For over six decades the Israeli narrative about al Nakba events dominated the Western media and Western minds. It was a well woven tale of religious beliefs, fabricated history and their incarnation in a new ‘enlightened’ kind of colonialism; its achievement is a celebration of the victory of civilization over backwardness and the triumph of the righteous few over the savage multitude.

This image was cultivated actively in the 19th century, starting from the presumed speech of Napoleon, when he passed by Jerusalem at his right flank, to the embedded Zionism in the formation and the surveys of Palestine Exploration Fund. However, the work of some Orientalists in recording the lore of rural Palestine was a bright, positive element. Prominent among those is the multi-volume work of Gustaf Dalman’s “Work and Customs in Palestine”.

The arrival of the Zionist Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner, heralded the sustained efforts to put Zionist fantasies into the realm of reality. Within weeks of his arrival, Samuel instituted and reported to London a list of carved Hebrew names of localities in place of its erased Palestinian names.

Fast forward to 1948. The massacre of Dayr Yassin was used by Zionists as a tool of creating Israel on the one hand and an example of the Arab habit of exaggeration on the other. Fifty years later, Walid Khalidi put the first coherent document about the massacre, based on the testimony of the survivors.

If Western media was as present and efficient as it is today in the latest war on Gaza and if Arab media existed at all on those days, I venture to say that the whole Zionist project would be halted or severely curtailed on the morrow of Dayr Yassin massacre.

Dayr Yassin was the most famous, or infamous, but it was not the worst. Ad Dawayma massacre in Al Khalil district was so savage as to brand Zionists of unprecedented savagery since WWII; smashing children’s heads with sledgehammers and burning people alive in the mosque. The Mukhtar of the village told the governor of al Khalil their story and presented him with a list of 500 people killed or missing. When the Arab League’s secretary Azzam Pasha reported the massacre to the UN, Walter Eitan, head of the Jewish Political dpt, scoffed at the report. Why?

Because the Egyptian telegram operator who received the report from Palestine mistook Al Khalil for Al Jalil (one dot up or down). So Dawayima was said to be in Galilee. Eitan jumped on this and exclaimed, “there is no such village in Galilee... This story is a figment of Oriental imagination”.

I tell you this story to show that our oral history, if ever told, was carelessly reported.

The ethnic cleansing of 560 towns and villages is unprecedented in Palestine’s 5000 years’ history. That is a simple fact never satisfactorily understood.This unbelievably catastrophic event has not yet settled down in the minds of historians, let alone the laymen.

We know about dispossessing people and looting their property. But loss is much more than that; it is the erasure of Palestine from history and geography.

In 1948, the Zionists, now called Israelis, looted all government records of health, birth and death certificate, education, land, air and sea transport documents, banking records, quarries, public records of municipalities, clubs and societies, private papers and libraries and family photos. They left us blind. I hope this is a temporary amnesia.

This had an immediate legal effect. Late in April 1948, the last British official of the Survey of Palestine dpt rushed to Lydda airport to catch the last plane leaving Palestine, Saigon-style. He just loaded trucks of survey maps, for areas belonging to the presumed Arab state and sent them off to Ramleh. The Haganah, aware of the plan, intercepted the trucks and took them to the main office of the dpt in Jaffa which was under their control.

When Jarvis, the UN appointed Land expert, submitted his report in 1964 about Arab Palestinian land ownership he noted that his report is incomplete because of missing maps and records.

Where did these maps go? They ended in the Ministry of Agriculture in Tel Aviv. Why on earth should they go there? To parcel out refugees’ land among the Qibbutzim. The looting of the land had started. Now it is plainly obvious that: We have NO national archives. We must create one, derived from the minds and hearts of al Nakba survivors. Who recorded al Nakba at or just after the event?

When your house is on fire, you rush to save your children; you have no time to sit down and write about your experience. Thus there was then very little documented work on oral history, apart from dramatic newspaper reports.

Writing about al Nakba at that time was left to the chronicler Aref al Aref in his “al Nakba, The Lost Paradise”, Mustafa al Dabbagh in his compendium, Biladuna Filasteen, based on British Mandate documents, and political or military memoirs like those of Abdullah al Tall, Kamel Al Sharif and Mohammad Nimr al Khatib.

In October 1948 The Arab Higher Committee submitted to the Arab League and the UN a report, which reached the US State Dpt, on Jewish atrocities, based largely on testimony collected from refugees. The items listed in the report are what we are discussing today. It was totally ignored. Well, not totally.

I found in the Quakers archives in Philadelphia a letter sent by their officer in Gaza, dated one year later, on October 12, 1949, describing the refugees feelings, one of the rare acknowledgements of their suffering. Let me quote one paragraph:

Since it is very difficult for refugees here to communicate with the outside world, we feel we have an obligation to convey what we can of their opinions and thinking at the present time. They feel strongly that the United Nations are responsible for their plight and therefore have the total responsibility to feed, house, clothe and repatriate them... Above all else, they desire to go home–back to their lands and villages which in many cases are very close... Without it, they would have nothing for which to live... It is as genuine and deep as a man’s longing for his home can be.

Taking place in the mid 20th century, this letter is a clear example of the huge cultural gap between east and west and the total absence of the Palestinian narrative in the west. It took some years for the novels by Ghassan Kanafani and the paintings by Ismail Shammout to be widely known, representing the silent voices of the refugees.

In 1961, the Institute of Palestine Studies was formed and remains to this day a powerhouse of documenting and researching the political history of al Nakba.

The second Nakba, or Naksa of 1967, brought forth a series of documentary and scholarly works, based directly on oral history, such as Nafez Nazzal on the Palestinian exodus from Galilee, and Halim Barakat and Peter Dodd on the displaced refugees from the West Bank to Jordan. The formation by Anis Sayigh of the Palestinian Research Centre was a tremendous achievement in its vitality and relevance to current issues. Unfortunately this great work is lost.

It was only in the mid 1980’s, and particularly after Oslo in 1993, that a flood of memoirs began to appear, not necessarily of prominent personage. I have in my library about 100 such books.

Rosemary Sayigh’s work, in her book “From Peasants to Revolutionaries”, and in her research on women’s experiences was one of the early researches to recognize the value of oral history. A new kind of books describing the oral history of a whole village began to appear, something like a collective village memoir. I have about 150 such village books. Rochelle Davis has spent years studying these books and meeting their subjects; her book on the subject is very well known.

In year 2000, we formed Palestine Land Society in London dedicated to a more scientific description of al Nakba through geography, demography and legal issues. Our library contains 10,000 items: books, maps and photos.

With the advent of internet and websites, particularly in the first decade of this century, it was possible to offer a platform for many people to tell their story. The web became the Hyde Park of Palestinian oral history.

One of the early websites is the highly popular Palestineremembered. Created and maintained by a dedicated man, Salah Mansour, it contains information and maps on villages and hundreds of hours of oral histories.

I trust we will have an opportunity here in this meeting to know more about the work of Diana Allan with Mahmoud Zeidan, Jana, Salim Tamari and others.

By 2005, it was possible to list 30 or 40 people who were actually working on oral history. We held a workshop in May in Amman and invited them to explore the subject. We put in guidelines to evaluate the previous work done, guidelines to train interviewers and formed regional committees to continue the work. Unfortunately, the promised support of Welfare did not materialize because of obstructive bureaucracy, not intent. The guidelines are still useful tools and some members of the regional committees are still active.

In evaluating the previous work on oral history it is necessary to group the work in two general categories: Dramatic, in which the subject describes his or her emotions and experiences. This is a source for works of art. And Documentary, in which places, times, individuals, groups and actions are described carefully. This is the kind of material for history and war crimes. We have very little of that.

The recorded oral history so far deals with the pains of expulsion and uprooting and the journey during the path of exile. There are of course many other subjects not sufficiently explored. One is the impact of air raids.

Rosemary was the first to alert me to this. When I looked back at the record I found Red Cross reports of devastating air raids on refugees’ food distribution centres in January 1949, just after the land warfare subsided. I do not need to tell you that such raids continued with vengeance till August of this year.

Then there is the subject of spies and collaborators; rape cases (re-advocated as a tool of war 66 years later by Mordechai Kedar); massacres, especially as an instrument of ethnic cleansing; the positive and negative role played by those Palestinians who remained in Israel; looting and plunder; destruction and parcellation of Palestinian property; forced labour camps (my paper appeared in JPS this September, a copy is available for those interested).

We could continue with raids on border villages by the notorious Sharon and the massacres in Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956, which only recently captured the attention of Joe Sacco in his “Footnotes in Gaza”. We could also continue on to the experiences in Jordan 1970, Lebanon 1975, the camp wars, the regular wars on Gaza and so on.

Now we have a new source of information provided by young Jews who are not afraid to tell the truth about their parents’ deeds. They dug into archives and found damning Israeli files. They interviewed Palmach soldiers who committed crimes. The work of Zochrot is to be mentioned, so is the combined project of Eyal Sivan and Ilan Pappe. Pappe is the only Israeli historian to use Palestinian oral history and found it corroborating declassified Israeli files.

The task is huge. We should put before us a modest but achievable objective. What can we do now?

The following steps appear to be necessary:

  1. Survey of the work done, evaluate it, collect it as a copy or in original form with copyrights respected.
  2. Indexing the work. This is far more important than indexing books. Nobody will listen to hours of audio to find a word or two.
  3. Making the information accessible in any electronic form.
  4. Analyzing the information and deriving appropriate conclusions through workshops, seminars and the like.
  5. Encouraging refugee children to use the material to add family narratives.
  6. Linking with similar societies, private collections and village museums.

Since oral history is an integral part of the heritage, it cannot be divorced from other forms of expressions like embroidery, old photos, songs, paintings and now posters and video clips.

Finally this is the tip of iceberg. Much more work is to be done. And it is doable. Rami, start your donation campaign. In due course the collected material should be activated, not only stored, in the form of seminars, films, public inquiry.