Reflections on Nakba Day 2011, from the Palestinian diaspora

By Mahdi Sabbagh

Following the inspiring yet tragic events of May 15th, when many Palestinians in various countries demonstrated to mark Nakba Day, and the general build-up to that day, I have been attempting to make sense of the protests, Israel’s brutal response and the political connotations and media craze that followed; not so much from an ‘international relations’ political perspective but from a cultural-political perspective. The following reflection centers on the internal narratives and realities of the Palestinian people. It does not address the relationship between the Palestinian and the Israeli narrative; which would be a constructive exercise for a different piece.

This Nakba day, unlike previous Nakba days, constituted a regional, synchronized act of awakening: an act of defiance and non-violent protest, self-consciously playing on the psyche of both Israelis and Palestinians. For the general Israeli public, the protests created a symbolic yet very real ‘threat’ to the Israeli bubble: daunting natives coming in from ‘enemy’ territories from every direction, flooding Israel with fear and anxiety. For the entire Palestinian population the protests represented a re-birth; a renewal in their ability to be actors and not merely victims, a comforting signal that the Palestinian plight has not come to a halt.

While thousands upon thousands of flag-carrying refugees flocked to the borders of Israel, Western media stood in awe attempting to analyze the events. The result was half-baked remarks on Iran and Syria, demonstrating a failure to understand what the Nakba day commemoration truly meant for the people who were protesting.

First and foremost the synchronized protests, from Lebanon to the Syrian Golan Heights, from the West Bank to Gaza, from Jaffa to Cairo and Amman were interconnected, not by a shared political view of Israel’s existence or rights, but by language, culture and identity. The action solidified through satellites and fiber optics, leaning on Facebook and Twitter  as tools used to time the events and organize the necessary logistics. While fermented by the recent wave of Arab revolutionary spirit and courage, it is important to note that the Palestinian protests stemmed from a pre-existing sense of communal loss and societal mourning: a shared feeling of defeat transformed this week into a sense of entitlement to the ancestral land and a call for action.

The protest’s message and spatial-organizational character is based on familiar rituals that have been used to commemorate the Nakba for decades: what professor Sari Hanafi so eloquently described as rites of return or a broader ‘sociology of return’ in Crossing Borders, Shifting Boundaries: Palestinian Dilemmas (American University in Cairo, 2008).

In the decade that followed the Nakba of 1948, many Palestinians attempted to return to their homes and cross the newly defined immediately-internationally-recognized border of the Israeli state. They were received with bullets, often shot dead. The concept of ‘returning’ was very quickly understood to be a right for which they would have to fight.

More significantly, however, the return as a rite has existed in many shapes and forms, from yearly protests in Nazareth and Umm Al-Fahm on Nakba day, to the public art projects of the refugee camps. ‘Return’ essentially constituted the cornerstone of Palestinian art and visual culture since 1948. The collective memory of the Nakba is illustrated, over and over again through imagery representing mass exodus, destroyed villages and uprooted trees. This production of a national visual culture has cemented the shared beliefs and aspirations that a return is a sacred right, a goal and an inevitable continuation of the national narrative.

In a very much connected pattern, the recent protests’ subsequent flourishing of imagery, YouTube videos and photographic series created yet another layer of visual documentation, yet another source from which Palestinians can recall the communal loss, mourn and create.

The plethora of imagery flowing across Al-Jazeera, YouTube and Facebook breathed life into the millions of Palestinians across the globe.  The parallels between the recent protests and the familiar 1948 black and white photos were striking. As I saw the congregation of protesters at the Lebanese border, the 1948 exodus photographs (cemented into my consciousness since birth) popped right back into my mind. As a Nablus-based colleague of mine said, “When I saw young people protesting in remembrance, I knew for sure that our cause will be there for generation to come. It is not just a dream anymore.”

The awakening and sense of empowerment that many of us felt on May 15th was especially powerful given the visual familiar grounds from which the protests were inspired.

When we think of the ‘Return’ many of us think of a ceremonial moment, lines of refugees and their descendents walking back into the landscape, an ‘inverted’ Nakba. This image is merely collective memory and obviously unrealistic. Yet the protests allowed our minds to venture into the utopian domain of mass return. This newly-found empowerment varies for different Palestinians communities in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the larger diaspora, each living different geo-political realities.

May 15th represented a moment of spatialization for Palestinians who have lived in countries whose now-falling regimes have spent their resources mystifying Israel as an ‘enemy’ entity. It permitted them to see Israel as a reality, as a concrete border, a political entity and most importantly, geographically close.

Across the border, for Palestinians in Haifa and Nazareth, the romanticized prospects of seeing Damascus or dancing in Beirut became more than merely a dream, and suddenly appeared possible.

For once the rite of return, traditionally a haunting, artistic subconscious of the Palestinian psyche became contemporary and concrete.

The goal was clearly not to physically ‘return’ (yet), as none of the protesters were carrying their belongings, but to keep the ritual of return alive. The protests accomplished just that, bringing the paintings of Suleiman Mansour, the murals of Dheisheh refugee camp, the writings of Ghada Karmi and the films of AnneMarie Jacir to life. Return was re-introduced into the immediate Palestinian conceptualization of their rights, into Israeli society’s phobias and perhaps even into the wave of change sweeping the Arab World.

Mahdi Sabbagh was born in East Jerusalem. He is based in New York City where he is training to be an architect/urban planner. He has briefly worked with the UNRWA Camp Development Unit, Decolonizing Architecture, and L.E.FT. architects and is now training at Robert A.M. Stern Architects. When not fully immersed in architecture, Mahdi enjoys venturing into political activism, writing and tweeting.