Palestinians all over the world are commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe) - the loss of their homeland, identity, dignity and life. Many countries and organizations worldwide interested in the Palestinian dilemma will participate in this commemoration; however, the Nakba for them is talking about the suffering and loss of a nation, recounting stories about those who lived through the event and who fled their homes with the hope of one day returning.
As a third generation Palestinian, the Nakba for me is different in terms of the pain and suffering it holds. I’m totally aware of the huge loss that my grandparents and my parents experienced when they fled their homeland in 1948; and I know how devastating it is to lose the place that provides you with security and with an identity. The pain that my grandparents experienced during all the years they lived in refugee camps - up until the time of their death - with the sole wish that they could see their home again is heart breaking. My father’s dreams were the same dreams his parents had – his dreams of returning home are also heart breaking.
Yet for me the Nabka is more than fleeing your homeland and losing your identity; it is, in point of fact, not having one single memory of the homeland from where your grandparents and your parents came from. It is not having anything to tell your children about the taste of your land’s fruit, the smell of its sand, the times spent with the people there.
My grandparents and parents and their respective generations are lucky quite simply because each one of them still has a story to tell - a story of their own - even if that story is their experience of fleeing, with all the pain that implies. Their shared memories of the place that once was theirs helped them to continue living and gave them the courage to struggle against difficult prevailing conditions. I still remember the stories my grandparents used to tell me about their homeland: their traditions, their neighbours, weddings, giving birth, even about death. With each word they narrated a stream of feelings, they broke the pain and loss and brought back their homeland – as fresh and alive as if they had never left it.
These stories were the spark of hope that strengthen them and gave them a reason to live, to go on. Sharing these stories with their children and their grandchildren was a way of reviving their homeland.
In contrast, here am I - a refugee who has lived her entire life in a camp - wondering what stories I should tell my children. The stories I have are limited to the space of this refugee camp, to its narrow alleyways, its sewage canals that overflow in winter, its crowded classrooms. My stories don’t have a grove about which I can describe the look and taste of the fruit. In my stories there are no natural scenes, no simple people living day-to-day.
These are the stories that my children will also have to tell because they have the same life their parents have – a life in a refugee camp. They walk the same narrow alleyways, they jump over the same sewage canals to cross the street and they experience the same cramped, painful life that their parents do.
Though the experience of fleeing was terrible for my parents and my grandparents, the memories they held over the years alleviated their sense of loss and pain. Their memories helped them to put something sweet back into their lives whenever they were lost in their sadness - a privilege that I and my children - and maybe even my grandchildren - will never have.
Gaza, May 2008
Najwa Sheikh Ahmed is a Palestine refugee, who lives in Nuseirat camp with her husband and three children. These are her personal stories.