May is the cruelest month, despite the promise of spring. It carries the bitter memories of ongoing loss and injustice for a nation, my nation. Every year, Palestinians mark Al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe, of 1948, to remember how our vibrant society was physically and politically crushed by violence and forced expulsion.
It was not a natural disaster. Indeed, we have no doubt that itwasa detailed plan of systematic destruction carried out with chilling efficiency. It was the biggest assault and threat Palestinian heritage has ever endured and the beginning of a deliberate effort to suppress the Palestinian narrative.
For many Israelis, recognizing what happened back in 1948 is a painful process. The slogan “Your independence is our Nakba”, which is on display in many Palestinian cities is indeed correct. Many Israeli historians have researched and written about this dark era, demonstrating that Palestine was a land with a vibrant society and rich culture. These brave historians ended decades of denial about Palestinian society and suffering.
By 1948, Palestine was one of the most developed Arab societies, boasting one of the healthiest economies under the British mandate and a high school enrolment rate, second only to Lebanon. Commerce, the arts, literature, music, and other cultural aspects of life were thriving in Palestine.
We remember that between 1911 and 1948, Palestine had no less than 161 newspapers, magazines and other regular publications, including the pioneer “Falastin” newspaper, published in Jaffa by Issa al-Issa.
Dozens of bookstores across the country selling hundreds of Palestinian and internationally-authored books could hardly keep up with the demand. Books like “The Arab Woman and the Palestine Problem” by Matiel Moghannam, a feminist leader, and George Antonious’ “The Arab Awakening”, were highly popular in Palestine, England, the US, and beyond.
Palestine had a strong women’s movement as early as the 1920’s. Women excelled in many fields, including education, journalism, and political activism. Women activists were among the first to lobby for Palestinian self-determination at the beginning of the British Mandate.
Palestinian dedication to education is deeply rooted in our culture. By 1914, there were 379 private schools in Palestine, including the country’s first girls’ school, Al Moscobiye, in Beit Jala, founded in 1858 as the first school for girls in Palestine, and the Friends School, founded by the Quakers in 1869, which continues to be among the most advanced education institutions in Palestine.
In the area of arts, music, and drama, Palestinian creativity was boundless, inspiring artists around the region. Composers like Yehya Al-Lababidi collaborated with famous Arab singers of the time, like Farid Al-Atrach. Other singers like the legendary Um Kalthoum and Mohamad Abdel Wahab regularly performed to Palestinian audiences in Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. Our cinemas, from Gaza to Akka, were showing the latest films of the time.
Al-Nakba represents the abrupt and unnatural disruption of these accomplishments and signaled the beginning of a culture of exile and dispossession. In being forcibly expelled from their homes, Palestinians lost their properties, personal history, and cultural assets.
This included thousands of books. In West Jerusalem alone, 30,000 books were “collected” from Palestinian houses, as well as around 50,000 other books from homes in Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias and Nazareth. Khalil Sakakini was one of those people who lost his entire library. A number of his books can be found today in the National Library of Israel, marked ‘AP’, meaning “Abandoned Property.”
Al-Nakba is therefore not merely a historical date to be commemorated. It is the collective memory of Palestinians, which shapes their identity as a people. Al-Nakba is not a distant memory but a painful reality that continues to fester, as the rights of refugees continue to be denied and the inalienable rights of our nation remain unfulfilled.
It is time to recognize that Al-Nakba is as real for Palestinians as it should be for Israelis. It is an inescapable story of loss, dispossession and a great historic injustice that targeted the most precious characteristic of any people: its identity.
But Al-Nakba to Palestinians is not about defeat. Stripping the Palestinian people of their national and cultural symbols, as well as stunting the growth of Palestinian cultural life was a merciless crime, no doubt. But our people have persevered, rebuilding, time and again, their heritage of cultural and educational excellence.
There have been many new challenges and setbacks since Al-Nakba, especially the military occupation that began in 1967 and its oppressive policies targeting culture and education. But Palestinians kept marching forward, holding on to the proud memories of excellence and building new ones.
For peace to prevail, for two states to live side by side, for a future of security and prosperity to begin in the region, Israel should not be afraid to recognize Al-Nakba and learn the lessons of its history. Israel must come to recognize its historic accountability in creating Al-Nakba for neither denial nor distortion can serve the cause of peace.
Genuine recognition is a sine qua non for the process of historical redemption. Peace is a phase of healing that must be established on truth, justice, transparency and equality. There is no other formula. By recognizing our historical narrative and suffering, Israel will be embarking on a true journey for a just and comprehensive peace.
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the PLO’s Department of Culture and Information