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Palestinian Sense of Place

by HEATHER GRAY

Israel’s bombing and reckless destabilization of Gaza is ongoing.

Yet, given the past century and the consistent abuse by Israelis, it has become clear that Israel can attempt to diminish the Palestinian claims on Palestine or weaken their resolve, but it’s highly unlikely it will succeed. No matter the strength of bombs, missiles and Caterpillar bulldozers, the most potent cache of weapons that the Israelis can never destroy are the ancestral stories and culture that are rooted in the Palestinians themselves.

Probably no one says this better than contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

I Come From There

I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.

I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland…..

The land holds the stories, the history. The land holds the roots. The land embraces the ancestry of thousands of years. The Palestinian people will preserve this no matter what. This is the most powerful weapon of all. You cannot bomb it away. Middle Eastern Jews also have this history, but it’s a shared history with Palestinians.

The Israelis have tried to erase the Palestinian history in any number of ways. Destruction of records is one example. Just recently in bombings in the city of Nablas, the Israelis decimated an administration building holding thousands of Palestinian documents, some more than 100 years old, of deeds and family histories connected with land. In Gale Courey Toesing’s recent article “First Destroy the Archives: 9/11 Nablas” (Counterpunch July 27, 2006), she quotes Abed Al Illah Ateereh, the director of the Ministry of the Interior in Nablus:

“There is 100 percent damage,” Ateereh said. “They destroyed the building completely, but that wasn’t enough for the Israelis. They then used their Caterpillar bulldozers to churn up everything and mix all the documents with the soil so that nothing is able to be preserved,” Ateereh said.

The ministry had at least 175,000 individual case files each containing multiple documents. It will be impossible to recover an entire case file, Ateereh said. Some of the newer documents are backed up on a computer, but the old historical records are priceless and irreplaceable.
In David Barsamian’s “Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said” (2003) Barsamian writes that in one of the 1982 incursions into Beirut, Lebanon led by Ariel Sharon the Israelis destroyed offices holding Palestinian archives. Then 20 years later in another Sharon led invasion, the Israelis “ransacked” the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah.

The late Edward Said noted that the Center was named after Khalil Sakakini who was a friend of his family. “He was famous for a school that he ran (prior to 1948) ­ it was a national school. It was non-sectarian. And it taught young Palestinian men the understanding of their cultural and political heritage. So the Center in Ramallah, which is named for him, is a symbol of Palestinian national, intellectual, and cultural life, and therefore a target for the Israelis.”

The Palestinians are not unlike most ethnic groups anywhere in the world who hold a cultural identification with land. In 1989 I was in the Cordillera located in the northern part of Luzon in the Philippines. I talked with a Filipino elder about land. I shared with him that earlier I had encountered an Australian contractor who was mapping the Philippines into parcels of land for Philippine tax purposes. I told him that I hoped in the process he would consider advocating the Philippine government for land reform and the ownership of land for the 75% of the Filipino population who were landless peasants and “squatting” on someone else’s land. He looked at me with disdain.

The Filipino indigenous population is largely tribal. Throughout the Philippine islands the various tribes claim their ancestral land and with it their history, their culture, their stories. They don’t own the land. It is simply and profoundly their land by virtue of ancestry and it belongs to everyone in their group. It’s a collective experience. By virtue of that definition, the 75% Filipinos who squat on land are, in fact, on their own land but the “state” does not recognize this as such.

As I discussed the question of land ownership with the elder, he said, “How can you own something given to you by God?”

If there are disputes over land or virtually anything else, the elders of the respective tribal groups in the Cordillera will hold a “budong” to resolve the conflict. The effected parties will appear before the elders of the tribes involved who are convened to resolve the dispute and, if necessary, determine the punishment. Part of the ceremony includes the sharing of rice wine, drumming and dancing by the members of the tribal groups participating.

President Ferdinand Marcos had denied the holding of budongs as he thought they were, potentially, an effective organizing tool against his rule. When Marcos was ousted in the 1980’s, the budongs resumed. I was fortunate to attend a budong in 1989. They insisted that I dance and, of course, laughed when I did.

The Spanish occupied the Philippines for 400 years, until the United States became the next occupier in 1902 after the Philippine-American War (1898-1902). Both the Spanish and U.S. occupiers were ruthless, of course. Today, the Filipino elders in the Cordillera will often use the bones of the long dead Spanish occupiers for their drumsticks. That’s the Spanish legacy! The Israeli occupiers of Palestine and the U.S. occupiers of Iraq will probably have similar symbolic fates.

This Spring in 2006 I attended the graduation ceremonies at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. Later I went to the graduation party of a Gambian student. The event was filled primarily with Gambians, a large number of Nigerians and those from the Caribbean. I listened with interest as the Nigerians introduced themselves, as not all of them knew each other. What was important had nothing to do with their individual interests or accomplishments. They wanted to know about each other’s family. They wanted to know the ancestry. They asked each other about their respective tribal groups. When asked to identify each other, even the Nigerians born in the United States referred to their African tribal origin. The place of birth was irrelevant. Some made reference to their grandparents’ or great grandparents’ tribal affiliation as a further confirmation.

What the students were describing was a profound sense of place and belonging in the African context. It was identification by virtue of the “group” rather than as an “individual”. It was almost as if without the tribal affiliation you had no identity. And all of this relates to some particular area of land in West Africa.

In South Carolina, a black farmer, whose land I visited, showed me the graves of his great grandparents who had been enslaved. They were buried close to the small house the great grandparents had lived in on the farm that had been purchased by the family after the Civil War. The roots run deep. The stories are profound. His claim to the land reaches far beyond the deed.

My family’s home is in Atlanta, Georgia on a 2-acre plot. There are woods and a creek behind the house. This is ancient Cherokee land. Hundreds of arrowheads have been found along the creek. At night I am often thinking about the Cherokee and wondering what they might have been doing in bad weather or while hunting, cooking, eating. The land holds their stories and we are but visitors. It is where I live and where my family has deed to the land but it is not my place. We occupy it and take care of it but our roots are not here.

I guess the question is when do you begin to say, “This is my place?” I can’t answer that. But this question is particularly problematic because the Cherokee Nation was unjustly taken from their land in the winter of 1838-39. It was when 13,000 to 17,000 of the Cherokee were forcibly moved to Oklahoma in the devastating “Trail of Tears”. Thousands died. There was never fair compensation or a just agreement between the American occupiers and the Cherokee. The Americans found corrupt Cherokee collaborators to sign off on the treaty, but the vast majority of the Cherokee, including Chief John Ross, opposed it. The deal was corrupt from the start. The Cherokee will periodically claim their rights to the land they were forced out of and rightly so.

Edward Said says, “There’s a whole assembly of cultural expression that has become part of the consolidation and persistence of Palestinian identity. There’s a Palestinian cinema, a Palestinian theater, a Palestinian poetry, and literature in general. Culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration. Culture is a form of memory against effacement.”

And while longing to return to Palestine, the refugees maintain their culture. Said notes that “The inflection of Palestinian colloquial speech are preserved into the third and fourth generation. My son, for example, grew up in New York, subsequently learned Arabic. When you hear him speak, you can hear the accents of his grandfather. He obviously heard it from me and he heard it from other Palestinians when we speak together. So speech itself is the great tablet of memory.”

A sense of place? What is it? It’s hard to say. In most instances it appears that the “place” of a people is associated with history and culture that is usually land-based. Both Palestinians and Jews have this. And land ownership? It’s a very complex issue. Further, grabbing land unjustly never totally succeeds. There is almost always a backlash. There’s almost always the threat of violence and retribution. People will not allow injustice against their own to continue indefinitely. If anything, it strengthens their resolve as we’ve seen recently in the increased support for Hezbollah in Lebanon in response to Israeli violence.

The stories, history and culture associated with land are profound. They are always there, always in the hearts and minds, regardless of attempts to destroy them. In fact, they are far stronger than any bomb. For the safety of us all, the Israelis and Americans should attempt to learn this and give up their reliance on bombs, aggression and desire for empire.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net .

 

 

Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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