Opinion | Hanaa Mustafa: How Palestinians Preserved Their Heritage

Hanaa Mustafa

22 June 2018

“The old will die… the young will forget” is a saying often attributed to David Ben-Gurion. The young have not forgotten. Palestinian young men and women who were born in the diaspora are well-informed on Palestine’s geography and history. Most of them are able to locate any city on the map of Palestine. Ben-Gurion’s words or intent have failed the test of time and many Palestinian refugees have proved him wrong. Despite their physical alienation from the land, they have been culturally and emotionally rooted in it. This piece aims to discuss a few ways in which refugees preserved their heritage and turned it into a form of resistance.

  1. Oral Culture: In one of Moshe Dayan’s interviews with Haaretz in 1969, he admitted to completely annihilating Palestinian villages: “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either” (Said, The Question of Palestine). The military leader did not mention the crimes the Haganah committed in the process of annihilating the villages. Moreover, Palestinians do know the names of those villages. In fact, one of the earliest reasons behind Palestinian refugees’ perseverance is the Nakba stories they were told as children by their grandparents. My grandmother passed down her story to us by word-of-mouth. There was no need for history books since the incidents she witnessed were deeply engraved in her heart and soul. With longing in her voice she used to tell me the story of loss and longing: the story of Kabri which was one of the villages Zionists destroyed right after establishing their state: “I’m from beautiful Kabri… They started bombing us… They did not even spare the trees… We thought we’d come back…” The fertile village of Kabri was completely destroyed. My grandmother died, but her story did not. The young Palestinian poet, Samar Abdel Jaber, still vividly remembers the stories her grandfather told her about his pre-Nakba life: “What amazed me was the way he remembered the details although many years had passed”, says Samar. Years later Samar described this image in the elegy she wrote for her grandfather.
  2. Literature: In addition to verbally passing down the stories, Palestinian refugees wrote for and about Palestine. The works of Ghassan Kanafani, Tawfiq Zayad, Sahar Khalifa and many others bear witness to the tragedies of displacement. Their literature was not a mere outlet for expression, but a tool for change and resistance. Kanafani once wrote: “with blood we write for Palestine” foretelling his own death. Years later he was assassinated by Mossad in 1972. Among the young generation of Palestinian refugees are creative men and women who are still resisting through literature. In 2008 Samar Abdel Jaber wrote a poem in Arabic that rapidly circulated on social media platforms: “My grandfather says Haifa is the most beautiful city. I have never seen Haifa. And my grandfather has never seen any other city.” After writing the poem, Samar had never thought it would go viral: “In 2008 when I was asked to participate in an event happening in Haifa for the memory of the 60th year of Israeli occupation. I read the poem aloud through the phone, live in the event itself, where many Palestinians were attending. It was the first time that my voice reached Palestine, reading a poem out loud about Haifa in Haifa itself.” Samar is very aware of her role as a Palestinian poet in the diaspora: “Through art and literature, we can spread the Palestinian stories of suffering and survival. Since we are not able to influence governments directly, we should keep influencing people all over the world to support the Palestinian cause.”
  3. Palestinian Stitching: Refugees have also preserved their culture through various forms of art. Stitching or ‘Tatreez’ is probably one of the most prominent ones. Palestinians, especially women, have been decorating their homes and wearing cross-stitched Palestinian Thobes/ dresses. Since embroidering takes a great deal of time, women used to tell stories to each other as they worked collectively. Thus, the two acts have become linked together, and the stories would inspire women to create new stitches like the map of Palestine and the names of its cities. As a result, Palestinian embroidery has not only survived, but has become a powerful source of expression and perseverance.
  4. Songs: Wen Ala Ramalla, Yumma Mwel El Hawa, Ya Zareef Atool and many others are famous Palestinian folk songs that are performed by Palestinian, Syrian and other Arab singers. More emerging young singers are now showing a high level of political awareness. The 47soul band is a case in point. Their Arab and Western audiences highly admire them for the messages they try to convey through their songs, attire and Palestinian accent.
  5. Food: Palestinian refugees have been keen on preparing and eating their traditional Palestinian dishes. They especially take pride in “Musakhan” and “Makroota” (date cookies). More Palestinian chefs are now creating blogs in order to share the recipes with the rest of the world. Cooking those dishes can help Palestinians reclaim their heritage and fight cultural appropriation.

Tomorrow the lemon trees will blossom

And the olive trees will rejoice

Your eyes will dance

The migrant pigeons will return

Nizar Kabbani


Hanaa Mustafa- Syria

MA in English Literary Studies



Edward Said, The Question of Palestine


Important Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Syriana Analysis editorial policy.

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