Usman Butt

“I want to go to Yerushalaim (Jerusalem),” I knew as soon as I opened my mouth that I had made a mistake, but for some reason, this was the word my unconscious mind produced. Talking to a bus driver in the middle of Hebron made the mistake incredibly awkward, but fortunately for me he did not hear what I said and this gave me the chance to rectify the situation, “I want to go to Al-Quds (Jerusalem),” and all was well with the world. But I was disturbed because this was not the first time I had made this slip and I began to wonder why I kept making it. I closed my eyes and tried to trace the origin of where my mind acquired this word by default. It eventually came to me; I saw a road sign with three languages written on it. In English it read Jerusalem, Hebrew Yerushalaim and in Arabic Yerushalaim with Al-Quds in brackets.

Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti once wrote, “If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story.” And something as simple as a road sign was telling a story, it is telling the reader who was in-charge and what the correct language to use is. The sign is an everyday, mundane and ‘functionary’ object, it’s casual and not of great significance, and yet its casualness is the point. On 15 May every year, Palestinians commemorate the Al-Nakba or the Catastrophe that befell them in 1948. Between 1948-1949 the newly founded Jewish State of Israel expelled 800, 000 Palestinians from their homes and killed many hundreds. But Nakba day is not only commemorating the loss of the nation and the crimes committed against the Palestinian people in 1948.

It is about the ongoing catastrophe, which began in 1948 and continues to this day. It’s a protest against apathy and silent consent of the ongoing destruction and disempowerment of the Palestinian people. It’s defiance against the casualness of destruction and disempowerment and it’s a day, where Palestinians can stand up and collectively say, “We are here, we exist.” The road sign is part of a wider attempt at memoricide or Europeanizing and de-Arabizing the landscape. But Nakba day has different significance to different Palestinian groups, while in Israel, I was researching Palestinians inside Israel or Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. In many ways, they pioneered Nakba day commemorations in the 1970s, but for them the day holds a particular significance.

After the 1948 Nakba 160, 000 Palestinians managed to remain inside the borders of the newly created Israel. The Israeli state did not want them, but because they failed to remove them during the war, and they feared complicating relations with the United States by throwing them out afterwards, the Israeli state decided to do the next best thing: it imposed martial law on Palestinians inside Israel. The military and security forces ruled over Israeli Palestinian lives for 20 years, which was a system that included checkpoints, permits, military incursions and raids as a precursor to the military occupation of the West Bank. This was while holding Israeli citizenship. But despite this, Palestinians inside Israel were seen as potential traitors by fellow Arabs and by living inside Israel they were cut off from other Palestinians and the wider Arab world.

Despite being officially discriminated against, the state of Israel attempted to control them and their education. Palestinians were made to march (and still do in some places) and carry Israeli flags on Israeli Independence Day, they are banned from learning about the Nakba in their schools. Arabic schools in Israel are substandard and if a Palestinian wants a good education, they often have to go to Israeli universities and study in Hebrew. The system is designed to make them feel inferior and many Palestinians inside Israel are still too afraid to identify with Palestine and the Arabs. Many I interviewed would take on Jewish names and try and hide their Arab roots.

But in the 1970’s a massive shift occurred. Military rule over Palestinian-Israelis had formally ended, Israel had occupied the West Bank in 1967 and a new generation of Israeli-Palestinians were coming of age. This new generation sought to re-assert their Arabness and Palestinianess, they set-up contact with Palestinians in the West Bank, who they had previously been cut-off from. They wanted to re-integrate back into the Palestine national movement, prove to the wider Arab world they are still Arabs and more importantly prove to themselves their Palestinianess. Nakba day, became the event at which they could demonstrate all these things.

But the Nakba is an everyday reality for Palestinians inside Israel and their activism is geared towards countering it. While I made a tiny slip with the place name, Israeli-Palestinian activists have been trying to teach fellow Israeli- Palestinians to use more Arabic. Because most of their education is in Hebrew, they only know Hebrew words for technical, scientific and intellectual things. Because these subjects are equated with higher learning and intellect and given the situation in which they live, many Palestinians inside Israel internalise the power dichotomy this creates. Palestinian NGO’s produce their own Arabic dictionaries to help combat this internalisation. They also do other forms of activism, which aims to roll back the everyday Nakba, thus as the day approaches this year, it serves as a reminder of what still needs to be done, if the everyday Nakba is to end.

 (Article first published on ShoutOut UK)

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