Palestinian Refugees and their Oral Histories: History’s Silence, Memory’s Burden

In the Palestinian context, research and scholarly work is unable to keep up with the unrelenting Zionist onslaught unleashed on the Palestinian people. By the time the history of a village or a town, or of a massacre is documented another takes its place demanding recognition and recording. There is no respite. [1] Rather, what changes is the rhythm, the intensity, the type and scope of ethnic cleansing. Between back then, over six decades ago, and now is a refining of a Zionist colonial geography and cleansing cartography on the one hand, and a remarkable Palestinian resistance and resilience on the other.

The 1948 refugees and their refusal to vanish are probably Israel’s most terrifying nightmare, perhaps equal only to the peril that the emergence of a unified and effective Palestinian national leadership could pose. Indeed, the refugee "problem" directly cuts to the core of the Zionist project. The refugees and their descendents have remained not only to bear witness to their tragic predicament, but to insist they have claims to their lands illegally seized in 1948, and political rights to self-determination. The past remains open.

Needless to say, refugees did not wait for us (researchers, activists, "intellectuals") or for the PLO to reminisce about the past and recount their histories. They have been orally transmitting their pre-Nakba, Nakba, and post-Nakba stories since their expulsion, retelling and reinterpreting events and experiences to each other and to their children, often against the ways that larger powers, and frequently we as researchers, have organized and/or sometimes imposed history upon them. [2] According to Ilana Feldman, this refrain of home and return was essential for the survival of the Palestinians as a people. [3]

The power differentials before al-Nakba were vast: a vicious and conspiratorial British colonial authority ("Mandate" being the euphemism used) collaborated with Zionists and plotted the Palestinian dispossession and disarmament. Palestinian resistance culminated in 1936 in the Great Rebellion, which lasted three years. The Rebellion was largely a spontaneous movement by small farmers and villagers against their impoverishment and dispossession. Many of them were being forced into urban centers, where they sought to subsidize their livelihood by working in cities like Haifa or Jaffa. In their oral histories of the period, refugees draw attention to the role played by local heroes, leaders, and martyrs, but reveal the failure to produce a national leadership to lead the anti-colonial struggle. They did not constitute a class in or for itself. The urban elites at the helm of economic and political power squandered the revolutionary potential, and most of the villagers, especially old-time fighters, scoffed at them as unfit. When I questioned a seasoned fighter on the role of the urban leaders, he told me in a mocking tone: "I do not know, I did not see them."

Closer to 1948, the situation was even worse. Stories transmitted in my own family portray the sense of loss and disarray. One such story is about Shefa’amr, the town near Haifa where my father’s family originates. Zionist forces occupied the town on the 14th of July, 1948. The historical irony of the date did not escape my uncle who narrated the story: it was Bastille Day, symbolizing the end of the French ancien regime. Two weeks prior to its occupation, my grandfather’s brother, Salim, along with other men from the small town, went to meet Taha Pasha al-Hashimi, who was appointed by the Arab League to lead the defense effort. Gripped with patriotic fervor, the dignified men requested defensive weapons to be positioned in a strategic location in town, known as al-Saraya. [4] Al-Hashimi raised his eyebrows in lazy surprise and nonchalantly asked: you mean the Jews have not occupied it yet? Shocked and mortified by the response, Salim went back home, his face betraying the dark clouds he portended, and told his family: Palestine is lost! [5]

And so it was. Bereft of leadership and traumatized, the most impoverished among the expelled Palestinians, now classified as refugees, sought shelter in camps. Political resistance against their abrupt dispossession was disorganized and, until the emergence of the PLO in the mid-sixties, most of them believed the Arab world (especially Nasser’s Egypt) would come to their rescue. During this period, there was no concerted effort or much interest in recording refugee oral histories, except as a source on "culture," understood then as the volkskunde or folklore, which was limited to folktales, marriage customs, food preservation, and so on. The elite and individual heroes were regarded as the authors of professional "history," in its dual meaning: as its makers and subjects on the one hand, and its objective writers and interpreters on the other.

The emergence of the Palestine Resistance Movement in the mid-sixties was a momentous event. By the late sixties, refugee camps were transformed into symbols of the revolution and the bases for the armed struggle. But all nationalists need to buttress their claims to self-determination and to mobilize supporters. They do so either by heralding a new kind of society, distinguished from the old, or by appealing for the restoration of the old: "as it was back then." Palestinian nationalism took the latter approach; it drew heavily on images from the rural hinterland, conceived as the real Palestine, with its pristine and timeless villages of origin and way of life. The past provided the blueprint for the future, albeit distant and hazy. Out of this context the refugee (former villager) was idealized as the preserver of an untainted pre-1948 culture, and as the fedayee or the freedom-fighter — the icon of the revolution. Not that there were no bases in the real world for such images, but these ideal constructs seemed to substitute and obscure socio-economic inequalities, and their marginalization in political decision-making processes.  

Nonetheless, reconstructing the pre-colonial past was an understandable defensive response against the enormous odds stacked against Palestinians: dispossession, dispersal, erosion of the Palestinian landscape, and the web of falsehoods and omissions disseminated by Zionists who claimed there were no Palestinian people deserving of nationhood. The response was to close ranks and protect history, as it were, and to engage in a politics of affirmation, against what Nur Masalha called the politics of denial. [6]

Politically, factional differences and internal disagreements within the PLO often prevailed over the strategic objectives of liberation. Many of the Palestinian unions, community organizations, and associations became factionalized. With the exception of smaller progressive factions, which introduced debates on class, gender, democracy, and social inequalities, the dominant Fatah praxis and ideology (or lack of it), led by Yasser Arafat, was conservative and entrenched relationships of patronage, and a culture of individual heroes and leaders, instead of popular participation and democratic processes.

In the heyday of the PLO, Palestinian writers, poets, activists, and scholars contributed to the process of recovering the past, centered around the land and its olives, oranges, thyme, cactus: that is, on the pre-1948 "peasant way of life". Refugee camps and villages served as ideal terrains where researchers and activists could find the original Palestine: its rurality, missing historical data, and of course romanticized militancy. To be a Palestinian patriot, entailed in large part the restoration and the preservation of what was and is being erased and fragmented. The refugee camp, stood as the symbol of this effort.

Following the signing of the Oslo agreements in the early nineties, oral history projects increased dramatically, and acquired a different political message. The "peace" agreements represented the straw that broke the PLO’s fragile back, the infrastructure of which had been destroyed during the Israeli invasion on Lebanon in 1982. The agreements were critical and represented an official political decision pertaining to the future of the nation as a whole, but were signed without consultation or popular consent. Worse yet, refugees and their rights were implicitly offered as a sacrifice at the negotiating table, despite lip service by PLO officials to the contrary. Among Oslo’s repercussions was the entrenchment of old schisms and the emergence of new ones, further fragmenting nation and territory between: inside and outside, for and against Oslo, 1948 refugees and the 1967 displaced, etc. By signing the Oslo agreements, the Palestinian leadership effectively dismembered the refugees from the new official national project. They were cast as external to the new strategic objective of building a statelet on the West Bank and Gaza. This constituted a fundamental setback in the history of Palestinian nationalism: in reshuffling priorities, the PLO leadership lost the consent of a significant segment of the population.

It is thus not surprising that refugees responded to their marginalization by spontaneously establishing committees to protect their rights, most importantly, their right of return in opposition to the PLO’s new political platform. These committees and coalitions spread within Palestine, in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and in many western countries. Even in Israeli society, an organization was formed with the name Zochrot, from the word "to remember," with the objective of raising awareness about the ethnic cleansing during al-Nakba. These refugee committees warned Arafat that the right of return is a sacred national tenet, not open for negotiation or confiscation in exchange for a statelet on the West Bank and Gaza.

Oral history projects in this period were inextricably linked to these political developments. These reaffirmed historical roots, belonging, and rights, and most importantly reinserted land and return as the cardinal principles that lie at the heart of the Palestinian national struggle. Scholars and activists now began producing standard questions to be used in hundreds of interviews to reconstruct as comprehensively as possible the histories of villages, urban neighborhoods, and al-Nakba. There are of course other reasons for these projects, such as the realization that the older generation was passing away. However, in my view such factors were less important than the political context.

Many scholars and activists now equipped not only with new theoretical or methodological tool kits, but also with new high-tech recorders and cameras, descended on refugee camps, or sought refugees elsewhere, to capture memories before they disappeared. These are now available in books, documentaries, films, and the internet. New ways and new places were found to archive the Palestinian past.

Despite these exciting and valuable contributions, there remains the nagging question: are we still using the refugee, the poor, or the marginal as palimpsests upon which Palestine’s history is etched, a resource we plunder? Do we regard him or her as an archive of memory, and not a subject of history? Similarly, do we approach refugee camps as symbols of pre-1948 villages untainted by time and the messy social networks that transcend their boundaries? In this context, I think we should also critically examine the PLO’s legacy: the effects that the monopoly on decision-making by the Fatah leadership have had on Palestinian society and its political culture, and the relationships that the PLO established with state and non-state institutions in the region, This is important because it bears on the relationships that emerge between researcher and refugees.

Without dismissing the great value of oral history projects in the Palestinian context, the critical point I want to make here is that we should not confuse them with "giving voice" to the marginal or oppressed. [7] In fact, we must constantly question whether as researchers we are partaking in that political legacy, by treating them as repositories burdened with wasted memories, unless we salvage them from extinction.

Palestinian oral histories, like all historical productions, are riddled with silences, including the refugees silences before us, betraying the differential access of agents to the means of historical production. [8] In an article on Peruvian peasants, Smith observed that the way the subaltern (the refugees in this case) talk to us about their history is quite different from the way they talk to each other about their history, day after day. The real silences, the author noted, are the hidden passages that link up the momentous events: 1936, 1948, and so on. We need to locate the institutions and practices that make articulations or silences possible in the present.[9]

Furthermore, is it not important to question why it took so long after 1948 to awaken to the value of popular memory, expressed in oral histories or other forms?  Is there a deeper malaise we need to examine pertaining to the institutional and structural causes that absents our subjects as actors and agents in "History"? Do we pay attention to what they think as opposed to only what they remember?

The histories I recorded in the mid-nineties expose the effects of the prolonged and the unrelenting ethnic cleansing. Such a history forms a growing burden of memory that concatenates successive generations: children frequently remember with and not only listen to their elders remembrances, infusing each others recollections with the images of wars, displacement, and discrimination. Refugee narratives also reveal the attempts to render coherent, visible, and accessible what is shattered, scattered, or no longer there, in order to present a unified and coherent identity. But the stories concurrently exposed class and gender oppression, schisms among families, and especially anger against the PLO leadership, which in their view used them as "fodder" to reap political and economic benefits. In short, refugees have a voice, but the leadership did not listen: that is, the PLO lacked the organizational structures, ideological framework, and political will to ensure popular democratic participation where the refugees could make their voices heard.

In 1995 I asked Imm Nabil, a Palestinian woman living in one of the refugee camps in Jordan, what she thought of Nelson Mandela. She answered: "He was in prison for a long time, many people were against him, but his people elected him. Our people did not choose, and we dont have a choice as to who represents us. If our people have the freedom to elect a real president that we can depend on, we can liberate Palestine, unlike this Yasser Arafat, who every time he utters a word, people start clapping and singing for him." The question remains: how do we link the past, with the political present, for a different future?

I will conclude with a quote from Fanons Wretched of the Earth where he correctly posited that:

"The struggle for freedom does not give back to the national culture its former value and shapes; this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of a people’s culture." [10]



1. On memory and the on-going Nakba see Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod, Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

2.Gerald Sider and Gavin Smith (eds.), Between History and Histories: The Making of Silences and Commemorations, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997, p. 15.

3. Ilana Feldman, "Home as a Refrain: Remembering and Living Displacement in Gaza," History & Memory, 18: 2, Fall/Winter 2006, pp. 10-47.

4. Al-Saraya is an old castle in town used as the centre of regional and local government during the Ottoman and British periods respectively.

5. The story was relayed to me by my uncle, Naji Farah, the author of Zikrayatun Muhajira, (Migrating Memories), which will be published by the Institute of Palestine Studies.

6. This is the title of Masalha’s book, The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem, London: Pluto Press, 2003.

7. See note 2

8. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, "Layers of Meaning in the Haitian Revolution," in Sider and  Smith, Between History and Histories, p. 38

9. Gavin Smith, "Peruvian Peasants and Re-covering the Past" in Sider and Smith, Between History and Histories.

10. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press, 1963, pp. 245-46.

Randa Farah is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario.

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