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
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
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
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.
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