Nakba, Sumud, Intifada: A Personal Lexicon of Palestinian Loss and Resistance



Given the urgency of the conversations this powerful contribution by Rana Issa can generate, we have decided to make it available to all in its online version. It is part of our brand new issue, #50 (November-December 2023) Redefining Our Terms, which you can order in digital only or digital + print versions. The Funambulist is a self-funded magazine that relies heavily on subscriptions.

Far away from the (sometimes unproductive) conversations about whether the transfer of concepts such as “apartheid,” “settler colonialism,” or “indigenous” is appropriate to describe the political conditions of Palestine, the terms nakba, sumud, and intifada, which refuse the translation, allow for Palestinians to literally speak about themselves in/on their own terms. However, as Rana Issa reminds us in this powerful text, the sacralization of political concepts is full of traps, and they need instead to evolve through their own practice to remain potent.

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“Dad graduating from Fateh’s military academy” (1977).

Since the earliest days of our dispossession, as far back as the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Palestinians have existed in a revolutionary state. The long history of our struggle indexes a long history of defeats, but also the refusal to accept defeat as the final predicament.

Some words we use to tell our story have become fixtures of our liberation narrative. These words sometimes appear weathered and overused.

They verge on the folkloric and their political energies are at times suspect. As my political consciousness developed, “Palestine” itself was one such untrustworthy word. It is used over and over again by authoritarian regimes in the region to oppress their people and even sometimes to cover up the participation of these regimes in the extermination of Palestinians. The Syrian regime went as far as to turn Palestine into political kitsch, and named one of its interrogation centers, notorious for its spectacular torture techniques, as “fir’ falastin (the Palestine bureau). To safeguard against the appropriation of the struggle that serves the interests of some opportunist rulers, our words need to be rearticulated and their meanings reconfigured. More importantly, the words that comprise shared practices of struggle must be persistently interrogated in order to discuss the conditions of dispossession.

In this piece I weave a personal narrative of struggle around three significant words for Palestinians: nakba, sumud, intifada. The migration of these words to other languages testifies to how semantics remain relevant, within the insistent gesture of continuing to speak about Palestine—despite the mounting risks and censorship that have only become more menacing in recent years. I do not propose authoritative definitions. In fact, the collective experience of the ongoing nakba cannot be captured through them. Our language, like our dispersal, is too fractured for any coherent definition to claim legitimacy.

I was born into a revolutionary household to a Palestinian mother and Lebanese father on the outskirts of the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh, itself on the outskirts of Beirut. Palestine was what my parents did for a living. The 1970s were a glorious time of thawra, or revolution, when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had the financial and organizational means to marshal the Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere to the labor of liberation. My father fought on the frontline, my mother worked for Radio Palestine, and we were taught to evade questions about what my parents did for work by responding: “Dad is a warehouse manager and mom is a housewife.”

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“Samia, my mother, and me” (1977).

My parents raised me Palestinian. We were expected to follow the news, and to stay informed about the massacres being perpetrated against our people. Political comic books for children, revolutionary music, books from dar al-fata al-arabi and al-sanabel children radio theater were part of our cultural diet as small kids. When we grew a little older, we were taught to recite Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qassem by heart and to have long interpretive discussions about political slogans that were sprayed on the walls of Beirut. They told us to never forget the nakba, and taught us the standard tale that every Palestinian child can recite by heart. It was only when I visited Tarshiha, my mother’s village in Palestine, after acquiring Norwegian citizenship, that I understood the full extent of our loss. Suddenly, the nostalgic tales of being cast out of paradise converged with what my eyes saw the painful beauty of our land. My senses were overwhelmed with the cool Tarshiha air, while my consciousness played out scenes of the terrible poverty experienced by my Palestinian family in Lebanon. I could not bear the contrast between this town that is my lost home, and my growing up in proximity to the misery of the Palestinian camps and the lack of horizon that its inhabitants suffer.

The nakba is the paradigm of suffering that turned my Tarshiha aunts and cousins into total strangers. Our intimacy burst forth in spite of our forbidden encounter. My arrival to Palestine was a temporary overcoming of the nakba as the ruination of our social fabric and political horizon. The nakba as Elias Khoury remarks, is not a past time, a single historical moment, but is a persistent structure of experience. In Tarshiha, the consequences of the loss of home, family, and land that my family in Lebanon continues to grapple with overpowered me.

My Tarshiha experience taught me that the nakba is not only a paradigmatic shared narrative, but also a concept that is laden with fractured experiences, singular and experientially divisive.

A Lebanese camp as a habitat is starkly different from living in this occupied and beautiful town. It would take me several years to find the words to tell my closest cousin from Tarshiha about the camp.

My political indoctrination ended when my parents could no longer navigate the course taken by the civil war in Lebanon, once the Palestinian revolution was driven out of the political field following the Sabra and Shatila massacre. They resigned from Fateh in 1982, and in 1985, the war on the camps waged by Shiite militias at the behest of the Syrian regime, began. It lasted for three years. During that period, my mother almost lost her mind and my father developed an explosive temper. They were forced to reexamine their values and choices. Words fell short of how we tried to make sense of our present predicament. Such is the case with sumud, a word that connotes the condition of searching for a stoic posture in the face of disaster. It is a word that is similar in meaning to survivance, a concept that comes from Native American studies. As calamities mounted in the lives of Palestinians in Lebanon, the use of this word in the local political context in Lebanon bordered on kitsch for me. Political leadership in the camps and some Lebanese politicians who assigned themselves patrons of the Palestinians, began using the term to cover up and normalize the immiseration of Palestinians, especially those who live in refugee enclaves in Lebanon.

Sumud since the 1980s, erased Palestinian grievances from the public eye, and indeed since then, the Lebanese generally forgot the camps.

The war on the camps never really ended. Today, the destruction of Ain al-Hilweh camp in the South looms on the horizon and brings to mind the war on Nahr al-Bared camp in the North, which was destroyed more than a decade ago. Years after its destruction by the Lebanese army, my mother, Samia, who was working on a long journalistic piece about the camps, met residents who continue to live in makeshift housing, hammered together from old metal container boxes. Rust covers the walls in a sickly orange hue, and the inhabitants languish from all kinds of chronic and serious diseases. She wrote:

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“Students and trainers at the military academy” (1976).

Like everything in the lives of Palestinians, the temporary becomes permanent, so that the life-in-waiting becomes ‘a slow death and a life without life.’ Nobody knows when waiting ends or begins in a long lasting nakba that seems today even harsher and with a future even more opaque. Palestinians ponder their condition after seventy years of a nakba that does not end, but is actually a series of unfolding nakbas leading them to rock bottom.

Thus, as a Palestinian from Lebanon, sumud is a term that makes me uneasy, for I fear it participates in covering up genocidal state policy against Palestinian refugees (and more recently, Syrian refugees) in Lebanon. However as Lena Meari reminds us, sumud acquires its value not through conceptual rigor but through “a continuing process of reorganization of the revolutionary self that would be actualized in practice.” To withstand Israeli torture without confessing is a practice of sumud that constitutes an act of “revolutionary becoming,” as Meari contends.

Thus are political words. They acquire meaning through practice.

I ponder my writing practice as it grapples with its absence from revolutionary streets. I write this piece from Oslo, where I live, safe from the elemental danger that threatens Palestinian bodies in the ongoing colonial and authoritarian processes of their erasure.

I recall a few years ago, my father was visiting me in Oslo. I was working on a project that had me search NRK, the national TV station here, for footage about the Accords that bear the name of this city. I found a strange clip of Arafat at the White House reading a speech that was obviously handed down by another more powerful interlocutor. He stumbles over his words and his voice breaks. Is Arafat choking on tears? I show it to my father and ask him about the stutters in the speech. He watches until Arafat begins to stumble and he begins to bite hard on his knuckles to stop himself from crying. He did not have much to say that day, and left me with unanswered questions.

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“A Laissez-passer issued by the Lebanese Government for Palestinian refugees” (1973).

Today, when Norwegian politicians vote for racist legislation that targets Global South migrants, I draw strength from knowing that I live here today because my destiny has been shaped by Oslo’s active participation in erasing the political rights of Palestinians. Now I live here, and my history is a Norwegian one too. This history makes me feel entitled to live here, despite the palpable forces straining to purify Norway from foreigners like me. My historical narrative also demands that I learn about the Samis to understand how Norway participates in a political economy that has led to the dispossession of another people. This exploration would help me consider whether Palestinians are indeed indigenous as sometimes they are described by people committed to thinking about the struggle.

Oslo became a strange nakba for many of us. There was a time when our leadership capitulated and agreed to cut off from the body politic of Palestine, all of us in the diaspora or living under direct Israeli occupation. That was the first time in our history that our people became divided between those who were allowed to call themselves Palestinian (on condition that they renounce their political ties to us) and the rest of us, those who were squeezed out of the Palestinian body politic through the capitulation of our leadership. Oslo normalized the occupation of most of Palestine and reduced our sovereignty to areas A, B, C, and the Gaza strip. To paraphrase Edward Said about lost causes, Oslo judged Palestine lost, its cause defeated.

Oslo came after the first intifada, which was followed by the second intifada. That was a time when Palestinians no longer waited for centralized command and orchestrated operations to resist Israelis. The intifada that broke out in 1987 in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, on the heels of the war on Palestinian refugees in Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut was in many ways a Palestinian response to a war of political and social extermination that the Palestinians were facing in Lebanon. Intifada as a concept belongs to a cluster of concepts that denote mass protest and revolt. They called it the intifada to differentiate it from the thawra that ended in 1982, when the Palestinian leadership left Lebanon and was no longer able to defend Palestinians or represent all of them. The Palestinian thawra was a totalizing enterprise. Its leadership was centralized and had representative power. If as Gilles Deleuze once noted, the Palestinian thawra centered on “the grandeur of Arafat,” then the intifada was a revolutionary topsy turvy—the movement was decentralized, grassroots, and had a weak sense of leadership. The Israeli settler government was wary of a movement without obvious leadership that they could target with assassination and arrest. They pushed for Oslo to put an end to the intifada.

The power of the intifada was in its ordinariness. Like many other peoples, we do not have the means to overwhelm our enemies with force. The despair of loss gives way to a future promise incumbent on the renewal of revolutionary becoming. The Palestinians persist in revolutionary renewal beyond the intifada and insist on the struggle as the only path towards a more hopeful future. In 2021, at the height of the protest movements that followed the decision to cleanse the Jerusalem area of Sheikh Jarrah from its inhabitants, Palestinians coined the term habbe, the rising, to designate their new form of struggle. This is the latest word to be added to our history of struggle. Such coinages are significant in how they periodize the development of the struggle.

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“Dad speaking to a journalist from Wafa agency after a military drill” (1978).

New words underscore the new practices and generations of the resistance movement and its capacity to respond to the accelerated and dynamic forms that our oppression takes.

The social media feeds from the habbe show Palestinians smiling in the face of their arrest, and reveals the creative force of a people refusing to accept their loss as the ultimate destiny. Palestinians have lost much, but to paraphrase W.E.B. Du Bois, they face their despair with a calm confidence in justice for us sometime in the future. The Palestinians defeated Oslo when they refused to accept its judgment. A spoon scraping the ground over many months allowed a handful of freedom fighters to escape from an Israeli prison. They were taken back to jail; they were tortured. But the story is in the spoon. ■