Palestinians in Syria is an exceptional and extremely timely work. Through her stunning ethnographic and sociological research, Professor Al-Hardan, herself a third-generation refugee, takes us into the once thriving—but now largely (for the second time) displaced and devastated—Palestinian community in Syria, about which little has been written. Most of her research took place before the Syrian civil war, which allowed Al-Hardan access to a community and way of life that no longer exist as they did for over 60 years. In this way, among others, Palestinians in Syria is invaluable as an historical and political document, and a singularly important and substantive contribution to the literature on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Nakba, and refugee studies among other more general areas of study. The author addresses a range of interconnected and powerfully articulated issues; among them: the intellectual origins of the Nakba, ‘a historically and politically contingent signifier’ (p. 187) in Arab nationalist discourse and its political appropriation by the Palestinian national movement; the different (and sometimes divergent and contradictory) ways in which the Nakba and its narratives are understood, memorialized and mobilized by three generations of Palestinians in Syria, which al-Hardan makes clear is not without controversy and pain; the transmission of loss, the role of memory and the (re)creation of ‘place’ among a people who, at the time of the research, had been displaced for six decades; and the meaning of identity, dispossession and exile among first-, second-, and third-generation Palestinians in Syria and its translation—or not—into differing expressions of political awareness and activism. For me, the most powerful and compelling aspect of this book is the voices of ordinary Palestinians, which have rarely been heard—let alone valued. Al-Hardan allows them to speak and, when they cannot, she respects their silence. Through their memories of the Nakba and the stories and sites of memory they choose to narrate, each generation of Palestinians in Syria struggles in their own way to maintain a personal connection to a home and homeland that, while proximate, remains intangible. Some of the most poignant Nakba memories by the first generation of Palestinians were not about the horror of the event itself but what they lost as a result of the Nakba—home, ‘relatives [who] were the dew and the rocks’ (p. 96), community celebrations, daily chores, neighbours, trees, fields, animals, even the air. Abu Nidal, a retired schoolteacher from the Safad district who left Palestine at the age of three, recounted: When those elderly would get together … [p]eople would stay up until late hours at each other’s houses on a daily basis … They would talk about the homeland, how they went to other areas, this or that spring, and how they would hunt, and how they would set down traps and so forth. They would talk about the life that they had there. (p. 105) Abu Nidal also describes how their children—his generation—would listen and drink in these stories much as I did as a young child listening to my parents stories of their life before the Holocaust. The resonance with my own family history as a child of survivors was immediate and powerful. As I read through Palestinians in Syria I remembered the stories my mother and father would tell of their families and sibling relationships, a favourite sister or brother, the synagogue where they would pray and study, nasty schoolteachers and generous neighbours, the excitement of the Sabbath, and the meticulous preparation of the Sabbath meal, which was always shared with a homeless person. One man named Muhammad spoke of ‘relatives made of words’ (p. 96) and I knew exactly what he meant: people who throughout our lives we have heard about and loved, but never knew beyond the words used to describe them. The book ends with a reflection on the impact of Syria’s civil war on the Palestinian community, expressed by an even more destructive sense of loss than that of 1948. Many of course were displaced within Syria, while others fled elsewhere including Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Al-Hardan was told that ‘the catastrophe of today is incomparable—indeed, it dwarfs—the Nakba of 1948 (p. 190) … The Nakba is in many ways now also about the destruction of the sixty-seven year old Palestinian communities in Syria that were constituted anew in the aftermath of 1948 … and is rooted in the fear … that unlike 1948, this devastation may be final …’ (p. 188). This excerpt from a mother displaced from her home in Khan Eshieh to a Damascus suburb powerfully captures the awful predicament facing the Palestinian community of Syria and deserves to be quoted at length: I was thinking to myself, when our families left Palestine in 1948 and settled in Khan Eshieh, their intention was to be close to their homelands. A place from where they could immediately return once their crisis was over, a place from where every single one of them could immediately return to their own home. But unfortunately their crisis was to be prolonged, it took a long time, and they began to yearn and to miss their homeland. And unfortunately, the dream of return did not realize itself and so they decided to remain in the camp and to turn it into a little Palestine or a little homeland. They began to work on the farms and the lands and inside a little and very beautiful homeland. And they became attached to it and made us attached to it … And now the crisis of our age has unfolded, and we are left, and people started renting apartments close to the camp … and here we are sitting and waiting to return to our homes. And what I fear is the length of the crisis and for everyone to create his own personal homeland because we Palestinians cannot live without a homeland. But did you see how they thought it too much for us to remain in a little homeland that is three kilometers by four kilometers? This little homeland that is in fact very, very large… [The generation of Palestine] are the ones who created this homeland for us, most of them are now gone, and this is why we may remain without a homeland for the rest of our lives. Because we are weak and our worries have broken us, while their worries made them strong. (p. 184) ‘What does it mean’, asks a Palestinian from Yarmouk, ‘when the Nakba for people has been transformed into the return to a limited geographical locality like Yarmouk Camp?’ (p. 187). Under such dreadful conditions are Palestinians still able to form a ‘narrative that can face Israeli memory?’ (p. 89). Is this narrative, too, now lost and with it the Nakba memories that sustain it? © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: May 30, 2018
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