Rochelle Davis, Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011.
[Co-winner of the 2011 Albert Hourani Book Award]
Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?
Rochelle Davis: Over the course of a decade, I collected 120 village books written by Palestinians about the more than four hundred villages that were destroyed in the 1948 war. By documenting and analyzing the work of these local historians and preservationists, and their knowledge of a disappeared landscape and way of life, I provide readers with a sense of the past and suggest how people today think of and write their own history. A study of these village books offers an understanding of how history is written, including the conflicts over the remembered pasts that authors have become enveloped in, decisions about what subjects to include and exclude, and how Palestinians who remember village life react to these publications. This unique moment provides a chance to explore the writing of history, as it is being composed, read, and reacted to, with an eye to the impact of the coming years when almost everyone who remembers life before 1948 will have passed.
As I read through the village books and interviewed authors, I came to understand the role that displacement and dispossession played in terms of what people remember, record, and make meaningful. Some of what is recorded reflects silence and absence: just as the authors ignore the role of internal disputes in the village in writing their histories, they also establish maps of the village that may bear no relationship whatsoever to the contemporary landscape. Instead, the authors have created books that are dossiers of evidence that constitute proof of a village’s existence. They illustrate the richness of village life through the genealogies of the families, the detailed inventory of wedding songs, lists of shop owners, names of wells and springs, and stories of harvesting wheat, of the village role in the 1936-39 revolt, and of last glimpses of their homes as they fled the fighting in 1948. They also reproduce a myriad of land registration and tax documents, petitions to government officials, driver licenses, travel permits, and school graduation certificates, revealing the extent to which the villagers were enmeshed in the colonial bureaucracy. At the same time, the village books seek to preserve places and things that Palestinian refugees no longer have access to now that they are living in refugee camps and urban diasporas. Thus, they record the names of the village lands, the crops they grew, the wild plants they gathered, the stories of taking goods to market in the nearby cities, of circumcision ceremonies, of interactions with Jewish merchants and neighbors, and the colloquial poetry of village poets. The herculean effort of the authors to write their histories, despite or perhaps because of the intervening sixty years, is what captured my interest in writing about this subject.
Jadaliyya: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
RD: As an anthropologist writing about how history is written, I investigate issues surrounding authorship and narrative authority; the influences of contemporary gender and religious norms on how people remember and write about the past; and memory, both communal and individual, and the role that both forms of memory play in Palestinian life today. So while Palestinian Village Histories is a book about history, I also draw on the village books to help illustrate everyday village life, a subject not well addressed in the literature on British-Mandate Palestine. For instance, using the three village books on Salama village, near Jaffa, to compare and contrast the accounts of village history and author choices, I discuss village-city relations, the changing traditions in the village, class issues, and village values, among other topics.
In addition, I elaborate on the research, writing, publication, and distribution process of the village books, as well as the reception of the village books by the communities. I also examine other forms of collecting, disseminating, and consuming village histories through websites (such as PalestineRemembered.com), school projects, and commemorative events.
Jadaliyya: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
RD: I started my research back in graduate school collecting and analyzing Palestinian refugee oral histories and autobiographies, and I have long been interested in narratives of experience and the role of memory. My initial interests were in the social histories of Palestinians in Jerusalem during the British Mandate (I published a book chapter and article on those subjects), and I collected fifty or so oral histories of Palestinians who left Jerusalem in 1948 about their lives in the city and how they rebuilt their lives in the diaspora. Shifting to village histories seemed to me a way to address the issue of the dominance of elite narratives and issues in the historiography of Palestine. Thus, knowing how urban elites thought about themselves and villagers enriched my understanding of how refugees from villages write their histories, look back on their village histories, and write within the context of the metanarratives of Palestinian history that are dominated by political concerns and elite perspectives.
Jadaliyya: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RD: Mine is the largest collection of village books (because I had the ability, time, and funding of an American academic, and was able to travel to all of the countries where they were produced), and thus I tried to write a book that is a broad discussion of the village book genre, while also going into detail about specific aspects of Palestinian history. Given that the village books are all written in Arabic, non-Arabic speakers have no access to them. Thus, my goal has been to explicate what is in the books, why they are written, and to analyze them in the specific context of Palestinian society, culture, and politics. I imagine my readers are those who are interested in the role that history plays in the present and how we write history. I also feel that the stories and histories that I tell in the book help us understand what it is like to be a refugee and to be unable to return to the homes, farms, and lands that people were forced from and how that affects peoples’ lives, families, national aspirations, and memories.
I also wanted Palestinians interested in the history of their villages of origin to be able to find out more about that particular village. The first part of the bibliography is just a listing of the village books. And I created the index in such a way that people interested in just one village can find every reference in the book to that village—which required that that I even index the bibliography.
Jadaliyya: What other projects are you working on now?
RD: For the last four years I’ve been working on a project on the US military’s conception of culture in the war in Iraq. I’m currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which allows me the time to turn this research into a book. When not interviewing US soldiers or Iraqis, or flipping through US military PowerPoints, I return to my art history degree to work with Dan Walsh, the founder of the Palestine Poster Project Archive, on a book about posters and art in the context of Palestine.
Excerpt from Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced
Village History and Village Values
Damascus, Syria: 2008
In 2008, as part of the sixtieth anniversary of the nakba, the Palestinian villages (and cities) were the centerpiece of school assignments in a Damascus refugee camp that sought to teach the children about Palestine in general and about their individual origins specifically. One school assignment asked students from ages seven to ten to write a four-page report on their village. They had to write about the location of the village and place it on a map, draw the village’s borders, and label the natural topographic elements (canyons, springs, mountains, valleys) and the significant archaeological sites (including mosques, churches, the Roman-era wells, citadels, and so on). They also had to draw one of those sites, list the village’s most famous foods and a recipe, record the names of the martyrs from the village, identify the most famous battles, and draw a picture of the dress of men and women of the village.
The knowledge the students needed for the report was a mixture of both familial knowledge and book knowledge, so neither reference books nor the students’ families alone would allow the students to complete the assignment. Their families (grandparents or great-grandparents) could tell them about the different features of the villages, but because this information exists in people’s minds as a lived, spatial experience (meaning they saw these features and walked among them), the children had to transfer their grandparents’ verbal accounts into two-dimensional representations on paper. Their elders who were women could also tell them about or even show them village dresses, and cook for them the village foods, because these continued to be part of their everyday lives or had become popularized as folklore. For the most part, however, other kinds of information, such as famous battles and lists of village martyrs and visual representations of archaeological sites and village boundaries, had to be found outside the family, in books written about the villages specifically and about Palestine in general. It thus became a challenge for these students to complete the assignment—partly because refugees did not necessarily have access to reference books with maps, and partly because the students might not have had relatives old enough to remember some of this information.
The Internet served as a reference for those without access to books. Although home Internet access in Syria is very limited, people could go to the many Internet shops and find online generic pictures of the men’s and women’s clothing and the geographic coordinates requested in the assignment. Ahmad, whose charitable shop sells Palestinian nationalist items such as bracelets, olive-wood plaques of Palestine, embroidered dresses, and T‑shirts, said the kids would ask him for help with this project. He would do a Google search in Arabic on the Internet, and then decide, on the basis of what came up, which sites were best for particular information. “People do not know much of this information,” he said when I asked. “Instead, they have to find it in outside sources.” He reported that he usually turned to an impressively large and comprehensive Arabic and English Web site called PalestineRemembered.com, which has a page with multiple links for each village. This Web site, originally built around the contents of the book All That Remains, which describes in detail all of the destroyed villages, also provides various forums where villagers may input their own stories, upload photos, assert their sentiments, and make connections across cyberspace.
For this school assignment, it was not enough to know one’s family stories and to be familiar with the collectively held sense of the village’s ethos and values. In addition, the children and adults needed to find the kind of information about their family’s place of origin to set within a scientific, fact-based framework (geography, visual representations, and statistics) that would be contained in a history book about a place. This assignment made people—both children and adults—think about their villages and reconsider what they, as Palestinians, were supposed to know about them.
That is, the assignment pointed out to people a sensitive subject—what they did not know about their villages, and the inadequacies of their family-based knowledge of the villages for understanding Palestinian history in general, as was expected of their children in school-based learning. For children who have never seen or visited their families’ former villages, the village is being positioned in school as an origin and as geographical and cultural information that children can write reports on to turn in for school assignments. This type of information falls outside of how the families and the former villagers pass on information to each other about the village. Instead, they conceive of the village as an origin, to be sure, and for those individuals who remember the village, that understanding of origin comes with foundational values about what it means to be from that village and to be Palestinian and Arab, including knowledge of the genealogies of the families of the village. None of this information about values, however, was required of the children for their school assignment. As this story of children writing about their village origins illustrates, different sources of information on their villages are still available. But as the older people who remember the villages pass away, this lived, experiential knowledge about the village goes with them. With the passage of time, both the sources and type of village history that children learn is shifting to book and Internet-based knowledge.
Much of the information the children were to report on is contained in the village books, with their mixture of family, communal, and traditional historical information. The director of a local publishing house whom I talked to has published more than fifteen books on Palestinian villages and numerous others on Palestinian culture and history. Children lucky enough to have available to them a book written about their family’s village could turn to this book to find maps of the village, lists of the natural and archeological sites, pictures of the old buildings and the clothing, names of the martyrs, lists of the fruits and vegetables and other crops grown, and the village’s history. The director told me that people who came to him felt ashamed that they did not know the information their children were asking about for their school project. He described how parents bought (or borrowed) the village books so they could help their children and be a source of information for them.
The village books do not claim to be history books in the professional sense. Although the authors draw on well-known Palestinian history texts to support their portrayal of the villages and although they see themselves contributing to the body of knowledge about the villages specifically and about Palestine in general, at the same time they write these books to help the local community retain and maintain their connection to the village in terms of both knowledge and sentiment. They provide a didactic forum in which this information about origin, anchored in both family and village, is presented and recorded. As is discussed throughout this chapter and in the other chapters of this book, village book authors draw on a number of sources—both written and oral—to construct their detailed texts on the village. This combination of both traditional scholarly material on the village (population, land ownership, size of built space, and so on) and information meant to educate the reader about village life creates books that, in addition to their documentary elements, reveal the concerns of the diaspora community about representation, continuity, and accuracy. As such, the village books contain “facts” like those presented in modern history texts, such as the geographic location of the village, statistics, and etymological information about the village’s name; but they also embody the desire of the villagers to communicate a specific local way of being by focusing on collectively held values, family genealogies, and origin stories. Together this material makes up what the authors envision as comprehensive village histories that carry forward and transfer to others what it means to be from the village.
Written Sources of Palestinian History
As the school assignment illustrates, people who want to learn about their villages turn to a number of sources. The Palestinian village books also reference an impressive contingent of formal history books about Palestine, including books that document pre-1948 Palestine. These books provide specific information about the villages—primarily geography, historical references to the village, and Ottoman and British Mandate statistics, but they offer little about villagers and their lives. Because the vast majority of the village book authors do not see themselves as professional historians, they cite from this well-known canon of Palestinian secondary historical sources not only to evidence for their readers their knowledge of the subject and thus their qualifications to write within the larger context of Palestinian history, but also to situate the village within the larger context of historic Palestine and the catastrophe of 1948.
Citations of well-known Palestinian-authored books appear in all of the 112 village books’ footnotes and bibliographies. Only one source appears in all of them: Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh’s ten-volume opus Biladuna Filastin (Our country Palestine). These volumes briefly mention each Palestinian village, noting its location in relation to the nearby cities, its topography, and the amount of land and number of inhabitants as recorded in British Mandate statistics, as well as the origin of its name; the mention of the village in any ancient, classical, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim sources; and any nearby Jewish settlements resulting from the rise of the Zionist movement in the 1880s through the 1950s. The entries on each village comprise a page or two at most and serve an encyclopedic function by providing basic information without many details, much to the dismay of village book authors. Al-Dabbagh’s work is a massive collection of previously documented information about Palestine; it is impressive in the sheer breadth of the area it covers and in the author’s commitment to collecting and publishing the book.
The next most popular source for village book authors is al-Mawsu‘a al-Filastiniyah (The Palestinian encyclopedia), which provides information similar to that found in Our Country Palestine, although in a different format. Also commonly cited is a 1992 publication of the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS), All That Remains (which has been translated into Arabic as Kayy la nansa, which means “So that we don’t forget”), which catalogues each village that was destroyed, drawing on such sources as British Mandate statistics, travelers’ accounts, contemporary visits by researchers, and photographs. All That Remains is by far the most comprehensive and detailed of these three sources of historical information on the villages, due to the impressive work of its many researchers and writers. Because it is based entirely on textual sources, it does not provide information on the social history, on the villagers and their customs and ways of life, or on the details of the village landscape. It relies on government documents and statistics to provide population numbers and statistics on land ownership by religion. Unfortunately, it is not well-distributed in Arabic (or English) in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
The village books depend on these well-known and comprehensive scholarly books of Palestinian history for both information and status. Many authors take excerpts from al-Dabbagh’s Our Country Palestine and The Palestinian Encyclopedia for their geographical descriptions of the villages, which in many books make up the opening lines or paragraphs of the first chapter. Other authors rely on al-Dabbagh only for the information from the prehistoric, ancient, and classical periods, which are not part of the villagers’ direct experience or family stories. By citing these published histories as sources of information about their village, the authors tie themselves and the village to that history and land within a larger conception of the geographic entity of Palestine. Village book authors lament, however, that these encyclopedic, well-known, and well-respected sources provide only limited information about the individual villages. Ibrahim ‘Awadallah, the author of one of the village books about Suba discussed in Chapter Two, told me that “for written sources, I turned to the books about Palestine. […] I read these books and they always write in a general way about Palestinian history. And I couldn’t find a book that has written more than one line about Suba.” When I asked Ghalib Sumrayn about the sources he used for writing his book on the village of Qalunya, he remarked that in addition to oral sources he also used “written sources. First the history book series by Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh, and the second source, the works of the writer ‘Arif al-‘Arif.” As I pursued the subject with him further, he said, “I know the Palestinian historical writers [and] I use their books as references...but when Mustafa al-Dabbagh wrote about Qalunya, he only wrote a few lines....I read many books that mentioned my village, but they never wrote more than ten lines. [...] They wrote in general about all the villages, but I wrote specifically about my village.” By citing al-Dabbagh and al-‘Arif both in his bibliography and to me in the interview, Sumrayn showed that he had read the standard texts and relied on them, despite the fact that they say little about his village. He tied his work to these texts as works of history, thereby giving credibility to his own text.
Such large, collective histories such as those already mentioned, as well as ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Kayyali’s Tarikh Filastin al-Hadith (published in English as Palestine: A Modern History) and ‘Arif al-‘Arif ’s Nakbat Filastin wal‑Firdaws al-Mafqud (The catastrophe of Palestine and the lost paradise), have contributed to the development of a written history that prioritizes the political events that resulted in the 1948 War and the loss of Palestine. These metanarratives of Palestinian history create a vision of the past that consists of dates and politically meaningful events made numerical, depersonalized, and generalized, and that invests the events with meaning relative to the nation and land of Palestine. The historiography of these texts reveals Palestinian conceptions of the consequences of the 1948 War as conceived by an intellectual, social, and political elite. Salim Tamari has pointed out in various contexts that these perspectives suffer from an absence of normalcy: the narrator assumes that the “normal” is known and taken for granted, and therefore does not need to be recalled. Elided in these accounts is Palestinian society—the everyday lives of the people; the significance of the places they lived, worked, farmed, harvested, grazed, and traveled across; their complex communal relations, intimate social and family lives, and economic processes; and the myriad other details of existence that are not part of this type of history-writing.
By including this social history, the authors of the village books add qualitatively different information and perspectives to the corpus of books that seek to communicate Palestinian history within a Palestinian national narrative. Comparing the entry on Qalunya in al-Dabbagh’s Our Country Palestine with the information rendered in Ghalib Sumrayn’s village book reveals the different approaches to historical information pursued by al-Dabbagh and the authors of other, similar encyclopedias and histories of Palestine. Qalunya appears in al-Dabbagh’s volume on Jerusalem, where he notes that the village lies five miles northwest of Jerusalem on the road to Jaffa, with al-Qastal the nearest village. Qalunya, al-Dabbagh tells us, was most likely built in 81 CE on the remains of the Canaanite settlement of Mosa and was known during the rule of Roman leader Titus as Colonia Amassa, from which the name Qalunya is derived. Jumping to the late Ottoman period, he states that two modern Jewish settlements were established nearby, one in 1894 called Motsa, which was destroyed in 1929 and rebuilt in 1930. A second Jewish settlement, named Mevasseret Yerushalayim, was established in 1956 on the remnants of Qalunya. In addition to providing the land statistics from 1922, 1931, and 1945, al-Dabbagh mentions that the highest class in the school in 1942–1943 was third grade. Completing this description, he mentions that the village was destroyed in 1948 and its inhabitants scattered. This example of al-Dabbagh’s entry for a village shows why his work constitutes such a valuable source for the village books. In addition to gleaning the archaeological history of the villages from English language sources, for each village he presents the available British Mandate statistics for land, population, and education, including the percentages of village land that were owned by Arabs, Jews, and the state; the village population by religion and sex; how many dunums of land were planted with olive trees; and the names of the surrounding villages. He does not include any previously unpublished information, nor any original documents. But for most Palestinians, British Mandate sources and archaeological reports are not easily accessible, nor are they published in Arabic; thus al-Dabbagh’s series offers this information to Arabic readers.
Although they are valuable for the reasons noted here, al-Dabbagh’s entries on villages also show why the villages’ inhabitants would also find his accounts lacking. Missing is any sense of the people of the village, the village space, its social history, and the sentiments of those who lived and worked and married and raised children in the village. Ghalib Sumrayn’s 343-page book on Qalunya, by comparison, includes the following subjects (as listed in the table of contents): the village’s landscape, landmarks, neighborhoods, and land; its history, roots, and families; Qalunya village and the Jews; fighting for the village; education in Qalunya; marriage and love; popular medicine and treatment; and folklore and traditions (songs, rites of passage, children’s games, and so on). He incorporates maps of the village, including one of the built-up area, marking each house and listing its head of household, as well as the school, the grain mill, and other significant sites.
As this example illustrates, although the authors of village books frequently cite al-Dabbagh and the Palestinian Encyclopdia, they use little information about the villages from them. The value of the village books as histories lies in their ability to broaden our understanding of the Palestinian past in two ways: first, the content of these books contributes to and builds up Palestinian collective history; at the same time the village books undo the tightly controlled Palestinian historical narrative by chronicling the individual idiosyncrasies of each village’s history. The village books both enrich and challenge the homogenizing, broadly framed national histories that have so long dominated Palestinian historiography.
Because so many of the village books are written by older men, their content reflects the interests of this generation and gender in terms of the portrayal of the village and the presentation of what material should be known and what emotions should be felt. If we investigate the books from this angle, we see not just lists of places, genealogical family trees, and descriptions of weddings, but also the communication of an ethos. As the rest of this chapter explores, the village books are didactic communal histories and impart what it means to be from a particular village. The authors construct their narratives as stories in order to instruct readers, and in order to be understood as offering a collective history that presents the values, morals, and characteristics of the village within its distinctive physical space.
[Excerpted from Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced by Rochelle Davis, by permission of the author. © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]