A heavy silence filled the bare-walled room in East Amman where I sat with three generations of Palestinian refugees. A moment before, we’d sat captivated as Abu Khalid, a broad-shouldered man of eighty-five, shared his tales of growing up on an olive farm outside Jerusalem. As a young boy, he’d tended the groves with his father, mother, and siblings, learning the rich lore of the ancient crops. His now-weathered cheeks stretched into a wide smile as he described the bright, tangy flavor of fresh-pressed oil poured over za’atar herbs and cheese. The grandfather of eighteen swore to us there was nothing more delicious than the fruit of that “holy soil.” “We worked all year on the land, and mashallah the land fed us with life, like a miracle, every season.” Abu Khalid’s tone grew reverent. “We named the trees—we knew each one. Like a part of our family.”
In 1948, Israeli military fire sent his family scrambling to escape. Fleeing the invading forces, they abandoned their farm and their several-dozen, beloved trees.
Abu Khalid’s story halted there.
The past washed into the room with chilling gravity. I watched the man’s wrinkle-wreathed eyes glaze over and sink towards his empty, upturned hands.
I’ve seen that gaze too many times to count. This is the Nakba, I thought.
Each year on May 15, Palestinians observe “Nakba Day”— often at great peril — in memory of the approximately 700,000 Arabs who were displaced by the establishment of the State of Israel. While May 15 is bound to see thousands participate in public demonstrations worldwide, these symbolic actions can only begin to approximate the actual magnitude of the events of 1948. More than a regrettable historical occurrence, the Nakba is, for the approximately 11 million Palestinians around the globe, a catastrophic collective present.
I recall the way my own grandmother’s grey eyes would fill abruptly with the same mixture of love, longing, and unspeakable pain that clouded Abu Khalid’s features. She, too, carried a secret world inside her, memories of a vivid and irretrievable youth in southern Palestine before the Year That Changed Everything. Growing up in the rural village of Ibdis, my grandmother spent her days working outdoors alongside her family and neighbors, tending to their fields (barely, lentils, wheat) and gardens (oranges, apricots, mint). In the evenings she’d roll a cigar for her father, the village sheikh, as he received visitors at his diwaniya late into the night. Automobiles were unheard of; mules and camels provided transportation and carried the village goods to nearby cities for trade. Just before The War, the residents of Ibdis installed a well for the community with a pump purchased from their Jewish neighbors. Upon completion of the project, the entire village celebrated in song and dance, overjoyed at this new development, forgetting for a moment the rumors of unrest and violence that were circulating in the summer of 1948.
A few weeks later, soldiers appeared.
When Zionist forces invaded Ibdis, my grandmother and her three young sons fled their home, never to return. Today, the remains of her town lie half-demolished in an empty field, marked only by a jamayza tree and a few pieces of the village structures — the unused, now crumbling, well, a cemetery, a few fallen stone walls. (The story of my pilgrimage to this village is recorded here.)
My grandmother never saw the rubbled remains of her childhood home, but spent the next sixty-two years in exile, moved by history and circumstance from Gaza to Egypt to Saudi Arabia, where she died in 2010. Before her passing, she lived to see her sons grow into men, marry, and raise their own families—but no measure of time seemed to dull her memory of, and longing for, her lost world.
My grandmother brought Palestine to life for me and my cousins, a generation of children born far from the soil and sky of Ibdis. As she kneaded dough with her expert hands to make flaky malateet cookies,and ma’amoul cookies, my grandmother recited stanzas from the folksongs and poems of her village (time-locked artifacts, vanishing with her generation). Over her succulent stuffed grape leaves or savory molokhea, she’d re-tell the story of her wedding in Ibdis, of her moment as a bride, proudly mounted on a camel, richly ornamented, young and regal.
Other moments, she’d vanish, the Nakba invading her suddenly and leaving her silent and staring blankly as her tea grew cold. When her thoughts returned to us, she’d often speak in low, mournful tones of some family member or friend who had been lost in one of the wars. May God have mercy she’d murmur in Arabic, over and over. Oh Lord, oh Lord… It was a question. It was a prayer.
For her, Palestine was forever her most beautiful dream and her most searing sorrow, her waking moments always infused with the knowledge of What Was, and What Was Lost.
This is the Nakba.
For Palestinians, history is never behind us. It is as near as the blood in our veins, the dog-eared photos in our closets, the names of vanished villages that dangle at the tips of our tongues. Our lives are marked by this inescapable reckoning with the past.
May 15 will be, in some ways, just another day of this personal reckoning. Even so, the public acknowledgement and mourning of the Nakba could offer a unique platform for dismantling the oppressive legacy of the past. Rather than a one-sided moment of communal Palestinian grief, Nakba Day could be an opportunity for Israel-supporters to recognize their responsibility to engage with this grieving. Rather than ignoring or denying the narrative of their Palestinian counterparts (see “Nakba Day Law”), those who seek peace must recognize that there cannot be healing without acknowledging the true roots of the present conflict—dispossession, abuse, indignity. Though the idea of mainstream Israeli acceptance of the Nakba may sound far-fetched, there are promising signs from organizations like Zochrot, BADIL and the Nakba Education Project.
I am not suggesting a return to some idyllic pre-Nakba past. I recognize the tide of time, and some things are irretrievable. Even so, as a daughter of the diaspora and a bearer of my grandmother’s legacy, I long for resolution wherein human life is dignified above nationalist myth or religious dogma. I pray for a peace between true equals, and end to the cycle of victimization and violence. I dream of a future born of truth-telling done by courageous and humble people, a reckoning with the excruciating past and an acknowledgment of all those—Palestinian, Jew, or otherwise—who have suffered as a result of this enduring “catastrophe.” For those who long for an end to “the conflict”—and indeed, there are some who prefer enmity to equity—the price of selective memory is too high to ignore.
Nakba Day, like all “days of remembrance,” is thus important not simply as an end in itself, but for the difficult and ground-breaking work that faithful reckoning with the past might inspire. May honesty, humility, and imagination lead us forward.