To mark Nakba Day – the 71st anniversary of the Nakba – translator and editor Basma Ghalayini reflects on the event that inspired Comma’s forthcoming anthology, Palestine +100.
When I was a child, my grandfather would tell us about his shop in Yaffa, a business he owned with his brother in 1948, before being expelled to Egypt, where my father was born and grew up. He told us that on their departure, they only packed a few days’ worth of clothes for him, his wife and children, as they were told they would be back as soon as it was safe. They left their sheets on the lines, chickpeas in soaking water and toys in the yard. He locked the door, put his key in his pocket, and headed to safety as instructed. They never returned, and his key stayed in his pocket until he died in Cairo 60 years later.
On the 15th of May 1948, Israel declared itself a new born state on the rubble of Palestinian lives. Over the course of the months leading up to this date, and after, Palestinians were forced out of their homes in Palestine; those who weren’t forced out fled in fear of execution, having heard of the horrors which took place during massacres carried out by the Haganah (Israeli Militia) in villages nearby. This would later, and begrudgingly, be known as Nakba (the ‘catastrophe’), as it took Palestinians a while to come to terms with the fact that this was not a temporary displacement and that they weren’t going back to their homes any time soon. 80% of Palestinians (over 700,000 people in total) were expelled, and their land taken over and occupied, in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing by the Zionist Movement. They were all placed in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank, or in neighbouring Arabic countries (Jordan, Syria and Lebanon), or displaced within the occupied lands of Palestine itself, now known as “Israel”.
Four generations on, any Palestinian child can tell you all about their great grandfather’s back garden in Haifa, Yaffa or Majdal. They can tell you about their great grandmother’s kitchen, the patterns on her plates, and the colours of the embroidery on her pillows. They can tell you about their great grandfather’s neighbours, the musky smell of his local shop and all the locally made goods it held. This child has never been to any of those places, but they know that if they keep them alive in their heart, then once they go back, it will be as if they never left; they can pick up where their great grandfather left off. Indeed, wherever Palestinian refugees are in the world, one thing unites them: their undoubted belief in their right to return.
The Palestinian refugee carries their village in their heart, like an internal compass where north is always Palestine. They pass this compass down to their children, who sketch in the details of the lost landscape – the hills and trees and waddis – from their own imagination. Every day away from Palestine in the life of a Palestinian refugee is one that they believe, in their heart, brings them a day closer to their return.
The Nakba didn’t end in 1948; it continued. With every brick built in what would now be called Israel; with every wall, watch-tower, gun-turret, or segregated road in the occupied West Bank; with every new confiscation of land or demolition of Palestinian property (my grandmother’s house in Khan Younis, that the El-Farra’s had lived in for over 800 years, was bulldozed as part of this operation on 26 November 2000); with every restriction on Palestinians’ ability to travel, and with every new attack on Gaza (what the Israeli Defence calls ‘mowing the lawn’); with each of these acts, the Nakba has continued. Israel’s 70-year programme of systemic ethnic cleansing is one long, ongoing extension of the event that took place in 1948, the origin of which lay in the liberties that Israel took that year when Israeli militias, supported by the British, took more than 78% of the Palestinians’ land. Since then, countless Israeli government policies have enacted a gradual ethnic cleansing, in lieu of the more comprehensive, one-off method that took place in 1948 (and again in 1967). The ideology to this day continues to underpin the legalised destruction of houses in Jerusalem and settlement areas in the West Bank, and the slow strangulation of Gazans (through the 12-year blockade) is the same ideology that first destroyed 531 villages and 11 cities in 1948, an ideology that transforms each Palestinian into a potential target, myself and my two year old daughter included.
The Nakba is a live, ongoing event. In fact, we are continually entering new stages of it, whether it’s the isolation of Negev Bedouins into ghetto pockets, the further separation of the Gaza and West bank governments, or the subjection of Palestinians in Jerusalem to increasingly restrictive location isolation policies. These systematic aggressions towards the Palestinian people continue on a daily basis in countless small, localised cases, making it difficult, or simply too unspectacular, to report on. Yet they are all part of the bigger event that started in 1948.
You can see the repercussions of the Nakba throughout the diaspora, in the neighbouring Arabic countries that refugees first fled to and beyond (there were 9.6 million descendants of Palestinians living outside Palestine as of 2003). Its influence is not just geopolitical, but fundamentally cultural as well. When a Palestinian writes, they write about their present through their past, knowingly or unknowingly. They look for their lost inheritance in their writing; they keep the memory from fading, because their past is the only thing that makes their existence and their identity real. It is perhaps for this reason that the genre of science fiction has never been particularly popular among Palestinian authors; it is a luxury, to which Palestinians can’t afford to escape. The current reality has too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ minds for fanciful ventures into possible futures to be a priority. Whether it is Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s novels A Cry in a Long Night or In Search of Walid Masoud, or Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sunor Return to Haifa, Palestinian authors have all felt obliged to, as well as inspired by, the Nakba and their own personal status as refugees. Perhaps the only way we can justify entertaining science fiction as a genre then, is by tying it to Nakba.
This was part of the thinking behind Comma’s forthcoming Palestine + 100 project. Science fiction often uses the future as a canvas on which to paint and play with ideas about the present or the past. With this in mind, we invited 10 authors to write stories set exactly 100 years after the Nakba, to either imagine what the century-long consequences of this Nakba-process might look like, or to simply use this future date as a setting for a sci-fi allegory for what happened and what is still happening.
Of course, many Palestinians are already living in a dystopia – or at least the kind of nightmarish future most Western readers only encounter in future fiction. Palestinians don’t need to plumb the depths of their imagination or raid the SF canon to create their fictional dystopias; they only need look out of their window, record their journey to work, or dare move beyond the confines allocated to them by the Israeli government. To this day, all Palestinians are issued ID cards and numbers by the Israeli government that keeps track of their movements, marital status, mothers and father’s names, religion and number of children. After a recent invitation to a literary event in the West Bank, my daughter and I were unable to get any further than the Jordanian border because my ID was issued in Gaza; Gazans aren’t allowed to go to the West Bank, and vice versa, from the outside. Palestinians are only allowed to use certain roads riddled with heavily-defended checkpoints to get to work, school or even hospital. They are only allowed access to certain health benefits, education and basic human rights, all while being monitored by occupying forces that will take out huge military operations, shaking Palestinian infrastructure to its core every time anyone dares to resist it.
Most Western readers have never experienced the feeling of living under an occupying force, and have nowhere to go to even get a sense of it other than historical accounts of totalitarian regimes or, you guessed it, science fiction dystopias.
‘Palestine +100’ will be published July 2019, following on from Comma’s successful collection ‘Iraq +100’ which posed the question: what might your country look like in the year 2103 – a century after the disastrous American and British-led invasion? to 10 Iraqi authors, and was chosen as one of The Guardian’s Best SF and Fantasy Books of the Year 2016.
Palestine +100 is the winner of a PEN Translates Award 2018.
Basma Ghalayini has an academic background in Management Information Systems and has worked in various finance roles within the past seven years in the commercial and not-for-profit sectors. She has worked with companies and individuals to help plan their short and long term financial goals, and has significant command of tax, investment and insurance issues, in relation to a number of different industries.
Basma also works as an Arabic translator and interpreter for Comma Press, most recently translating a story for The Book of Cairo and editing forthcoming anthology Palestine +100.