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‘The long journey of a refugee trying to return home’ — Salman Abu Sitta’s memoir

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MAPPING MY RETURN
A Palestinian Memoir 
by Salman Abu Sitta
352 pp. The American University in Cairo Press. $36.05

To judge by his fellow Palestinian activist associates, the likes of Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Dr. Salman Abu Sitta is among our living lead intellectuals. He is a low-key but persistent native contributor to documenting the life, and especially the “living geography,” of Palestine across the ages, a task to which he has dedicated his professional knowhow and time. 

In the preface to his 2016 book, “Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir,” Dr. Abu Sitta, an engineer by training who was exiled from his prosperous childhood home in southern Palestine at the age of ten years, advises his reader:

“[The book] tells the story of the long journey of a refugee trying to return home. There were no guns or tanks. There were no secret missions. It was simply a quest for a right to be restored, a truth to be unveiled, and a patrimony, lost in a moment of historical aberration, to be regained. That is the fuel which sustains all Palestinians in their long struggle.”

Amen! I hereby admit that, though not a refugee, I fully subscribe to this form of resistance.

Abu Sitta’s “regular” professional life seems to have been rich and challenging enough: It involves the standard technical engineering office and field work and independent business ventures with the attendant achievements and reversals, especially in Kuwait with Saddam’s megalomaniacal invasion and defeat. He participates as well in the standard Palestinian intellectual and organizational activism worldwide. Such a career seems typical of many diasporic Palestinians, the genre known for its high educational and professional achievement. And for its reliability: “They would go anywhere, any time, and do a terrific job,” the author tells us.

Yet the loss of home, property and lead position of his family as well as all the familiar physical and sociocultural surroundings must have been overwhelming to Salman as a ten-year-old. It stayed with him for life. Then, half a century later, approaching retirement, the author is seized by his lifelong urge to discover what lay behind his dispossession:

Cover of "Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir" by Salman Abu Sitta, The American University in Cairo Press.
Cover of “Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir” by Salman Abu Sitta, The American University in Cairo Press.

“I was a tenured professor; I had a nice house and a lovely growing family. One night, after pacing around our sitting room hundreds of times until after midnight, I decided to go.”

And that apparently was how his “crusade” to map his return finally started.

Thus, Abu Sitta’s professional career was bracketed by the childhood obsession around which his book of memoirs revolves. This obsession seems to turn him, the studious civil engineer, into an expert cartographer and historical researcher focusing his gained expertise on Palestine as is clear from repeated declarations regarding the burning fire of his desire to end his long exile:

“My life’s mission became to try to put a face to this invisible enemy, in particular, the Zionist soldiers who attacked and burned down my home.”

The intense account in this book of memoirs draws on a life rich in successes and adventure but never without the dark hue of the author’s childhood Nakba experience and its traumatic and violent events. And yet, the author manages to sprinkle his writing with a homely sense of humor and snippets of human frailty. Take for example his trip from Gaza to Cairo with his older brothers after the Nakba where they are allowed on train carriages transporting prisoners. They all are placed in adult-size shackles as part of the trip’s standard procedure. As soon as the guards leave, Salman slips his slim arms free. And in Cairo, while attending school, he is entrusted to the care of friends of his family. The couple permit him to share their bed, sleeping between their physically mismatched torsos with all the fondly-remembered comic events on which only a child can embellish.

To gain some appreciation of the author’s perspective as a refugee and on the great loss of status and means that came with his family’s exile, we have to be reminded of the firm traditional leadership his extended tribe, the Tarabeen, and especially his father, Hussain Abu Sitta, had held among Bedouin tribes and farmers in the Beer Sheba district of South Palestine.

A portrait of Hussein Abu Sitta, the author Salman’s father, a central figure in the history of his tribe at the time of the Nakba and one who figures centrally in his son’s memoir. It is by the famed Palestinian artist Ismael Shammmout in 1950.

“After the [First World] war, the British, with their usual diplomacy, confirmed my father as sheikh although he had never cooperated with them during the war. He assumed his duties with vigor. My father had a pleasant appearance and a commanding presence; he was well-spoken and persuasive. He chose the pursuit of justice without belligerence, an approach befitting his role as a judge. In the years to come, he would play an important part in the Palestinian national movement.”

Judge Hussain Abu Sitta was an autodidact chief of towering status whose tribe owned generous tracts of agricultural land in its native Beer Sheba district of south Palestine as well as fertile lands in Egypt. He could afford to send four of his sons to study at Cairo University as well as others to study in Jerusalem. He was in regular personal touch with other Palestinian national leaders as well as international bigshots, from Winston Churchill to Che Guevara. Yet the death of heroic members of the family in the midst of all the terrible Nakba events and what followed in the Tripartite aggression against Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt, is announced by the author in a simple sentence: “On one of his trips, Hassan [Not to be confused with Hussain] stepped on a mine and died. We lost fifteen martyrs from my family alone in the early 1950s.”  The author seems simply too overwhelmed to go into detail.

Then we are given a quick run of the massive destruction from the air and ground that the Zionist forces inflicted on Salman’s childhood home, the school that his father had built for the village’s children, the family’s flourmill and the other landmarks of the area. There are the elders and the feeble and the rest of the distraught and fleeing crowd.

The vivid picture of the overwhelming disaster is given full force in the author’s childhood memories with the site of a ravine that had formerly served as his agemates’ playground, now used as hideaway by the village’s women, children and the elderly. “[The] women splashed dirt on their faces to discourage rape.” The scene seems to have never left Salman’s active memory. That and viewing his family’s unharvested wheat fields.

“I had wanted to know, since the moment I had been hiding in the wadi with the women and children, who had done this to me, to all of us.”

Fast forward for over five decades and Abu Sitta, the itinerant Palestinian refugee, having escaped his academic life, is a regular at British libraries in search of historical maps of Palestine from past Western missions starting with Napoleon’s invasion with all its experts and cartographers. It is the start of his self-assigned, self-propelled and unending mapping and documenting of Palestine, the rich field he continues to lead with academic vigor and which provides the arch that sustains the book’s narrative.

Unfortunately, the rape the Abu Sitta womenfolk dreaded did take place; all those rumors were not the figment of someone’s imagination. At this later stage we are presented with one account that the author discovers retroactively with all its inhumane and shameful details. He has entrusted the Palestinian Jewish anthropologist, Uri Davis, with the task of tracking down his father’s heirloom silver sword. The attempt fails. Apparently, the sword had been pilfered, along with photos, books and other valuables, from the family’s residence, the prosperous Ma’in village’s headman’s home. The investigation leads to a more damning side issue: A year after the Nakba, a gang rape was committed by a whole platoon, 17 men soldiers in total, with the victim, a 10 to 15-year-old Palestinian girl, given a bath and a haircut in full view of the platoon’s members before they serially raped her, (which, it must be admitted, was decided democratically by a vote at the mess hall during that Saturday eve gathering in Kibbutz Nirim, newly established on Abu Sitta’s private land). Later, they execute the girl and bury her body in a shallow grave. All of the details are exposed at this later stage by several of the Participants in an investigative report published in Haaretz.

Salman Abu Sitta

Recounting the childhood memory of the Hagana forces destroying his village, the author formulates the moving conception of his life-long commitment to the idea of “Mapping My Return,” the title and theme of his book:

I looked back at the smoldering ruins, at the meadows of my childhood, golden with the still-unharvested wheat. I was engulfed by a feeling of both anxiety and serenity: serenity because we were still alive and an anxiety that was never to leave me. I wanted to know who this faceless enemy was. What did they look like, why did they hate us, why did they destroy us, why had they literally burned our lives to the ground?

What had we done to them? Who were these Jews anyway? I thought to myself that I must find out who they were: their names, their faces, where they came from. I must know their army formations, their officers, what exactly they had done that day, and where they lived later. I scanned the horizon behind me, recalling the places where I was born, played, went to school, as they slowly disappeared from view. My unexpected departure did not feel that it would be such a long separation—it was simply a sojourn in another place for a while.

If the future was vague for me at that moment, the past that I had just left behind became frozen in my mind and became my present forever. I never imagined that I would not see these places again, that I would never be able to return to my birthplace. The events of those two days catapulted us into the unknown.

I spent the rest of my life on a long, winding journey of return, a journey that has taken me to dozens of countries over decades of travel, and turned my black hair to silver. But like a boomerang, I knew the end destination, and that the only way to it was the road of return I had decided to take.

As for those refugees gathered nightly at his father’s rented home in Khan Yunis:

“No one ever questioned the idea of returning home. The refugees discussed only ‘when.’”

And that is still the burning fire in Salman’s and other Palestinian refugees’ hearts. Here Salman shows a detailed map of his home village, Ma’in Abu Sitta, and the four Israeli Kibbutzim totaling close to one thousand settlers, established on the village’s land, mainly soldiers who are later ceremoniously declared civilians. In the meantime, the same four settlements became the launching grounds for the multiple massacres of Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

“This river of blood that engulfed the Gaza Strip in 1956 was not deemed sufficient to earn even a page of coverage in a dozen or so of the western books on the so-called Suez Campaign.”

Here Abu Sitta shares at length two sets of correspondence from two fellow Palestinian friends, one killed in one such massacre and the other, a vagabond, essentially walks his way from Palestine to Kuwait. Just two intimate examples of what the Palestinian diaspora feels like.

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“Unfortunately, the rape the Abu Sitta womenfolk dreaded did take place; all those rumors were not the figment of someone’s imagination.” https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/crimes-1948-jewish-fighters-speak-out Yosef Nahmani, a senior officer of the Haganah, the armed force of the Jewish Agency that would become the Army of Defence for Israel, wrote in his diary on 6 November 1948: “In Safsaf, after the inhabitants had hoisted the white flag, [the soldiers] gathered the men and women into separate groups, bound… Read more »

One thing that struck me reading this book was the information about Zionist/Israeli bombing of Gaza during and after the Nakba, targeting hospitals, markets, and refugee centers to kill and wound as many civilians as possible. And then the massacres and other atrocities in Gaa at the time of the tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956. At that time there was no Hamas in Gaza to serve as an excuse. No military forces on the… Read more »

Thank you Hatim, i never tire of your writing.

Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail is a haunting rendering of the above-mentioned gang rape and the trauma and brutality the Nakba continues to inflict to this day.