تمرير شعلة النضال: تأملات في الكوارث الفلسطينية
10 mai 2024

The wreckage of history was piling at my feet. To be part of the Palestinian shatat (diaspora) is to experience your world secondhand: to live with the ghosts of the Nakba, to live in a country that denies it ever happened, and to watch it continue from afar. As an observer of Palestine’s past and present, I inhabit a different timeline from that of the United States where I was born… a timeline that the United States so meticulously tries to erase.

By mid-October, things became too much for me to bear in Texas. Time had stopped making sense. Talking heads discussed the war on Gaza as if it had started on Oct. 7, while I knew that it was the mere continuation — and acceleration — of a century-long story that has shaped the life and death of every member of my family.

The meaning of a Palestinian past and present is distorted and obscured by the empire’s account. I was in need of a new theory of history. As a member of the Palestinian diaspora, it was clear to me that the only way to make it through the violence of the present was to commune with my ghosts.

Is there anyone alive today who has touched the hand of a Palestinian who lived and died in freedom? While there are fewer and fewer survivors of the Nakba, it continues to be carved into young memories. Historian Elyse Semerdjian uses the notion of “prosthetic memory” to describe the ways that the descendants of the Armenian genocide carry the memories of human atrocities, even though they didn’t witness them firsthand. Through experiencing stories, videos, and fragmented utterances of the genocidal violence that has framed their lives, the descendants of the Nakba — the children of refugees and exiles in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and across the world — have taken on memories of a collective past in order to understand their present. “Prosthetic memory links past to present,” Semerdjian writes, “and in the case of the Armenian Genocide, it opposes the uniformity of official memories shaped by the nation-state through violent erasure.”

The West not only silences, but also distorts Palestinian trauma: Zionist-backed rulers believe the remembrance of Palestinian trauma causes violence, instead of redressing it. In this way, our past is made ungrievable and marks our daily present.

In response to the 2014 Israeli massacre of the Palestinians in Gaza, Sherene Seikaly theorized Palestine itself as an archive, where no single moment or event belongs to just “this time or this place alone.”  For Palestinians, she writes, “the sight of displacement, of grief, and of searching for refuge is not singular. It is but another instance of historical repetition in the confrontation with Zionism, that has with all its technologies and adaptations continued its conquest of land and everything that this conquest necessitates: most crucially, the erasure of the Palestinians.”

To reckon with the Palestinian condition then, is to read it in full, to attend to the “continuities and ruptures” of this past and this present.  Staring at each other in both recognition and shock, the past and present drove me to return home, even if home was still far from Palestine.

I am from bilad al sham, a geography that makes up present-day Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and parts of Jordan. My maternal grandfather’s family is Damascene; my maternal grandmother’s is from the mountains of Lebanon; my paternal grandfather from Jerusalem, and grandmother from Nazareth. That they met, married, and relocated to Beirut is an impossibility today. My bones are made from a different world…a world that has been stolen from us.

A different world is also etched into a decorative wood panel that hangs at the entrance of my parents’ house. My great-grandfather, Tanios Cortas, was a woodworker, and he carved into the panel “The realm in which we share is vastly larger than that in which we differ.” He worked as a Bible teacher in the Quaker school in Broummana, a short trip up the mountain from Beirut. He saw catastrophe in his life; he and my great-grandmother Mariam ran a soup kitchen during the man-made starvation of Mt. Lebanon which killed a third of the population, resulting in the largest civilian death toll during World War I. 

Each time I read his panel, my heart breaks, and swells; I know what was to come of his land long after he finished carving it, but I also bear witness to the indestructibility of our struggle for freedom, peace, and goodwill. Much has happened since Tanios Cortas made his panel, but the words remain in our home.

My family has been through many catastrophes, but the most world-ending was, perhaps, the Nakba of 1948. My mother’s parents in Beirut looked on with disbelief and horror; my father and his parents in Palestine relocated to Haifa, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, before finally leaving for Lebanon. My maternal grandfather, Constantine Zurayk, was a university professor and political activist in Beirut. In reaction to the horrors of Palestinian dispossession and its implications for the rest of the Arab world, he wrote “Ma’na an-Nakba” or, The Meaning of Disaster. He was the first scholar to use the word Nakba to describe the ongoing violent dispossession of Palestine and its surrounding areas by the Zionist military. The translation of Nakba into “catastrophe” or “disaster” fails to capture the immensity of what he saw: not only the violent dispossession of the moment, but the catastrophic power it held to change the course of history.

He wrote Ma’na an-Nakba in August 1948 during a ceasefire, warning us all that this moment was like no other, not only for Palestinians but also the world:

“The aim of Zionist imperialism, on the one hand, is to exchange one country for another, and to annihilate one people so that another may be put in its place. This is imperialism, naked and fearful, in its truest color and worst form.”

He urged Arab countries to unite against Israel to ensure life and safety in the Arab World. More than just political strategy, the book expressed his prophetic understanding of the fate of Palestinians. 

“400,000 or more Arabs are forced to flee pell-mell from their homes. They have their wealth and property stripped from them and wander like madmen in what is left of Palestine…they do not know what fate has in store for them, nor what means of livelihood they should seek. They wonder whether they will be forced to return to their homes, there to live under the Zionist shadow and to bear whatever abuse of scorn, assimilation or extinction the Zionists may impose on them.”

My grandfather had a prolific career as a university professor, ambassador, and public intellectual, continually fighting for Palestine. Is it my inheritance to make meaning out of disaster? My grandfather seemed to answer me:

“If the resolution of a people is crumbled, and its confidence in itself is lost, it loses the best of its possessions, and is impotent…to shake itself from the humiliation of defeat.” Resolute, I kept searching.

When I arrived at my parent’s house, I was distraught. “It’s her first war,” I heard my aunt telling my mom. Technically, I count the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon as my first war, but I agreed this was something different. People were talking of ’67, ’82, ‘48. “Habibti, I was born in 1948, this is my life,” replied my aunt from her apartment in Beirut, when I asked how she was. My parent’s living room became crowded with wars; wars lived, wars watched, and wars remembered. Our house became dislocated from time and space, an archive in and of itself. Perhaps to make literal the archive in which we sat, I pulled out my parents’ yearbooks from their time at the American University of Beirut (AUB). They had both attended in the early-1970s, after the catastrophic war of 1967, and before the horrors the Lebanese Civil War would unleash starting in 1975. The 1971 yearbook caught my eye. It had been dedicated to the “struggling students of Palestine,” and the role of AUB students in the Palestinian struggle. This was examined from four angles:

  1. The struggle of Palestinian students, who remain under the yoke of occupation.

  2. The struggle of Palestinian students, who have been uprooted from their homeland and who continue their intellectual pursuits in exile.

  3. The struggle of AUB students.

  4. The struggle of students abroad, regardless of their nationalities,

Each angle was taken up in an essay, largely unedited, by students on campus, except for the third angle which, to my surprise, was written by my grandfather, Constantine Zurayk. The yearbook committee had asked him to contribute, since he was “one of the few faculty members who had been involved with the Arab cause in Palestine [and] who has been with the university long enough to witness the struggle of its students for Palestine.” Twenty-three years after he coined the term Nakba, he was still describing it. And, 53 years after that, I continue to look to him for answers.

 In 1968, AUB students fought the administration for canceling an event called “Palestine Week,” because the American president of the university found it too “one-sided.”  Student’s anger grew as the administration continued to quell Palestinian politics. In 1970, students founded a “Speaker’s Corner” on campus where anyone could speak about issues of the day. After King Hussein massacred 10,000 Palestinians in Jordan in 1970, students organized a walkout and the entire student body participated. My mother spent the summer dressing the wounds of a young Palestinian boy who had been burned by napalm in Jordan. In the fall, my uncle Namir Cortas (the grandson of Tanios) was the editor of the AUB student newspaper that reported on a “Free University” built in the middle of campus in 1970. They stated that their “interests and priorities are vastly different from the university’s as decided by administrators and department heads, and therefore we will study what we deem important in spite of the program they set for us.”

When I spoke to Namir about the activism on campus then, he said that “in 1967, we had been completely defeated. All of us, no matter what political party or philosophy we believed in, had been betrayed by our leaders. Authority meant nothing.” Another family friend who had been the head of the student council told me, “Once the revolution starts, you can’t stop it.” As I look at the encampments in universities across the country now, the present moment in the United States reaches for a Palestinian past… a past that has been hidden from many of them, but they are finding nonetheless.

Throughout the 1971 yearbook, there were full-page posters depicting Palestinian resistance puncturing the usual smiling photos that make up its contents. A child jumping, exclaiming that the struggle for liberation is still young! A flower growing out of the rubble, drawn with a poem as the stem. They were beautiful and I had never seen them before. I printed them and began to paint over them, reimagining them through my eyes.

There’s a theory in history based on the palimpsest — a manuscript page that has been scraped of former writing in order to be reused. Usually, it’s made of parchment: you can scrape the ink off with a milk mixture. But, over time, the marks reappear at different paces and places. Jacqui Alexander, a theorist of transnational feminism, describes this type of time as neither “vertically accumulated nor horizontally teleological.” In other words, not the “here and now” / “then and there” binary, but rather the “here and there” and “then and now.” I was drawn to the posters and consumed by my own reimagining of them because the act reframed time in a way that finally made sense. The posters were here and there; they were then and now. And so am I.  And so is Palestine.

The yearbook was dedicated to Palestine. On the sixth page, it reads:

This book is dedicated to the struggling student, for him to keep a record of his struggle and for history to tell about it in the years to come. When graduating he hands the torch to his struggle-mate to move ahead and assume the avant-garde

Generations succeed one another but the struggle goes on…

To whoever ‘fills the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run.’ To him who dares to say no…to him who strives to change and improve…to the leader to be…to the vanguard of the revolution…to the freedom fighter…to the struggling student, we dedicate “campus ’71” as a token of admiration.”

Najib Azzam, a Palestinian student at AUB, was editor-in-chief of the yearbook that year. He continued his work in the press, and after graduating he worked on a weekly called Monday.  A few years into his job, the city of Beirut was divided by militias; his office was on the West side, and the printing press was on the East. Crossing sides could be fatal, but the printers assured him they would meet at the mathaf, the National Museum of Beirut that marked the border between sides. So he went and never returned. There, among the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins — another ruin. The wreckage grew, and the torch was passed. 

We do not know which direction the torch gets handed to us. But, in the wreckage of history, there is also a torch.

 The posters in the header image can be downloaded here, courtesy of the author. 

Yasser Manna
نجوم منتخب كرة الطائرة إبراهيم قصيعة (يمين) وحسن زعيتر (مواقع التواصل) استشهدا بقصف إسزائيلي على مخيم جباليا.
Ayham al-Sahli
المصدر: المركز الفلسطيني للإعلام
Maher Charif
معهد أريج (القدس).
Uday al-Barghouthi
مصدر الصورة: وكالة الأناضول
Kareem Qurt
مصدر الصورة: معتز عزايزة
Yumna Hamidi
مصدر الصورة: الأونروا
George J. Giacaman