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Observed Online Essays

Towards a Horizon of Palestinian Freedom

"If we are to learn something from the proposition of The Nakba Archives [...] it is that we must become active witnesses, not merely passive viewers of videos coming out of Gaza."

By Adam HajYahia and Nadine Fattaleh

December 13, 2023

Illustration by Barrack Rima, courtesy The Nakba Archive.

We stood at a die-in at Washington Square Park one cold morning in Manhattan.

The atmosphere was charged with anger and despair about the unfolding genocide in Gaza and the inability of Western institutions to recognize their own culpability and complicity. Protestors voiced countless chants, and our favorite one goes: “We don’t want your two states; we remember forty-eight.” Amidst the reverberations, a Zionist counter-protester retorted: “What exactly do you remember?” His intention, presumably, was to question the veracity of intergenerational memory of the Nakba, or catastrophe of 1948, passed down across generations of Palestinians in fragments of stories, narratives, and accounts of life before the originary dispossession. It is this memory that continues to texture our understandings and demands of the political present. 

We take this statement to echo a lineage of Zionist historiography that has denied the admission of memory of the Nakba into the annals of capital “H” History. The Zionist aficionado Benny Morris long ago dismissed Palestinian oral history accounts because they contain “enormous gaps of memory, the ravages of aging and time, and terrible distortions or selectivity, the ravages of accepted information, prejudice and political beliefs and interests.” Today, it feels more necessary than ever to defend the fragmentary and multifarious record of Palestinian history, to recall the seemingly insignificant details of our ancestral lifeworlds, and to remain unmoored by political and disciplinary demands that shape what is important about the Palestinian experience. One site that invites the practice of such refusals is The Nakba Archive

Illustration by Barrack Rima, courtesy The Nakba Archive.

Founded in 2002, The Nakba Archive is a grassroots oral history project that seeks to document, record, and commemorate the experiences of first-generation Palestinian refugees living predominantly in Lebanon. Conceptualized as a “living archive,” the digital site was launched in 2019 and offers over a thousand hours of digitized, translated, and accessible video testimonies of the Nakba. Viewers are invited to attend to the voices and gestures of towering figures of the Palestinian National Movement, like the testimony of life in al-Lydd by the late Palestinian artist Ismael Shammout, and other subaltern accounts of women like Fifi Khuri, who speaks of Palestinian modernity, expressed through her descriptions of Jaffa’s cinema houses, and Palestine’s revolutionary and anti-colonial traditions under the British Mandate. The thoughtful decision to embed videos practices a refusal to sanitize the affective dimensions of collective remembrance into a tidy written transcript. Indeed, sitting with the duration of testimonies forces a patient and diligent attunement to what project co-founder Diana Allan has described as the “collective weight of remembrance.” The website is accompanied by an edited volume, Voices of the Nakba: A Living History of Palestine [now available as a free ebook here], which features numerous interventions by project contributors alongside pre-1948 historical accounts of Palestine, in an effort to situate the rupture of the Nakba and to remind us to consistently reject Zionism’s capture of the Palestinian past, and its overbearing dominance over the present.

The Nakba Archive does not offer numeric or quantifiable “facts” that marshal evidence of a denied historical occurrence. You will not find the stuff that has now become common knowledge: in 1948, Zionist militias displaced 750,000 Palestinians, depopulated over 530 villages, and erected an ethno-religious settler-state upon their ruins. Through remembrance—the visceral act of recounting in the present—we construct the past. In other words, the past is never fixed; rather it unfolds in a space that binds the bearer of testimony to her attentive witnesses. The power of the Nakba Archive lies precisely in its carving out of space for transmission, for intergenerational memory. It is a site not for the exchange of facts but for the co-production of narrative. It situates the experience of catastrophe as it oscillates between the lived experience of the speaker and its active interpretation by a community of listeners. This is how video testimonies, conceived as living memory, orient us towards the horizon of Palestinian freedom. Our ancestors teach us how our history can inform the future.

Illustration by Barrack Rima, courtesy The Nakba Archive.

Another online archive is now under construction, composed of countless accounts from the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Yet to speak of “evidence” in the context of Gaza, in a time where spectacular massacres of homes, hospitals, refugee camps, schools, and bakeries are being televised for the second month now, is a heinous, violent act. If we are to learn something from the proposition of the Nakba Archives as living Palestinian memory, it is that we must become active witnesses, not merely passive viewers of videos coming out of Gaza. To come to terms with all that has been lost beyond numerical figures requires tapping into the collective Palestinian condition, re-produced by the Nakba not as an event but as an ongoing material and psychic reality.

 Beyond demands to end the war, to cut Western funding for genocide, and to dismantle the occupation, we need memory to show us the true meaning of liberation. Amidst the silences, erasures, and elisions of 1948, there are possibilities for Palestinian life worth fighting for.