The Nakba: Marking 63 Years After a Catastrophe

IMEU, May 11, 2011

“We thought it would be a matter of weeks, only until the fighting died down. Of course, we were never allowed to go home.” Nina Saah, Washington, DC

“My family’s farm of oranges, grapefruits and lemons, centuries old, was gone.” Darwish Addassi, Walnut Creek,  California

“Those of us who left unwillingly in 1948 are plagued with painful nostalgia. My house in West Jerusalem is an Israeli  nursery school now.” Inea Bushnaq, New York, New York

“The people of New Orleans woke up one morning to complete devastation and had to flee. The Nakba was our Hurricane Katrina.” Abe Fawal, Birmingham, Alabama

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A Palestinian refugee woman cut off from her home by the “Green Line” — the armistice line established after 1948 (UNRWA)

While Israelis look back at May 15th, 1948 as a day of independence and take their celebrations to the streets, Palestinians look back at that very same day and see an entirely different story.  63 years ago, over 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes and most of their possessions, their land and their businesses, and watched as their towns and villages were erased off the map by Israeli forces.  Jewish militias seeking to create a state with a Jewish majority in Palestine, and later, the Israeli army, drove out nearly a million Palestinians and moved Jews into the newly-emptied Palestinian homes.  Al-Nakba, or The Catastrophe, will be remembered by Palestinians as the day their society was destroyed and their homeland was taken over by invading forces.

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In 2006, a Palestinian refugee holds the key of her family’s home in what is now Israel during an exhibition marking the 58th anniversary of the Nakba in the West Bank city of Nablus (Rami Swidan, MaanImages)

Although the Nakba occurred over six decades ago, the impact of it can be seen in the stories of Nakba survivors and their offspring.  The following three narrators tell three different stories, revealing  how the Nakba defined their lives and that of their families.

Narrated by Rafida Abdallah, born in 1945

(66, California, USA)

When I was getting ready for my wedding day, my mother Naseeba told me the story of her precious wedding gown. “Do you know that when I was getting married in the early 1930’s,” she said, “all of my clothes and nice linens were embroidered by the Jewish craftsmen and craftswomen?  I remember sitting with them as they embroidered my gown, and I remember them sharing my excitement when I would tell them about my wedding day plans.”

She went on to tell me how the Palestinians and Jews lived together in peace before 1948 and did business together. The British mandate after the Balfour Declaration gradually gave power and facilitated the arming of the Jewish militant groups that started terrorizing the local population of Palestine. When a full scale attack on the Palestinian population by the Israelis broke out in 1948, my family, like thousands of other families, was forced to leave their homes and belongings and flee to neighboring countries for safety. They left via land and sea, in cars and boats. My mother, who was expecting my youngest sister, joined my grandmother, my aunts and my siblings who were all crammed in two cars and crossed the border to Lebanon. They took nothing with them but their bare necessities, and my mother of course left behind all her nice clothes and linens, embroidered by the Jewish neighbors she had grown to trust.  She could not understand how some Jewish neighbors helped facilitate the happiest day of her life, her wedding, and others created the worst day of her life: the Nakba.

I got married in Lebanon in the early 1970’s in the mountainous town of Kayfoun. A few weeks later my husband and I left for England to study, leaving behind some of our most precious possessions in our family home: wedding gifts, books, and my beautiful wedding dress. As I packed up the dress to store it before my departure, I thought about how one day, maybe my daughter would wear it at her wedding.  A few years later, civil war broke out in Lebanon and our visits became scarce. Then 1983 came and the Israeli army pushed into Lebanon, into Beirut and the mountains, destroying homes and killing civilians and forcing them to flee outside the country.

A year later, we went back to Lebanon to witness the devastation the Israeli army has left behind after its withdrawal: it was horrific, skeletons of homes everywhere. We went to our once elegant home and found that destruction and looting had taken its place. I immediately went up to my room and opened my closet only to find that my prized wedding gown was gone, along with everything else that meant anything to me.  While standing in front of my emptied closet, I suddenly remembered that the same thing had happened to my mother and my whole family many years ago in a much grander scale in our home town across the southern border of Lebanon.  I was born in Palestine in the coastal city of Akka. When I was 3 years old, the Arab-Israeli war that resulted in the Palestinian Diaspora, the Nakba, forced my family to flee north to Lebanon for what they thought was a temporary period of time. More than 20 years later, we were still living in exile in Egypt and elsewhere.

My family never came back to Akka.  They never saw their home or belongings again, including the precious wedding dress.  Just as I had lost my own wedding gown, decades earlier my mother had lost hers as well.  Like mother like daughter, before and after Nakba.

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Awni Ferwana in his home in Gaza. (Wasseem El Sarraj, IMEU)

Narrated by Awni Ferwana, born in 1940 

(71, Gaza, Palestine)

I was born in 1940 in Al Ajami, now known as Bayt Yam.  My first memories of childhood were living in a peaceful, friendly neighborhood that was by the sea.  I can vividly remember when my family was forced to leave our house that was under attack from Jewish forces. In the chaos we had to leave without my father, who was away from the house at the time. Around 20 members of my family fled Al Ajami under the cover of darkness.

My family decided that the safest way to escape was by sea.  We crammed into an old boat and paddled away from Al Ajami. As we sailed away, I remember seeing floating dead bodies.  Upon taking a closer look at them, I was able to see that they were the bodies of other families who had tried to escape.  Immediately upon our arrival to Gaza, my strong mother gave birth. The family named my new sibling Harbee, a name derived from the Arabic word for war. 20 days later, I was finally reunited with my father.

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Awni Ferwana (right) and his son Nasser Ferwana (left). (Wasseem El Sarraj, IMEU)
My sons, Jamal and Nasser Ferwana, were born in 1970 and 1967 respectively. Jamal was born the same year I was jailed by Israeli forces. I was jailed for 15 years for resisting the Israeli occupation.  I remember the look of horror and angst on my son Nasser’s face during the terrifying moments when our home was ransacked and I was taken by Israeli forces. Jamal and Nasser spent most of their early life without me, and that was something that was difficult for me to bear. Both of my sons, however, seem to have been proud of me.

They joined the Palestinian cause during the first and second intifada, or uprising. Over the course of their lives, both of my sons spent around 4 years in Israeli prisons, also for resisting the occupation.  Nasser now works with the  Ministry for Detainees to defend the rights of prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian jails.

He has taken what he has experienced and is using that to improve the lives of those struggling around him.  I am proud of my sons and I hope that they are proud of what I have done.

Narrated by Aliyah Akka, born in 1941

(70, Amman, Jordan)

While I was going to purchase some bread for lunch in Amman, my dear friend  Mohammed stopped me by yelling through the window, “Aliyah! Come back, there has been an announcement on the radio.  Many people have gone to the Right of Return and Refugee Affairs Cultural Center. Let’s go as well, maybe we’ll find your father.”

I dropped everything I was holding and ran to the center, hoping to see my father at last.  On my way to the center, I thought back to when I was seven and was expelled from Akka, the village my family grew up in.  Although that was several years prior, I could still vividly remember how we were expelled by the Israeli military and my father had me escape with the Jordanian family that worked on my father’s fields.  He thought that I would have a better chance escaping with them than I would with him.  Many Palestinians were rumored to be injured and killed in surrounding villages, and he didn’t dare risk that for me.  I ended up, along with my new family, in a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan.

Upon arriving in Jordan, I changed my last name to Akka so that the name of my beloved town could be repeated and engraved with each mention of my name.  I didn’t know if and when I would be able to return home, but I wanted to be sure that I’d never forget where I came from.

Once Mohammed and I arrived at the center, I continued thinking about Akka while I registered my name, hoping to hear any news about my father.  I knew that I would never hear from my mother.  When I was a young girl, I remember my father telling me that my mother had died giving birth to me, and I was breastfed by the mother of the Jordanian family that I now called my second family.  I never felt the absence of my mother thanks to this incredible woman and her children that I considered my siblings.  My father’s absence, however, was one I was unable to shake off.  I was his companion when he would work in his fields, kindly and patiently with his workers.  We would collect juicy tomatoes and sell them in the Akka market which was along the beach.  With my own eyes I would see my father sell on the beach every single Saturday, without skipping a single week, to provide crops for the village and to support our family.  I would accompany him proudly, hoping to one day continue his work on the fields and each Saturday at the market.

Months after I registered my name at the center, we received news from the center that my father had died upon returning to Akka from a neighboring town.  He remained in Palestine, even after I left, in hopes of maintaining our home and our farm so that one day, he could bring me back to a stable household.  He tried to hold onto our home and a sense of normalcy for as long as possible.  Carrying a bag full of tomato seeds, my father was shot by the Israeli military on the outskirts of Akka.  He was never able to plant those seeds into the field he tended to for decades.

I wish that my father had never made me leave Akka.  I wish I could have been one of the heroes that died defending their homes rather than just another face in the Palestinian Diaspora.  I wish that I could tell my children about the great village of Akka, about their hardworking grandfather, and about how I grew up in Akka’s blooming agricultural industry.  All I can hope for now as that one day, I will be buried amongst the waves that I watched my father walk along every Saturday.

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