The Nakba, My Brother and Me

At the entrance to my mother’s village Jarash, just west of Jerusalem. It is now an Israeli “nature reserve” and the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants are not permitted to return. Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi writes, “The site is overgrown with grass, interspersed with the debris of destroyed houses and stones from the terraces. The ruins of a cemetery lie northwest of the site. Groves of trees cover two hills to the west of the site that are separated by a valley. Carob, fig, almond, and olive trees grow on these hills.”
CREDIT: Pablo Pitcher-DeProto

This year is the 70th year of the Nakba (the catastrophe when Israel uprooted 750,000 Palestinians from 531 villages in 1948). This year my brother will be 70 years old. He was two weeks old when my family was forced from our village, Zakariya. My mom carried him, swaddled in a cloth, while my father carried my grandmother on his shoulders and back. My stepmom (my father’s first wife), who was very ill, was riding a donkey. According to my mom’s description, on the donkey was my stepmom, my two-year-old youngest sister, and a bag with food for a few days.

My brother grew up far from our village. He spent his childhood between Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem and villages near Hebron. In July 1967, like many others, my brother had to leave Palestine. He became an exile and lived in many places, but now he is living in Jordan. This year, it will be 50 years since my brother has set foot in Palestine. He has spent 50 years in exile.

I don’t know my brother well because I never lived around him in the usual way, when a younger brother knows that his older brother will take him here, take him there. I grew up with my mom and with her generation, because our house was full of women when I was a child.

It’s clear to me that each generation carries inside themselves the trauma of the Nakba and their reality as refugees. My mother’s generation carried the trauma of the Nakba and memories of those horrible days, reliving the fear of the massacres in village after village. They focused on survival and protecting their families. My brother, like many in his generation, carries his childhood as a refugee and the pain of his life in the diaspora. My generation, inherited from them their feelings about the tragedy; at the same time, we live with the discrimination we have suffered and this feeling that as refugees, we are less than others.

My brother doesn’t share a lot unless you push him to share his feelings or his thoughts. He’s a deep person, well educated. As a family, we don’t share that much emotion w because we grew up far from each other. The borders ripped our family apart geographically and emotionally. We never had the chance —, three brothers and two sisters—, to sit down together and have a cup of tea until 2005, when my sister passed away, and the rest of us got together.

My brother is a very practical man, he focuses on his work. But all the time, you feel there is something deep inside him he doesn’t speak about, he doesn’t share. When I visited Jordan in 2003, his family told me he leaves sometimes in the afternoons. He takes his coffee, his cigarettes, and some snacks, and he leaves the house for hours. This is his own tradition. He never told the family where he was going or what he was doing.

That visit, I asked him directly what he was doing. He avoided answering me. Two days later, he invited me to come with him. I said yes, so he told me, “OK, come with me.” We started driving from Amman, where he lives, toward the Dead Sea. As we were driving down toward the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley opened up in front of us, and we could see Palestine on the other side of the valley.

When we were close to the Dead Sea, he turned left and started to drive up the mountain toward Mount Nebo. When we reached the top, there was an archaeological site, it is a Christian holy place, and with lots of olive trees. We parked and walked a few hundred meters until we came to an amazing vista. We could see all of Palestine spread out before us.

My brother, because he comes here all the time, knew just where he was going, to his favorite olive tree. We spread out a blanket and sat down. “Here,” he said. “This is where I come. This is how I communicate with all of you on the other side, this is how I recharge myself. This is Palestine in front of me, this is where I grew up. If I were a bird I could fly in just a few minutes. This is how I build my spirit as a refugee, this is how I feel connected to my family, remember my childhood, charge my hope. This is an experience shared by many Palestinian refugees.

“At the same time,” he said, “I have mixed feelings. Being here gives me good feelings—hope and closeness—but at the same time it’s painful. The view I see makes me feel strong because of what I carry inside for my village, for my land, for my family, but also it makes me feel weak because I can’t cross, I feel helpless.”

For 50 years my brother hasn’t been allowed to cross the border. He lost his dad, his mom, and many friends who died before they could meet again. There are so many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria who are so close they can see their country but they can’t cross. Especially the Syrians. when the civil war arrived a few years ago, they could see their villages just a few miles away, but they couldn’t go to their homes in Palestine. They were forced to go everywhere else in the world, but couldn’t go home.

These border fences, walls, and landmines that the Israelis built have ripped the Palestinians from our land and from our families. Destroyed our families. But holding on to family is in the nature of human beings. In Palestine, after they bomb your house, you go through the piles of debris to see what you can save. They call it lamlamet, which means a bundle of what remains, to try to start again. This is what we do with our families. Because there is a necessity to survive and to hold onto our families, however we can.

I will share a secret with you. I don’t know if we will succeed, but my family has a plan, a hope to be together to celebrate my brother’s 70th birthday. At the same time, we will commemorate 70 years of Nakba. Whatever happens to us, our family struggles to challenge the borders and stay connected, struggles for our rights, and struggles to return to our village.

Dheisheh Refugee Camp in 1959. My brother was eleven years old. I was not yet born.
CREDIT: UNRWA archive

About Palestinian Refugees

  • In 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinians (75% of the Arab population of Palestine) were expelled by Zionist militias from what became Israel (“1948 refugees”). This is known as the Nakba or “catastrophe”.
  • Some 531 Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed or occupied by Israeli settlers
  • Internally displaced Palestinians are those who were expelled from their villages but remained in the lands that became Israel. They numbered 30-40,000 in 1948 and were placed under military rule to facilitate the expropriation of their land. Israel does not recognize internally displaced Palestinians, whose number (including their descendants) is now estimated at more than 250,000.
  • During the 1967 Israeli attack, about 300,000 Palestinians were displaced to the West Bank and Gaza. More than half of them were already refugees from 1948.
  • Most Palestinian refugees live in 59 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
  • Today, the total Palestinian refugee population is estimated at over 7.9 million (66% of the entire, worldwide Palestinian population, estimated at 12.1 million).
  • Israel forbids Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes, their villages or their country, despite numerous UN resolutions and the right to return embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights