Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir
By Salman Abu Sitta
American University in Cairo Press
Given the centrality of memory and history to the modern Palestinian identity, it is fitting that the number of memoirs and diaries being published by Palestinians seems to be rising.
In recent years, two subgenres of Palestinian autobiography and memoir have emerged. First are accounts by diarists who witnessed World War I and British Mandate rule in Palestine, and experienced the Nakba — the mass displacement of Palestinians during the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 — as adults.
Second are memoirs of those who were children or young adults when the Nakba occurred. These are often written with a more explicit purpose — memoirs of lives as exiles and refugees fighting for Palestinian rights, rather than diaries kept for personal use.
These common themes are also found in Mapping My Return, including the trauma of war and refugee life, lives of constant struggle (with Israel, but also often with Yasser Arafat) and fierce love for their homeland.
Abu Sitta’s autobiography, however, gives a unique insight not only into refugee life and Palestinian politics throughout the decades, but into how he, as a Bedouin Palestinian from the southern Naqab desert within the Israeli state, experienced the Nakba and its aftermath.
His life story is rooted in the vast, fertile plains of the south-western Naqab, and the bayt al-sha’er (literally “house of hair” or tent) in which his mother lived. The family’s fields were plowed by camel, and many of the men and women who came to work on the harvest were from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Rather than flee north into Lebanon or east towards Jordan, his escape from the Zionist forces who destroyed his childhood home was to Khan Younis near the border between Gaza and Egypt, ultimately attending school and university in Cairo.
As the son of a paramount chief of the Tarabin Bedouin, whose influence stretched from Cairo to Bir al-Saba, Abu Sitta frankly admits that his tale is not one of “the most tragic, painful or traumatic fates of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians made refugees”.
His elite background and family connections cushioned him from the grinding poverty that hundreds of thousands of refugees in Gaza faced.
But the trauma of the night-time attack on his father’s home in the village of al-Ma’in during the Nakba, the destruction and theft of its fields and the sight of Israeli massacres in Gaza started off his “life’s mission … to try to put a face to this invisible enemy”.
Although Abu Sitta forged a career as an acclaimed engineer, he also became a historian of Palestine. He meticulously documented the villages, shrines, homesteads and traditions that Israeli laws, bulldozers and museums have sought to eradicate or appropriate.
Abu Sitta’s childhood reminiscences evoke a time when Palestine was undergoing rapid change. His grandfathers and uncles lived in constant tension with the Ottoman Empire, sometimes going into hiding in Jordan. Even so, they fought on the Ottoman side in World War I, against British forces invading Palestine from the south.
Abu Sitta’s father had to adapt to change under the British Mandate. He opened the area’s first school in 1920 — some of the students, already regarded as men at 16, arrived to class wearing swords — and introduced new plant strains.
The contradictions in Palestinian life at this time are encapsulated in Abu Sitta’s observations on the education he received. He writes: “The British Mandate saw fit to impose Roman history and Latin on the Arab students’ curricula at the expense of Arab and Palestinian history.”
Despite this, Abu Sitta notes: “But perhaps it was not so strange. After all, Palestine had more and longer-running cultural, political and commercial links with Rome (and Greece) than England.”
The story of Abu Sitta’s community highlights Gaza’s historical connections to Egypt. Family members supported the 1879–82 Urabi rebellion, in which Egyptian officers tried to declare independence but were defeated by a British invasion.
Despite the value attached by Western culture to written tales, Abu Sitta asserts that they just made him more “confident that, in the end, it is those storytellers at the shigg [a place where men met to drink coffee] who are the real source of our history”.
As an adult, Abu Sitta became a successful engineer and urban planner, working and teaching around the world.
These later sections of his memoir highlight the diversity — and often the anguish — of refugee existence, and lift the message of the book beyond that of one man’s story.
This is a highly readable book, much recommended to anyone with an interest in Palestinian history. More than that, it is a significant piece of documentation, recounting events and ways of life that have largely been forgotten or erased.
As the generations who directly experienced the Nakba are slowly lost, writings of this kind will only become more important.