The secret visitations of memory

Omar al-Qattan
14 June 2007

"Go back where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.'' - James Baldwin

There is no single Palestinian memory - rather, there are many tangled memories. A collective memory or experience is in its nature complex and elusive, constantly changing with time. It is not lived by hundreds of thousands of people together or in the same way. Thus to remember is essentially to be on your own, even if sometimes you have the illusion of sharing your memories with others. And however hard you try, telling or retelling a collective experience, even in the hands of the most eloquent poets, is always unsatisfactory. Ultimately, only a description of a crossroads will do - how it happened that your own journey crossed that of so many others.

There is surprise, anxiety and suspicion about these coincidental encounters. There is also guilt about those who have been left behind by the passing of time, the dead and the voiceless, or about those to whom you may not have the opportunity to bequeath your stories, like the children of your exile who never learned to understand your language.

What is certain is that we cannot escape memory. When the individual narratives of pain accumulate, not only do they become inescapable, they are impossible to dispel, at least for a few generations. Nowhere is this truer than in the memories of the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, if we are facing an accumulation of losses and defeats, as we certainly are, the exercise of constantly remembering can be both irritating and frustrating. It is acceptable if our memories of injustice mobilise us and give us hope and a future to look forward to, but when they don't, they become a burden, empty and hollow, and overwhelm us with a renewed bitterness.

Omar Al-Qattan is a British-Palestinian filmmaker

This essay forms a chapter in the book by Ahmad H Sa'di and Lila Abu-Lughod (eds.), Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (Columbia University Press, 2007)

The other contributors to the book are Diana Keown Allan, Haim Bresheeth, Rochelle Davis, Samera Esmeir, Isabelle Humphries, Lena Jayyusi, Laleh khalili, Rosemary Sayigh, and Susan Slyomovics

openDemocracy gratefully acknowledges the permission of Columbia University Press to republish this essayThe old fear

It took him a long while to finally decide to go. Ever pragmatic, he had prepared a very busy schedule, in which he was to visit several development projects that he had either directly or indirectly helped to fund. He was also to be granted an honorary degree by Palestine's leading university, Birzeit, for his work as one the most prominent Palestinian philanthropists living in exile. I wondered, however, whether much of this overcharged programme was but a shield against the emotional shocks that he anticipated.

My father's last visit to his birthplace, Jaffa, had been in 1948, when he left it to study at the American University in Beirut. When the city surrendered to the Jewish Forces on 13 May 1948, he lost all contact with members of his family, and decided to return to find them. However, the military situation and the Jewish Forces' refusal to allow Palestinians to return to their towns and villages cut short his trip, and he ended up in the nearby town of Lydda which remained in Palestinian hands until the summer of that year. Fortunately, his mother and seven siblings had taken refuge at the house of one of his maternal uncles, who lived in Lydda. But by now, the military situation was increasingly alarming so the family decided to leave for the relative security of Amman in neighboring Jordan until the end of hostilities. It was a time when they could still hope to be able to go home.

Before its surrender, Jaffa had been one of Palestine's largest and wealthiest cities with a population in excess of 100,000. Indeed, in the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine the city had been given to the Palestinians even though it lay at the heart of the planned Jewish state. As soon as the British government had announced its intention to pull out of Palestine, Jaffa became the scene of some of the most vicious fighting between the poorly armed Palestinian irregulars and the Haganah and, more particularly, the Irgun militias[1].

By the time Jaffa surrendered on 13 May 1948, it had become a city of ghosts, its inhabitants dwindling to a mere three or four thousand. The Haganah - which two days later was to become the official Israeli army - ordered all the remaining Palestinians to assemble in one neighbourhood, Ajami, where for over a year they were surrounded with barbed-wire fences and forbidden to leave. Until as recently as the late 1990s, Tel Aviv municipality would very rarely issue a Palestinian with a building permit to erect or refurbish his or her house. To add insult to injury, only the meanest of public services were granted to the city's Palestinians.

Jaffa soon turned into the impoverished, drug-infested prostitution capital of Israel, its beautiful mix of Ottoman and European architecture fast wilting into a shabby and dilapidated mess. In a poem named after the city, the Palestinian poet Rashed Hussein (1936-77), writes in his poem "Yafa" (Jaffa):

"Chimneys of hashish spreading stupor

Its barren streets pregnant with flies, and boredom

And Jaffa's heart silenced with a stone

The streets of its skies mourning the moon ..."

Thousands of homes - previously owned by those the Israelis now called "absentees'' - were either confiscated by Amidar, the Israeli body in charge of property belonging to the Palestinian refugees, and handed over to new Jewish immigrants, or simply bulldozed. The old port-city was also emptied and converted into an ugly tourist sprawl of cheap restaurants and cafés, with large information panels telling of a mythical Jewish history of the city in which the Arabs figure, at best, as mere passers-by.

Yet despite these efforts to eliminate the Arab character of the city, those who stayed (and who today number more than 20,000) persist in their efforts to defend Jaffa's identity and their existence in it. Despite municipal fines, they nonetheless managed to preserve some of the mosques and churches, and a few houses and schools. When one enters Jaffa after coming out of Tel Aviv's noisy, ugly modernity, one is surprised by the tenacious Arabness of the city and its peculiar mix of melancholy and defiant elegance.

My father's immediate wish, on arriving there, was to go and look for the house he had last lived in. His expression conveyed a mixture of childish excitement and anxious sorrow. We were accompanied by several people from Jaffa whom he knew either by name or through correspondence, as well as a couple of friends who had come along for the ride. After a short discussion in which the Jaffites tried to locate where the house would be from my father's recollections, we set off for the Jabaliyya neighborhood where, my father explained, the house had stood near a little mosque and close to the Ayyubiyya School (which still exists). He also remembered that in front of it, there used to stand a sycamore tree.

Astonishingly, we had no sooner approached the first few streets of Jabaliyya than he immediately and without the slightest hesitation recognized the house: "This is it. I'm certain. We lived on the second floor. This is our house, where my father died. Here is the sycamore tree, here is the school, here the mosque, and that's the road which leads to the "Shabab Beach'' where we would swim. It's extraordinary. Here I am, as if I were looking at it fifty years ago. But where are the other houses? The street used to be full of houses.'' When we looked in the direction he was pointing to, a whole side of the street stood empty of buildings.

This is Jaffa today: patches here and patches there where once there stood houses and shops. It seemed like an old, moth-eaten but beautiful dress, patched up with black cloth, desperately clinging to its fading beauty. My father's beautiful Ottoman house, for example, had recently been bought at an "auction'' by the brother of the ex-Israeli minister of absorption - the absorption, that is, of new Jewish immigrants to Israel. (Auctions are regularly held to sell "absentee property'', though bribery and clever maneuvering by the authorities ensure that these houses are rarely sold "back'' to a Palestinian).

I am not sure why my father chose that moment to speak to us of his own father's death in this house, how he had been called back from boarding school in Jerusalem to bid him farewell, how he had brought the doctor from the municipal hospital (which has also been razed) to examine my grandfather for the last time. On our way back to Jerusalem, where we were staying, I wondered why I had been surprised and somewhat shocked by this almost incantatory reminder of my grandfather's death.

When I tried to analyse this rationally, I was soon filled with a feeling of failure and guilt. Had my father perhaps felt the same? Was it because we had both failed to secure our continuous existence on this land? Or was it something altogether more complex, where a father's death is at once a moment of terrifying loss but also the source of a new courage, and of that elated feeling that pertains to all new beginnings?

I know that every father hides secrets from his children, particularly those mixed feelings of love and anger, sympathy and resentment, pride and disappointment. Perhaps fathers do this more than mothers, or perhaps this is simply a matter of character, but I often wonder how much my own children can read my mind, how well they feel the doubts I try so hard to hide from them. There is something profoundly cruel about the nature of communication between generations, in the sense that parents must constantly try to "clean up'' the confusions of their thoughts and simplify them for the benefit of their children, with the frequent result that an idea is transmitted only partially or inadequately.

Something of this cruelty pertains to the transmission of memories, which in cases where loss or bereavement are involved, are even harder to transmit in anything but very partial form. From the point of view of the older generation, part of the reason why in every feeling of love or joy or pride lurk doubts and anxiety is that we have no way of ensuring that we or our memories are remembered the way we want them to be. It is an anxiety children feel when they grow up but are helpless to do much about. Indeed, it may be that with the sorrow of losing a parent there is also a sense of relief from these emotional burdens. Otherwise, I am unsure why my father became so fixated on his father's death.

Yet, as we returned from visiting the house where my grandfather died, I was I filled with the old childish fear of my parents' disappearance. I remembered as a child, in Beirut, the lullaby of fear and anxiety which would finally overwhelm my resistance to sleep, the fear that anything should happen to either of them, and then the delight of morning summoning back their voices and their smiles. Now that he had spoken of his own father's death, this old fear came back again. For it is true that the sycamore is still there and that nothing will ever move the sea from its place. Yet what will remain, I asked myself, when they have both left us?

Also by Omar Al-Qattan in openDemocracy:

"Protest, the Intifada and anti-Semitism: the confusions of moralism" (20 September 2002)

"Disneyland Islam"
(18 October 2002)

"Diary of an art competition (under occupation)"
(21 November 2002)

"Eighteen hours in Ben Gurion airport"
(23 May 2003)

"On going home"
(28 August 2003)The father complex

Over the years of their long exile and dispersal, the Palestinians experienced a series of profound changes in the very nature of their society. These changes were often brutal and rapid, and led a relatively simple and poor society to become a strange mixture of individuals who are best described, I think, as deeply complex and filled with extreme contradictions. You can find in Palestine, as in exile, an astonishing array of achievements, but also of great backwardness; refreshing, even defiant openness to the world, as well as tenacious conservatism. These contradictions have not been attenuated by the return, since the Oslo accords, of several thousand exiled Palestinians.

My father's more precise remark during our visit was that Palestine seems to be a sad combination of generous, brave individuals and a society which so far has been unable to build modern, democratic structures for itself, where the current Authority is no more than a poor reflection of this failure. In other words, we have failed to substitute our nostalgia for a past long gone with anything more than a patchy national project.

In 1990, my father had resigned as a member of the Palestinian National Council, primarily to voice his objection to Yasser Arafat's support of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, not able to understand or accept how the PLO could possibly support one occupation while suffering from another. This led to an almost total rupture in his previously cordial relationship with Arafat. Nonetheless, soon after his arrival in Palestine in the spring of 1999, he received an invitation to lunch from the Palestinian president. Arafat welcomed us at his Ramallah headquarters with his usual theatrical warmth, surrounded by his entourage of guards and aides. We were then invited to eat at a very long table and joined by at least twenty of his men (there were no women), Arafat insisting, to honor my father, that I should sit next to him, although he did not address a single word to me throughout the meal.

Over lunch, the conversation was rather formal and general. It covered, naturally, the political situation and the "peace'' process. As I listened, I was struck by the naïveté of Arafat's men. Two of them in particular took it upon themselves to convince us that Israel was not the powerful country the "media'' claimed it was; that things, God willing, will turn out fine eventually, and that thorny questions such as the removal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank and Gaza were a minor issue which would easily be resolved. As this foolhardy analysis proceeded, I noticed Arafat's hands and was amazed at how small and white they were and how strongly they contrasted with his paternal authority. Throughout the conversation, he had remained mostly silent, too wily perhaps to agree or disagree with his over-sanguine retinue.

There was, though, something disturbing in the faces of his men: a combination of naïve goodness and nervous obsequiousness. I now realize what it was: they were all in awe of their political father, Arafat, fearing his anger yet - like a group of disgruntled adolescents - resentful and hateful of his authority.

Is the whole of Palestinian society, I wondered, a prisoner of its "father's'' secretive and whimsical authority? It was a strange thought, not least because Arafat's small white hands, and his famously twitching knee, conveyed something uncertain, perhaps even feminine and youthful. Perhaps this is the nature of all power, in that it is ambiguous, arbitrary and yet essentially vulnerable. In this case, though, there was something of a heroic caricature about this president with his authority over an infantile, mildly corrupt and naïve bureaucracy governing a non-existent state. And it is a situation that has produced one of the paradoxes of contemporary Palestinian politics, where a population which is fully aware of the shortcomings of its president, is nonetheless quick to defend him against Israeli aggression.

The past and the present

Later, after the lunch was over, I recalled something that had happened the night before during our trip to Jaffa. A group of Jaffites had kindly invited us to tea after our walkabout near my father's house, and had eagerly listened to his views on the political situation. Then, suddenly, someone interrupted this discussion and called on the man sitting next to him to give a short "performance''. It transpired that this man was famous for his imitations of the voices of Arab political leaders and this was confirmed when he proceeded to ‘‘do'' a Nasser, then a Sadat then, finally, Arafat.

As this was going on, I was suddenly filled with a terrible feeling of helplessness and sorrow. It was not only that the performance was slightly embarrassing and quaint. It seemed to me, rather, that for these Jaffites who had for so long been cut off from the rest of the Arab world, this imitation game was one of their ways of maintaining contact with it. Ghosts imitating ghosts, I thought. It reminded me of a moving passage in Jean Genet's masterpiece on the Palestinians, Un Captif Amoureux, where he describes a group of young commandos stationed in a camp in Jordan during the 1970 September war against the Jordanian army.

Genet sits among the group after their commander has gone to bed, having forbidden them to play poker, this "bourgeois game for bourgeois people''. The description of the game that ensues has the entire book's extraordinary detail and its sensual irreverence which is yet full of love and sympathy. As the game ends, Genet remembers the Japanese feast of Obon, where once a year the dead return for a short sojourn among the living who light up candles to help them find their way, treat them with courtesy and then escort them back to the world of the dead. But throughout the feast, the living exaggerate their hospitality with clumsy gestures. It is as if, remarks Genet, the living were saying: "We are alive, we laugh at our dead, they cannot even be offended and they will remain skeletons at the bottom of a hole.''

And then, with an ingenious nonchalance, he tells us that in fact the game of cards had only existed in the commandos' "scandalously realistic movements. They had played at cards, without cards ... and the game had reminded me that all the activities of the Palestinians resembled the Feast of Obon where the only absentee is he who must not appear and who imposes a solemnity even on the way you can smile.''

The tension here is, on one level, between the absent commander and the players, but also between the dead - "who must not appear'' - and the living, between the real and the illusionary. Yet it is also a fitting metaphor for the tension between the past and the present in Palestinian consciousness. What has previously existed is not the same as what exists today and what may exist. This truism may seem simple and clear, but for a people dispossessed of their whole existence and now forced to build a new one, it is not. The commandos are disenchanted because "to play a game of gestures only, when through their hands should have passed kings, queens and knaves, in other words all the figures symbolising power, gives a sense of deceit, something very close to schizophrenia. To play cards without cards, every night: a sort of dry masturbation.'' In other words, this game, in which you engage in make-believe where, also, the past is immanent, but the present as it were absent, cannot carry on without the danger of madness.

The map of memorialisation

She had always described the large family home as brimming with watermelons: under the beds, in the loft, everywhere! So much so in fact that she came to hate the fruit and never touched it in her adult life. As a child, I could not understand how one could possibly dislike the sweet, juicy, thirst-quenching fruit, or resist its lovely crunch and the deep red of its center which always heralded the coming of early summer. There had been so many water-melons in the house, it seems, that her elder brothers would play at cracking them open on a pointed stone and eat their delicious cores, dispensing with the rest.

It is curious how differently we remember things. My mother's memories of her childhood, bereaved and often heartbreaking as it often was, are vivid and dramatic, full of eccentric characters and delicious detail. How ironic then that she has always claimed to have a very poor memory, at least for names and dates and events. My father always teases her about it, he who never forgets anything and who has always carried a sheet of paper with notes and reminders just in case his memory should falter. Indeed, the blind and cruel aunt who brought her and her siblings up after their mother's early death from tuberculosis and their father's imprisonment by the British would thrash her severely for her lapses of memory. In contrast, my father has an unerring memory, which has served him well in his long career as a businessman.

Despite this, it is my mother's memories of Palestine which are the more colourful and detailed, his more limited to specific facts and dates, even though she left at a younger age. I am not sure whether this is to do with the different ways in which men and women of their generation were brought up to think about themselves, or whether it is simply a question of character. It may also have to do with the fact that my mother's house in Tulkarem still stands today and is lived in by distant cousins of hers, and that Tulkarem remains a Palestinian town, though when we visited it together, accompanied by my aunt Rufaida, a year or so after my father's first visit to Jaffa, she too had been not been back since 1948. And the experience of that visit - or should one call these journeys visitations rather, such is their ghostly character - was altogether different too.

It is almost as if the quality of light enveloping the house was warmer, more redolent with life, more contemporary, than the melancholy haze in which I remember the journey to Jaffa. The inside of my great-grandfather's old house had been modified and modernised, but even so, both my mother and her sister were alive to the place, their curiosity stirred like that of a child who is returning to her home after a long absence and decides to explore every room and every corner anew. Looking at them both, I could almost imagine them as children, standing in the sun-drenched courtyard, arguing and laughing and screaming at each other, just as they were doing now.

With the benefit of hindsight and passage of almost four years since that visit, it seems to me now that the two separate experiences that I shared with my mother and father revealed two contrasting ways of remembering. In neither case did they accompany each other, which has always struck me as telling of the essential loneliness of these journeys, a loneliness you can perhaps share with your children, but not with your closest companion. And these two types of remembering permeate the many varied ways in which Palestine has been sung, eulogised, missed, symbolised - in other words, to use a fashionable term, the ways it has been "represented''.

For example, the literature about 1948 and pre-1948 was for a very long time rhetorical, political - one could perhaps call it a highly masculine response to catastrophe. Much later, particularly after the 1967 war and the recoil of Palestine even further from our reach, more personal, detailed accounts began to emerge, more "feminine'' recollections if you wish, though these were by no means confined to women writers, even if I am certain that much of our oral heritage is carried by our mothers and grandmothers.

Writers like Ghassan Kanafani and Emil Habibi created vulnerable, doubting, profoundly nostalgic characters, evoked through laconic and, in the latter's case, profoundly ironic narratives. In poetry too, the need to recount, to preserve in living detail the life that was lost (and that could perhaps still be retrieved) became highly popular, particularly through Mahmoud Darwish's early mixture of nostalgia, lyricism , and defiance. In the early 1980s, the cinema, that most revelatory of forms, offered up a similarly nuanced, vibrant and sensuous narrative - indeed, cinema allowed Palestinians, particularly those in exile, to visually rediscover for the first time their lost homeland. And it is no wonder that the first film made by a Palestinian inside post-1948 Palestine was a portrait of two women entitled Fertile Memory, directed by Michel Khleifi (the film, initially produced by Marisa Films, was originally entitled Suwar min dhikrayat khasba [Images from Fertile Memories], but finally named Adhakira al-Khasba [Fertile Memory]).

The central tension in this ravishing film, as in so much of our literature of that period, is between a tenacious attachment to the past and the need to militate - against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip, but also against Israel's racist abuse of its Palestinian citizens, and the oppression of our own society. There are two women in the film, an older, working-class factory-worker whose central drama is her refusal to relinquish the rights to her land, even though it had been confiscated by a kibbutz; and the younger Sahar Khalifeh, a divorced, radical and feminist novelist who is acutely conscious of the need to act for change.

In other words, the 1967 war created a new, relentless tension between what we desire to retrieve of the past and what we are able to achieve for ourselves in the present and in the future. The ramifications of this tension in the political sphere are not difficult to spot - the debates, which continue to rage today, between the "realists'' who assert that we need to accept what we are able to get, even if this means giving up most of Palestine, and those who continue to cling to the right of return to all of historic Palestine, are only one expression of this tension. And I believe that they will not be resolved easily or quickly, unless of course justice is achieved.

In the meantime, there is no question that our relationship to our memory is treacherous. In 1983, the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky called nostalgia a Russian national disease. The same may perhaps be said of Palestine. Sometimes it seems to me that we become prisoners of an angry, stubborn and bitter tenacity to return - to the past, to the land which has been taken away, to a sort of national childhood from which none of us wishes to awaken. But the daily struggles for survival which we must engage in - immediate ones in the face of an Israeli bulldozer or checkpoint, a Jordanian or Egyptian immigration officer, or a Lebanese bureaucrat refusing us permissions to work; or political ones, where we seem hardly to exist on the map of international consideration - these struggles impose a break with this embittered nostalgia.

I have noticed how in several instances of my own film work, there are discussions between the young and the old which vividly express this tension: a dying refugee in Gaza refuses to accept his son's "realism'' at the onset of the Oslo accords and tells him that he will never give up his desire to return to Jaffa (see Al-Awda [Going Home], Sindibad Films /Café Productions, 1995); a middle-aged refugee stands on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and tells her son: "People have been to the moon and we can't go back home?! No! Of course we will'' (see Ahlam fi Faragh [Dreams and Silence], Sourat Films, 1991). Yet all the way through these films, the continuing contemporary struggles reimpose themselves, pointing up the absolute necessity of reinvesting our anger, bitterness and nostalgia with a new defiance and a new vision for the future. In other words, to borrow Michel Khleifi's phrase, to make our memories fertile.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on the Palestinian predicament:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" (April-May 2002) - an eleven-part project mapping Israel's three-dimensional control of the West Bank

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation"
(September 2003) - a three-part series on the architecture of power embodied in the separation barrier

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation"
(18 November 2004)

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east"
(1 February 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention"
(10 October 2006)

Eyad Sarraj, "The campaign that should never stop"
(13 November 2006)

Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement"
(29 March 2007)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move"
(20 April 2007)

Mary Kaldor & Mient Jan Faber, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report"
(21 May 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse"
(4 June 2007)

Tony Klug, "Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out"
(5 June 2007)

Rosemary Bechler, "Palestinians under siege in the West Bank"
(6 June 2007)

Ghassan Khatib, "Palestine: this occupation will end"
(7 June 2007)The child and the adult

During our trip to Palestine, my father and I were invited to a fundraising dinner in aid of the Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. I mention this dinner because the guest speaker was Pauline Cutting, the courageous British surgeon who braved the brutal siege of the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut by the Amal militia and remained in one of them from 1985 until the end of the various sieges in 1987, by which time the inhabitants of the camps had suffered hundreds of casualties, while much of their poorly-built neighborhoods had been levelled to the ground (see Rosemary Sayigh's harrowing but brilliant narrative of the siege in Too Many Enemies: the Palestinian Experience in Lebanon, 1994).

Cutting rose to speak of the heroism of the people in the camps and their immense generosity towards her. Explaining her decision to stay, she mentioned, as an example of what she described as a far greater courage than her own, the story of a little girl whose leg had had to be amputated after she was hit by a shell while her little brother, who had been standing next to her, was also injured. When Cutting asked the girl one day why she never cried when her bandage was being changed, the girl told her that if she cried, her brother would cry too and she did not want this to happen.

This brought back, in the painful way that memories have of coalescing at unexpected moments and revealing themselves in a new light, another trip to the past - my own this time. A few months before our trip to Jaffa, after more than twenty years, I had myself visited our old flat in Beirut where I had lived as a child until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.

There is nothing special about this kind of return anymore, for many have done it, and in much worse circumstances than mine. But this visit was in a way harsher than my father's, though I am certain that one pain can never really be compared with another. Our flat was in a four-storey building near the camps where Cutting had spent those horrific three years under siege. After the civil war, my parents had lent it to a Lebanese charity on condition that the charity repairs any damage done during the intervening twenty years of our absence.

When the charity's director showed us around, I was amazed at how faithfully they had restored the flat: the door handles, the bathroom tiles, everything but the furniture of course, was the same, except for the size, which in my child's recollection, had been far bigger than it turned out to be.

We were then led down to the basement of the building. I know this well because as children we would play hide-and-seek here and dare each other to stay more than a few minutes in its eerie darkness. During the first months of the civil war in 1975, we had also spent many a night here. The charity's director explained that this had been used as a prison by the Amal militia during their siege of the camps. He paused a little, and then added that when the contractor had excavated it in order to lay a new floor, he had found not only the desperate writings of the Palestinian prisoners etched on the walls, but also human remains.

The corpse in the basement

Every Palestinian must have asked his or her parents the same question: why did you leave? I imagine that the answer comes always in two stages: first, there are the obvious explanations, the threats, the bombs, the rumors of massacres, the death of close ones, as well as the great fear of rape, the traditional Palestinian man and woman's paramount anxiety about the loss of honour. Then, after a moment's silence, there comes the doubt as he or she examines his or her memories, which have, perhaps, begun to fade. Guilt then sets in, embarrassment, a whispering, nagging scepticism: what if I had been cowardly, what if ... But then, like waves on a sandy beach, the memories disappear, the questions evaporate, and life returns to its normal ebb and flow.

I too asked my parents this same question about our leaving Beirut. Of course, the answer was always simple and matter-of-fact - the civil war made it too dangerous, though I always noticed a profound regret clouding over their eyes when they would finish answering. It always made me angry, even if I knew that it was done with the best of intentions. In fact, I am certain now that I would probably do the same if such a situation were to face my own children. Moreover, I have now come to understand that the indignity and humiliation of forced exile and loss is at the root of my parents' determination never to experience it again, and certainly not in the same way, even if they have sadly experienced it three times in their lifetimes - from Palestine, in 1948, Beirut in 1975 and finally from Kuwait in 1990 where, unlike most of the Palestinian community which had lived in Kuwait, they were at least able to return after the end of the first Gulf war.

But the image of the corpse in the basement of our Beirut home returns to me. Here is the corpse of a dead man to which I have no way of posing the thousand-and-one questions which I would want to ask of him. A corpse without memories, certainly not my own, but which has attached itself to me because it has crossed my journey just as it has unintentionally inhabited the space of my childhood. Who is his father, or mourning mother? What corner of Palestine had they left behind in their angry, fading memories? What was he hoping or dreaming, what hurt him most as he began to realise his end?

Perhaps he died of negligence, of a minor disease, or perhaps he was shot when his jailer lost patience then felt intolerably guilty about the extermination of a body so young. I have no way of telling or retelling his story except in the refuge of my imagination, with the tools of fiction at my disposal. Whatever I write of him, it will not be a memory or a secret, but an invention born of sympathy, of an imagined love. Almost twenty years after his death, I am only capable of reinventing his faded, buried memory. Yet I am also capable of preserving the anger he must have wanted to shout as he lay dying. I am even tempted to think that he might have heard the echoes of our childish screams in the darkness. But I am uncertain.

The point of departure

As we travelled along the coast while returning from our trip to Jaffa and turned east towards Jerusalem, another thing occurs to me too: an Arabic saying my father mentioned, almost casually, during his trip to Palestine: the child is his father's secret. It took me time to understand the paradoxical nature of this saying. The Arabic word for secret, sir, shares the same root verb with the word for joy, surur, conveying the sense of elation that secrets generate. But even if secrets are a source of complicit pleasure between people, they are, like memories, weighty things that we often carry around with a sense of guilt, or shame or regret. It is as if the act of inheriting, of preserving and taking pride in what is left to you, is also a heavy burden from which we somehow must liberate ourselves. If we think of this process collectively, particularly as time is passing us by and the past slipping further and further away, we need to think of memory no longer simply as assertion and testimony, but as the point of a new departure.

It is clearly impossible to return to point zero, to eliminate everything that has happened and retrieve the illusory moment of purity which every adolescent dreams of at the height of his oedipal crisis, for this would amount to no less than a vain attempt to cancel the past. But it is also impossible for any Palestinian to honestly pretend that the trauma of 1948, or of the subsequent dispossessions and forced exiles which have afflicted us and continue to do so, are no longer central to our lives. Nothing makes much sense without those memories and that history.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData