Thursday, May 2, 2013

Born in Jerusalem, Born Palestinian: A Memoir

This review was first published in Middle East Monitor here.

Years prior to Jacob Nammar's birth, Zionist intentions to implement the process of colonization were clearly articulated by Ze'ev Jabotinsky during the First Zionist Conference in Switzerland. Colonisation, according to Jabotinsky, must be 'carried out in defiance of the will of the native population.'

'Born in Jerusalem, Born Palestinian: A Memoir' (Olive Branch Press, 2012) reveals a personal portrait of life under occupation – a forced disintegration of the self, family, community and nation. The inclusivity of Palestine was systematically annihilated as the Zionist occupation effected a macabre transition in the identity of Palestinians. The harmony of three distinct religious communities became a symbol of nostalgia as Palestinians faced brutal oppression characterised by the Nakba of 1948. Nammar's narration of dispossession is firmly entrenched in his country's history, yet a consciousness and identification with other nations' plights is evident through his interpretation of his mother's memory of the Armenian genocide.

It is also through Nammar's recollections of his mother that the individual memory of the Zionist occupation is effectively narrated. The implications of enduring recurring human rights violations is portrayed in the way Tuma, Nammar's mother, struggles against psychological trauma and becomes the bulwark of the family when Nammar's father and eldest brother are detained, tortured and imprisoned. Settlers went on a rampage, forcing Nammar's family to leave the family villa as a precaution which results in dispossession. Soldiers visit the family at night with the intention of raping the eldest sister, Fahima. A show of defiance against such violations led to Shin Bet falsely accusing Fahima of murdering a Jewish soldier. From affluence to dependence upon UNRWA, the book creates a contrast between comfort and deprivation, as violence continues to escalate and values are challenged by practicalities in order to survive.

The 'right to land' is best depicted by the dispossession of the family home. Having been given identity cards by the Israeli government, the family's decision to return home and their subsequent experience highlights the repercussions of Zionist ideology. Finding their home occupied by European Jews, a soldier explains to Nammar's family that the government had bequeathed their home to Jewish settlers and that the expropriation was not illegal. "These people believe that God promised them this land, so they came from Poland to claim it." The 1950 'Property Law' deemed 'land and homes left behind by Palestinians' as of November 29 1947 as 'enemy property', and therefore subject to expropriation.

The right to land gradually manifested itself in the right to live. Nammar and other Palestinians find themselves gradually side-lined by the dominating majority of Jewish settlers. Initial successes in sporting activities enabled Nammar to assimilate into a different way of life and embrace his aspirations. However, he was soon ostracized for being Palestinian; "You do not represent Israel"… "You don't belong in this country", he was told.

Nammar's narrative is a departure from other recollections of Palestine, which embody resistance against the occupation as an integral component of memory. On the contrary, this book seems to be an account of nostalgia for Palestine prior to the occupation. The family is described as peaceful and having no ties to militancy and resistance; this explains the family's emotional ordeal at the detention and torture of Nammar's father and eldest brother. However, the intimate portrait of this personal consequence of the occupation is void of any indignation, or outrage. Nammar acknowledges human rights violations as experienced by his family and close friends, but the occupation is described as phase, rather than a continuous infringement of international law. Despite the illegalities, any possible decisive stance is overshadowed by what Israel had dictated for the Palestinian population.

Racism against Palestinians is countered by the author's assertion that he harbours no animosity towards Jews as a consequence of the fact that most of his Jewish friends were critical of Israeli policies – a reminder of the split between Jews and Zionist settlers, with the latter seeking to legitimise atrocities in the name of a fabricated claim to nationhood.

The narrative is based upon transition, which is not totally regretted. "I was fortunate to have lived and experienced childhood in Palestine, youth in Israel and adulthood in America." Hence Palestinian history in this memoir feels fragmented, or at best, there is a profound nostalgia which overwhelms the ramifications of Israel's illegal occupation. There are various transitions which portray an acquired ease – the adaptation of the name Ya'coub to Ya'cov and Jacob may be viewed as a metaphor of adaptation.

The political allegiances of Israel and the US, mentioned at the end of the book in relation to Nammar's departure from Israel to America, do not elicit any vociferous condemnation. While the author acknowledges US reluctance to challenge Israel's violations, once again there seems to be no anger in recognising that US support for the Israeli government is in turn contributing to the on-going oppression of Palestinians. The author declares outrage in the epilogue, but the memoir is written in an almost detached manner, eliciting ambivalence in the reader. It is, perhaps, the strong element of nostalgia for the memory of Palestine during childhood, which makes this memoir end on an almost utopian vision of Palestine as a land of harmony for Jews, Christians and Muslims – an impossible dream if Israel is not forced to reverse the illegality of the occupation.