In excerpts from a speech prepared for the Hetherington Memorial Lecture, Ramzy Baroud argues for a history of the people, by the people and for the people.
By Ramzy Baroud
Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune. — Noam Chomsky
My name is Ramzy Baroud, and I am from Neptune.
In actual fact, I am a Palestinian from Gaza. And I am a Palestinian from other places too, places that no longer exist.
Sometimes it’s not who you are but where you come from that shapes your identity, your moral convictions, your sense of purpose, your priorities in life, and eventually who you become.
We Palestinians are cursed in many ways, but blessed in others. We live in a constant state of physical loss and spatial bewilderment. We know where we belong physically and territorially, but we cannot actually be there. The authorities have decided that we don’t belong where we have always belonged, the place with which we have always identified. That is the curse: the sense of loss and constant search for the place. But that very curse represents the essence of our blessing as well: the search for meaning, value, sense, purpose.
This is not a philosophical inquiry or an argument. It is not an idealistic dilemma to be discussed or wrangled with by intellectuals. It is an almost innate yearning and seeking that has been continually articulated by ordinary Gazans, and by Palestinians everywhere.
In my refugee camp in Gaza we discussed life and death, hope and loss, religion, morality and poetry. We discussed these things standing on street corners, stolen minutes during military curfews before the Israeli tanks returned, as they often did, to raid our neighbourhoods. Then we would scatter all around, some would throw rocks at the invading soldiers, and eventually we would return to talk of the seemingly urgent issues at hand.
This takes me back to my point regarding the relationship between where you come from and your identity: I am a refugee, and I am a peasant. I am a refugee because my family was displaced along with an estimated 800,000 Palestinians to make room for the State of Israel in 1947-48. My family, like hundreds of thousands of others, ended up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, and they have lived there ever since.
I am a peasant because, like the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, my family lived an impoverished life back in Palestine before the State of Israel was established. My family owned little land and we fought for survival. But we were still content because we had the leverage of locating ourselves in time and space. We were peasants, but we lived on our own land. And this also gave us the possibility of a future.
When we became refugees, the nature of our existence changed almost entirely. Our relationship to our land took on new manifestations and meanings. It was no longer land as in dirt and water and harvest. The matter became much more complex. Displaced from our land, we creatively sought ways to maintain our rapport with it. The dirt and water became beautiful memories. The harvest season became a song. And the olive trees summoned tears and endless poetry.
At the same time, I resented being a refugee. I always insisted that I was not one. As a student at a UN school in Gaza, I skipped lunch in protest of my status. I knew I still came from somewhere — from a village called Beit Daras. It had been wiped off the map, true, but that mattered little because it continued to live in me. There were no feeding centres in my village, no dry bread and no stiff looking UN workers referring to me by number.
But when I left the refugee camp, I decided to embrace my identity, as both a refugee and as a peasant.
Only this could locate me back to where I come from. I needed to identify with my people there — and to my village in Palestine, because that is where I truly belonged. When I restore my existence, I will shed off these temporary affiliations, and return to being who I should have been all my life, just a Palestinian from Palestine. Not a Palestine as written about in poetry, but a real Palestine — of dirt, water, harvest, olive trees and people.
But between the "then" and the "now" — the original village of Beit Daras and the refugee camp in Gaza — there have been many wars, many massacres, and so much pain, loss and dispossession. Our tragedy has augmented beyond comprehension. The more our situation worsened, the sharper our sense of memory became. Our relationship with language was also enhanced as it helped to articulate what couldn’t be conveyed in simple terminology.
Journalism for me was never about cleverly coined phrases. It wasn’t a mission either. Writing was the natural flow of things: you articulate in search of meaning; you inspire when the heavy weight of reality demoralises; you fight back in your weakest possible moment; you stand tall when your enemy is hell bent on quashing you to oblivion, and when you die, as assassinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali once wrote, "like the trees, [you] die standing".
When I found it odd that the most important players in shaping Palestinian history and reality were the ones least discussed and understood, I decided to experiment a little with history, with narratives, with journalism. I thought, what if I speak of the Nakba, the wars, the refugee camps, the sieges and starvation and everything else from an entirely different angle? No charts. No figures. No reliance on Israeli historians to validate my own accounts. What if names such as Ben Gurion, Yigal Allon, Peres, Shamir, Sadat, Kissinger, and all the rest were mixed in with, and even challenged by other names — Ali, Mohammed, Abu Ashraf, Zarefah, Mariam, Zeinab, Suma, Umm Khalil, Um Ibrahim and so on?
Don’t bother to Google any of the latter names; they exist in no search engine, no library. But, again, the odd thing is that these unknown individuals shaped and made history. They imposed their relevance on the present, and they will most certainly determine the course of the future. They challenged the elitists’ attempt at being the ultimate decision- makers on what "reality" is and ought to be.
Without Mohammeds and Zarefahs, without my parents, there would be no history to speak of, no struggle, no resistance, no hope and no poetry. It is in their language — the language of the peasants and refugees — that we can find some hope in discovering who we are, where we came from, and what, ultimately, we will become.
– Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is "My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story" (Pluto Press, London), now available on Amazon.com.