by Nasser Rego
to love he said
was that of a farmer
most love like
hunters and like
hunters most kill
what they desire
–from “Land,” by Suheir Hammad
I mediate my ethical relation to the Nakba via the farm. This is no how-to-resist-the-Nakba guide. Rather, it is a probing of what it means to have recently come to be in the good company of those who are actively returning to and working the land, engaging the Nakba in ways that break the mold. These ways are a deliberate settling that carry in their movement an affective unsettling. They brim with both promise, and fragility.
Two months ago, in the skyscraper state of Ramallah, ceremonies were held to commemorate 68 years of the Nakba. Critique of the event was sweeping. Many took offence to commemorating the Nakba with the traditional Palestinian dabke dance, songs by “Arab Idol” star Mohammad Assaf, and giveaway hats made in Israel. “The Nakba commemoration has become a series of rituals devoid of spiritual and national values,” concluded one observer.
While one could justifiably critique the capitalist cooptation of the occupied in donning hats made in Israel, I wondered what was so wrong about staging a dabke performance. Were the critics saying that it was wrong to engage with the Nakba on terms that did not imagine the Nakba as primarily “disaster” or “tragedy”? Were the critics prescribing a ritualization of the Nakba as tragedy — with the attendant feelings of sadness, regret and failure — to be how (all) Palestinians commemorate the Nakba?
The Nakba as unbounded
The Nakba is a rupture, an unbounded series, a structure of dispossession and separation. For Palestinians, the Nakba is separation from the self, others and the land. It is certainly more than the events that took place around 1948 and their attendant affects.
As some scholars have pointed out, when we represent the Nakba as bounded in events that happened around 1948, our responses could only be backward-looking and constrained. Yet if the Nakba is an ongoing process that continues to evolve, our own engagement with the Nakba also cannot remain stagnant.
How else can we re-imagine commemoration of the Nakba? Palestinians in the 1948 areas, citizens of Israel, have more recently been diversifying Nakba commemoration ceremonies, with art, activities for children and dabke.
According to Ziyad Awaisi, an organizer of the Right of Return marches in the ’48 territories, part of the hesitation to stray from the old ways of remembering the Nakba has been ‘out of respect’ for the older generation, those that most directly experienced the rupture, those that most directly lived the pain and loss. The new forms of performing commemoration ceremonies in the ’48 areas show less deference to the old ways of doing things and attempting a response to a Nakba not as a past event but as something ongoing. Just as crucial is responding to the Nakba not as something general, as something that happened to the grandparents’ generation, but as something that affects people today, in modalities that are minute, personal and particular.
Palestinians are breaking the mold in their engagement with the Nakba in so many diverse and beautiful ways. In doing so, they reinscribe themselves in the very soil from which they have been forcibly separated for generations. In these acts, they are actively remembering. In these performances, they are not only surviving, but thriving, creating trajectories of possibility for independence and self-sustainability.
Palestinians are exercising their right of return without seeking permission to do so. Palestinians are returning to destroyed villages as in Iqrit and elsewhere, organizing summer camps there, and ‘settling’ the West Bank as they did when they set up the Bab al-Shams encampment in 2013.
And they are working the land. They are farming in spite of Israeli restrictions, guided by permaculture and organic principles, launching community-farming initiatives, setting up heirloom seed banks and initiating kale projects. And in places like Battir, they’ve been doing it for centuries.
I recently began organic farming on two dunams of agricultural land that Ziyad’s family owns in Saffuriya. Saffuriya is a few kilometers outside Nazareth. Following the 1948 war its inhabitants were deemed ‘absentees’ and all rights in property were transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property. Saffuriya’s agricultural land, which sits across the road from the village proper, is absentee land that was sold back to other villagers who wished to farm it, among them Ziyad’s grandparents.
Today, pine trees occlude the residential portion of the village and a Jewish agricultural community (moshav), Zippori, squats on its eastern perimeter. In between the pomegranate trees that Ziyad’s father tends, I’ve been graciously allowed the space to grow organic veggies for my family and friends. The experience has been sublime, by which I mean that smelling spring’s petrichor as I descend my fingers into the soft of the soil is the crossing of a threshold.
We can behold the threshold in the simple act of farming. I plant the seed, but will it germinate? What will the purple cabbage look like fully mature, and how will it taste? Will the neighbor’s horse get to it before we do? True story. And we can experience the threshold in farming’s effects. How will farming grow my community, help others eat healthy, grow more independent and become less reliant on Israeli produce? Will I smell the promise of petrichor today?
Working the land, like so many Palestinians are doing, is a way of engaging the Nakba that is anticipatory, anxiety-provoking, but nevertheless essential in working towards a justice we realize may never precipitate, but which we work towards anyway.
The ethical relation to the Nakba of Ziyad’s elders may be via a narration of the events around 1948, accompanied primarily by feelings of fear, dispossession and loss. These are undoubtedly valid, important and sometimes-empowering ways of relating to the Nakba. They are Ziyad’s elders’ modes of relation but not necessarily mine (or yours). My own ethical relation is mediated through farming. This, too, may be your relation, or it may not. Whatever the case, does tragedy not also lie in thinking that the ritualization of past loss ought to be everyone’s principal relation to the Nakba?
 Similar critique was levelled at Palestinians (Israeli citizens) from the 1948 areas for, among other things, staging a dabke performance at their Nakba commemoration in 2014. See http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:X5vhFuXuu3kJ:www.bokra.net/Article-1251400+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk