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121, May 2008 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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     Book of the Month

Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory

Edited by Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod
Columbia University Press, New York, 2007, 356 pages, $27.50


Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory is about what 1948 has meant for Palestinians, as refracted through their memories, individual and collective, rendered public through being elicited by researchers and grandchildren, volunteered creatively, or presented in conventionalized memorial practices. The essays by a group of established and emerging scholars, all of whom are doing research on Palestinian memory, contribute important material to the ongoing historical reconstruction of the events of 1947 and 1948 and supplement the careful oral historical work that is being done by Palestinian research centres.

But that is not the main purpose of this book. “We are less concerned about what these memories tell us about what happened in the past than what work memories do, and can do, in the present. Among the important work that memory does is to affirm identity, manage trauma, and make political and moral claims. We look especially at how memories are produced, when people are silent, when collective memory proliferates, and what forms Palestinian memories of the cataclysmic events of 1948 take, recognizing that no memory is pure or spontaneous,” the editors of the book relate.

This book, with essays on such varied topics as the gender of Nakba memory, the cumulative and repetitive quality of the narratives in the ongoing dispossessions, the deep meaning of places like Jaffa and destroyed villages like Qula or Deir Abban memorialized in books written by their former inhabitants, and the mourning work of films like those of Nizar Hassan, is not just a collection of individual testimonials or personal reflections. Instead, it is a sustained examination of the nature, shapes, and determinants of Palestinian collective, social, or cultural memory. It is from the memories of ordinary Palestinians made public in a variety of contexts-including trials about massacres in Israeli courts-- that one can draw conclusions about the larger significance of the Nakba. What ultimately emerges from the essays in this book about how Palestinians remember the Nakba is a strong sense of the claims that social memory makes about what happened in the past and what ought, morally, to be done in the present.

The Nakba was many things at once: the uprooting of people from their homeland, the destruction of the social fabric that bound them for so long, and the frustration of national aspirations. The Nakba meant the destruction in a single blow of all the worlds in which Palestinians had lived. For many, theirs was a dynamic, prosperous and future-oriented society. The Nakba marked a new era dominated by estrangement, and often poverty. Nothing in their history or that of neighbouring countries had prepared Palestinians to imagine such a catastrophe. The fact that the Nakba took place within a short period - a matter of months - made it hard to comprehend; there was little time to reflect.

Although the emphasis in the book is on the ways Palestinian memories are narrated and represented, the cumulative effect of the memories collected and analyzed is to affirm that something terrible happened to the Palestinians as a direct result of the military and political will to create the state of Israel. Their stories must slip through the holes in the wall of the dominant story of 1948 and open it up to questioning, both factual and moral. Like the Wall that, though declared illegal by the International Court, is now being erected to keep Palestinians out of Israel, in the process confiscating more of their land and making their lives on the ground even less viable, the Israeli narrative needs to be dismantled. Palestinian memories of 1948 offer a way to begin-a beginning that might lead, through acknowledgment of what happened, to a better future, one that is not based on hardened identities, silencing of Palestinians, and continuing violence.

The first part of the book, entitled “Places of Memory,” begins with Susan Slyomovics’s chapter, “The Rape of Qula,” which refers to the destruction of a Palestinian village. The section ends with Lila Abu-Lughod’s moving chapter, which chronicles her father’s return to Jaffa, his hometown in pre-1948 Palestine, and explores the author’s relationship to these memories and places. The second part, entitled “Modes of Memory,” includes chapters by Lena Jayyusi, Rosemary Sayigh, and Haim Bresheeth. “Faultlines of Memory,” the final part of the book, contains chapters written by Omar Al-Qattan, Isabelle Humphries and Laleh Khalili, Samera Esmeir, and Diana Allen. The book concludes with an afterword in which Ahmad Sa’di explores the relationship between representation, history, and morality.

Ahmad H. Sa’di is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He has published widely on political, social, and economic aspects of the lives of Palestinians in Israel.


Lila Abu-Lughod is professor of anthropology and gender studies at Columbia University. Her books include Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories, and Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt.

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