[This article is part of a bouquet developed by the Jadaliyya Palestine Page Editors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (15 May 1948), the day that marks the beginning of an ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation and self-determination in the face of the violent establishment of the state of Israel on the land of historic Palestine. This day would mark the displacement 750,000 Palestinians, the razing of over 500 Palestinian villages, the murder and internal displacement of countless more, and 75 years of settler-colonial rule. Read the rest of the articles featured in this bouquet at the bottom of this page.]
The state of California, where I live and work, is battered. Eleven atmospheric river storms—corridors of air and water that produce landslides, sinkholes, and downed trees—have hit the state this year. California has had 400 to 600 percent of its average rainfall in the first quarter of 2023. Climate catastrophe is relentless. It is the generalized condition of our time: an eternal, interminable present. We are together in this “lunar landscape of ruination.”
In January 2023, I began to assemble an inventory of climate catastrophe. It went on for pages, from drought-stricken Somalia to flood-hit Pakistan. Disaster and the accelerating pace of the extinction of animals and plants far exceed the task of inventory. We live in a world of generalized catastrophe, in a condition of “trouble without end,”of “transit,” in the “wake” of interminable events.
How do we hold ground, persist, and subsist on an earth giving way to mudslides, fire, floods, and drought? On an earth eroding under the force of unbridled greed? How can we imagine futures differently while grieving what has been lost?
As we mark the 75th anniversary of the inception of the Nakba, I want to center Palestine neither as a laboratory nor a problem, but as an abundance of lessons on catastrophe, on living in the intervals of grief. I do this as work as a child of a Palestinian woman and man who became, like 750,000 other Palestinians, refugees in 1948. I am a product and a scholar of what we call our ongoing Nakba, that spans the one hundred years of denial of Palestinian political rights and peoplehood.
Catastrophe is not in the future; the Nakba is not in the past. What has never stopped is starting again just as we confront the lesson that things can always get worse. The interminable present of Palestinian life under siege once again brought to the fore: Israel’s shelling of Gaza first in April and again this May; Israeli police beating worshippers in Al-Aqsa while pleas to God punctuated the soundscape; Ramadan, a month of reflection and prayer, transformed into a time of vigilance and brutality; the attacks on Palestinian Christians in their places of worship. Holding ground is ever more frightening, ever more urgent. Here I include as well the weight of daily epistemic violence: brutal beatings of prostate bodies portrayed as “clashes”; the practice of i’tikaf twisted into a menacing barricade; the worshiper written as terrorist.
I tried to do a parallel exercise to my inventory of climate catastrophe: an inventory of the last five months in, from Palestine. This, too, exceeded my capacities. Where to begin? With 2022, a year of “resistance and repression,” the deadliest year on record for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005? With 2023 as the government of far-right settlers and religious extremists took power? With the third day of January, when settler leader and Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir entered the Aqsa compound accompanied by a cluster of police officers? We could begin with any number of dates and “events” on this endless inventory, that while familiar, needs to be listed, in detail, committed carefully to memory. There is also a temporality of escalating settler violence, we must carefully attend to. From January 2023 today, Israeli settler violence against Palestinians has averaged at three incidents a day.
In that vein, we could choose February 26 as a starting point. That day four hundred settlers descended on Huwwara and neighboring villages armed with weapons, iron bars, clubs, and incendiary materials. They burned down dozens of homes, in one case with the inhabitants still inside. They set fire to hundreds of cars, stealing goods, shooting and killing one Palestinian, and injuring more than 350 others. They set fires on side streets to prevent Palestinian firefighters from intervening. This destruction happened under the protection and complicity of the Israeli Army, crystallizing a multi-tiered structure of settler governance.
And yet, many, from the head of the Israeli Army Central Command, Major General Yehuda Fuchs to the right-wing Nahum Barnea and reaching into a broad spectrum of organizers and activists, have taken to calling this event a “pogrom.” But as we look onto interrupted lives and incinerated homes, cars, and businesses, and take in the rapid pace of inventory, it’s important to remember that Palestinians have a word for this relentless landscape of colonial impunity and ethnic cleansing: Nakba.
In the age of catastrophe, Palestine is a paradigm. It can teach us about our present condition of the permanent temporary: we are all unclear about what the future holds. We are all suspended in time with no end in sight. We are all uncertain if there is any “normal” to which we can return. For some, this realization is a rupture. For most, violence and dispossession are not interruptions. They are markers of the temporal and spatial suspension that make up the everyday.
Palestine is not a laboratory. It is not a site of sympathy. It cannot be reduced to a sterile problem. Palestine is a place of abundance, an abundance of lessons about persisting in the looped and looping time of the present. Like many other struggles, Palestine reminds us, in the words of Jodi Byrd that the “post has not yet arrived.” There is no postcolonial, postracial, postZionist. We cannot await a secular salvation or a messianic apocalypse. We are in the apocalypse.
We might dig deep into various historical traditions, training, and habits to cultivate a response to catastrophe. We can hold close the lessons of scholars like Rosemary Sayigh who taught us about storytelling as fugitive historiography. We can read her alongside Deborah Coen, who reminds us that in the nineteenth century, scientific descriptions of earthquakes were synthesized from eyewitness accounts of ordinary laypeople. These sources were called “felt reports.” We can –and must—once again “listen for the stories in the information and the information in the stories.”
We return, first and foremost, to the Palestinians of the present, holding ground under immense duress, living life amidst the relentless force to destroy them. We return to the elderly shaykh making his way to fajir prayers as the Israeli arsenal rained down on Gaza City. We look to families breaking their fast in the Aqsa compound, the ones celebrating Easter, and to the children playing in, through, and despite the brutal realities of settler governance, shaping fugitive joy. In the words of Indigenous scholar, Kyle Whyte “Indigenous peoples already inhabit what our ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future.” When we imagine the future, we do it from a place that is already dystopic.
In these ruins of general catastrophe, we can find arenas of shared possibility across difference. We can undertake eclectic and fearless dances of defiance. Together in our age of catastrophe, we just might survive to tell the story.
Jadaliyya Palestine Page Editors Mark Nakba 75
- 75 Years by Mouin Rabbani
- Palestinians and Their Discontents by Mouin Rabbani
- Grieving Palestinian Life by Noura Erakat
- Do Not Despair by Nour Joudah
- Topography of Gaza: Contouring Indigenous Urbanism by Nour Joudah
- The Nakba of Nazmiya al-Kilani by Rabea Eghbariah