Nakba: recollection, retelling and existential vertigo

It was a mistaken belief that Palestinians would forget.

Remembrance is a political act of resistance, writes Alyan [AFP/Getty Images]

Had they cut our tongues, it might have proven more effective than ethnic cleansing. We lost the wars, found little sympathy for our dispossession in the West and discovered cruelty amid the neighbours that hosted us. For our purported allies, we were nothing more than political props to be sloganised and cast aside. For our enemies, we were to be fought but never acknowledged because, after all, that would concede our existence. If ever there were a conquest so masterfully designed, it was the defeat of Palestine.

The mistake though, the enormous miscalculation, was the assumption that we would forget, the notion that time and generational gaps would give way to an amnesia that never came. The memory of Palestinians has endured the evacuated villages and rewritten narratives and laundered histories. It has withstood the massacres and humiliations. It is the reason why Palestinians who have never set eyes on Jaffa still find that city in their sleep. And insist on returning to her port.

But the act of remembrance in the Palestinian context extends beyond the political; it is more than a cue for resistance.

Palestinian dispossession is an existential vertigo. It is easy to forget with the growing acknowledgement of our tragedy that there are still people who impugn our very identity, those who continue to regard everything from our culture to our history as myth. The sustained Nakba is not, therefore, simply a territorial uprooting. It stands as a threat to our very being, one that continues to impose upon Palestinians the fundamental choice of either remembering or having never existed.

Featured Documentary – Al-Nakba debate

Memory, then, for Palestinians is a self-prescribed stabiliser, an impulse against much more than the theft of land or symbolic olive tree. Our grasping of the past should be understood not only as an act of resistance but also one of centring. Without it, we would surrender ourselves to more than physical occupation and exile; we would be displaced from ourselves.

As another year and commemoration of the Nakba passes, I find myself wondering if these practices of recollection might be the strongest component of our endurance. It is not simply to romanticise the past or doll up the future. Memory ensures that our understandings of ourselves are never amputated from our origins, which isn’t to imply that our identities are constructed solely on our history but rather to say that we have often found that they cannot be entirely disconnected either.

It is also important not to take all of this as evidence of an impending justice and return. There is nothing inevitable about our liberation. History does not owe us anything. It will not redeem itself or reimburse us for its cruelties.

Optimism, for its own sake, is not helpful or revolutionary. Yarmouk has been demolished, a hugely important segment of our population lie tattered and forgotten. The consequence of this on the Palestinian project will reveal itself to be enormous one day. Our political institutions are weak and self-serving, our diaspora culture often self-obsessed and self-praising. And as always, we continue to seek betrayal in each other more comfortably than we do those actively working to muffle our aspirations.

The condition of Palestinians, in short, continues to be exhausted and bleak. It has been 66 years since the initial catastrophe. Every year since has illustrated another chapter of grief in our tragedy. Still, there has been an unflinching reiteration, to ourselves and the world that we continue to remember; perhaps that alone is cause for curbed pessimism.

More than a lament, the Nakba may more strongly represent a reminder that we haven’t forgotten. The overlooked detail that a people cannot be entirely evacuated from their collective past has grown more each year in spite of the numerous setbacks and defeats.  

So we mourn. We mourn Jarisha and Deir Yassin and my own Iraq Suwaydan, but we also practice our retention. We exercise our past because, even in the act of mourning, we are breathing new life into our histories. It is all to say, 66 years later, that even if Palestine is never liberated, we will not permit the concealment of its corpse. Every passing generation is a reminder; every new one, a revived pulse. 

Talal Alyan is a Palestinian-American writer based in Brooklyn.