Documenting the Nakba: an interview with poet Dareen Tatour

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I visited poet Dareen Tatour, under house arrest at her home in the Arab town of Reineh on April 17, known here as “Palestinian Prisoners Day.” Two and a half years ago Dareen was arrested for publishing a poem, and since then she underwent a trial and is now awaiting the verdict expected on May 3 — all, of course, while still under house arrest.

Meanwhile, over the past few days Palestinians have protested 70 years of the ongoing Nakba. Palestinians inside the Green Line, those that remained on or near their land inside of historic Palestine after the 1948 ethnic cleansing, now hold every year a “March of Return.” It is their main annual gathering to express their national identity and their aspirations for freedom and equality, and is held on the same day that Israel declared its independence.

This year was also witness to a new initiative for mass non-violent resistance in the besieged Gaza Strip under the title of “The Great March of Return.” Every Friday from Land Day (on March 30), tens of thousands of Palestinians march toward the prison-walls that Israel built all around them, fortifications that close on almost two million people, most of them refugees, in a very small patch of land, highly restricting all viable economic activities, supply of basic needs, medical treatment and the freedom of movement. When protesters approach the fence, Israeli army snipers shoot at them in cold blood. Since the start of the demonstrations Israeli forces have killed 45 and injured more than 6,000. Through these marches, the notion of the Palestinian Right of Return regained its initial place at the hallmark of the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

To see how Dareen’s story fits within the context of these events, I decided to interview her about her personal experiences with the Nakba and the struggle for al-‘Awda – Arabic for “the return.”

Ruins of Palestinian homes in Safsaf. (Photo: Nayef Naser Ahmad Zaghmout/Palestine Remembered)

Dareen’s grandmother and the Nakba in Safsaf

“Are you a refugee yourself?” I asked Dareen. “No”, she responded, “the Tatour family lived in Reineh long before the Zionists came to Palestine.”

“So how did you become aware to the ethnic cleansing of 1948?” I continued.

“Well, it all started with my grandmother,” she said, “She told me how they were expelled from Safsaf.”

Safsaf was a Palestinian village northwest of Safed, near the Lebanese border. On October 29, 1948, it was occupied by the Israeli army. After the villagers surrendered, the soldiers committed a massacre, shooting more than fifty men in the village, who were tied up, and dumping their bodies into a well. Three women were raped, including a 14-year old girl. The story of the massacre in Safsaf is recognized not only by Palestinian historians but also by Israeli sources. The Israeli army held an internal investigation but its results are still sealed by the state.

At that time Dareen’s grandmother was 16 years old and was already married to a man from Al-Jesh, a nearby village. The day Israeli forces occupied Safsaf she was in the village and witnessed the horrors of the massacre. She told Dareen how, before the mass shooting, the soldiers instructed people to gather in the middle of the village. She saw how they found two young women and a young men hiding in a cave. They shoot the three of them dead before her terrified eyes.

Most of the people of Safsaf, including Dareen’s grandmother’s brothers and sisters, ended up as refugees in Lebanon and Syria, thrown into an ordeal of statelessness and suffering in which, after 70 years, there is still no end in sight. Dareen’s grandmother joined her husband in Al-Jesh and stayed there, where Tatour’s mother was later born. Many people from Al-Jesh, after hearing about the massacre in Safsaf, also fled. So other relatives from Dareen’s grandfather’s family also became refugees. Some of them, as a result of Israeli and/or Arab massacres against the inhabitants of the Palestinian refugee camps, later found refuge in Europe, but most of them are still in Syria and Lebanon.

Dareen never met her grandfather. He died when her mother was still a girl. But she is proud of what she heard about him from her grandmother. He was a revolutionary and took part in the organization of the 1936 Arab General Strike in Palestine against the British occupation and against Zionist colonization. Later he took part in the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt, which was brutally repressed by the British army.

Dareen said she felt very close to her grandmother who told her about life in the lost paradise in Safsaf, the Nakba and the fate of the refugees. From this, came an urge to write down the stories, to photograph whatever was left of the people, memories and houses, and to devote her life to the Palestinian struggle of restoring lost rights.

Dareen Tatour and her grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Dareen Tatour)

Photography, oral history and activism

Just as she finished high school, Dareen started documenting Palestinian life before the Nakba by interviewing the generation that lived through it. She filmed videos and wrote stories; she started by interviewing her own grandmother, but soon widened the effort and started looking for people displaced from any the more than 500 villages and towns that were destroyed by Israel in 1948. Dareen accompanied them to their destroyed villages, or at times went there alone to take pictures.

Dareen published some of her documentary footage on the website Palestine Remembered, a database of destroyed Palestinian villages, as well as her Youtube channel, Facebook pages and blog. Eventually she established a website to warehouse her material, “” (yanbu’a in Arabic means “water spring”). While under house arrest, the court prohibited Dareen from accessing the internet. Not able to keep up her ynbu3 registration, this is no longer accessible. Dareen said she fears that the precious materials she stored on the website may have been lost forever. Similarly, much of her documentary footage was saved a computer that police confiscated in the course of her arrest and trial.

When ynbu3 was up and running, Dareen used the site to give new dimensions to the Palestinian struggle by building connections between the internally displaced and refugees beyond the borders. Each side gave what the other could not. The people that stayed in Palestine could visit the sites of destroyed villages and send pictures. Refugees contacted the site to request that local activists find what remained of their houses or photo for them locations that hosted endeared memories. People in the refugee camps conveyed a treasure trove of precious memories and Dareen interviewed them by Skype and wrote their stories. She also helped to coordinate visits of refugees that now hold European passports to their destroyed villages. She produced three films about such “return visits” to the villages of Al-Damun, Al-Birweh and Tirat Haifa.

In 1995, a few years before Dareen began her documentation effort, representatives from groups of displaced Palestinians from different towns and villages united to form The National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel. In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the Nakba, they started the tradition of “The Annual March of Return.” In the year 2000 the national committee established itself as an officially registered association.

When activist with the internally displaced association discovered Dareen’s documentaries on Palestine Remembered, they invited her to take part in a guides’ course. Dareen then joined the association and found another platform for her effort to preserve Palestinian memories. She brought together refugees from the Nakba and visitors to the destroyed villages so that the refugees could share their memories. Dareen filmed the encounters.

As the annual March of Return events evolved to draw tens of thousands participants, they now also include tents with special exhibitions. In the last marches before her arrest Tatour maintained her own tent, with an exhibition of more than 500 photos from the destroyed villages and towns, under the title “tell me about my village”. This was not a one time event–but an annual exhibition during the March of Return that ran for several years.

Dareen visiting a destroyed Palestinian village. (Photo: courtesy of Dareen Tatour)

Wounded in Saffuriyya

Once while looking at Dareen’s Facebook page, which she is not allowed to do but everybody else can, I found an image of her lying in a hospital bed, visited by Knesset Member Jamal Zakhalka. She told me how she was wounded during the 2008 March of Return.

It was the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. That year there was a surge of right-extremists’ and settlers’ incitement against the March of Return, which was held on the lands of the destroyed town of Saffuriyya, northwest of Nazareth. There was a big Palestinian presence that day, with many families who brought kids of all ages to take part in an educational event. At the end of the day, as the marchers were leaving the gathering spot heading towards the parking, the police allowed a group of settlers to come close and throw stones at them. As some Palestinian youth tried to confront the settlers, a large police force, including special forces “anti-riot” units, some of them mounted on mighty horses, fired tear gas and stun grenades into the whole of the Palestinian public and struck some with batons. The police’s munitions caused a wild fire in dry fields, which put the participants in extra danger.

There was havoc. Most people didn’t expect such violence and were confused. They tried run away, in all directions. Children cried and many were separated from their relatives or friends. Dareen, armed with her professional camera, tried to stay calm and document the events. She still remembers the scene of policemen beating whoever they could catch, sometimes stomping their boots on victims. She also vividly described how people were wounded when the mounted police rode their horses into the crowd.

Suddenly Dareen saw three children without a parent nearby who were stuck between two lines of the police, not knowing where to hide. She stopped filming and went to help them. She guided the children out of danger, but was caught herself between the police lines and became a direct target for their fury. Officially gas canisters and shock grenades should be shot in the air, but she remembers how the policemen were shooting them directly at her from close range.

She especially remembers one direct hit at her leg, and another shock grenade that hit her chest. She felt the burning heat of the iron and the force of the blow left her unable to breath. She fell on the ground. She remembers hearing herself call for help before she fainted. She was evacuated by an ambulance to Nazareth and was hospitalized for one day.

Exactly 10 years later, on Friday, April 20, 2018 some 20,000 Palestinians attended the 21st March of Return on the site of the destroyed village of Atlit, just south of Haifa. It was the third march in a row that Tatour missed due to her house arrest. Some Israeli politicians and racist social media activists demanded the march be abolished. They threatened havoc if it would have taken place.  Yet, they didn’t show up and the march went on. I just hope that the next year Dareen will be marching with us again.

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Mr. Haifawi, stared at your name for a bit, i like it, checked out your freehaifa site, great stuff and Arab48, whose photographs reminded me Arabs can’t speak without moving their hands when I went to school in England they made me sit on my hands and i almost completely lost the ability to speak stuttering using the wrong language reluctantly they allowed me to fold my hands on my lap but it wasn’t the… Read more »

The fact that her site was forced down seems to be a tragedy, insult to injury in tip of her unjust arrest and kangaroo court trial.