Three Palestinian refugees share their stories of displacement, loss and hope to return to their villages.
When I ask Tamam al-Assar about her memories of the 1967 war, she is confused.
At 76, Tamam lives in the same refugee camp to which her family fled after their exile from Palestine during the Nakba in 1948. At least 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed between 1947 and 1948, as more than 500 Palestinian villages and towns were demolished to make room for Jewish settlers.
Tamam still talks about what befell her family, reliving the dramatic and bloody events.
Only a few years of her life were peaceful. Despite her failing memory, every recollection she manages to conjure up from her childhood – before the establishment of Israel upon the ruins of villages such as her own – is repeated with joy.
She can still taste her first chocolate bar, one that her brother, Salim, had tried to confiscate, foiled only by the timely intervention of her older brother, Ismail.
Salim disappeared during the joint French-British-Israeli war on Egypt in 1956, the aim of which was to reclaim the nationalised Suez Canal, to tame Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, and to occupy parts of the Sinai desert.
During that time, Israel briefly occupied the Gaza Strip. Salim ran away with a group of teenagers, hoping to cross the Gaza border through southern Israel into the Naqab desert and eventually go into Jordan. Their calculation tragically misfired, and they all disappeared.
Tamam and Ismail spent years looking for Salim, to no avail. An elderly woman who claimed to communicate with the spirit world finally told Tamam that her brother was trapped in an earthy prison, deep underground; they assumed he was dead and buried.
Tamam’s grief never dissipated over the loss of Salim. Still, she noted: “God was generous, as He always is with poor people.” He blessed her with three boys and three girls.
Tamam’s middle son was Kamal, a rebel with socialist ideas about the proletariat and social justice. He joined the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987 as a protest organiser, working with underground units of equally rebellious youth. They threw rocks at Israeli soldiers, burned tyres and refused to quell their uprising, despite the death and destruction wrought upon them by Israeli forces.
Kamal was eventually detained and tortured severely. A thin, pale young man who was an obsessive smoker, he was left permanently weakened and scarred, and he died a few years later. For years, Tamam has awaited her “reunion” with Salim and Kamal in heaven.
Dates confuse Tamam. For her, war is war, and from her home in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp, it seems that her life has been a permanent war – not the kind aimed at simply conquering an enemy, but one that has defeated her emotionally and broken her spirit.
Although events of various wars are all muddled up in Tamam’s memory, she remembers what matters to her most: her father’s love, her mother’s faith, Salim’s courage and what Kamal whispered in her ear the last time she saw him. “Don’t worry, mother,” he said. “I will be fine.”
For Tamam, as for many Palestinian refugees, memory is not a mere accumulation of past events, but an ongoing experience that they live and relive daily. Neatly composed timelines and conveniently structured academic classifications of history do not define Tamam.
Indeed, Tamam has been defined and redefined numerous times over the years.
In the Zionist narrative, she did not exist, and still does not. Israel and its supporters insist that Palestinians are not people, and thus not entitled to a homeland. At best, they were roaming nomads with no connection to the “desert” that “bloomed” thanks to the “miraculous” efforts of the Jewish people.
Tamam’s father was a peasant in Joulis, owning a small patch of land, a few cows and a donkey, and a house made of bricks and hardened mud. After he was uprooted from Joulis, he died heartbroken, leaving Tamam still weeping for Palestine after all these years.
If ever her memory waned, her years of destitution and harshness in a refugee camp would bring it back – a constant reminder. In fact, sometimes unwittingly, alternative narratives of Tamam’s life have in some way fed into the Zionist depiction of Palestine and the Palestinians.
Per United Nations’ terminology, Tamam was initially seen as part of a larger “refugee problem”, and her people’s fate was precariously described as the “question of Palestine”. Her “problem” was supposedly humanitarian, devoid of any political meaning. Her “question” was meant to be resolved, even if outside international law and basic human rights.
But after nearly 70 years of talking, debating, “resolving”, “affirming” and “reaffirming”, Tamam is still in the same refugee camp to which her family was exiled in 1948.
Her village, Joulis, exists only in her mind and in the memories of the peasants who were brutally uprooted from their simple yet enchanting Palestinian paradise. Each family was assigned to a blue tent and given a ration of food to prevent starvation.
For Tamam, the Nakba is not a date. It is far more encompassing than a single event, however tragic. Everything that existed before that date is the life that she was unfairly denied, leaving her with lasting scars. The Nakba, in some way, has become her identity.
Now, Tamam’s grandchildren are embarking on a life of their own. They are getting married, having babies, adding to the family’s old home and mapping out their futures. They have inherited Tamam’s eternal sadness, but also her legendary resolve.
When Kamal died, Tamam declared that all the children in the refugee camp were her sons and daughters. She fought soldiers on many occasions to free frightened boys from imminent arrest and was beaten in the process; her bruises have only intensified her sense of purpose.
While her grandchildren do not relate to the Nakba in the same way that Tamam does, for them – and for many among the new generation of Palestinians – the Nakba has been forever internalised. It now exists beyond the boundaries of memory, geography and trauma. It is a focal point in the genesis of their ongoing tragedy.
Not talking about the Nakba, or determining that some other date – such as the June 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – as the start of the Palestinian story is both thoughtless and a waste of time.
The Nakba has become so ingrained into the very consciousness of Palestinians that it would be impossible to imagine a truly peaceful future without addressing that original injustice.
When I asked Tamam if she would go back to Joulis if she was given the chance, she laughed. “I am too old, son,” she said. “I can barely walk.”
She continued: “But if I smell the air of Joulis once more, I will die happy.” Her eyes, by then, had filled with tears. She adjusted her white headscarf, lowered her head slightly, and once again dove into a sea of memories.
Dr Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include Searching Jenin, The Second Palestinian Intifada, and his latest, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.