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New Texts Out Now: Anaheed Al-Hardan, Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities

Anaheed Al-Hardan, Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Anaheed Al-Hardan (AH): Much of the interdisciplinary literature that can be brought under the broad label of Middle East Studies continues to treat the region that is defined as the “Middle East” as the object of study, the place where the raw material and “culture” to be processed by the researcher is produced. In contrast, Europe remains the subject of history and universal theories through which the object of study is to be defined and understood. The writing of this book is located within the tradition of “speaking” or “writing back” to these colonial structures and normative ways of doing scholarship on West Asian societies and the Global South more generally. It is a book that is written by a Palestinian about a central Palestinian concern, and one that takes seriously what Arab and Palestinian thinkers and theorists have said about this concern as subjects of theory and history rather than as mere objects of knowledge. 

The central concern in question is the 1948 Nakba, which has at least since the 1993 Palestinian-Israeli Oslo Accords been advocated as the ultimate patriotic signifier of the Palestinian past and present. Rather than taking this assertion as a priori, this book asks the question “what is the Nakba?” It provides a counter-intuitive answer to that question by exploring the memories and histories of Palestinians in Syria. Prior to 2011, the Palestinian refugee community in Syria was not marked by repeated dispossessions and wars, as is the case elsewhere, and its members’ memories and narratives of 1948 were largely informed by being a part of one of the most socially- and politically -integrated of the Palestinian refugee communities in the Arab world. The post-2011 realities and shattering of this community as it had existed for more than six-decades now sadly mean that while this book was meant to be a sociology of the memory of the Nakba in Syria, it has now inadvertently also become a social history of the Palestinians in that country.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AH: There are four main issues that this book addresses. First, it rethinks the Nakba as a historically- and politically-contingent signifier. This means that how it has been invoked in Palestinian patriotic discourses is dislodged as the master signifier against which how people may choose to remember or narrate 1948 is measured. This is one of the main pitfalls of the Palestinian “memory boom” that has mushroomed over the last two decades. This is also hardly a radical proposition, yet in the emergent literature on the Nakba, 1948 is automatically translated into the singular catastrophic event that has defined the modern Palestinian experience. However, survivors of traumatic events and their descendants do not necessarily recollect these deeply personal and familial events in ways that confirm their nationalist or patriotic importance.

Second, the book addresses the question of memory studies’ Eurocentrism in which Palestine and the Nakba do not figure. Their elision in memory studies exists in inverse proportion to the figuration of European Jewish Holocaust memory. In this work, Israel is the supposed Holocaust refugee haven, with absolute silence on the annihilation, dispossession and continued repression of Palestinian society that Israel’s existence has entailed. Third, it takes seriously what Arab and Palestinian scholars have said about 1948 for the last seven-decades as one simply cannot make claims about Palestinians and Arab societies more generally without taking seriously their intellectual and theoretical production. It therefore thinks with these scholars, rather than produces a study about them. Finally, it addresses the question of Palestinians from Syria. To date there exists no comprehensive Arabic or English language academic study of the Palestinian experience in Syria even though the Palestinian experience in that country was an anomaly when compared to elsewhere.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AH: This book was written with a student, academic and a general and informed audience in mind. However, given the situation in Syria, and the trend towards increased research, I do hope that it is also read in journalist, humanitarian and policy circles. The impact that I’d like it to have is therefore two-fold. First, in relation to the issues and literatures addressed above, I would like it to impact the way writing about Palestinians is done. Methodologically, any researcher wishing to undertake a study of Palestinian society should be familiar with the literature produced on the research question by Palestinians (and not just what circulates in limited English language translation). This is standard practice when undertaking research on, for example, North American and European societies. In addition, the near absence of the Palestinian Syrian experience and the community’s post-2011 popularity in research circuits means that the research agenda should not necessarily be driven by suffering, misery, repeated dispossession and violence that unfortunately continues to attract many researchers and adventurers to Palestinian refugee camps, particularly in Lebanon. These methodological issues are particularly pertinent to researchers who claim solidarity as the basis of their undertakings. Who claims the research’s relevance and to what end or purpose will it be used, apart from furthering the researcher’s career? Second, I would like the book to impact the work of humanitarian workers and policy makers by providing them with the opportunity to consider the history and realities of a community that has been so abruptly transformed and one that many in fact know very little about. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AH: This book is grounded in decolonial, indigenous, and feminists of color methodologies, foregrounding the intellectual production of thinkers from the Global South, the researched as subjects rather than objects of knowledge, the researcher as part of, and not separate to, her knowledge claims, and so forth. Taking these particular research interests further, I am currently developing a new research project that explores decolonial theory as it has emanated from the experience of the Americas as the basis for a conversation with Palestinian and Arab thinkers. The idea is to engage in what decolonial theorists refer to as the shifting of the geography of reason, or to read social texts horizontally with other people who were formerly colonized, rather than vertically vis-à-vis Europe as we’ve been de facto doing for quite some time now. There is a lot to be learned when we think of our intellectual production and pre-occupations in relation to south-south philosophies of liberation and decolonization, and Beirut provides a particularly opportune location for this endeavor.     


From Chapter Five: The Guardians’ Communities

Damascus, June 11, 2008; June 21, 2008; Quneitira, April 17, 2008

I met Abu Ahmad for an interview he had kindly agreed to give me in downtown Damascus. His sharp irony and dry wit, like that of other Safadi interviewees and acquaintances, was ubiquitous during our interview, and charming. . . . These characteristics that I had come to associate with Safadis have their roots in Safad’s tough mountainous terrain, I was told time and again by Safadis and their children, a geographical reality that the people of Safad tried to replicate on the slopes of Mount Qasioun when they first came to Damascus, inhabiting heights that, as the story goes, no one but the Kurds dared to inhabit . . . “My father would tell me . . . we used to have dinner in Damascus, they would come here for dinner, and go back [to Safad]” . . . this geographical and material proximity of the two towns, related by the nephew of Fu’ad Hijazi,[1] was also articulated by others through reminders of the insignificant distance between Safad and Damascus . . . a proximity I could only imagine through the unmistakable Damascene dialect of Safadis, blurring the contours of the past proximity and present place of exile, collapsing the boundaries between time and space, a then in the now. . . . “There, behind Tal Abu al-Nada is the way to Safad,” . . . I was told by a Safadi, no longer with us, who left his birth- place as a four-year-old, after I recounted my trip to the ruins and rubble of Quneitira, and that hill and its menacing watchtowers looking down on us, standing between Safad and its people.

I first learned of the massacre at Kafr ‘Inan, Acre subdistrict, during my interview with the late Abu Khalil. His maternal uncle had heard news of the surrender of the village in nearby Yaquq and headed there, as they had relatives residing in the now occupied village. Upon his uncle’s arrival, he watched from a safe distance as fourteen men were selected from those who had surrendered and were executed by a four-man Zionist firing squad. After hearing the news of the massacre and the fate of her son, the mother of one of the murdered men returned to the site of the massacre after some six days. There, she loaded her son onto a donkey and took him back to the Syrian Golan with her. Despite being riddled with up to fifty bullets, Abu Khalil told me, the man became the sole survivor of that massacre. He recovered, married, and had children in Khan Eshieh Camp, where he would eventually die without ever returning to Kafr ‘Inan.

Later during my stay in Damascus, Umm Abdul ‘Aziz, who as a child fled Jubb Yusuf, Safad subdistrict, with her family following the Zionist onslaught against that village, narrated the same story. She too mentioned the man from the Mawasi tribe of Kafr ‘Inan who had survived despite being riddled with bullets. I asked her how she knew of the man’s survival. She told me they became neighbors in Jaramaya, a village in the Golan where her family had also sought refuge until it was occupied, depopulated, and destroyed by Israel in 1967 (U. Davis 1983). Later still, the same story was narrated by Abu ‘Ammar, who as a child had fled to the Golan with his family from Nasir al-Din, Tiberias subdistrict, after the Zionist attack on his village and yet another massacre (Abbasi 2008). He emphasized the same miraculous survival, the multiple bullet wounds, and the mother’s insistence on bringing her son to Syria.

The internal constants of this one storied memory within the larger memory of the Nakba are striking: the fifty bullets, the bullet to the mouth, the return of the mother on the donkey, and the miraculous survival. These details were also remembered and narrated by interviewees who hailed from adjacent subdistricts in historic Palestine, survived different Zionist onslaughts against their communities, had initially sought refuge in the Golan in Syria and had been uprooted for the second time during the Israeli occupation of the Golan in 1967. They were, at the time of these interviews, living in the Palestinian camps or communities that are in or surround Damascus. Today, some of the interviewees have passed away and others have been uprooted yet again as a result of the war.

There are two overlapping constants in this storied memory, which is precisely what makes it compelling. One is internal, within the storied memory itself. The other is external, across different shared times and spaces, in both historic Palestine and Syria, turning on the key dates of 1948 and 1967. How does one begin to understand the constants of these fantastical memories of what are essentially a series of catastrophic events? How does one understand these memories when these events are today collectively invoked as the one catastrophic and extraordinary event of “the Nakba” that is meant at once to commemorate, mark time and space, mobilize, and demand the return? To begin with, what is constant about these memories, the fantastical, makes impossible an absolute and fixed understanding of the series of catastrophic events of 1948 as the singular, extraordinary event of the Nakba. This is because the fantastical in this storied memory diminishes its “truth value” for those seeking to construct a positivist history and, indeed, the Nakba as counterhistory to the ongoing project of Zionist settler-colonization and erasure of Arab Palestine.

Yet it is precisely the fantastical and its internal and external constants that encapsulate the “truth value,” if one must be found, of the meaning of the survival of the man from the Mawasi tribe. To appreciate this, this one storied memory must be understood within the context of the physical destruction and death of Palestinian communities wrought in 1948, rather than the needs of positivist history and, indeed, law (Esmeir 2007). The witnessing of the massacre, the miraculous survival, and the mother’s implicit heroism also tell of the wanton destruction and killing that the Nakba as a series of catastrophic events brought upon different communities. They also tell of survival’s possibility only over the borders redrawn during 1948, and of women’s central role in reconstituting the uprooted and dispersed families and communities in exile. Thus, the miraculous survival speaks to the 1948 catastrophes as well as their enormity. These can be comprehended only through speaking of the fantastical and understanding survival itself as therefore fantastical.

Moreover, what is externally constant in this one storied memory is the possibility that despite the destruction of 1948, members of the generation of Palestine constitute communities whose symbolic contours are expressed through shared memories and a shared loss (Bellah et al. 2007; Butler 2003). This possibility can be read in these shared storied memories that revolve around 1948 and afterward as realized and narrated from within and despite uprooted and fractured temporalities and spatialities. The fantastical therefore also speaks to the shattering of the guardians’ times and spaces across historic Palestine, and the constitution of their communities’ fractured times and spaces in Syria. It also speaks to the survival of the guardians in communities in which the past and the present, survival and death, Palestine and Syria, coexist in nonlinear temporal and spatial realities. Against this, the guardians’ shared memories provide another meaning to the Nakba today. This is the Nakba understood not just as a singular, extraordinary event, but as a series of catastrophes visited upon their communities in 1948 and beyond. This meaning is embodied in their living communities and marks them as such.

[Excerpted from Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities by Anaheed Al-Hardan. Copyright (c) 2016 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.]

[1] Fu’ad Hijazi was one of the three men sentenced to death and hanged by the British in 1930 following the 1929 Buraq Wall, known as Wailing Wall in English, uprising in Jerusalem. The three have been commemorated as heroes and martyrs in folk songs and poetry (see, e.g., Boullata 1997).


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