Oxford University Press
Catastrophe Remembered: Palestine, Israelandthe Internal Refugees. By Nur Masalha. London and New York: Zed Books, 2005. 300 pp. Softbound, $27.50.
Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory. By Ahmad H. Sa’diLila Abu-Lughod. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 356 pp. Softbound, $27.50.
Voices: Palestinian Women Narrate Displacement. Recording and text by Rosemary Sayigh, Web site creation by Borre Ludvigsen. Halden, Norway: Al-Mashriq, 2005/2007. http://almashriq.hiof.no/palestine/300/301/voices/index.html.

Moderating a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian historians in Paris in 1998, [Edward] Said explained in few sentences, and in a very patient voice, to the attentive public at large, and to the less attentive Israeli historians in particular, what a “historical document ” was … he pointed us to the vitality and significance of oral history in the reconstruction of the past. The most horrific aspects of the Nakbah —the dozens of massacres that accompanied the ethnic cleansing —as well as a detailed description of what expulsion had been from the expelled’s point of view, can only be built when such a historiographical position is adopted.2

In the past twenty years, since Palestinian scholar Edward Said extolled the virtues of oral history, it has been moved from the margins to the center of Palestinian historiography. Projects have abounded in historic Palestine (both in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories [OPT]), in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, and among Palestinians and their allies in the diaspora. The resulting oral histories have been published in Arabic, Hebrew, and English in books, journals, on the Web, and even broadcast over the radio. The vast majority focus on the nakba (the [End Page 68] catastrophe) that occurred with the founding of the state of Israel when close to one million Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear from more than 400 villages that were ultimately destroyed, and countless others were killed.3

Palestinian oral history, of course, did not start with Said’s call. As the editors of the 2002 special oral history edition of Al-Jana noted, individual oral history projects were being undertaken even before the 1980s, when more projects began to develop with institutional support, especially by nongovernmental organizations.4 One of the earliest ambitious efforts, first proposed in 1979 by Kamal Abdulfattah and Sharif Kanaana, was launched with the publication of a monograph series by Birzeit University in 1985. Stopped when the Israeli occupation forces closed all Palestinian universities, the series work was resumed in 1993 under the direction of Saleh Abdel Jawad. Adopting a more empirical historical approach than the earlier anthropological work, new interviews were added that became a source of documentation to be checked against other records.5 After another hiatus, today the Birzeit oral history program is being resuscitated with a less positivist and more subjective life history approach.6

A compelling characteristic of the Palestinian oral history endeavor from its inception has been its popular and grass roots basis with direct participation of displaced villagers. The oral histories produced by village associations or village authors are akin to Latin American testimonios where the individual narrative stands for the collectivity. In fact, the collective “we” is often invoked, rather than the first person pronoun, much like Rigobertu Menchu’s explicit statement that hers was not her story, but the story of her people.7 The danger, of course, is that the collective voice might assume an authority that mutes experiences that are at variance, thereby producing accounts that appear not only uncomplicated but also mask internal differences and even struggle. Additionally, as noted by Rosemary Sayigh, gender, class, and religious differentiations were also largely ignored, as Rema Hammami definitively documents with regard to women.8 Additionally, because the destroyed villages are iconic of the devastation wrought by the nakba, the experience of the 40% of the population who were urban is also underrepresented. Some of the oral histories used in the three publications under consideration here are a corrective to this leveling, at least with regard to women and the urban dwellers.

The practice of Palestinian oral history also has parallels to work in South Africa. The goal is not only to recover/preserve the past by collecting accounts of the nakba experience, but also by documenting their villages in the narratives, refugees are establishing the legitimacy of claims —claims that might be used as the basis for implementing UN Resolution 194 guaranteeing the return to their lands or compensation for their loss. This simultaneous embrace of the past and nod to the future is also embodied in what Rosemary Sayigh refers to as the “procreative” work that engages youth, especially in the refugee camps.9

Although nakba oral history gradually gained scholarly status and also captured the popular imagination, the fiftieth anniversary of al-Nakbah in 1998 marked a decisive turning point. With state-building underway in the OPT, an official project was launched and oral histories and testimonials were broadcast over the airwaves and published in the semiofficial Palestinian media. As Rema Hammami notes, “for the first time, Palestinians witnessed a collective and public commemoration in which the Nakba was marked off as a national ritual —as opposed to a series of texts and private memories. ”10 [End Page 69] With the heightened awareness that the generation with direct experience of the nakba was beginning to die, oral history projects began to proliferate. The most ambitious of these is the privately funded Palestine Remembered Oral History Project launched in Jordan in 2002. Today, 342 videotaped oral histories (1253 h) with refugees from fourteen different towns have been mounted on the Web.11 The Nakba Archive, launched in the same year in Lebanon by Diana Allan, has also been videotaping oral histories.12 Although the interviews amassed over the last several decades in a variety of projects are mainly in Arabic, there also has been a growing body of English language literature produced. Until recently, however, even this literature was not widely available to a more general audience, published mainly in specialized academic journals like the Journal of Palestine Studies or in magazines published in the Arab world like Al Jana (Lebanon) or al-Majdal (Palestine).

Now, with the approach of the sixtieth anniversary of the nakba in 2008, more publications are appearing in the English-speaking world and more Web-based oral history projects have been launched. Here I will discuss two recent print books and a Web-book. These complement each other nicely, particularly because they are based on different uses and presentations of oral history and also include narrative excerpts from all three segments of the Palestinian collectivity: the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Palestinians in the OPT, and those in the diaspora, particularly the refugee camps.

Nakba is a brilliant compilation of essays by mainly young diasporic Palestinians that explores “claims of memory,” drawing especially on oral history. Quite fittingly the book is an homage to Edward Said and also to the less well-known Palestinian scholar, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, who returned to Palestine and dreamed of building a “Memory Museum.” Published earlier, Catastrophe Remembered, which is also dedicated to the memory of Edward Said, explicitly devotes the entire middle section of the book to oral history. While both books draw largely on the memories of the destroyed villages, Catastrophe Remembered focuses on the accounts of the internally displaced who are citizens of Israel—those whom Israel designates as “present absentees.”

Published by the decidedly left Zed Press, Catastrophe Remembered is both less theoretical and more pointedly political than Nakba. In fact, use of the English word “catastrophe ” in the title, rather than the Arabic nakba, seems to be a deliberate political decision to reach an English-speaking audience and draw their attention to the plight of the more invisible Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. Decisions about language also figure into the design of the Voices Web-book, which is based on the oral histories collected by anthropologist/oral historian, Rosemary Sayigh. With only four exceptions, these interviews are in Arabic with an English transcript at the opening of each interview.

The target audience of the three works is not the same, as reflected both in how much context is provided and the accessibility and clarity of the language. Catastrophe Remembered sets the stage for its central core on oral history and memory with a very detailed and helpful introductory section to the book —an important palliative to the relatively unknown history of the one-fifth of the indigenous population who remained and became citizens of Israel despite their displacement and dispossession. Unfortunately, some of these introductory chapters are a bit repetitive. At the other end of the spectrum, both the Voices Web-book [End Page 70] and Nakba assume familiarity with the history of the nakba. In an odd twist, the reader of Nakba is referred to the Afterword to gain this knowledge, and similarly the Introduction to Voices is placed at the end of the Web-book. Although the latter is more about the journey of the author/oral historian and does not provide a useful historical context, the introduction to each of the interviews does.

Regardless of the differences in tone and presentation, in their own way each of these three publications contributes enormously to Palestinian historiography and literature and brings to an English-speaking/reading audience both a respect for the role that oral history plays outside the West and a deeper understanding of the way that al-nakbah is the central marker defining Palestinian national/ethnic identity. The significance of this marker is brilliantly argued by Lena Jayyusi in her Nakba chapter and is brought home forcefully in the Voices Web-book.

Web-book is an appropriate description for Voices since it is not designed to be interactive with a search capability. Rather, it is a well-designed site that employs digital technology to stream the voices of the narrators in their original language with accompanying text and images. Because of her original background in anthropology, where field notes are a sine qua non, oral historian Sayigh thoroughly documents the interview process in an engaging and engaged narrative introduction to each interview. Coupled with the contemporary photographs of both the locations and the narrators, there is an immediacy to the oral histories. Even if the Web-book “reader” does not understand the mainly Arabic narratives, the textual materials and translated opening of each interview, along with the performative cues in the accompanying audio, help deepen understanding of the narratives. Because of the flexibility afforded by the digital design of this site, it is possible that additional contextual materials and an index could be added. Indeed, some of the explanatory text is still in progress.

Part I of the Web-book, “The Voices,” is divided into four sections based on where the narrators were living at the time of the interviews, between 1998 and 2000: Gaza, West Bank, Israel (1948 Palestine), and Jerusalem. By and large, this organizing principle, driven by the focus on displacement, does not lend itself to a deeper understanding of the nakba experience of people from a specific location—a problem further compounded by the lack of an index of place names. Most of the interviews average a little over 1 h, and although the majority of them start with a recounting of the 1948 nakba experience, the focus on multiple displacements led to the inclusion of narrators who have been displaced even very recently as a result of the Israeli home demolitions or imprisonment.

Among the most moving of the nakba accounts of multiple displacements are those of two women who fled the shooting and shelling of the Jerusalem suburb of Lifta with their families and the Bedouin women. The Lifta women describe an idyllic existence in Lifta until the shelling began. Indeed, anyone who has seen the site of the village of Lifta can conjure up an image of what life must have been like. Unlike some of the more arid villages, Lifta was located in a rock canyon with a stream running through it, nourishing their trees. Most of the residents who fled settled together atop a hill outside Jerusalem, where Hebrew University built its campus. In 1973, more land was obtained to expand the dormitories and now the remaining surviving Lifta residents, including Haji Aysha Aqel, are threatened with eviction and displacement again —but this time without the shelling. [End Page 71] Not surprisingly, there is a similarity to the nakba accounts of peasant refugees in both the Gaza and the West Bank sections, on the one hand, and the urban dwellers from Yaffa (Jaffa) in the Israel section, on the other. The Bedouin accounts stand in sharp contrast to both these collective experiences. Often ignored in the Palestinian narrative, the inclusion here of the Bedouin narrative—especially of women —is a significant contribution to Palestinian oral history.13 Their accounts document unrelenting hardship, particularly since most are not registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and do not receive any benefits. They have also experienced continuous displacement to this day, being forcibly removed from each new settlement they established as the Israelis evicted them to build illegal settlements or simply to use the land. Umm Muhammad, estimated to be close to hundred years old, lives alone in a shack with few amenities on the outskirts of Bureij village close to the militarized border separating Gaza from the Negev. Unlike the collective experience of flight, she was alone with two young children when her settlement in Beer Sheba was attacked. In desperation, she tied the children’s arms together around her neck and ran.

While the graphic descriptions of expulsion and flight leaves the listener/reader deeply moved, and perhaps shocked and outraged, the way that those memories are often triggered by sensory cues is more subtly evocative. Suad Andraos, one of three sisters featured in the Israeli section, recounts in English the mixture of awe, fear, and anxiety she felt as a child as the “lorries” left Yaffa driving in the dark night to some unknown destination:

We stopped in a place, and we were rounded up, and given —all sleeping on the floor. And the people we were with, the Bedouin who took us in gave us tea, and it was mint tea. I vividly remember the taste. Every time I drink mint tea I recall that night. And lots and lots of mosquitos.14

The long-lasting effect of the nakba experience evokes much harsher memories than these for Hajji Umm Salah al-Yassini, the oldest survivor of the well-known Deir Yassin massacre of April 8, 1948. There is not a day when she does not think or dream of the massacre. Afterwards, she was temporarily struck by dumbness and, even now, as she was speaking, Rosemary Sayigh noted an occasional look of absence in her eyes.

Rosemary Sayigh and her collaborators successfully moved women from the margins to the center of the nakba narrative in their Palestinian Women Narrate Displacement Web-book. This was no small feat, particularly since so many male Palestinian historians discount women’s ability to contribute to the narrative. One of them told her in no uncertain terms that “women ‘don’t remember’ because of early marriage, the hijra (migration), bearing many children and bringing them up. ”15 Not only does the Voices web-book bring us valuable insights through women’s voices and prove the male historians wrong, but it also raises the bar on the Palestinian practice of oral history with its careful documentation of process. Hopefully, it will also provide an incentive for others to launch their oral histories on the Web, particularly the voices of nonelite narrators.

Like the Voices Web-book, Catastrophe also foregrounds the experiences of a largely ignored population: the internal Palestinian refugees, some of whose stories are also included in the Web-book. These refugees, whom the Israeli government [End Page 72] refers to with the oxymoronic designation of “present absentees,” were not only displaced during the nakba as their villages were forcibly evacuated and destroyed but others joined their ranks in the decade after 1948. This latter group, particularly the Bedouin among them, was the target of internal transfer and eviction, land expropriation, and home demolitions. In addition to providing valuable historical background on both the Israeli policies toward the internal refugees and on their indigenous resistance, Catastrophe also illustrates how oral history can both contribute to the historical record and play a role in consciousness raising and political advocacy. Its role in creating a more comprehensive historical record cannot be overestimated due to the demographics of the Palestinian population at the time of the nakba, when almost two-thirds of the population was largely nonliterate peasants.

Part I, “Evolving Israeli Policies and Indigenous Resistance, ” sets the stage for understanding the experiences of the internal refugees who comprise one-fourth of the Palestinian citizens of Israel today. These introductory chapters undoubtedly will be an eye-opener for most Western readers who have little knowledge of the Palestinians who remained and became citizens of Israel. Governed by a Military Administration from 1948–66, during those eighteen years and until today, they were the target of a series of policies designed to transfer Palestinian peasants and expropriate their land for Jewish settlement.16

Like most of the displaced peasants, the nomadic Bedouin of the Negev were also stripped of their traditional way of life. Numbering from 65,000 to 90,000 from ninety-five tribes in the early 1940s, by the end of the nakba in 1948, only eleven tribes remained. The rest were forced to resettle into townships—a process that continues to this day. Until recently, their plight was not part of either the Israeli or the Palestinian narrative, so the discussion of the Bedouin experience in Catastrophe marks an important development. Unfortunately, despite this discussion in Part I, no oral history chapter follows, which makes the interviews with several Bedouin women in the Voices Web-book all the more significant.

Because the lasting impact of the nakba cannot be separated from the reality on the ground today, the discussion of indigenous resistance in Part I will help broaden the readers’ perspective on the “Arab-Israeli” peace process. Indeed, in the 1990s following the Madrid Conference and subsequently the Oslo Accords, both the internally displaced as well as the larger Palestinian collectivity inside Israel were mobilized by the realization that they were being left out of the discussions. As Nihad Boqa’i discusses in Chapter 3, history and memory have become a critical component of their struggle, and recent activities to rediscover their village of origin has captured the imagination of the second and third generations. Oral history and public actions at the site of destroyed villages are common. These are the subject of Part II: Palestinian Oral History and Memory.

Mahmoud Issa and William Dalrymple each focus on a single disappeared/destroyed village in their chapters, the former on Lubya, the latter on Kafr Bir’im. Noting the historical roots of oral testimony in Islamic scholarship, Issa is the only contributor to Catastrophe to talk about oral history methodology, albeit cursorily. Although he started his work in Denmark with refugees from his home village of Lubya, once he became a Danish citizen, he was able to go to Israel to interview internally displaced men and women there. Like so many nakba narratives, peasant life before the [End Page 73] nakba is painted as rather idyllic, but in a very welcome change Issa teased out much more realistic accounts, quoting selections from interviews that document disputes and conflict as well.

The oral histories of the Christian village of Kafr Bir’im that Dalrymple recorded were done in a group setting with men of the village who were assembled by Father Bishara Suleiman, the Maronite parish priest in Jish, where these villagers had relocated. Suleiman recounts that the villagers were not fearful and did not flee because of their past good relations with both the Jews and British. However, after fifteen days, during which the Haganah soldiers occupied some of the houses in a nonhostile manner, an evacuation order was issued. Eventually, after five years, the villagers won their court case. Regardless, on the very day they thought that they were going to return to their homes, the Israeli army declared the area a military zone and destroyed the village by aerial bombardment. Banging his fist on the table, Wadeer recounts what happened:

All the villagers went up onto that hill and watched the bombing of their homes. They call it the Crying Hill now because everyone from Kafr Bir’im wept that day. Everything they owned was still in those houses.


Today, like so many of the other evacuated and destroyed villages, Kafr Bir’im is a national park. At its entrance, a sign in English and Hebrew reads “Bar’am Antiquities.” Instead of an acknowledgment that the stones scattered about are remnants of the Palestinian homes, references are made to Roman history. Indeed, as Father Suleiman notes, there were ruins of a Roman-period church in their village, but Wadeer explains that a well alleged to have been built by Yohanan of Bar’am in the first century was a well that he and his father built. “We’ve been edited out of history,” Father Suleiman laments.

With its nonlinear narrative incorporating “snippets” from oral histories, Isabelle Humphries’ “Tales of Refuge in Nazareth,” is the most satisfying chapter from a literary perspective and also the most frustrating. She moves back and forth between her contemporary visits to various sites in Nazareth and nearby villages and very short passages about 1948. Two themes that emerge very clearly despite the fragmented narrative and the very short snippets are the silence of the 1948 generation, on the one hand, and the reviving of memory by the later generations, on the other.

The silence that has persisted until very recently is captured poignantly by Umm Muhammad, whose parents, like survivors of the Nazi holocaust, never spoke of their experiences. Recounting a childhood experience in the school that she attended along with Jewish children of a kibbutz, she notes what happened when the Arab teacher asked the children “Who can sing a nice song? ”

I put up my hand and started to sing a nationalistic song in Arabic. The smile immediately dropped from the Arab teacher’s face and she silenced me in anger. I was ten years old and I just thought it was a pretty song. I didn’t know it was dangerous talk.


Umm Muhammad learned her lesson well and, in turn, never spoke to her own daughter about her experience. Later, when she herself was a teacher, she could not even say the word Filastin (Palestine) noting: “Everywhere it was forbidden to talk about it. Too many were arrested when they spoke about it. ” [End Page 74]

While other authors mainly allude to how the third generation is breaking the silence, Humphries talks with those organizing the displaced villagers of Suffuriyya, many of whom are clustered in a single neighborhood in the city of Nazareth. Under the leadership now of Nazarenes in their late twenties, a variety of memorial activities have been organized, and at the 2002 annual festival, testimonies with the older generation were filmed at the site of the village —now a national park surrounded by barbed wire. Instead of being turned into a national park, the former village of ‘Ayn Hawd became the artist colony of ‘Ein Hod. British journalist and Nazareth resident Jonathan Cook discusses the lengths to which Jewish Israelis go to suppress any awareness of the nakba and the previous residency of the Palestinians.

Challenging this denial, the Jewish Israeli organization Zochrot, founded in 2002, organizes joint Jewish and Palestinian Israeli tours to the destroyed villages. As part of the tour, booklets about the village are distributed which include Hebrew translations of villagers ’ oral histories.17 In “The Nakba in Hebrew: Israeli-Jewish Awareness of the Palestinian Catastrophe and Internal Refugees,” Eitan Bronstein recounts a dramatic confrontation during a tour of Jewish Israelis and displaced Palestinians to al-Majdal. The temporary and symbolic reclaiming of the site by the placing of a paper street sign in Arabic next to the Hebrew sign led to a shouting and pushing match between Moshe, the current Jewish resident, and Shadiah, the displaced woman villager. Even though the placement of the paper sign alongside the Hebrew street plaque represented a symbolic act of coexistence, not replacement, Moshe became enraged and pulled it down. Ultimately, after Shadiah asserted her historical tie to the site, Moshe put the sign back up and offered Shadiah a glass of water. She took his extended hand and shook it. Even though their reconciliation was only temporary and Moshe’s action was more likely motivated by the rolling of the TV cameras, Bronstein takes this as a hopeful sign that a dent can be made in Jewish Israeli consciousness.

Less overtly political, Nakba: Palestine, 1948 and the Claims of Memory is the most scholarly of the three works discussed here, complete with an exhaustive bibliography. However, as coeditor Lila Abu-Lughod notes in her introduction, “Palestinian memory is, at its heart, political” (8). Although many of the essays in Nakba, authored mainly by anthropologists, are brilliant and beautifully crafted—almost lyrical —it is unfortunate that some are burdened by the impenetrable language adopted by many younger scholars. Oral history narratives, rather than being foregrounded, are mainly the basis for theorizing and interpreting public memory. I will frame the discussion here around the themes that are most striking in the three sections of the book and focus mainly on those chapters that either offer distinctly different insights or that raise questions about theorizing without adequately accounting for the vicissitudes of the oral history process.18

The chapters in Part I, “Places of Memory” are all artfully and clearly written. Susan Slyomovics focuses on the village of Qula and a rape there cited by Israeli revisionist historian Benny Morris and the insistence of former Birzeit Documentation Centre director, Saleh Abdel Jawad, that he cannot recall a single villager’s oral history that substantiated such a claim.19 Slyomovics surmises that the victim was probably killed to silence her and assumes that there would not/could not be any oral history record. A different conclusion might have been reached, however, had she explored the gendered nature of the Qula interviews and the interpretation of them. To find [End Page 75] subtle, coded references to the rape would require, first, that women’s narratives figured in the sample of villagers interviewed. Even more critically, women’s narratives would have to be carefully and sensitively heard, listening to both the subtleties of local dialects and narrative performance—not the kind of process embraced by a program that approached oral history as a positivist empirical methodology.

The transitory journeys of renowned Palestinian scholar, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, to his hometown of Jaffa (Yaffa) and the memories and stories those evoked are the subject of his daughter’s very personal and moving essay. Necessarily transitory during his lifetime, her father’s return is final after his death, when his funeral and burial are held in Jaffa after difficult negotiations with the Israeli authorities. In what is mainly an homage to her father, coeditor Lila Abu-Lughod intersperses her narrative in “Return to Half Ruins ” with the stories she heard since childhood that were also recorded in an oral history that was done of her father. He, in turn, dreamed of building a Museum of Memory in Palestine and conducted oral histories with other intellectuals.

Oral histories with members of the urban population, professional classes, and intellectuals are unusual in the Palestinian nakba literature. As Rochelle Davis points out in “Mapping the Past,” the emphasis on village life makes a more forceful claim to the land lost in the wake of the nakba. This claim is very clearly staked out in the village memorial books that rely heavily on oral histories. For those not familiar with Slyomovics ’ earlier groundbreaking work, this very evocative chapter will shed light on a source unfamiliar to most.20 More than sixty of these books, averaging 150–200 pages, have been published mainly by the authors or in conjunction with village organizations. With their precise drawings of houses often labeled with the family name of the residents, mosques, churches, wells, stores, and public places, these memorial books help individuals define themselves as Palestinians and as belonging to a particular village.

The collective/communal nature of nakba oral histories as well as the inextricable linking of past and present are recurring themes of the essays in Part II, “Modes of Memory.” Despite the opaque writing that marks Lena Jayyusi’s “Iterability, Cumulativity and Presence,” by introducing narratives about the 2002 murderous assault on Jenin, she successfully illustrates how the past is within the present and the present is a continuation of the past. Like others, she notes how this intertwining also articulates with the future, thus providing a nexus between memory and agency. Haim Bresheeth also treats this seamless interweaving of past, present, and future in his analysis of the documentary films made by Palestinian Israelis. In “ The Continuity of Trauma and Struggle: Recent Cinematic Representations of the Nakba,” he explores how the films made after the Al Aqsa intifada of 2000 shifted away from a focus on the nakba as the ultimate catastrophe, with the village of Suffuriyya, a frequent iconic symbol. In its place, Jenin—home to 14,000 refugees from 56 different towns and villages —came to epitomize a nakba that continues for a whole lifetime.

This continuing nakba is also at the heart of the narratives of the women in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, the site of the 1982 massacre. In “Women’s Nakba Stories: Between Being and Knowing, ” pioneering oral historian Rosemary Sayigh analyzes the structure and style of the eighteen life histories she recorded [End Page 76] with camp women. The women who were adults at the time of the nakba, known as the “Generation of Palestine,” were more likely to use the collective voice—“we” rather than “I.” Both this generation and the women who were youngsters at the time of nakba, known as the “Generation of Disaster,” mainly began their life histories not with birth but with expulsion. The narratives of these two older generations are largely marked by hesitancy, are nonlinear, and organized more thematically. They also tended to mirror the form of folk tales. It was not until the next generation, the “Generation of Revolution” born in the camp, that the narrative usually became a more smoothly flowing descriptive account tied to national history and was delivered in the first person. Not universally determined by age and education, Sayigh cites Umm Ghassan as a paradigm breaker whose narrative is both tied to national history and storytelling artistry.

Contrary to Sayigh’s finding that the older generation tended to start with expulsion and work backwards, in her chapter “The Politics of Witness ” in Part II, Diana Allan found that many life histories of the older generation in Shatila began in the present and worked back. In a footnote, she surmises that the political context of when the oral history was conducted might explain this difference, mistakenly dating Sayigh’s oral histories back to 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the nakba. Although the interviews were actually conducted from 1990 to 1992, the point Allan raises about the significance of political context cannot be ignored, as brilliantly argued by Ted Swedenburg in reference to the interviews he conducted on the 1936 –39 revolt.21 Indeed, influenced by Swedenburg’s work, I took a fresh look at some of my interviews conducted repeatedly with the same women activists in OPT from 1989 to 1994 and revised my interpretation of how feminist consciousness evolved during the first intifada.22

While the political context in which oral histories are conducted might have a variable impact on both men’s and women’s oral histories, there is a certain constancy to the themes of women’s narratives that detail their everyday experience of the catastrophe. In “Gender of Nakba Memory,” Isabelle Humphries and Laleh Khalili point to the silencing of memories of atrocities against women, on the one hand, and the centrality of themes related to women’s roles as reproducers, caretakers, and community networkers, on the other. Stories revolving around the loss of their gold bridal jewelry abound and parallel men’s loss of land. When the jewelry was saved and used to assure the survival of their family, these stories serve to celebrate women’s continued caretaking role.

Nakba closes with a penultimate chapter that raises a thorny ethical dilemma that no one else has dared to touch. Referring to the increasingly institutionalized understanding of the 1948 history and its place in nationalist discourse, in “The Politics of Witness: Remembering and Forgetting 1948 in Shatila Camp, ” Diana Allan wonders:

Does this kind of quasi-institutionalized coercion of memory, in searching for certain kinds of truths, effect a structural forgetting of others? In approaching eyewitnesses as living links with Palestine and their narratives as tools for regenerating collective meanings within a political field, are we in a sense preventing them from mourning their losses in more personal and or permanent terms? Do institutionalized commemorative practices, or academic studies that compulsively look back to this event as the core of [End Page 77] national identity, make it harder for subsequent generations of refugees to articulate a sense of identity and belonging in terms of present realities and their hopes for the future?


Indeed, Allan notes in the narrative of Umm Jamal a “desire not to be submerged in the collective but to retain some sense of distinction and difference,” and she surmises that this may indicate how the elders are redefining their worlds on their own terms (264). Referring to several old men becoming bored with their repetitious memory talk, Allan suggests that perhaps the realization of the unlikely return to their villages has led to intensely private rituals, unattached to any political agenda. In a somewhat parallel fashion, the second- and third-generation refugees have developed their own forms of rootedness and belonging in Lebanon. This realization forced Allan to reconsider the implications of producing an archive in which witnessing is framed so narrowly.


The three recent publications discussed here mark an important new direction in nakba oral history by virtue of their increased inclusion of and sensitivity to women as well as their incorporation of the urban nakba experience. Moreover, these works have helped to integrate the experiences of the Bedouin and the Palestinian citizens of Israel into the nakba narrative. By pulling together the various strands of the nakba story, highlighting recurring themes and sensitizing us to questions about memory and memorialization, they deepen understanding of the nakba experience.

The connection of the various authors to the narratives they use affects both the nature of their analysis and the experience of the reader. Those who draw on their own interviews rather than relying on textual analysis of others ’ interviews are able to capture more of the presence of the narrator and also gain a more nuanced understanding of the interview. They are able to take into account the complex dynamics of the interview that is influenced by positionality, the intersubjectivity of narrator and interviewer, and the varying settings in which the interview was conducted. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to the changing political context under which the oral histories were collected. Certainly, the context was different between those collected in the OPT prior to the first intifada and afterwards; in the diaspora and inside Israel after the beginning of the “peace process,” in which the refugee issue was sidestepped consistently; and as the sixtieth anniversary of the nakba approached. Additionally, virtually none of the authors questioned how the political affiliation of their narrators might have influenced the narrative.

Despite these shortcomings, the importance of the nakba oral histories cannot be overestimated either as a corrective to the historical record or as a signifier that has sustained Palestinian identity and supported the continued aspiration for justice. However, in asserting the truth of their experiences and the legitimacy of their claims, and in relying on oral testimony to challenge Israeli denial of the nakba, Palestinians are caught in a classic Catch 22 situation. On the one hand, Israeli archival records, even when they admit events, diminish the magnitude of dispossession, destruction, and deaths. On the other hand, the legitimacy of Palestinian personal testimony is contested by Israelis unless there are institutional [End Page 78] records that substantiate it. Discussing the court case regarding Teddy Katz’s controversial MA thesis on the massacre at Tantura, Samera Esmeir points out in her chapter in Nakba, “Memories of Conquest: Witnessing Death in Tantura:23

But if history and law were concerned with understanding as opposed to establishing facts, these memories would become “admissible.” Memories of death would be understood on their terms—not as fragments of a story, but as narratives that were structured under conditions they are expected to describe. Incoherence, contradictions, and absences should then be understood as signifiers of something that is still present—the death of human relationships, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and the destruction of an entire society. This entails a different reading of the testimonies—a reading that would try to understand the tragedy of a society in the absences and gaps.


Witnessing and the oral testimonies do more than serve as a challenge to Israeli strategies of denial of the nakba and the moral obligations discussed by Ahmad Sa’di in the Afterword to Nakba. They also help to lay the foundation for the kind of counter-hegemonic historical analysis of historians like Ilan Pappe and for the application of international laws, treaties and obligations.24 In other words, oral history not only serves as a much needed antidote to the master narrative of the founding of the Israeli state but also can pave the way for a more just future for Palestinians.25

Sherna Berger Gluck

Sherna Berger Gluck is the Director Emerita of the Oral History Program at California State University, Long Beach and the cofounder/director of its Virtual Oral/Aural History Archive ( www.csulb.edu/voaha ). Her interviews with Palestinians served as the basis for her book, An American Feminist in Palestine: The Intifada Years (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994) and for her various essays on Palestinian women in books and journals. She is a regular producer/host of Radio Intifada on KPFK/Pacifica FM radio in Los Angeles.


1. Instead of using the Arabic al-Nakbah, following the authors of the works discussed here, I will adopt the use of the Anglicized Arabic word “nakba” throughout this essay.

2. Ilan Pappe, “Edward Said: A Tribute,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 23, no. 1, 2 (2003), 8 –10.

3. In addition to the 700,000–800,000 Palestinians who became refugees, another 150,000 who remained and eventually became citizens of Israel were displaced from their villages, which were usually completely destroyed. The total number of villagers that were destroyed have now been placed at 531, over 400 of whom were destroyed in 1948, with more than another 100 forcibly depopulated and destroyed in the 1950s and then again in 1967.

4. Al Jana: The Harvest (Beirut, Lebanon: Arab Resource Center for the Popular Arts [ARCPA], 2002), 4.

5. Personal conversations with Saleh Abdel Jawad. See also Susan Slyomovics’ chapter in Nakba where she quotes extensively from her interviews with Abdul Jawad.

6. Based on personal conversations with Sonia Amir, current director of the Birzeit oral history program.

7. For an interesting discussion of the English translation, as compared to the original Spanish meaning, see Claudia Salazar, “A Third World Woman’s Text: Between the Politics of Criticism and Cultural Politics,” in Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (New York: Routledge, 1991).

8. Rosemary Sayigh, “Palestinian Camp Women as Tellers of History,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 27, no. 2 (1998); Hammami, “Gender, Nakba and Nation: Palestinian Women’s Presence and Absence in the Narration of 1948 Memories,” in Review of Women’s Studies 2 (2004), An Annual Review of Women’s and Gender Studies, Institute of Women’s Studies, Birzeit University.

9. Introduction to Al Jana.

10. Op. Cit., 27

12. Diana Allan, “The Role of Oral History in Archiving the Nakba,” al-Majdal 32 (Winter 2006–07): 9–12; also see her chapter in Nakba, ed. Sa’di and Abu-Lughod.

13. Because the Bedouin experience is so seldom discussed, the user would definitely benefit from the chapter on the Bedouin in Catastrophe, discussed below.

16. These policies are documented in the Israeli State Archive (ISA), a major source used by Israeli “revisionist historians” like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, as well as Palestinian scholars. In his essay in Part I of Catastrophe, Masalha draws on documents from ISA.

17. Although not detailed in this chapter, Zochrot continues to expand its collection of testimonies, videotaping, transcribing, and translating the oral histories into Hebrew and also editing them into short films. In 2006, twenty more oral histories with both men and women were completed, and four short films were made. For the work of Zochrot, see http://www.nakbainhebrew.org/index.php?lang=english .

18. As a result, both Ahmad Sa’di’s excellent and well-documented historical and political analysis in the Afterword and Omar Al-Qattan’s elegiac, “The Secret Visitations of Memory,” are not discussed. At the same time, some beautifully crafted chapters are given short shrift in favor of those that are more illustrative of either key themes or oral history theory and practice.

19. Ahmad Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod, Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

20. Susan Slyomovics, Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

21. Ted Swedenburg, Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Struggle for a Palestinian National Past (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

22. “The Representation of Politics and the Politics of Representation: Historicizing Palestinian Women’s Narratives,” in Living with Stories, ed. William Schneider (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, forthcoming).

23. The Teddy Katz thesis that used oral testimony from Tantura survivors stirred a tremendous controversy in Israeli legal and academic circles. Under pressure, he first capitulated regarding the validity/accuracy of the survivor testimony, which in any event was disallowed in court, and then reversed himself. Ultimately, his thesis has officially disappeared.

24. See the final two chapters in Catastrophe by Ilan Pappe and Terry Rempel.

25. See, for instance, the work of Karma Nabulsi, “The Role of Participatory Methods for Mobilizing Change,” al-Majdal 32 (Winter 2006–07): 14–16; “Justice as the Way Forward,” in Where Now for Palestine: the Demise of the Two-State Solution, ed. Jamil Hilal (London: Zed Books, 2007). [End Page 80]