After the catastrophe

As Israel prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Palestinians remember al Nakba

Illustration By robert armstrong

Ziad Abbas holds the key to peace in the Middle East. It also happens to be the key to his mother’s home in the village once known as Jirash, in the land once known as Palestine. Sixty years ago this week, his mother and her family, fearing roving Zionist militias that were terrorizing Arabs across the country, fled the home and locked the door behind them, planning to come back once hostilities subsided. Instead, their property was confiscated by the new Israeli government. They never returned home.

But Abbas still has the front door key. It’s one of those old-fashioned skeleton keys, a hefty length of oxidized iron that looks large and heavy even in his generous paws. His mother gave it to him in 1998, shortly before she passed away in the Dheisheh refugee camp, where Abbas was born, raised and lives today. The 43-year-old journalist and co-founder of the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh travels frequently, and he carries the key with him wherever he goes.

Sipping tea on a recent spring afternoon in Sacramento, Abbas couldn’t be further away from Dheisheh, which lies just outside Bethlehem in the occupied territories. But the key and everything it stands for weighs heavily on his mind. It is the figurative and literal symbol of al Nakba, “the catastrophe,” the forced exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from their land during the tumultuous birth of Israel in 1948.

Chances are al Nakba won’t be on the itinerary when state Sen. Darrell Steinberg hosts A Salute to Israel on the Capitol west steps May 11. The event, sponsored in part by SN&R, honors the 60th anniversary of Israeli statehood and coincides with Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. Certainly, there is much to celebrate. Nevertheless, Israel’s formation remains irrevocably linked to “the catastrophe,” which Palestinians commemorate with Nakba Day, held each year on the same day as Yom Ha’atzmaut.

It’s a day that’s been seared into the memory of Palestinian-born anthropology professor Osama Doumani. Born in 1937, the 69-year-old Davis resident was raised in a middle-class Greek Orthodox family in Acre, a town of 20,000 in the Galilee region, in what is now northern Israel.

He was 9 when the violence began ratcheting up in 1947, after the United Nations divided Palestine into two states, Jewish and Arab, a decision that was unanimously opposed by the Arab world. As violent skirmishes between groups of armed Arabs and Zionists increased in frequency, Doumani recalls being ordered to his room by his father and listening to the gunfire echo in the night. Rumors of Zionist atrocities—some of them true, some of them not—filtered through radio reports, newspapers and the grapevine, terrorizing the Arab community. By April 1948, the exodus had begun. Today, the Palestinian diaspora claims up to 6 million people worldwide.

For Doumani, al Nakba began as a vacation. The family relocated to a resort town in Lebanon, where they traditionally spent the summer. But after the shooting was over and his father and older brother returned to Acre to reclaim the family home, they were informed by the new Israeli government that the home and its contents no longer belonged to them. The family never returned to Palestine. They’re still waiting for the vacation to end, Doumani jokes wryly.

Doumani admits that for him, the quest for Palestinian justice has become a matter of principle. He is almost 70 years old, and has spent most of his adult life in the United States, where he’s become a citizen, raised a family and achieved a modicum of success. He’s done his part for the cause, helping to organize Palestinian relief efforts since the 1960s. As an observer, he has witnessed the slums of corrugated tin and cinder block that constitute refugee camps in the occupied territories. He has seen Palestinian children match stones with Israeli rubber bullets. He regrettably concedes that he may not live to see peace in the Middle East.

Ziad Abbas, born and raised in a refugee camp, was once one of those stone-throwing children. After his mother died 10 years ago, he and an uncle journeyed north from the Dheisheh refugee camp to Jirash, the village his mother’s family had fled in 1948. The town—the homes, the schools, the mosques—had long since been razed; an orchard now carpeted the desert floor. Yet some landmarks remained, and his uncle was to locate the spot where the family home once stood. They started digging where the uncle figured the front door should be and found the porch steps. If the door had still been there, Abbas could have opened it with his key.

The discovery marked a turning point for Abbas. He has since dedicated a good part of his career to recording the oral histories of al Nakba survivors. The rusty cast-iron key he still carries around with him everywhere he goes symbolizes all that they have lost. Yet it also serves as a reminder that justice will prevail, if it is pursued. Ziad Abbas is being entirely serious when he says he holds the key to peace in the Middle East. There’s no reason to doubt him.