Another Childhood Nakba Memory
By Khalil Nakhleh – Ramallah
I remember it was one Sunday afternoon, sometime around one or two o’clock, when my father barged running into the house shouting „we have to leave, we have to leave“. His face was all red; his eyes shined with piercing outrage, uncertainty and incredulity.
I remember it was Sunday because my mother was fixing our special Sunday lunch that included meat –the only day in the week where we had a little bit of meat. Sundays were the only days in the week where the butchers would butcher fresh goat meat. I remember my mother had prepared a big kettle of “tabeekh” (stew of beans, tomato sauce and a bit of meat) with rice on the side. My village was mostly Christian with some Druze. We were a farming community relying, primarily, on olives and oil, without much cash.
“What do you mean we have to leave? Leave to where and how?” my mother screamed with agony. “I don’t know to where and how”, my father screamed back: “El-Yahood (the Jews) are already at the gate to our compound with armored cars and machine-guns posted on the gate posts, and are ordering us to leave.” My father was helpless and impotent and could do nothing to protect our family from being kicked out by force. He kept going down to the entrance of our family compound and back up, a distance of not more than three hundred meters, trying to get more information, but to no avail. Every time he came back his helplessness was showing on his face and in his eyes. I remember his face and eyes were getting redder every time he came back. Whatever new information he got was contradicting the one before. My mother would scream with desperation: “Can we take things with us? What things? Are we walking? Or, are there trucks to take us? And take us where?” The more my mother insisted on finding reliable information to help her “plan” what to do, and how to do it with her family of 4 boys and one girl, and another child in her belly (she was pregnant in her 9th month), the more frustrated and helpless my father became, and the more he kept going down to the entrance of our compound and back up again to the house.
One of the times, my father came back up and declared: “there will be trucks to take us”. My mother would scramble to start sorting out the things she would take with. Next information, however, was stuck on: “No, there will be no trucks to take us; we have to walk”. My mother would start re-sorting her things. I remember that this took some time (it seemed forever, then), until finally my father came with definitive instructions: “No trucks, and the house had to be left unlocked with the doors wide open; houses with locked doors would be exploded, he repeated; houses with weapons in them would be detonated; we have to start walking to the North, on the Beit Jann road” (Beit Jann is a Druze village about 10 KMs up the mountain).
I have a vivid memory of the entire village (population of 1,690 according to “Village Statistics 1945) thronging up that road sometime later that afternoon of that horrible Sunday. I remember women carrying on their heads bags of wheat, other grains, flour, sugar, home-made square soap bars of olive oil, because the sight of spilled flour, sugar, soap bars, etc, on the side of the road still sticks in my mind. Some people were carrying cans of olive oil, and anything that they could carry on their backs, on their heads, or in their hands. My mother wrapped the pot which contained the meal she had prepared for that Sunday, and carried it on her head. My father carried “libreek” (the terracotta water jug), because it was dry and hot that afternoon, but without realizing until later that it was empty.
As we walked up, some were screaming; some were crying; kids were screaming; all types of loud voices and cries were intermingled savagely in my head. This was not a walk by choice, or with objective; we were ordered to do it. The sticking image in my head is that of bodies in the olive orchards on the side of the road, and the sound of low flying airplanes. As we got up the hill, my little sister screamed for water. My father, who was carrying the empty water jug all along, realized then that it was empty. He ordered one of my older brothers to go and knock on the door of an old “hunting buddy” of his (who was a Druze), just a few meters away from the road, to ask him to fill the jug with water. He refused. (The Druze were allowed by the invading Jewish forces to remain in their homes). My mother was pregnant in her ninth month. My father kept repeating with determination, as we inched our way up the hill, “even if you—to my mother—give birth to Jesus Christ I will throw him on the side of the hill in the bushes!”).
By the time we got to a flat plateau on top of the mountain (which we refer to as “as-sahleh”, the little plain), it was nearly dark. Someone in my family decided that we should spend the night there until the morning. We bedded there. I don’t remember who all was there, but I remember, though, that I wanted a pillow for my head and my father kicked me and screamed “go to sleep ‘ya ars’ (bastard) and put your sandals under your head”.
“As-sahleh” is at the junction of the Druze village of Beit Jann, where my grandfather had developed historically friendship and commercial ties with one of the two large clans there. By that time they got word that we were expelled from our homes. The next morning, a delegation from that clan came to “as-sahleh” and urged my grandfather and his family to stay with them until the situation became clear. We did. I don’t remember how long we stayed in Beit Jann, but I do remember, with the chaos, eating hot bread with “labaneh” (a kind of soft cream cheese made from goat milk). Next I remember we were back in our village, but not in our home. How and why? I don’t know. I wasn’t preoccupied, as a child, with why or how I was allowed to return to my village, to my home, and other Palestinians (parts of my people) were not! Our house was occupied by Israeli soldiers. Here, too, we stayed for a week or two weeks in the house of Druze friends, a stone throw from our home, until my father could sort things out.
I remember my father would go down every day to check on the state of our house, as if he was checking on the health of a patient, and to see when we could be allowed to return to it. He would come back and “report”. All I remember is the overwhelming and engulfing mood of frustration, anger, and helplessness. In one of his “reports”: “Jewish women soldiers were living in the house, and they were giggling and listening to music on ‘our’ gramophone” (which was cranked by hand). In his next report: “all the pigeons (about 50 or so, which were being raised on the side of the house as a source of meat for sudden occasional guests) were shot by the soldiers and killed”.
After a week, or 2 weeks (and perhaps longer) we were able to go back to our house. Basically, our house was intact, in terms of bedding, quilts, blankets, etc. I remember, however, that some of my uncles came back to their homes and found all their beddings, quilts and blankets were piled up in the yard and burnt. They came back to nothing. They had to go around to their relatives looking for some blankets, quilts, mattresses, etc, to help them survive the first few nights at least of the beginning of the cold season until they could manage their affairs.
For the next 18 years, we, as part of the 160,000 Palestinians who remained in what became Israel, were placed under a strict and severe military rule, especially during the first 10-15 years of the occupation. A military governor was installed in my village, and we were forbidden to move within the village without a special permit from his office. Permits were handed out only to those with “wasta”, or privileged connection (i.e., knowing someone or a relative with special connection to the military government apparatus, or doing a collaborationist service to them, etc). In our case, a relative was employed in the military governor’s office, which occupied a building in the central part of the village. Every time one needed to leave the house, one required a “permit to move” from the military governor’s office; and every request for a permit entailed waiting for long hours, humiliation, pleading, bribing, stamina, etc. My father pleaded for such a permit and before he got it, he was issued a piece of mimeographed paper stating: “To the military police, the guards on the checkpoints: The below mentioned, Abdallah Jamil Nakhleh, submitted a request for a permit to move, but has not received it yet. He is allowed to move in Rameh. Date: 6 November 1948.”
Thus, began the bifurcated history of my people: we became a remnant of the Palestinian people, under military occupation on our land for the next 18 years, and continued to live in an apartheid system of racism and control, while most of the rest of our Palestinian people were ethnically cleansed, and were transformed into hapless refugees in neighboring Arab countries.
A Necessary Postscript: An Introspective View
When my village Rameh (Al-Rama), located in Western Galilee, was occupied by the Israeli army—like the rest of the indigenous Palestinian villages and towns in Western and Northern Galilee—in late October 1948, I was 5 years old. My childhood memories of al-Nakba, as I experienced it, are, I am certain, a mixture of the indelible marks those tragic and shocking events embedded in my brain, with the stories my parents told and repeated in front of us afterwards, about those same horrific events. They are as true in my mind as the relevant narratives documented by historians about the same events. Retrospectively, I am writing this at the age of 67 years old, or 62 years later.
My mother delivered her baby girl, my youngest sister, less than 3 weeks after we returned and re-settled in our house. Early on, we joked about it sanguinely with my sister by saying that she was fortunate that my mother waited; otherwise, she would not have been with us! Both of my parents lived a full life after that tragic, evil and shocking uprooting.
The composition of my village was always, as I grew up, two-thirds Christians and one-third Druze. The Druze were not expelled; only Christians and Muslims were. Normal and natural relations of friendship, commerce, neighborly relations, etc, existed between Druze and Christians. Some Christian homes, like ours, were watched over by some of our Druze friends during the period in which we were uprooted and expelled; others were not. Many houses and shops were looted clean by the invading army, or by the Druze, or in collaboration between the two. The existing normal relations of friendships, etc, between the Druze and Christians, which dominated the scene before the occupation, were so seriously shaken, and could not be restored afterwards to their previous state.
As-Sahleh (the little plain) where we bedded for the first night after our uprooting from our homes and village is an elevated place that overlooks my village and other neighboring Galilee villages existing in the lower valley. In retrospect, it is a beautiful natural location, and it is straight up hill from Rameh. I feel drawn to it; I kept in connection with it: many times I feel compelled to walk to it, and sit and rest. A few weeks ago, I decided to see how long it would take me— at my fast walking clip— door-to-door, so to speak. It took me, in my sane and relaxed mental set, slightly over one hour straight up hill, and non-stop! Then, I thought, it could not have taken any less than 4-5 hours for our aimless, shocking and fearful march 62 years ago.
The other vexing question is: why were we (as a family and as a village) allowed to return? Ilan Pappe wrote in his book, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (2006): “Some villages suffered more than others from heavy pounding: Rama, Suhmata, Malkiyya and Kfar Bir’im. Only Rama was left intact: the other three were occupied and destroyed. … Most of the villages in the Upper Galilee were seized in a single day at the end of October. … Some villages were evicted, some were allowed to stay. The main question about those days is no longer why villages were expelled, but rather why some were allowed to remain, obviously almost always as a result of the decision made by a local commander. … Why was Rama spared, while nearby Safsaf was totally demolished? It is hard to tell and much of what follows is based on speculation. Located on the well-travelled road between Acre and Safad, the village of Rama was already overcrowded, having earlier taken in a large number of refugees from other villages. The size of the village, but quite possibly its large Druze community, were two factors that probably influenced the local decision not to expel its population” (p. 181).
As shown earlier, we were expelled, but we were allowed to return, why? While growing up, this academic question was never raised, and so it did not beg for an answer. Even those in my family who suspected why we were allowed to return, were hush-hush about it. The story goes that a certain local commander, named “Owerbach” (?), gave the order to allow Jamil Nakhleh (my grandfather) to return with his family. My grandfather, the story goes, refused to return, only he and his family, on the grounds that he was expelled with the entire village and we would return only with the entire village. Obviously, this is what was done. However, it became clearer later that one of my relatives who was a commander in the Lebanese army at the time was a collaborator with the Israeli army, and following our occupation, he was plucked from Lebanon and returned with his family to the village. He was later groomed for the Knesset in one of the early Zionist parties, under the guise of “representing” the Christians (and the Nakhleh’s). He “served” two terms in the Knesset, embedded in the ruling Zionist parties, with the manifest support and sanction of the collaborationist Catholic Clerical hierarchy at the time. Whenever his name was mentioned, it was immediately connected with the name of “Owerbach”, and vice versa.
It is clear from my experience, as discussed above, that active collaboration with the invading enemy was a factor in the decision to allow us to return.
A Final Note
I have been hovering around the notion and desire to document this episode in my personal life, and in the collective life of my people, for some time now. I have been reluctant and fearful to embark on it for all the pain that oozes from it, and for the deep reflection and introspection that I have to undertake about the colossal evil that was done to us; about the lack of justice regarding our case where our entire indigenous society and structure were destroyed; and the recurrent and persistent incapacity and impotence of our proclaimed “leadership”, after 62 years, to rectify it. Numerous painful experiences, both personal and collective, about the Nakba ethnic cleansing have been narrated, documented, published, filmed, archived, etc. This is another one of those experiences. It is immaterial how different or similar this experience is; it is imperative, however, to document this record of serious and colossal evil that was perpetrated, with malice and pre-determination, against my people by the colonial Zionist enterprise. “I have no illusion that it will take more than this book”, Ilan Pappe wrote, “to reverse a reality that demonises a people who have been colonized, expelled and occupied, and glorifies the very people who colonized, expelled and occupied them.” (p. 181). These personal childhood memories are recorded in the ardent hope and determination that a day will come when the necessary just and moral rectification will take place, and it will!
-Khalil Nakhleh is an independent writer and researcher residing in Ramallah.