Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – Abd al-Qader al-Lahham remembers the sweet taste of fruit, the rolling hills of olive trees, the rippling fresh springs, and the sheep, cows and camels grazing until sunset on his land in the now-destroyed Palestinian village of Beit Itab in Jerusalem.
Now 97 and the oldest resident of Dheisheh refugee camp, Lahham’s life in the compact concrete maze of Bethlehem’s largest Palestinian refugee camp contrasts starkly with the pastoral life he once knew before the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 creation of the state of Israel. This became known as the Nakba, or catastrophe, among Palestinians.
“The happiest times of my life were in my village,” Lahham told Al Jazeera. “When I fall asleep, I dream of those days.”
Lahham owned some 100 dunams (25 acres) of land in Beit Itab. To this day, he still holds the official ownership title.
“We used to eat straight from the crops on our farms. Our land provided everything for us. Life was good then,” he said.
Today, he spends his days venturing to and from the camp’s mosque five times a day, slowly making his way past graffiti and murals of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces that decorate the narrow streets.
In 1948, Lahham, then 28, was in a nearby village tending to his sheep when the sound of bombs interrupted the quiet evening. He passed through villages whose residents were fleeing their homes as Zionist militias invaded the area. His family and fellow villagers had already been expelled, so Lahham continued travelling with his sheep until he arrived in the Bethlehem-area village of al-Khader.
It was only after three days that Lahham finally found his family hiding in a mosque in the village of Artas. The family rented a house in Artas for some time, then one day Lahham took his axe and tools to Bethlehem city and built two houses on a hill that would later become Dheisheh refugee camp.
After experiencing this, you hope that one day you will be able to forget it all. But I can never forget what happened.
“We lived a bitter life,” Lahham said, pointing to the crumbled ruins of the homes he built decades ago. “People weren’t able to find even a small piece of bread. It got so cold in Bethlehem that many left to a refugee camp in Jericho [Aqabat Jaber], where four to five families were living in one tent. People were living in a miserable situation there.”
The United Nations began developing the western part of the hill for displaced Palestinians after the 1948 war. A UN representative approached Lahham and his family and offered them a tent, $7, and the promise of a room in the newly established refugee camp, but he refused, he said.
Soon, however, the UN had expanded its camp and reached the area where Lahham was residing. During this time, some Palestinian families were reduced to cutting the colourful cloth attached to their tents to sew dresses for their girls and women, while others were collecting weeds around the camp to sell to local kitchens for their livelihoods, he said.
The UN eventually provided Lahham and his family with a room in the camp and continued to build to the east of the hill. At least 3,000 Palestinian refugees migrated to the camp after it was built. The camp is now home to some 15,000 residents, according to the UN.
The approximately 750,000 Palestinians who were displaced from their lands in 1948 believed that they would eventually be able to return to their homes and that the conditions in the refugee camps were only temporary.
“After experiencing this, you hope that one day you will be able to forget it all. But I can never forget what happened. It remains bitter and continues to burn,” Lahham said.
Lahham’s grandson, 27-year-old Hisham, was 18 when he visited Beit Itab for the first time.
“I felt like my village was so far away from where we live now in the camp. I always thought it would be like travelling to Europe,” Hisham told Al Jazeera. In reality, Beit Itab is not more than an hour’s drive from Bethlehem city.
Hisham said that his grandfather had instilled in him since he was a child that Dheisheh refugee camp was not, and would never be his home. The family’s home was a place far away from the tightly spaced buildings in the camp, untouched by Israeli soldiers and the violence that has characterised the nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank.
Their home was a place where the vegetables grew without being watered; where fresh, open air nourished the mind, and where the sheep could roam freely.
“Immediately, when I saw my village, I felt like I was home – in a way I never felt in the camp,” Hisham said.
In Beit Itab, parts of which were destroyed by the Israelis, Hisham says he found everything exactly as his grandfather described it, with crumbling stone buildings and orange and fig trees planted by his grandfather and uncle. Relying on his grandfather’s memories, he was even able to locate the remains of his family’s old home.
“When I roamed around the village and would find myself lost, I called my grandfather. He could describe everything to me as if he had never left.”
But Saleh Abd al-Jawad, a professor of history and political science at Birzeit University, told Al Jazeera that this was not a typical case.
“While some villages were partially destroyed, most of some 418 to 530 villages were completely erased by the Israelis who planted forests on top of them,” Jawad said. “Even elders with original memories would not be able to describe what their villages look like now.”
Hisham acknowledged that he did not have original memories of the village to compare with his family’s life today, “but I believe that if we were back in our village, we would be more happy … Everything is bad in the camp and everything is beautiful in our village.”
According to Jawad, these stories in Palestinian oral history provide a comforting alternative to the harsh conditions of the refugee camps.
“Through their grandparents, the younger generations of Palestinians begin to understand that they had a very different life before their displacement,” he said. “They tend to compare this idea of a beautiful past with their current misery in the camps.”
While Hisham’s grandfather is the last member of his family who holds original memories of their village, Hisham is determined to pass down the knowledge to future generations.
“After my grandfather, we will lose an important part of our history,” Hisham said. “I will not be able to tell his stories in the same way. But just like we have passed down the history of Palestine from generation to generation, I will also work to send these messages to my children.”