Reviewed by Vacy Vlazna
(Salman Abu Sitta, Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir. Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press; 2016)
“I spent the rest of my life on a long, winding journey of return, a journey that has taken me to dozens of counties over decades of travel, and turned my black hair to silver. But like a boomerang, I knew the end destination, and that the only way to it was the road of return I had decided to take.” —Salman Abu Sitta.
The spirit of Dr. Abu Sitta’s Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir mirrors precisely the dynamic quintessence and will of its creator – in a word- sumoud – a compelling steadfastness to his homeland Palestine and to the right of return of every Palestinian,
“It is the determined will of people that counts. It must of course be accompanied by vigorous planning and action. An iron will does not bend in the face of obstacles or challenges, failures or disappointments. These challenges only sharpen it. Its ultimate reward is to enforce justice, to return home.”
Abu Sitta’s personal experiences, great intellect, moral substance and totality of purpose confer authoritative soundness to his part in Palestine’s modern history. The Palestinian narrative is rare and future readings, such as Ilan Pappe’s definitive history outlining Israel’s systematic strategies and crimes of the Nakba, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, now, thanks to Abu Sitta, will be imbued with the flesh and breath of Palestinian truth and rights.
Opening the door of the memoir, we step into and see, through the eyes of the 10 year old Salman, his birth place, the village of Ma’in in the Beersheba district as yet pristine and undefiled by the Zionist scourge and anguished loss. We witness the prosperity of the land abundant in maize, barley, date palms, figs, grapes, almonds, apricots, melons, cactus fruit and wheat harvested, gleaned, and threshed by families and poor itinerant workers. It is a generous land that feeds well its people and their livestock of camels, horses, cows, oxen, sheep, and goats.
We join in the robust vitality of Palestinian village life; the flirting, courting, marriage customs, the rituals, like the blessing of wells, defined by religion, superstitions and omens, children’s games and school lessons, and listen to the men gathered in the shigg sharing “anecdotes, news, future plans, hopes and fears.’ and listen to the poetic recitation of family histories by storytellers ‘who are the real source of our history’.
Abu Sitta’s memoir is rich in this tradition. It chronicles his family’s illustrious lineage of the Tarabin, ‘the largest, wealthiest, strongest tribe in southern Palestine’ that extends into Egypt as far as Cairo. The Tarabin is the tribal tree from which the Abu Sitta sheiks branched since the 16th century from Darshan I to Abu Sitta’s father, Hussein. The Abu Sitta bloodline of belonging to and defending their precious land begat landowners and warriors with a history of Arab resistance to invaders.
Resistance to foreign invaders is oxygen to Abu Sitta’s father Sheik Hussein, a self-educated man who was ‘chief judge at the tribal court in Beersheba’. He became a key player in the Palestinian national movement ensuring no land was sold to Jews and spurned collaboration with the British.
Cousin Abdullah was leader of the southern front of Palestinian 1936-39 revolt blowing up railways, cutting telephone wires and ambushing British convoys. In 1938, he, allied with Abd al-Halim al-Joulani of al-Khalil, liberated Beersheba, ‘an area equal to half of Palestine’ from British control for a year. He also resisted the Zionists from 1947-56.
Abu Sitta details the fateful impact of the arrival of European colonialism. Its imperial machinations to control Palestine, he clarifies, were predetermined by decades of covert British, German and Zionist intelligence gathering culminating in the Sykes-Picot betrayal and the ‘legally void, morally wicked and politically mischievous’ Balfour Declaration that opened the immigration floodgates of Jews bent on Palestine’s annihilation.
Abu Sitta documents the post WWII departure of the British that shamefully abandoned the meagerly armed Palestinians to the well-armed terrorist Haganah, Irgun and Stern militias. With cousins, Abdullah, Hamed and brother Ibrahim at the front line of defense, Abu Sitta details the tragi-heroic resistance of villagers in the Beersheba district doomed to join the surviving hordes of terrified Palestinians fleeing massacres, such as Burayr, Tantura, Deir Yassin, and death from 670 ethnically cleansed villages.
At 11 years of age, young Salman, like his contemporary Naji Al-Ali and hundreds of thousands of children, becomes Handala* incarnate destined to wander the paths most travelled to the wretched camps of the dispossessed. The Abu Sittas set up tents in Gaza alongside fellow ‘uprooted people, robbed of their land, but not of their identity and least of all family cohesion. Groups maintained their social structures, complete with the village mukhtars and sub-mukhtars’. Here, Sheikh Hussein, despite losing everything, was determined to maintain university costs for his four sons.
After 1948, the refugee template, with its trials and triumphs, of itinerant study, employment and residence was cast. Abu Sitta himself studied in Egypt, UK and Canada as well as set up business in Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Canada , and the UK.
Page upon page is packed with firsthand personal and historic facts, figures, key players, letters, and Palestinian endeavors ‘to fight the occupier’; the formation of the General Union of Palestinian Students, the Palestinian National Council and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Palestinian Lawyers Syndicate, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, General Ahmed Fouad Sadek, Gamal And al-Nasser, Kamel al-Sharif, Ismail Shammout, Jawaharlal Nehru, Che Guevara, Edward Said, Khalil al-Wazir and Arafat with his’ calamitous concessions’ peaking with the infamous Oslo Accords.
In the 60s the Royal Geographical Society library was the starting point of Abu Sitta’s journey of sleuthing maps and literature on Palestine before the Zionists savagely rent it to pieces ‘to wipe Palestine from memory.’ Then came the challenge, over decades, of meticulously making Palestine whole again.
Dr. Abu Sitta is no dreamer, he is a pragmatic visionary whose unwavering yearning for home has morphed into the Palestinian Land Society his literal pièce de résistance that has created the phenomenal Atlas of Palestine, 1917-1966 and meticulous plans for the inevitable return,
“We plan for the reconstruction of destroyed Palestinian villages. Our plans are derived from a massive database…. We are creating a file for every village, its house plans before 1948, its features and characteristics, its economies and its status of education…Young architects are now working on the reconstruction of these destroyed villages to be built in the same locations with the same beautiful old features, but with modern amenities.”
Fahrenheit 451 is the burning point of paper, and at the end of Bradbury’s book of the same name, hope, for a society that was culturally reduced to ashes by the systematic burning of books, lies in a group of intellectual renegade exiles who are individually responsible for memorizing and preserving one book each and become its living version.
Dr. Abu Sitta’s life is an Opus Magnus preserving the integrity of the land of Palestine, past, present and future in preparation for the certain return of all its stranded children. The outstanding feature of the memoir is its invitation to ‘meet’ a distinguished colossus of Palestinian sumoud.
*Handala is the eternal child; the eternal 10-year-old refugee child conceived in the Nakba fragmented childhood of the late Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali. In Palestine, Handala is loved and cherished as a symbol of righteous steadfast resistance.
– Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters and editor of a volume of Palestinian poetry, I remember my name. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was convener of Australia East Timor Association and coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.