When recollecting the Nakba, Palestinian refugees in Syria recall fishing in the Jordan River, the trees on their land and the houses they once lived in. With these memories they evoke a world that was destroyed by the 1948 Catastrophe, rather than the actual death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to make way for the creation of Israel.
“They hold on to the memories of what the Nakba deprived them of rather than the memories of the catastrophes themselves,” writes assistant professor of sociology at Beirut University, Anaheed Al-Hardan, in her latest book Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities.
Al-Harden describes these storytellers as “the guardians of the Nakba” because, of the three generations that have passed since 1948, they are the only ones with first-hand memory of what happened. Throughout Palestinians in Syria the author presents testimonies from all three generations and contrasts them to highlight how accounts from the guardians differ from those who have temporal distance from the event.
At the heart of Palestinians in Syria is the idea that memories recalled by Palestinian refugee communities who were displaced almost seven decades ago are fundamental to understanding the Nakba. Today there are over six million Palestinian refugees in the region and across the world yet it is to the Yarmouk refugee camp and the communities around Damascus where Al-Harden takes the reader, to consider how the memories of Palestinian refugees in Syria can contribute to understanding the Nakba.
Reconstructing memories of this time is not just about Palestinians writing their own history - rather than their colonisers - but it is also a tool with which to contest the Palestinian leadership’s position on the right of return. In 2012, President Mahmoud Abbas publicly waived his right to return when he announced he had no right to live in Safed, the town from which his family were forced to flee during 1948 when he was 13. In response, Palestinian refugees in camps in Gaza burned pictures of him.
Contrary to what Abbas may say, argues Al-Hardan, Palestinians in Syria have tried to stake their part in Palestinian politics through the right of return – if this were to be realised it would go some way towards rectifying a historical injustice.
In general, prior to 2011, Palestinians in Syria had a different experience to other refugee communities in the region. In contrast to Lebanon where refugees are discriminated against and denied access to work, education, health and adequate housing, Palestinians in Syria went to state schools, universities, worked in public and private sectors and lived among Syrians rather than in separate camps.
But as the conflict unravelled many were forced to flee after the Syrian regime placed Yarmouk under siege, cut off food and water and bombarded them with shells. Later, Daesh infiltrated the camp. As they tried to leave, surrounding countries turned them away, because they were Palestinian. Throughout The Palestinians Al-Harden quite rightly draws attention to the injustice imposed on Palestinians by Israel’s settler-colonial regime, and Palestinian leaders, but less attention is paid to what Assad’s regime has done to the Palestinian community in Syria, and how they went from being one of the most integrated and accepted communities in the region, to being targets.
As the conflict in Syria has unravelled, Al-Harden points out that, for Palestinians, the Nakba has taken on a new meaning. It is no longer simply about the destruction caused in 1948 but it is also about the destruction of Palestinian communities who have lived in Syria for 67 years and have had yet another home destroyed. Before the conflict broke out 160,000 of these refugees lived in Yarmouk refugee camp. Now, between 2,000-4,000 remain.
This is how their second catastrophe began, a tragedy now considered to have surpassed the devastation caused by 1948. With no end of the Syrian conflict in sight the destruction of this community continues; meanwhile, Israel and its international allies work hard to diminish any chance Palestinians can return to their homeland. With this in mind, the testimonies and memories documented in Palestinians in Syria are more necessary than ever.