Mourning (in)formation of Palestinian Collective Memory: A Mythopoetic Reclamation of Palestine, Part I

by Sousan Hammad

3.-Nation-Estate-Olive-TreeIn May 2010 I was invited to a small exhibition in Nazareth where poet Taha Muhammad Ali and his former neighbor, both refugees from Saffuriya (a village 15 km from Haifa), were to speak at an inaugural museum on Nakba Day – the day on which Palestinians commemorate the nakba, or Disaster, that befell its people in 1948. [1] Before speaking, the neighbor, an elderly woman, wandered around tables that exhibited household items from historic Saffuriya: pots and scissors, mortars and mirrors, carpets and irons. Items that lay bare the very history she was going to speak about. As she walked around the room, crying, moving from object to object, the past emerged, not as a collection of artifacts, but as a nightmare, and it occurred to me that I was witnessing traces of the woman's first imaginations, where memories of her childhood soared around our bodies in a presence colliding with absence: the presence being the objects, and the absence its history. I wanted to reassure her, to tell her to ignore the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and our commemorative slogans and banners taped on the walls, to tell her this is it: this is the real Saffuriya. Perhaps she would think she returned (for it is every Palestinian's dream to return to their respective, but destroyed, village) but everything became a blur once she began to speak; she forgot her name, her age, her location. In Mohammad Bakri's film 1948, the poet Taha Ali is asked what Saffuriya means to him, and he responded: “When I visit Saffuriya I become excited and burst out crying, but when I think about Saffuriya the picture that forms in my memory is virtually imaginary, mysterious, hard to explain.”

This anecdote illustrates a recurring theme: much of the Palestinian narrative published today deals with the particular space of the past and, in so doing, raises questions of justice: the act of remembering historical Palestine is by definition an ethical act. The conventional literature and storytelling of Palestine serves thus a moral purpose, stemming from the fundamental sense of catastrophe, and tells again and again the story of a nightmare that occurred in, and is still trapped in, 1948: The Nakba.

But beyond the commemoration of the past, for Palestinians, the 1948 War dramatically and irreversibly changed their lives. Beyond the determinant moment in their lives, not only in history but also in memory, and thus identity, the Nakba has become a key site of Palestinian collective memory and as such a determining feature of identity. For the Palestinian, catastrophe is not just something of the past, it continues into the present.

[Photos by Larissa Sansour from her current project Nation Estate.]

Laurajane Smith attributes the early works on the ideas of collective memory to Maurice Halbwachs, who defined collective memory as identity constructed by shared memories within a group. Smith writes, “Collective memory is passed on and shaped in the present by commemorative events, and is reshaped daily through transmission between members of the collective social or cultural group and the language they employ to frame and define those memories.”

Referring to the Nakba, Fawaz Turki, a Palestinian refugee born in Lebanon, wrote in his memoir: “For it always comes back, that past, as if it were an ache, an ache from a sickness a man didn't know he had. Like the smell of ripened figs at a Perth supermarket that would place me for one blissful moment under that big fig tree in the backyard of our house in Haifa. Like the taste of sea salt in my mouth as I swam in the Indian ocean that would take me back to the Mediterranean, our own ancient sea.”

05. NE - Manger Square (small)

The phrase is telling: “an ache from a sickness man didn't know he had,” and takes us inescapably to the Freudian conception of trauma. Freud describes that the patient who is unable to identify the point of reference for the pain he/she feels does so because they have repressed that memory. Mourning, as Freud defines it, “is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place as one, such as one's country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” Thus the Palestinian's heightened sense of mourning in the collectivized memories of their Nakba experiences is particular to the Nakba generation and is passed on to subsequent generations through narratives that employ the politics of witness that tell, in exquisite detail, the particulars of their exodus and trauma.

The work of mourning, in the Freudian conception, is crucial for the return, after trauma, to normal life, and that those not able to mourn are more likely to lapse into a pathological state, such as melancholia. He makes a clear distinction between mourning and melancholia, in that melancholia, as the “reaction to the loss of a loved object” is a pathology that is triggered by a loss of what Freud calls the “ideal kind”, in that the object has not died, but has been lost as an “object of love.” It is precisely this Freudian “ideal kind” of melancholia that shapes the Palestinian collective memory. Since Palestine is not a total loss the acts of mourning are not for something that has died, because the country is still there. Thus the loss continues and cannot be mourned and done with, as it would be with death. The loss of one's country is perpetual; it never ends. And it is through this loss, the loss of one's home and village, that the great collective memory is borne and relived from the Nakba generation to subsequent generations. However, the depth of this attachment does not simply stop in the past, in the space of the Nakba; what makes the mourning so powerful is that the catastrophe is remembered through the lens of the present suffering, and, at the same time, if this memory was lost, there will be nothing left for the Palestine that the Nakba generation knows, for they are still displaced and living in a place they view as itinerant.

This collectivized memory, which has been narrated to subsequent generations, is a memory that is linked to a concrete space and geography of trees and plants, houses and villages, like the Saffuriya that the poet Taha Ali speaks of. A place that does not exist anymore, a place, I, too, was often told, that could only be represented through memory. Yet it is also a place that continues to exist in the present: the country of Palestine, although deeply changed by the Israeli occupation, exists and can be found, throughout the territories occupied in 1948, in traces both real and symbolic. And it was through this production of ‘hyper-remembrance' that collective memories were converging the presence with the absence. However, the mourning and melancholia phase is not over, it is still used today to recreate the ‘lost homeland' and far away sufferings.

In what is called, lieux de mémoire, memory-work, Pierre Nora states that memory is a phenomenon of the present and that history is a representation of the past. This is what marks an absolute uniqueness of memory-work for Palestinians: where Nora writes of the divergence between history and memory (concerning 1930's France), in Palestine, today, it is the convergence between the two.

04. NE - Main Lobby (small)

Palestinians do not view their past as history; on the contrary, they are struggling with and against a much-contested present. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Palestinian society (my mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles and grandfathers all included) feels the need to construct their narratives as it were in the same place 50 or 60 years ago; they do not want their memories to perish, to become history. Thus for Palestinians, the proliferation of collective memory is a part of a memory-work directed at the reclamation of history, an act of hyper-remembrance in order to establish truth and redemption.

Recently, I completed a translation of new poems – all set in an imaginary Haifa – by the Palestinian poet, Najwan Darwish. In the process of translation, I was able to see how the reclamation of history does not merely involve the rewriting of history or speaking truth to power; it became a process of reclaiming imaginative spaces that I found to be muddled in the surrealism of commemorative practices, and to have a genuine confrontation with the present that would enable a spectator to see the possible variations of a place.

Hence why the imagining of the ‘text' that interested me the most were the material layers of space that contain substances, investments and meanings. And perhaps the only reason I am able to construct meaning inside the spatial imaginary is because I perceive myself as a translator with no choice but to enter the layers of a poem's pictorial imaginary. It is this imaginary, a ‘lost homeland', and this obsessive question on the relationship with each other that entailed me to recreate imaginary scenes while reading and rewriting each poem. In so doing, I realized there were questions of duality being raised; more precisely, the duals of translation that takes place in Darwish's Haifa. For not only is Darwish himself the translator of Palestine's collective imaginary, he is also a translator of redemption and reincarnation, of bringing back a time and space that no longer exists.

*For those interested in reading Darwish's translations, you can read a selection of the translations here.

**All of the images used are illustrations by Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour from her video and photo project titled Nation Estate. The project consists of a 9-minute sci-fi short film and a photo series of a “clinically dystopian, yet humorous approach to the deadlock in the Middle East”.


[1] Saffuriya was a Palestinian village near Nazareth. It was ethnically cleansed in 1948; most inhabitants thought they would return after a few weeks. According to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, it was one of the first villages Israeli forces bombarded from the air. Today, it is an Israeli settlement that has Hebraicized the Arabic name as Zapporiya. The museum mentioned in this article is located in Safafra: a “burrough” of Nazareth that faces Saffuriya. (In Arabic, Safafra is a word used to describe residents of Saffuriya.)

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