Life before the Nakba: a Personal Tale of a Life Lived, Loved, and Lost

Palestinians returning to Qibya after the massacre. (Photo: Archives)

As Told to William A. Cook by Hatim Khatib

“We need your help. … The occupation must end. The UN Security Council must act. And the time is now,” (Hagai El-Ad, head of B’tselem, before the UNSC).

Dear President Obama,

I received an email on December 15, 2009 from a man I did not know; he knew of me from my writings. I wrote an immediate response to his cry for comfort, a voice to still if possible the thoughts of denial rampaging through his head and soul. On the day after Christmas, he wrote me the most eloquent statement from the deepest recesses of his heart and memory and desires about living in Palestine as a child before the Nakba; you will not doubt anymore, if you ever did, that Palestine was a land owned and loved and enriched by the People that lived there. I lost that “day after Christmas” email until recently. Fate determined it should be opened as you leave office.

A cry in the wilderness of the world’s silence.

Dear Professor Cook,

“… Nasser was prophetic when he said “what was taken by force could not be taken back except by force.”  Today, that seems to resonate rather clearly.  The Palestinian people and their supporters are now being either forced or deceived into accepting the mere “prospect” of “peace” with, incomprehensibly, an amorphous Israel, conditioned into perpetuity on silence on the original crime committed against the people of Palestine.  Is there a more ruinous fate?

I was a toddler in 1953 when Ariel Sharon attacked Qibya, a few kilometers from Ni’lin where my parents and I lived at that time, and killed 70 defenseless men, women, and their children by demolishing their homes while they slept in them unawares.  I am 58 and my mother occasionally mimics the way I mimicked the sounds of the explosions and the shellings during what must have been a night of horror.  Deir Yassin, Kufr Qassam, along with hundreds of other massacres, had already been acclaimed by the Zionist leaders as well as by the Israeli people.  Many more massacres were in the offing.

Zionism, to me, equals no Palestine or Palestinians.  Since Israel is the expression and embodiment of Zionism, all Israelis who volitionally accept Israeli legitimacy are, therefore, Zionists who necessarily deny Palestinian legitimacy in any part of historic Palestine.

This is essentially what I’m trying to get across:  that no peace, no real peace, is possible between Palestinians and Zionists.  No real peace should be possible between Palestinians and Israelis because Zionism intrinsically means Palestinian non-existence.  Consider that low-brow dialectic—it still beats the theomaniacal assertion of white European settlers with no connection to Palestine that they (now conveniently the “exilic Israelites”) are the chosen people to whom God gave the land of Palestine.  Since its founding, Israel has conformed assiduously to the idea of Zionism.  Successive Israeli governments and publics have each vied for singularity in their devotion to destroy the Palestinian people.

So, if I am asked to accept the existence of the state of Israel in my homeland, am I not accepting Zionism’s negation of me as a Palestinian and, ultimately, my own death; and not only accepting it, but giving succor and moral justification for it?  Isn’t it true, therefore, that Israel itself, as the embodiment of Zionism, has to be intellectually defeated, morally denied, and literally negated if the wrong that has been perpetrated by it on the Palestinians is to be righted?

Professor Cook, I would greatly value a piece of your mind on this.”

Life before the Nakba, the real state of milk and honey; nourished by the land, sustainer of the land…inside the Palestinian soul.

Dear Professor Cook,

“I’ll let you in on a secret.  In moments of reverie, Palestine recedes as a thing of intellect, of rationality, of strategy and power plays.  In those moments, she rises as attachment, oneness, interiority, but mainly as pure passion.  Intellectually, Palestine is easily explainable, especially for those with no delusions, prejudices, or allegiances.  It’s no exaggeration that most Palestinians, just on merit, are willing and reasonably qualified interlocutors.  At any café in any Palestinian street, the average habitué would be all too eager to engage in variegated discourse on Palestine with any other, without regard for the other’s academic credentials or station.  The outcome of such engagements is never a sure thing.  Palestinians’ articulation of Palestine is not prescribed only by or for academics, notables, clerics, or politicians; it emanates from the narrative that is within our chests and hearts.  We are all laureates for Palestine.

The expression of Palestine, however, is not restricted to Palestinians.  I have quite often encountered people from all over the world whose facility with Palestine was incredibly and pleasingly surprising.  Regrettably, once those encounters were over, they’d go on and I’d be left with an unchanged, unpromised, undelivered Palestine.  Nonetheless, hope for more lingers.  But even those encounters become worn with etiquette, monotony, and roll-play; with expectations and accommodations; with compromises and concessions.  We Palestinians, in addition to sustaining the wound of dispossession and displacement and negation, have to bear, however, willing and eager, the burdens and gravity of being interlocutors and articulators.  We are, at others’ whims, on display as individuals and nation, being required to perform and explain—expectedly, conformably, and correctly.

Now I must speak from inside Palestine, as if it were the only place in the universe.  For me, in my youth, and now in my memory, it was.  Palestine was waking up on father’s command to early school mornings bursting with light and fresh air just arriving from surrounding hills and valleys to replace the exhalations of the previous night’s repose; predictably sunny blue skies and a few hops to school for reuniting with buddies; hurried wrestling matches to even scores after a breakfast of eggs and thyme and olive oil, with warm milk or tea, served by adoring mothers.  Palestine lives matchless in its beauty and what it offered us, its sons and daughters.  I remember well its long, sunny days, its tantalizingly overhead stars, its sensuous moonlit nights, and hypnotizingly silhouetted  night stillness enveloping all its charges (families in stone houses, animals in bins, orchards of apricot, fig, and plum, and mountains of olive trees).

Palestine, within minutes, was the vaulted streets of Old Jerusalem, where I was born, and their smells of every Palestinian palate (desserts, artfully raised pyramids of spices, meats, fish), of linens and silks, of second-hand shoes, the warning shouts and furtive stares of Herculean street porters, shoulder-to-shoulder congestions of shoppers at once salivating for what’s on display and basking in the holiness that surrounds them.  It is the most vivid hustle and bustle vociferated in myriad Palestinian idioms, from the delicately arrogant city dialect to the Falahi drawls (so distinct according to village) to the occasional Bedouin’s.  Yes, and within minutes, Palestine displays its other side of beauty:  bald hills, desolation, and ravines in one instant, and, in another, lush verdant plains and hillsides, marauding bleating sheep and goats, and fluting shepherds whose notes serenade the true story of the land and its people.

Palestine was annual school trips to Palestinian cities (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus, Tulkarim, Jenin, Jaresh, once to Amman), always ending at the Dead Sea for a dip that would literally crystallize underwear—we never bothered with, or had, swim suits—in which we would make the trip back home, quite uncomfortably.  Not only that, but we would go to bed in them that night.  No mother, never mind how loving, would get up at 2:00 in the morning to relieve the suffering of children, who had the time of their lives that day, from the Dead Sea’s last laugh.

For me, Palestine, save for occasional growing pains, was all beauty and pure youthful pleasure.  I’ll never forget Ramallah, where I went to school, or our walks to school from the bus stop and the sinuous detours we took to ensure at least distant sightings of girls going to theirs; or the long lines at Abdo’s falafel stand for a sandwich to wolf down while at the cinemas for a double-feature show, typically an Egyptian and an American western, and the utter chaos when a rare Technicolor Indian movie would be showing.  Oh, Ramallah’s afternoons, after school in any season (slow paced spring’s serenity, fall’s tumult of windblown hair and skirts and discarded newspapers) and of old buses humming, exerting, brakes squeaking, readying to head to the steeper rural climbs of Palestine, loaded and noisy with people and fluttering fowl.

Palestine is the symbols we chanted and picked from elementary school readings:  usurped Palestine; Yaffa (“The Pride of the Sea”); the battle of Qastal; the martyrship of Abd Al-Qader Al-Husseini; Deir Yassin; and Nasser’s speeches our parents listened to with abatjours shut, especially when relations between King Hussein and Nasser soured.  It was the pain and longing and sheer curiosity we felt in our guts as children when we saw from Beitilu (our ancestral village to which we returned during school holidays) the bobbing, dancing lights, and glitter of what must have been Yaffa in what we methodically called Filistine al Muhtella (“Occupied Palestine”).  This, very briefly, was the Palestine of youth.

Today the mere mention or sight or debate or discussion of it, whether on television or radio, or in a classroom or a lecture hall, or in a garage or barbershop, causes stirring, pulsating, collective yawning from difficult breathing, and writhing pain that is aggravated by our attempts at hiding it.  I shout halfheartedly to my daughter from my bedroom if there is a program on Gaza or the Wall or a land grab for a new settlement, knowing the further frustrations and despair that’ll bring to us, especially to her.  We know it’s just easier to avoid such things, but it’s nearly impossible.  We are helplessly drawn to anything Palestine.  The betrayal I feel as a father when I steel at her face (red hair, freckles and all) while watching those programs in which people from foreign places, with countries and homes and families untouched by what’s being shown, talk to Palestinians, and at them, in disparate tenors and for disparate aims, and know what she is going through.  I am at once watching the pain on television and the one invading the insides of my goddess-daughter.  I monitor her every move; her sighs and frequency of her yawns (indications of stress), scalping, look-aways, her hand movement, and, finally, her toes, her absolutely serene, civil, very human toes.

I’ve always watched my family’s toes and psychoanalyzed each member accordingly.  My brother’s, even as a child, have always prostrated perfectly horizontally flush with his feet and, occasionally, rather peaceably, with live-and-let-live attitude, dipped downward.  That, in my mind, always explained his even temper, emotional stamina, and patience.  My daughter shares those attributes with my brother, but mainly with her mother, who, from her beginnings, has been a personification of virtue and the pride of our entire family.  Conversely, mine, like my younger brother’s and sister’s, have always been restive and raised, sheer insight into my pugnacity and impatience.  My family’s toes, hands, hair, eyes, torsos, teeth, smiles, yawns, winks, and twitches are what I see as representations of my family’s utter irreplaceability and the virtual impossibility of life without them.  Horrifically, however, to a 22-year-old Israeli punk at any crossing or roadblock in Palestine, my family is so dispensable and irrelevant.

When I saw on television the destruction of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla, in Jenin and Tulkarim, and, most recently, in Gaza, I saw Palestine strewn in body parts (skulls and teeth and torsos and hair), in unfinished smiles and conversations, in halted tears, in aborted fears, unconsummated weddings and lives, courtesy of Israeli missiles signed by Israeli children.  I see Palestine scattered in toes.

This is when Palestine ceases to be an intellectual exchange or a strategy, or just a rehearsed demonstration and speech, and becomes raw passion.  When you write about Palestine, you are one of the very few who do so with conviction, truth, and passion—exceptional passion.  When I wrote to you, it was in appreciation of your passion for Palestine.”

Respectfully, Hatim

In this season of peace, the world awaits your gift to give justice a chance and say on Christmas morning to your girls, I did my best.

Dear President Obama,

Listen to this man who embodies the spirit, the culture, the wisdom and the eloquence to give voice to the people of Palestine. Before the Nakba, Palestine flowed with milk and honey, the land nourished the people and they gave life to the land; now the invaders wall in the indigenous people even as they wall in themselves and breed cement and steel not nourishment and peace.

Here, Sir, are your words at the beginning of your term as President:

“It is undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Live your words as you exit the Presidency.

– Hatim Khatib is a Palestinian born in Jerusalem and living in the U.S.  He is a graduate of the University of Maryland; he is a freelance writer and poet.

– William A. Cook has been writing about the Palestine/Israel crisis for over 15 years. This past year two of his works have been published, the first a new paperback edition of The Plight of the Palestinians and edited work focusing on the genocide taking place in Palestine, the 2nd, a literary work that satirically and polemically damns the United States and its support of the Neo-Cons that have destroyed the American democracy, Age of Fools. He contributed this article to

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  1. The Arabs have a tradition of telling lies – it’s part of the culture so you have to take this with a grain of salt.

  2. what a poignant, bittersweet look-in to life in Palestine at the time immediately after the Nakba … and representation of Palestinian perspective — so often undercut and unheard in mainstream media … if only we could rely on so-called “leaders” to take heed and stand up for justice for Palestinians, and for all groups suffering injustices around the world. Thank you for posting this Prof. Cook, and thanks you to Hatim for sharing his story.

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