Lost, these memories
The author does not reconstruct history. Rather, he conducts a dialogue with it.
"Yaldei hatal" ("The Children of the Dew") by Muhammad al-Assad, translated from the Arabic by Yoram Meron, Pardes, 120 pages, NIS 59
The Swedish journalist visiting the Jelazoun refugee camp (north of Sweden) tried to find out more about the refugee family she was interviewing. "We're from Umm al-Zinat," said the mother, "the most beautiful place in Palestine."
"How many people lived in Umm al-Zinat before you left?" inquired the journalist.
"A lot. Maybe hundreds of families," replied the woman. "No, no, I need an exact figure. A reporter has to have facts," insisted the journalist, trying to explain the essence of Western journalism.
"What does it matter how many people or how many families there were? We all suffered, and look at me, sitting in a refugee camp, shattered and homesick. Suffering is not a matter of numbers," said the woman, articulating the truth as she sees it.
Umm al-Zinat was a real village, east of the Jezreel Valley. Today, one can read about the nostalgic longings for the scent of wild hyssop on the Web sites of former inhabitants (of this and other villages). But the Internet, which has become a virtual museum of refugee memory, is far from being a handbook of facts - which is just as well, perhaps. Were shots fired in Umm al-Zinat on May 15, 1948, the day Israeli forces entered the village? Did the inhabitants flee in panic or leave on their own accord?
Even Israeli historian Benny Morris, who has studied the "refugee problem" in depth, has trouble coming up with a straight answer. In his book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949," he cites the protocols of a Mapam political committee meeting on May 26, at which Eliezer Bauer (Be'eri) charged that under the guise of military imperative, actions were taken that ultimately served political goals. The attitude was that any remaining Arabs were either spies or potential terrorists. A systematic attempt was made to ruin the economic infrastructure, and nary a stone was left standing.
Bauer claimed that the inhabitants of Umm al-Zinat were driven out, despite the fact that not a single shot was fired. But that is only one truth. Palestinian sites on the Internet tell of refugees and shaheeds (martyrs) from the village of Umm al-Zinat. Were these people fighting the Israelis or the British? Were they engaged in battle in Umm al-Zinat or on other fronts? It's hard to know.
The woman interviewed by the Swedish journalist would certainly have said: "We all fought, we were all evicted, we're all here in the refugee camp." Because historical truth is beside the point. What it serves is historians, not memory.
Fantasizing Umm al-Zinat
Memory takes on a life of its own, even when it is the memory of a 4-year-old boy, raised on the stories of his relatives who fled that night from Umm al-Zinat. Muhammad al-Assad, author of "The Children of the Dew," is that boy. It's as if someone were "dictating the story to him," he said in an interview published in the online Arabic newspaper Elaph. Al-Assad not only remembers the remembered stories of others. He fantasizes about them. Sometimes he is in Umm al-Zinat and sometimes he is in the present.
"They called them qubaniyat," recalls Al-Assad, dredging up distant memories of the Jewish kibbutzim. "They knew that foreign Jews, different from the native-born Jews, lived there, far from the fellahin and their fields, far from their salt and their water ... They only lived there, nameless and unfathomable." What Al-Assad saw, the Israelis would see only later. But the Jew, foreign and incomprehensible, created a kind of kinship between native-born Jews and the Arabs, who were fighting a common foe: the British.
The much discussed right of return is hazy and elusive in Al-Assad's book. "Were our memories stolen from us or vice versa?" he wonders. A child, coming across a picture of a Palestinian dress in a book, turns to his mother and asks: "Isn't that your dress from Palestine?" The mother looks at the picture and says, almost in disbelief: "Yes, that does look like the dresses we wore in the old country." The picture sets his mind working, bringing back the names of Palestinian villages: Beit Dajan, Ein Shams, Al-Carmel, Ein Jalut, Ein Hud. How similar these names crowding his brain are to names bandied about at the refugee camps, he muses. "And why didn't we hear about these things for so long? Why were they locked away in a petrified forest to which the road has vanished?"
Finally, he gets around to explaining the meaning of "dew." Dew is found everywhere. "It falls and turns into droplets as the sun rises, moistening the earth. Then we find it everywhere. We find it in the scent of the trees, the craggy rocks, the premature farewell to childhood." It is the connecting glue between the memory and those who remember, the children of the dew. Al- Assad does not reconstruct history. He has no intention of doing so, because "history doesn't bring people back to life. It uses them while ignoring them." Rather, he conducts a dialogue with history with the help of memory. In his book, he defines a hologram, he says during the interview. A hologram is "a picture created in space by laser beams according to preprogrammed data." That he uses the term "preprogrammed" is no coincidence. For the Palestinians, there was no escape from tragedy. It was predestined.
Now all that remains is to decide when to say good-bye. The time hasn't come yet, according to Al-Assad. "We haven't accumulated enough memory to be able to write the story - the story of Palestinian tears," he writes in "Children of the Dew." Hence he deliberately recruits a foreign researcher, Dorothy Garrod, a real person, to explore the Palestinian past on the basis of what the stones tell.
To Al-Assad, it is not particularly important that Garrod, the archaeologist who spent many years on digs in the Middle East, was the first woman to be awarded a professorship at the University of Cambridge. What matters from his perspective is that Garrod rolls over the stones covering dead Palestinians to find more Palestinian stones underneath them. Documenting the past is not the point. Al-Assad cultivates only a speck of the Palestinian memory created at Umm al-Zinat. He makes no pretense of presenting collective Palestinian memory.
As he moves from descriptive passages to reflection, and from reflection to facts, Al-Assad pulls the reader along, leaving us wondering why he calls his book a "novella." But those who are not satisfied with the explanation offered by United Nations Resolution 194 for the right of return; those who believe that reparations will make the memories go away; those who realize that the Palestinians are not one people but three - those who remained in Israel, those born into the new Palestine and those who serve as guardians of memory - are urged to read "Children of the Dew," over and over.