the countryside, the embrace of the fig and mulberry trees, the stubborn adhe¬sion to the land - these motifs appear in almost all Palestinian literature, from the abstract love poems of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who hails from Bethlehem and is one of the great philosophers of the Arab world, to the works of the young storyteller Akram Haniyeh, the son of refugees from Abu Shusha and a leading activist in the PLO.
Literary critics describe Jabra's poems about his love for women and for Palestine as a single blend of mystic love, a divine truth with which the poet seeks to merge.8 In everyday life Palestinian expressions of love are more direct. The mourning mother of a Palestinian youth killed in the struggle against the Israeli authorities mourns her son as having wed the homeland of Palestine in his death. This young man who never knew a woman has sanctified the land with his blood, just as a young man sancti¬fies his bride with virginal blood on their wedding day. The Israelis fos¬tered the concept of "knowing the land" ("knowing" in the biblical sense of the verb), and one of their poets, Alexander Penn, has written: "0 land, my land, I have wed thee in blood." Similarly, and even more intensely, Palestinians project the idea of erotic love onto the peasant's love for his land, his village, and his field.
It was no mere coincidence that the symbolic declaration of Palestinian independence in November 1987 was heralded in leaflets bearing the head¬line "The Wedding of Palestine." In a traditional society, where blood ties are the backbone of the social structure, the repetition of motifs of erotic geogra¬phy is readily understood. The soil of the homeland is the object of love, it is both material and spiritual, and is manifested in the Palestinian's identity.


1. Fawaz Turki, The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile, New York Monthly Review Press, 1972, p. 8.
2. Mahmoud Abbasi, "Uncle Hassan's Return to His Homeland," Mifgash [Encounter] 10-11, 1988, p. 129.
3. Documentary film by Ayal Sivan.
4. David Grossman, Koteret Rashit [Headlines] (April 29, 1987), p. 12.
5. Sivan's film.
6. Faisal al-Hourani, spring, 1989.
7. Raja Shehadeh, Ha-derekh Ha-shlishit [The Third Way] (Jerusalem: Adam Publishers, 1982), p. 92.
8. Article on Jabra's poetry by Salman Massalha in Ha'aretz, March 24, 1989.