“It might seem a familiar sight, a routine picture of an old Palestinian woman who lost her home in 1948, and reminisces at the site,” writes Hebron-born pharmacist Abed Abu Sham’a, 30, on Facebook ahead of the 72nd anniversary of the Nakba. The photo is of his grandmother, 90-year old Kamla Abu Shama’a, on her first visit to the home she was displaced from over seven decades ago.
“We commemorate every anniversary of the Nakba, with our pre-packaged numbers and expired figures…Our familiar soundbites ricochet between our phones and tablets, after they were once hidden between the wrinkles on our grandparents’ foreheads.”
If we can’t return collectively...if we can’t reverse that historic scene of people moving by the hundreds and hundreds with two weeks’ worth of belongings on their backs and their keys in their hands...we'll do it one by one.
Today marks the anniversary of the Nakba, when 700,000 people were forcibly displaced and over 500 Palestinian towns and villages destroyed. Palestinians around the world mourn a pillaged homeland. It is a tragic day, and one that even as we commemorate we acknowledge has never really ended, with the Israeli occupation’s unceasing settler colonialist violence perpetuating the same dispossession that started so many years ago, most recently with the Netanyahu government’s plans for West Bank annexation.
But this is not a story about loss. This is the story of the Palestinians – young and old, those who had lived in their ancestral homes and those who had never set foot in the country – who return to visit their homes, however briefly. Some find villages completely razed to the ground, some find ruins, and some find Israeli families inside. In all of them, the story is not one of brokenness, but of resilience, of family history, of the unbroken chains of intergenerational memory, and of return.
The First Time to the Sea in 71 Years
The Abu Sham’a family has made a home in Al-Arroub Camp in Hebron, but are originally from Al-Safiriyya, a depopulated Palestinian village 11 km east of Jaffa. The original site of the village is demolished, with only the ruins of 9 houses, a school, and two cemeteries standing today to say that something was once here.
It’s an indescribable feeling. There was the house and my father’s old bakery. It’s all in ruins, but it can be rebuilt.
On the 20th of May, 1948, five days after the Nakba, Operation Hametz – which was seizing control of Palestinian land around Jaffa – depopulated the village. Kamla and her husband Abdulhafiz Abu Sham’a, with a one-year old daughter in tow, left first to the village of Iraq Al-Manshiyya. From there, they went to Al-Arroub Camp in Hebron, where they have lived since, and from where Kamla and her son Jaber, 67, tell me about the first time they made their way home in 2019.
The road to Jaffa. Photo courtesy of Hashem Abu Sham'a.
After 71 years living what is – were it not for apartheid wall, profiling checkpoints, and military borders – only an hour and a half drive away, Kamla Abu Sham’a saw the sea in Jaffa for the first time a year ago. A chance opportunity arose in the form of an American family friend residing in Israel, who could clandestinely help the family through the checkpoints. Taking the opportunity, three generations of the family – Kamla, her son Jaber, and her grandson Hashem – returned home.
Barely anything of Al-Safariyya remains. “The village was ordered fully demolished, except for two schools and a few small houses,” explains Hashem, 26, who is now studying for his PhD at Oxford. “This, of course, means that we struggled to find pointers of the original geography of the village in the midst of an ever-expanding colonial geography.”
Jaber Abu Sham'a stands at the ruins of Al-Safariyya. Photo courtesy of Hashem Abu Sham'a.
Kamla eventually recognised the house from the old railway, which she remembered to be only 10 metres away. “It’s an indescribable feeling,” relays Jaber. “There was the house and my father’s old bakery. It’s all in ruins, but it can be rebuilt. I could rebuild it and live there. Right next to the ruins of the house was a clementine tree and some aloe—we took soil from its spot, a few branches, and I’ve replanted a tree right here in this house.”
Jaber and Kamla continue to remember the day – it seems more to each other than to me – and their faces light up as they remember going to the sea for the first time. Kamla says how that same 11-km car ride from Al-Safariyya to Jaffa that they took that day, she used to take on camelback with her husband when they were newlyweds, with their families in the village singing them off.
The occupation can say what it wants about religion and ancient history, but the root of the Palestinian cause is the right to return.
“I got to go back home, I got to see our sea,” she says. And over and over again, Kamla Abu Sham’a repeats a single phrase: el belad heya el belad. In the span of a half-hour conversation, she tells me eight times, that “the homeland is the homeland.” No matter what, the homeland is simply the homeland. In her wistful reminiscing, there’s more than elderly nostalgia.
“Any time I get a moment alone, my mind can’t help but wander, and it takes me from East to West, and from West to East, thinking about our land, and I feel myself go blind from the inside. Our lands, may God save them and protect them. Child, the homeland is the homeland.”
Though the Abu Sham’a family lives only a 90-minute drive away from their home, many are making far longer trips. Eight years ago, Jerusalem-based computer engineer Tarek Bakri, 34, started connecting with Palestinians in diaspora who could not visit, but longed to return in some way. Bakri, who as a Jerusalemite holds an Israeli ID that allows him to travel around the country (though he does not hold Israeli citizenship), began traveling the country visually documenting the memories and family histories of his friends abroad.
I’ve talked to kids in Lebanese camps who can give you an exact map of Haifa, even though they’ve never been there. They can tell you exactly where their grandfather’s shop was, the names of the streets, who lived where.
Before long, people started reaching out to him for help connecting to their, their parents’ or their ancestors’ homes, and today his ‘Kunna Wama Zelna’ (We Are and Still Are…Here’) initiative has been internationally acclaimed for its simple but profound purpose: connecting Palestinians in diaspora to their old homes, whether in person, virtually, or through meticulously crafted before and after pictures.
The Daqqaq family residence in 1890, and the family of Nasser Daqqaq visiting in 2019. On the same day, the family and Bakri ran into the Israeli family that had just purchased the house. Photo by Tarek Bakri
“An 80-year old Palestinian refugee in the Shatila camp in Lebanon, for example, got in touch to say ‘son, I’m almost at my grave, and I’d like to see my village before I die,” says Bakri. “It’s only a two-hour drive to his old village, which is now in ruins. I video call him, and 20 faces are looking out at me—three generations of Palestinian refugees seeing their home for the first time in 72 years.”
I remember walking with your father. I swear I only had a scarf just like this one on my head. I left everything, my marriage license, all our savings. I didn't carry a thing.
Many of Bakri’s most famous videos feature his trips with first-generation Palestinian refugees, who he accompanies on their first time visiting their homes in Palestine. An old woman, displaced for 78 years, giggles as she recognises the well that marked her house in Beit Nabala. A man visits Beersheba for the first time since his family walked to the Egyptian border in 1948. A woman sneaks oranges from her ancestral home in Jaffa. And in the ruins of a cemetery, a mother-daughter pair stumble upon a scrawled message that reads, ‘don’t cry, Grandmother, we’ll be returning soon.’
You Cannot Erase History If the Ink Refuses to Dry
Maher Shamma is a second-generation refugee born in Syria’s Yarmouk camp. He eventually relocated to the US and became a citizen, which enabled him to enter Palestine. He got in touch with Bakri to say he’d like to visit his home in Acre for the first time in his life, but he didn’t have any old photos: only a map that his 96-year old uncle drew him.
The map is basic to the point of incoherence. Scrawled on a tiny piece of paper is a collection of lines, one labelled Beirut St. showing an arrow North to Beirut and one South to Haifa. It indicates roughly where the sea is, where the old city would be, the house of Abdelfattah El Saadi, and where the Shamma house should be.
When I visited Jaffa, it was like touching home base, knowing I’ll be back soon. We’re all lying in wait for that day, and it’s going to happen. It must.
Bakri, doubtful of the map’s ability to guide them, tries to reconstruct directions from old British Mandate maps from the 1920s. As they’re driving around Acre searching, Maher tells him to take the first left and then the first right. Not wanting to be rude, Bakri follows his directions.
“Suddenly, he tells me to stop, looks up, points and says, ‘that’s our house’,” Bakri recalls. “I try to reason with him, but he gets out of the car and starts counting, stops in front of the gate and says ‘our house had around 25 cypress trees, and there was a red window.’”
Touched but incredulous, Bakri finds an old Arab woman named Um Ihab Al-Shawish, who had remained in Acre after the Nakba, and who confirmed both the house of Abdelfattah El Saadi, “and that was the Shammas’—they were displaced in 1948.” The house stands today and is now a pre-school named Cypress Nursery, for the iconic trees lining the building.
Maher Shamma by his family house in Acre, and on the right, the map drawn by his uncle. Photo by Tarek Bakri.
More than an ethereal anecdote on the mystical connection between man and home, there’s a political dimension to the resoluteness of memory and mapping. Through the geographic memory of a 96-year old man in a refugee camp, the stories heard as a child – repeated so often that the middle-aged Maher knew the exact number of trees to count – and the oral history preserved by the woman who never left, there emerges a defiantly Palestinian character to that neighbourhood in what is now Israeli Acre.
“This man hadn’t been in the country 12 hours, and we’re in streets that are completely unfamiliar. There are Israeli flags everywhere, and everything’s in Hebrew, but he’s so sure of himself that all it took to recognise his home was counting trees,” says Bakri.
Once, an old woman packed up two bags of soil and said, “I want to grow mint in them, so every time I drink tea I can have some mint from home.”
History, particularly a history of settler colonialism, is not a linear progression, but a palimpsest—a constant process of erasure and superimposing of new words on old paper. Through the multiple violences of cartography, information, apartheid, and of course military occupation, Israel has attempted to wipe the paper clean.
This erasure can never be complete, however, so long as the old ink that must be replaced simply refuses to dry, so long as stories are passed on, so long as the young know the exact kind and amount of trees to look for.
Memory, Trauma, and Resilience Across Generations
Study, after study, after study have shown the complexity of intergenerational trauma of Palestinians living under occupation, threatened by bombardment, and displaced from their homeland. It’s a well-documented and heartbreaking consequence of seven decades of settler colonialism.
Return is about eradicating all the hierarchies that Israeli settler colonialism continues to perpetuate in historical Palestine.
In an incredible 2017 research, professor of clinical psychology Devin Atallah conversely looks at intergenerational resilience in Palestinians living “in the shadow of a military presence and its daily reminders of violence past and violence to come.” He conceptualises three branches: muqawama (resistance), awda (return, even if only culturally), and sumoud (perseverance). Critical to all of these—to healing across generational bounds and to the preservation of memory—is storytelling.
Fadia al-Maqdah, born in the Ein Al-Hilweh Refugee Camp in Lebanon, returned with her six children to her village Al-Ghabisiyya, north-east of Acre to try and locate her family home. Photo by Tarek Bakri.
Bakri points to an apocryphal quote by the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, that ‘the old will die and the young will forget.’ But both the Abu Sham’a family and Bakri assert the exact opposite. “You ask a toddler where they’re from, and they won’t say Al-Arroub,” says Jaber Abu Sham’a. “They’ll say Haifa or Jaffa or Acre—they know where they’re from.”
This man hadn’t been in the country 12 hours, and we’re in streets that are completely unfamiliar. There are Israeli flags everywhere, and everything’s in Hebrew, but he’s so sure of himself that all it took to recognise his home was counting trees.
“I’ve talked to kids in Lebanese camps who can give you an exact map of Haifa, even though they’ve never been there,” he explains. “They can tell you exactly where their grandfather’s shop was, the names of the streets, who lived where. And then you find out they were born in 2002. This memory, these stories, they’re being transferred from one generation to the next.”
Three generations of the Abu Sham'a family at the beach in Jaffa.
Instead of time dulling the blow, with every transfer of family history, of memory, of ancestral home and birthplace, the young remember, and the sublime connection of a people to its land is further reinforced.
In his study, Atallah points to a somewhat unexpected form of return, in “families returning to Israel-controlled lands to harvest fruit trees…[or] smuggling home indigenous plants and foods” to cook what he calls meals of resilience. Today, in the small garden facing the house in Al-Arroub, Jaber Abu Sham’a has planted clementine and aloe from the ruins of the home in Al-Safriyya.
Right next to the ruins of the house was a clementine tree and some aloe—we took soil from its spot, a few branches, and I’ve replanted a tree right here in this house.
Similarly, Bakri says that not a single person comes from abroad without bringing a plastic bag to fill with soil to take back with them. “Some have taken soil to put on a parent’s or grandparent’s grave, some just want it in their home,” he explains. “And once an old woman packed up two bags of soil and said ‘I want to grow mint in them, so every time I drink tea I can have some mint from home.”
More than merely symbolic or romantic, this agro-gastronomic return is a very physical, very real way of keeping the connection alive. If one cannot return permanently to the land, one can at least return a part of the land to its rightful cultivator.
What Return Means, if Momentary
The right of Palestinian refugees to return to the lands they were dispossessed of is still denied by Israel today, despite UN resolutions and international outcry. “The occupation can say what it wants about religion and ancient history,” says Bakri, “but the root of the Palestinian cause is the right to return.”
I got to go back home, I got to see our sea...Child, the homeland is the homeland.
For him, the sequence of Palestinian refugees returning to visit their homes that he records is an incremental revision of history. “If we can’t return collectively, we’ll do it one by one,” he says. “If we can’t reverse that historic scene – of people moving by the hundreds and hundreds with two weeks’ worth of belongings on their backs and their keys in their hands – if we can’t reverse that and have people return en masse, then we’ll do it on an individual level, even if it’s only for a few days at a time.”
The road to Lubya in 1948 (right) and 2014 (left), when 30,000 Palestinians took part in a March of Return.
Hashem Abu Sham’a offers a complementary, grounding perspective. “These acts of symbolic return to discover one’s roots are important and powerful, but they obviously do not amount to a full return,” he says. “Return here is not about our rights being recognised by the coloniser. Rather, it is about the future—about eradicating all the hierarchies that Israeli settler colonialism continues to perpetuate in historical Palestine.”
We struggled to find pointers of the original geography of the village in the midst of an ever-expanding colonial geography.
At this point in our conversation, the voices of Kamla and Jaber Abu Sham’a have intertwined, as each gets a sentence in: one speaks about what they left behind, and one about the hope—the complete conviction—that their situation will end in return.
Jaber Abu Sham'a walks through the lands of Al-Safiriyya.
“I remember walking with your father. I remember leaving, and leaving everything behind. I swear I only had a scarf just like this one on my head. I didn’t carry a thing with me. I left everything, my marriage license, all our savings.”
“This camp is a transit station before our return. When I visited Jaffa, it was like touching home base, knowing I’ll be back soon. We’re all lying in wait for that day, and it’s going to happen. It must.”
Main horizontal image courtesy of Hashem Abu Sham'a.
Main square image courtesy of Tarek Bakri.