Each year on May 15, Palestinians around the world commemorate Nakba Day in memory of the mass exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland. “Nakba” is the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” but so powerful and indelible was the tragedy for Palestinians that the word has now come to be inextricably bound to that single experience of loss.
To be a Palestinian family is to have a Nakba story. There are stories upon stories, of the more than 400 villages demolished by Jewish paramilitaries, of massacres like Deir Yassin. These stories form a foundation. They unite Palestinians in a community of suffering and resilience.
But in my family, we rarely spoke about the past, my parents choosing instead to shield us from the stories. Being Palestinian meant thick, bitter coffee that got stuck in your teeth and pillows stitched with colorful geometric patterns, and grandmothers who visited for months at a time, taking over the kitchen and filling it with new scents. It did not mean loss, exile or displacement.
Unlike for the millions of Palestinians still living as refugees throughout the Arab world, for whom the Nakba continues to be a determinant of daily life, for me, it always seemed part of a distant past.
My maternal grandmother, an Orthodox Christian, grew up the child of a wealthy flour merchant in the port city of Jaffa. In 1948, she and her sisters fled by boat to Beirut as the violence of the militias reached her family’s town. It was a harrowing journey that she still does not like to talk about. When Jaffa fell on May 14, 1948 — the very day Israelis claimed national independence and the reason Nakba Day is on the 15th — her family lost their flour mill, houses and all of their land. However, with their connections, the money that remained and luck, they were able to build a good life in Lebanon.
If not for 1948, my grandmother might not have married my grandfather, a young medical student whom she had met while summering in the mountains of Lebanon the year before. It had been love at first sight, but her older brother hadn’t approved. After 1948, literally lacking the ground to stand on, he reluctantly acquiesced to the marriage. More than 60 years later, they are still happily married and have watched children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren prosper. My grandmother would never return to her homeland, but she would gain a new one.
My dad’s father was a doctor, educated in Britain. Like other educated Palestinians, this training made him employable throughout the Arab world, and he eventually ended up in Beirut, where my father was raised. My dad’s mother never spoke about her Nakba experience. Only now, after her death, do I wonder at the silence.
As Sunni Muslims, my father’s family was not granted Lebanese citizenship, but he still resided legally in the country and attended medical school there along with my mother. During the Lebanese Civil War, my parents moved to the United States to complete their medical training at Duke University in North Carolina. My siblings and I were born in the American South. This is where I always understood our Nakba story to have ended.
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once called the Nakba “an extended present that promises to continue in the future.” This promise is certainly true for Palestinians still living in some part of their homeland. It is true for the Palestinians whose houses continue to be demolished to make way for the construction of illegal settlements. It is true for those holding Israeli citizenship but living as second-class citizens because of discriminatory laws. It is true for those who have lived through the years-long siege of Gaza. And the promise is certainly true for the Palestinian refugees participating in what its organizers call the “Great March of Return” toward the Israeli fence enclosing Gaza, organizing themselves by the villages they came from as Israeli troops fired at them.
In the face of such sustained immediacy, I have always felt guilty claiming the Nakba as my own. It belongs to other Palestinians.
But, while subtler, there are ways in which Darwish’s promise of a present dictated by this single, yet ongoing moment in the past is true for my family, too.
There is my father, who during the civil war in Lebanon would have been persecuted for the way he said “tomato,” with a Palestinian accent.
There is my mother, the personification of resilience, breaking down in the kitchen after President Trump’s initial travel ban in the winter of 2017, a note of panic in her voice as she told me, “I can’t lose another home.”
Then there is my grandmother. Several years ago, I visited Jaffa and tracked down her flour mill. A pale pink building on an otherwise nondescript block, it is owned by Israelis and still operating. I couldn’t bring myself to trespass on what is now a stranger’s property, so I just looked at it from the outside, snapped a few photographs, and mourned the near certainty that my grandmother would never be able to stand where I was. It was a beautiful spring morning, quiet, with a soft breeze. I turned away, toward the sea.
As I walked down the street, the Mediterranean in front of me, my grandmother’s childhood home behind, I wondered, as I often do, if she had had a choice, would she have left anyway? She has lived such a rich and often wonderful life. But I realize now that this is beside the point. Or maybe it is precisely the point. Despite her class position and all the luck in the world, she did not have a choice in 1948, and like millions of Palestinians in exile, she continues to be denied one today.