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21 June 1999

Memory can turn men into heroes

Palestine's past has inspired ordinary citizens to play extraordinary roles. Will that be true for t

By Omar Al-Qattan

For an Arab, the war in Kosovo will conjure up images from a past that he or she either experienced directly or has often heard recounted since the Palestinians’ dispossession and expulsion from their country in 1948. The filing out of refugees has been imprinted on our collective memory and returns today, ironically and painfully, to remind us of the ethnic cleansing, the forced expulsions and the destruction of whole villages which, in the past half-century, the peoples of the region have experienced not only in Palestine but elsewhere in the Arab world.

In 1948 the Palestinians did not enjoy the kind of international protection afforded to the Kosovar Albanians by Nato. Nor did they enjoy any similar protection during 1967’s six-day war, in which another 170,000 refugees were forced to leave by Israel’s occupying troops. Today, with less than 3 per cent of their historic homeland under their immediate sovereignty, clinging to empty accords that have not been implemented, and governed by a Palestinian Authority that can at best be described as impotent and corrupt, they are faced with another challenge as they try to come to terms with the events of their recent history. Among the many Israeli conditions imposed on them in Oslo, the Palestinian Authority agreed to eradicate from school curricula all materials which may be deemed to incite hostility to Israel. And since the accords, the Israelis have not hesitated to goad the PA with this ambiguous clause, objecting to a range of materials, from references to the Intifada to the 1948 expulsion. In other words, the Palestinians are faced with the prospect of being forced to eliminate their collective memory.

But this has not happened. The authority can adjust the curriculum or ban unwanted books from publication and distribution, but to eradicate a national collective memory is virtually impossible. Who is better placed to know this than the Jewish people?

Yet a collective memory or experience is complex and elusive, constantly changing with time. There is no single collective memory or single experience lived by hundreds of thousands of people together. Memory is the arch-enemy of reality, because reality, by its very nature, is proof of its passing. Yet sometimes memory and reality seem to combine to mobilise whole peoples for a struggle against injustice or oppression.

When I see the faces of the Kosovar refugees today, I try to imagine them in 50 years’ time. What if the Milosevic – and, sadly, the KLA – ethnic logic were finally to prevail, not militarily but politically, engendering a compromise solution under which only a limited number of Albanians are allowed to return or stay, and by which Kosovo is divided in two, as happened in Palestine in 1948?

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What if, 50 years from now, a Kosovar were to return to his or her destroyed homeland, as my father did recently?

His last visit to his birthplace, Jaffa, had been in 1948, when he left it to join the American University in Beirut. In that year the city surrendered to the Jewish forces on 13 May. Before its surrender, Jaffa had been one of Palestine’s largest and wealthiest cities, with a population in excess of 120,000. Indeed in the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine, the city had been given to the Arabs although it lay at the heart of the nascent Jewish state. As soon as the British government announced its intention to pull out of Palestine, Jaffa became the theatre of some of the most vicious fighting between the poorly armed Palestinian irregulars and both the Haganah and Irgun militias.

By the time it surrendered Jaffa had become a city of ghosts, its inhabitants dwindling to three or four thousand. The Haganah – which two days later was to become the official Israeli army – ordered all the remaining Palestinians to assemble in one neighbourhood, Ajami, where for over a year they were surrounded with barbed-wire fences and forbidden to leave. Indeed until the six-day war in 1967, a Jaffite could not leave his or her home town without a special military permit; and until just over a year ago, Tel Aviv municipality, which had annexed Jaffa, would very rarely issue an Arab with a building permit to erect or refurbish his or her house.

Jaffa soon turned into the impoverished, drug-infested prostitution capital of Israel, its beautiful mix of Ottoman and European architecture fast crumbling into a shabby mess. Thousands of homes – previously owned by those the Israelis called “absentees” – were either confiscated and handed over to new Jewish immigrants or simply bulldozed. The old port-city was also emptied and converted into an ugly touristy sprawl of cheap restaurants and cafes, with large information panels telling of a mythical Jewish history of the city in which the Arabs figure, at best, as mere passers-by.

My father’s immediate wish on arriving here was to go and look for the house in which he had last lived. We set off for the Jabalieh neighbourhood, where, my father explained, his home had stood near a little mosque and close to the Ayyubieh school (which still stands). He also remembered that in front of it there used to stand a sycamore tree.

We had no sooner approached the first few streets of Jabalieh than he immediately and without the slightest hesitation recognised the house: “This is it. I’m certain. We lived on the second floor. This is our house, where my father died. Here is the sycamore tree, here is the school, here is the mosque, and that’s the road which leads to the Shabab beach, where we would swim. It’s extraordinary. Here I am, as if I were looking at it 50 years ago. But where are the other houses? The street used to be full of houses.” Where we looked, in the direction he was pointing, a whole side of the street stood empty of buildings.

This is Jaffa today: patches here and patches there, where once there stood houses and shops. My father’s beautiful Ottoman house had recently been bought at an auction by the brother of the former Israeli minister of absorption – the absorption, that is, of new Jewish immigrants to Israel. (Auctions are regularly held to sell “absentee property”, though bribery and clever manoeuvring by the authorities ensure that these houses are rarely sold back to an Arab.)

I am not sure why my father chose to speak to us of his father’s death in this house – how he had been called back from boarding school in Jerusalem to bid him farewell, how he had brought the doctor from the municipal hospital (which has also been razed) to examine my grandfather for the last time. Is it, I wondered, because a father’s death is one of the most important ruptures in our life, when we are overwhelmed with fear of losing the past but then filled with a feeling of liberty and relief?

On our way back to Jerusalem, where we were staying, I wondered why I had been surprised at my father’s almost incantatory reminder of his father’s death. Was it because we had both failed to secure our continuous existence on this land? Or was it that both his and my generation have known nothing but defeat and civil war?

Over the years of their long exile and dispersal, Palestinians experienced a series of profound changes. A relatively simple and poor society became a strange mixture of individuals, filled with extreme contradictions. You can find an astonishing array of achievements, but also of great backwardness – refreshing, even defiant, openness to the world, as well as tenacious conservatism. These contradictions have not been attenuated by the return, since the Oslo accords, of several thousand exiled Palestinians.

In 1990 my father had resigned as a member of the Palestinian National Council, primarily to voice his objection to Yasser Arafat’s support of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. This led to an almost total break in his previously cordial relationship with Arafat. Nonetheless, soon after my father’s arrival in Palestine, an invitation to lunch from the Palestinian president arrived. Arafat received us at his Ramallah headquarters with his usual theatrical warmth, surrounded by his entourage of guards and aides. We were then invited to lunch at a very long table and joined by at least 20 of his men (no women, of course).

Over lunch the conversation was rather formal and naturally covered the political situation and the peace process. As I listened, I noticed something disturbing in the faces of Arafat’s men: a combination of naive goodness and nervous obsequiousness. I then realised what it was. They were all in awe of their spiritual father, Arafat, fearing his anger yet – like a group of disgruntled adolescents – resentful and hateful of his authority.

Is Palestine – or rather the Palestinians – ruled by this group of adolescents and their authoritarian father, whose strength lies in keeping secrets from them (no one, for example, except Arafat knows exactly how much money the authority actually has) while holding them hostage to a state of nervous anticipation as to the nature of his next act?

Is the whole of Palestinian society a prisoner of its “father”‘s secretive and whimsical authority?

Whether secretly or openly, every Palestinian must have asked his or her parents the same question: why did you leave? I imagine that the answer always comes in two stages: first there are the obvious explanations: the threats, the bombs, the rumours of massacres, the deaths of loved ones, as well as the fear of rape, the traditional Palestinian’s paramount loss of honour. Then, after a moment’s silence, there comes the doubt, as he or she examines his or her memories, which have, perhaps, begun to fade. Guilt then sets in, embarrassment, a whispering, nagging scepticism: what if I had been cowardly, what if . . . ? But then the memories disappear, the questions evaporate and life returns to its normal ebb and flow. Today I imagine the same question gradually taking shape in the minds of the Kosovar children.

My father, during his trip to Palestine, repeated to me an Arabic saying: the child is his father’s secret. How then do we turn our memories into a plan for the future? How can we convert our nostalgia into a struggle; how can we liberate ourselves from the clasps of an oppressive father who will not let go of the present – and here the faces of Arafat’s aides return to me – and rebel, so that we may lead a life of dignity?

It is impossible to return to point zero, to eliminate everything that has happened and retrieve the illusory moment of purity of which every adolescent dreams, for this would amount to nothing more than a vain attempt to cancel the past. Yet after this trip to the past with my father, I understood that the moment of his father’s death had clung to him not merely because of the love he had for him but also because it represented the point of a new departure. This self-made man never let the past occupy his consciousness and he managed to convert his longing for his homeland into a challenge that led him to become one of the most effective supporters of his people’s fight for justice.

When, I wonder, will the Palestinians and the Kosovars reach this level of awareness?

Omar Al-Qattan was born of Palestinian parents in Beirut in 1964. He is a film director and producer and is currently adapting Tony Hanania’s novel “Homesick” for the screen, as well as writing a feature-length film on the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians

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