Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2008, pages 48-49

Arab-American Activism

Al-Nakba Commemoration on the National Mall

  • A father and son near the map of villages (Photo Michael Keating).

PALESTINIAN AMERICANS and their friends gathered on the National Mall near the reflecting pool in view of the U.S. Capitol on May 17 for an al-Nakba commemoration to mark the ongoing Palestinian “catastrophe.” Some women proudly wore heirloom Palestinian dresses, passed down from mother to daughter, and quite a few young men wore keffiyehs or waved Palestinian flags to mark 60 years of ethnic cleansing, from 1948-2008.

On the grass nearby, flags represented the more than 400 Palestinian villages that vanished when Israel began ethnically cleansing Palestinians from their land. Passersby examined part of a huge quilt, each square commemorating a village, the number of Palestinians who lived there, and the date it was destroyed. Israel may have erased the villages to make way for the Jewish state, but Palestinians still call these villages home. Other sections of the quilt were displayed at Nakba events around the country.

Survivors who had endured the 1948 catastrophe described their ordeals. Their stories were powerful and the audience listened in silence or wept. After each testimony, a speaker, including Palestinian- or Jewish-Americans, read the names of the disappeared towns as a bell tolled.

Syndicated columnist George Hishmeh read from his article about his escape from Haifa to Alexandria, Egypt and his return 30 years later with his American-born wife. He described waking up with his little brother for the last time in their bedroom in Haifa. “We had had quite an evening the night before—April 22—in Haifa, our Palestinian hometown—a horrific night because the sound of gunfire was deafening, keeping both of us wide awake. I recall the blankets that my father had placed over our window so that stray bullets would not harm us while we were asleep. It turned out that Haifa had fallen into the hands of armed Jewish groups...”

He and his family packed 11 suitcases and left aboard a ship for what they thought would be a vacation. “We thought we would come back,” Hishmeh said, stopping to wipe his tears and regain his voice. (Read Hishmeh’s incredible story, “One-state Solution Coming Full Circle,” published in the April 10, 2008 Middle East Times, <www.metimes.com/Opinion/2008/04/10/george_hishmeh_-_palestine_remembered/1705>.)

  • George Hishmeh describes his escape (Photo Michael Keating).

Afaf Ayish was born and raised in Jerusalem and was 14 years old when the catastrophe began. Her brother worked for the Red Cross and her family worried that he’d be shot, as was a sweet pastry seller they knew. Expelled from Jerusalem, she said, her family lived like sheep under the hot sun with no food. “A Jew from Russia has more right to live in Jerusalem than I do,” Ayish said. When she goes to Jerusalem, “I have to leave in three months. We welcomed them [Jews] when they came and then they chased everybody out.”

Dr. Taher Dajani described his idyllic childhood in Jaffa, playing soccer and discovering rock pools with his friends. He and his family left when he was 10, in his father’s fishing trawler, confused, angry and afraid, with little money and no passports. “For 46 years I dreamed of going back to Palestine,” he said, “and in 1994 my wish came true. I traveled to Jaffa to see the house where I grew up. It had been demolished.” Dajani’s memoir, From Palestine to America, is now available from the AET Book Club.

Philip Farah was 4 years old when his family, originally from Gaza, was driven out in February 1948. His father, Gregory, kept a diary from that day until the day he died. Philip read some of the gripping entries.

Yusif Farsakh, 81, still had the large key that his grandfather and father used to unlock their home in Birzeit, north of Jerusalem, where his family lived for generations.

Mark Braverman, whose great-grandfather was born in Palestine and who is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said, “There needs to be an acknowledgment by Israel that ”˜we took your land; now let’s talk and move forward.’ There needs to be an acknowledgment that there was a people and culture that was destroyed.”

The event was sponsored by the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace, Sharing Jerusalem, the Vineeta Foundation, the American Palestinian Women’s Association, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Delinda C. Hanley

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