History undocumented: In defence of oral history

We must insist that our experiences and those of our grandparents are honest and sufficient, argues Khader.

Information by Palestinians and about Palestinians is kept in the public and classified archives of Israel, to which the vast majority of Palestinians have no access [EPA]

The recent documentary “The Great Book Robbery” sheds light on the dialectics between historical appropriation, information and power. Israel appropriated more than Palestinian lands and homes – it appropriates food, aesthetics and history. Information by Palestinians and about Palestinians is kept in the public and classified archives of Israel, to which the vast majority of Palestinians have no access. To what do the Palestinians, and other disenfranchised populations, turn for information (power) about our past? The burden of proof has fallen on us (justly or unjustly) and we have turned repeatedly to all that remains: memories, stories and elders. 

I never knew my paternal grandmother. My father didn’t even know her: she died when he was six months old. What little we know of her short life is quite tragic. With a dearth of information about my ancestral village and its destruction by Israel, learning about my grandmother’s life also became a lesson in the history of my country. 

It was May 15, 1948, in the Palestinian village of Umm al-Zeinat near the city of Haifa, only hours after Zionists declared the state of Israel. When she was forced out of her home, my grandmother had been married with three children – my uncles Mohammed and Nabil, and my aunt Nehad. 

My paternal grandfather, who also died when my father was a child, was jailed along with several other men from his village. They may have been taken to prison directly from their homes in Umm al-Zeinat, or they may have been arrested from the neighbouring village of Daliyat al-Karmel where they tried to hide when the Zionist brigades entered their village. 

Many of the men were jailed, and under threat of massacre by an attacking military brigade, my grandmother fled Umm al-Zeinat with the rest of the villagers. The infamous Deir Yassin massacre was only a month old. 

Villagers’ resistance 

Umm al-Zeinat’s people did not shy away from resistance. The small village of about 1,700 had a reputation that preceded it. I learned from a self-trained Palestinian historian who works as a tour guide of Palestine’s destroyed villages that Umm al-Zeinat was famous for the ferocity of its women and men. He said that they had a strong presence among the fighters in the 1936-39 revolt

He added that it was common knowledge during the revolt that if anyone was “wanted” by the British authorities or sought after by Zionist gangs, they would flee to Umm al-Zeinat where the women provided cover for them. Yet when they were confronted by an organised militia with advanced weapons and training, the villagers had few options: to leave or to fight. And many did both.

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Today what remains of Umm al-Zeinat is just piles of rubble where houses once stood, bearing witness to the destruction of life, the attempt at erasing my ancestors’ presence entirely and the prevention of their return. 

My grandmother and her companions walked, like so many other Palestinians, and probably found passage on motor vehicles at some point. Most likely they went east from the Haifa district to the West Bank, and eventually my father’s family ended up in Iraq. The Arab military legions who arrived in Umm el-Zeinat in May 1948 were Iraqi. When my family went to Basra with the Iraqi military, they did so with the explicit understanding that the army would soon return them safely to their homes in Palestine. 

All of my grandparents and great-grandparents believed that they would return to their homes in a matter of days, weeks, months. Those who died believed it until the day they passed away. Those who lived came to accept the bitter reality that they may never see their homeland again. My grandmother and grandfather died too soon for recording devices to capture their story. 

I did, however, find someone to tell me the story. One of the survivors is an elderly distant relative who is now approaching her centennial. As she recounted it, Zionist troops attacked the village and arrested my grandfather and her husband simultaneously. Pregnant, she gathered her children, and under threat of massacre she met my grandmother and the two women fled together. She gave birth on their trek out to her third child and they had no option but to continue on their way. 

It was not coincidental, she told me. Everything was deliberate and planned. They came for the men who were suspected of resistance and left the villages without protection against well-armed militias. With reports of mass rapes, summary executions and massacres in other Palestinian villages by Zionist militias that were trained by the British, what choices did they have when they found themselves looking into the barrel of a gun? The example was set with other villages: if they resisted they would be massacred. 

Shortly thereafter, my paternal grandfather and a few other men were freed from detention and caught up with them in exile. Zionist forces guarded the borders that were unilaterally set by Israel (Israel has never officially demarcated its borders) to shoot-to-kill any Palestinian who tried to return to their home. 

So went the creation of Israel. It was not a mythical victory. It was ethnic cleansing, ruthless and brutal. 

This is not the story of my family alone. This is the story of 80 percent of the indigenous Palestinian people who became a diaspora population. Palestinians have long relied on oral histories, such as this one, to locate ourselves among this political chaos. We compare and contrast one oral history with another, deducing how things may have transpired from that information. I had no reason not to believe my family’s stories as I pieced them all together. 

But one day the story was corroborated by Israeli government documents. 

I picked up Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. The expulsion of the Palestinian people, the book argues, was not the unintended consequence of a war of defence by a helpless immigrant population. Our expulsion was a settler-colonialist project; we were systemically ethnically cleansed from our homeland.

More importantly, the story about the arrests of Palestinian men and the reconnaissance work in the village of Umm al-Zeinat was there. This was history as I had always known it. The victor, however, documents history in official documents that are deemed “official” by virtue of their status as victor. 

Massacres and mass arrests

Documentation is important, though we never needed it to believe the histories we were taught by our elders. The camps we lived in, our stateless status and UN food rations were enough proof. Still, there is a truth here. While the official documents of Israel itself tend to corroborate our stories, we need never wait for them to. One example of the problematics of trusting documents over lived experiences in the histories of colonialism can be found in Adina Hoffman’s biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears no Relation to Happiness

There is a moment in the book where Ali recounts the story of his family’s exile. He tells Hoffman of an aerial bombing of his village. The villagers fled from the air strikes.

Hoffman expresses literal disbelief. She repeatedly tells Ali that those allegations are untrue: there is no official documentation of the use of warplanes over his village. But Ali never wavers. He insists that the Zionists had, in fact, employed airplane bombardments over his village to empty it of its people. Otherwise, why would they have fled? 

What becomes puzzling to Hoffman is the consensus among the refugees of the village of Saffuriyya to whom she spoke that there were, in fact, airplanes bombing the village which prompted the civilians to flee. Still neither the Israeli documents nor the Israeli personnel she interviews mention airplanes. In fact, they deny their presence entirely. Finally, Hoffman writes: 

“Could it possibly be that all of these scattered people had managed to misremember, concoct, or conspire to relate the same details?”

“The Oriental Imagination,” explains an Israeli war general of the airplane stories. [124] 

Finally, Hoffman finds a single document in the well-protected IDF archives, with the ignored directive “destroy after reading” attached to it. This document contains detailed information about the very same bombings that took place throughout that night in the village of Saffuriyya. She writes: 

So it was. And so the villagers of Saffuriyya did not flee because the army outwitted their defenders on the ground or because they were cowardly or weak or told by their leaders to do so. They fled because a pair of Israeli Air Force planes pummeled them with bombs from on high, sending up flames and sending down mayhem. [133] 

Hoffman describes the pains that she went through to access these documents. Of course, someone suspected to be Palestinian could never access documents in the IDF archive. Neither did our elders in the chaos and confusion of the years that followed 1948 have the time, inclination, or foresight to document their displacement as it was happening. Yet even if they did, would the diaries of a stateless people in 1948 carry more weight than their testimonies today? 

Being a refugee population that has come to flourish in the diaspora, and has only recently begun, as a people, to gather our bearings in time and in place, our history has gone (officially) undocumented. Today we insist on its accuracy, and eventually it may or may not be corroborated through state documents and records locked away in an Israeli building beyond our reach. 

We have instead relied on creative, non-official sources to learn our stories and carry them on. We become historians as we go, documenting, crowdsourcing and questioning. In the end the documents of the colonial state that expelled us need not corroborate our stories. We must insist, as Ali did with his biographer, that our experiences and those of our grandparents are honest and sufficient. 

Nehad Khader is an educator and an artist. Currently she serves on the programming committee of the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival and is managing editor of Tadween Publishing.

Follow her on Twitter: @nehadk262