Israel/Palestine discussions are marked by conflict and ferocity. No big surprise. Rarely do you come on gentleness and dignity. In that spirit, I offer the following.
Two nights ago at Columbia they held a panel on the Nakba. There were to be four professors: the fiery Joseph Massad, a young cultural critic with a fearsome beard and an earring who was dressed all in black, a professor of literature, and an anthropologist. The first to speak was the
anthropologist, a woman in her mid-50s, imposing, with reddish hair and a delicate square face, wearing a fine purple knitted jacket. Her name was Lila Abu Lughod. In the midst of a career in Egyptian anthropology, she had lately published a “labor of love,” a book called simply Nakba, an investigation of people’s memories of 1948. She was going to read two sections from the book.
The first section was about Rema Hammami, a friend who had gone to Israel to see her grandfather’s house in Jaffa for the first time. Evidently it was now a clinic. "In the kind of story that repeats itself among Palestinians," Hammami had wandered back through the archway in a dream state, thrown back into an old family photograph, “remapping the sitting room's former reality”--when someone came up to her and addressed her in Hebrew. She responded in English and was brought to a blonde matron, who quizzed her about her bona fides before turning her over to the manager. And he, in apparent "glee," took her to a mural on the landing that pictured the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream.
Hammami said, "I was speechless at what I could only take as a form of sadism." She said to the man, "Look, I just wanted to look around."
The second story involved Abu Lughod’s father, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (who I found out later was a revered scholar). Expelled from Jaffa at the age of 19 in 1948, he had landed in Jordan, then borrowed money to go to the U.S. to get an education. He earned a Ph.D. at Princeton, became an academic. And all his adult life he refused to see his former home, refused to put himself under the authority of Israelis. Then, working on a project in Lebanon in 1982, he was driven from a place by the Israeli army for the second time in his life, an experience that left him "haunted."
And after that his mind changed. "He realized that he might die without ever seeing Palestine again." He decided to go back. He returned in 1992, in his early 60s, and went straight from the airport to Jaffa. He looked for King Faisal street but the signs were gone. Then he asked Arab children and they showed it to him; and he was pleased to find that the Arab community was keeping alive the memory of the old place.
He settled in Ramallah. He began urging his family to come back no matter the oppressions. His daughter visited in 1993. She found that he was happy, he had been embraced by his community. On the other hand he was anxious. His mouth was dry and face wet with sweat whenever he had to drive around. He was afraid of the soldiers speaking a language he did not understand, afraid of getting lost and not being able to read signs, afraid to ask anyone for help. He took her all over historic Palestine. He saw “beyond, between and behind" the grim reality his daughter saw to a living past. He saw orange groves from which he had stolen an orange when he was a boy. He saw the fields marked now only by cactuses. He saw the arched windows of old Arab houses that had somehow escaped destruction.
Abu-Lughod referred to the work of “my dear colleague” Marianne Hirsch on the Holocaust-- how a child's memories of "the much more significant past" of one's parents are overlaid on everyday reality and overshadow that reality. The difference in the case of the Holocaust is that the world had denounced that genocide and those horrors, they were truly past, and so the connection had to be imagined. While in her father’s case the past was not yet past.
Then in 2001 her father was dying, and Abu-Lughod went to take care of him, and the non pastness of the Nakba became her own experience. "I experienced Israel through his illness and death, with the inability to get anywhere on the West Bank for the painkillers and morphine patches prescribed by his Israeli doctor, not to mention the broccoli and salmon he loved." There was the need to hire an ambulance every time he went to the doctor in Israel because the oxygen tank might otherwise run out at a checkpoint. Later there was the intrusive call she got from Israeli security threatening the arrangements for his funeral in Jaffa.
"The physical reality of my father's death in 2001 was for me inseparable from the details of Israeli domination...
"I heard my father's stories of Palestine all my life. But it's different to walk, orphaned, through a hot dusty checkpoint dragging your suitcases because they won't allow Palestinian vehicles to cross. It's different to be held up by arrogant soldiers with reflective sunglasses and burnished muscles who willfully delay you though they know you're perfectly innocent."
As she came into Jerusalem, she imagined the slaves going to freedom on the underground railroad and the
displaced refugees moving through Europe after World War 2. Then she saw the Hebrew signs proclaiming ownership of the land and the utter
separation of Arab and Jew. The Palestinian Nakba was not just a catastrophe of the past, it was
a living catastrophe. "And it continues with the crushing of Gaza and Israel's refusal to acknowledge on its 60th birthday the roots of the problem in the injustice of 1948."
Abu Lughod sat down with as much reserved dignity as she had spoken. It was impossible to connect the rage surrounding her family's experience with the formal woman who had spoken. Afterward I went up to say hello and asked her if she had written more about her own progress from Egyptian anthropology to exhuming the Nakba. No; she had told her story through her father. She avoided public forums, was leery of the press, they take things out of context. She had grown up watching ferocious people heckling her father at Palestine-related events and it had frightened her. "I do not like confrontation."
Still she was called to write her book (with Ahmad Sa'di) and to read aloud to a packed hall of mostly students, including a lot of kids in yarmulkes. Her book has been out a year, she told me it has not been reviewed. What else is there to say except the obvious and pathetic: you are reading the only work of journalism about this tremendously important American voice, a voice that Columbia University should be getting out to New York and the world, a voice that any serious American who wants to understand why we are where we are should be engaging.