The 1948 Palestinian Nakba, in which Zionist paramilitaries ethnically cleansed Palestine to pave the way for the creation of colonial Israel, is marked by ongoing loss, rupture, and trauma. The process, rather than a single historical event, contributed to the shaping of Palestinian identity. In the absence of Palestinian archives, oral history played a major role in narrating Palestine’s memory.
In recent years there has been a concentrated effort to bring Palestinian narratives to the forefront, in order for Palestinians to tell their own story. Palestinians have been marginalized politically as a result of the international community’s refusal to support the right of return.
This marginalization created different strata within the Palestinian people, with varying degrees of isolation. Palestinian refugee narratives are less likely to be heard as the international humanitarian aid narrative took precedence. Yet another community of silenced voices is comprised of women who, incidentally, play a major role in the preservation of Palestinian heritage, memory, and culture.
Farah Aboubakr, author of “The Folktales of Palestine,” describes Palestinian women as “credible and powerful sources for preserving as well as transmitting Palestinian memory and identity.” Her research focuses on how women’s preservation of Palestinian folktales has contributed to the preservation of Palestinian history and also served as a link between the pre and post Nakba recollections.
Palestinian folktales serve as a critique of society and its norms. In terms of storytelling and narratives, Palestinian women are described by Aboubakr as “reliable observers of their society since there is an immediate connection with their own lives and the overall social structure.” Apart from preserving the pre-Nakba memory through tales which also serve as a critical discussion of Palestinian society, female Palestinian narrators and storytellers, already defined as reliable sources, have perfected this form of art which points to the centrality of women in society and in the Palestinian struggle.
The mainstream focus on Palestinian resistance as a male endeavour obliterates the ways in which Palestinian women have contributed to their heritage, memory, and identity.
The mainstream focus on Palestinian resistance as a male endeavour obliterates the ways in which Palestinian women have contributed to their heritage, memory, and identity. Folktales empower both society and memory; through this combination the female narrators acquire a status in terms of imparting knowledge and education. As the ongoing Nakba continues to resonate through generations of Palestinians, female storytellers have defined their role in establishing continuity within the rupture of Zionist ethnic cleansing. This reverses the perception, influenced also by mainstream discourse, of Palestinian narratives as a male domain.
In storytelling, Palestinian women occupy a central role which must be included in the communication and expression of memory. The inclusion of pre-1948 narratives in folktales, in particular with regard to family and society dynamics, transmits a history of belonging prior to the theft of Palestinian land. Moreover, the role of storytelling is not dependent upon male input; hence Palestinian women are defining their position as regards authoritative knowledge.
Deprived of land, as well as of the opportunity to transition into a future in their homeland, Palestinian female narrators reinforce the importance of remembrance. Israeli colonization not only sought to appropriate land; it also imposed fabricated narratives to eliminate the Palestinian memory process. Oral history reclaimed the process of memory and created pathways through which the Palestinian people can identity and thus communicate and preserve their history.
In their role as storytellers, Palestinian women are defining Palestinian identity and contributing to memory and resistance.
In their role as storytellers, therefore, Palestinian women are defining Palestinian identity and contributing to memory and resistance. Israel’s land seizure is juxtaposed against the narrative recreation of life in the Palestinian homeland; a reconnection that is rooted in nostalgia. The previous identity of Palestinians in Palestine narrates a belonging that was ruptured with the establishment of Israel.
Similarly, in post Nakba narratives, continuity is an important component. Different experiences of Palestinian displacement elicit several strands of remembrance. Language and the transmission of personal narratives becomes a shield against oblivion. In Palestinian narratives, the details of everyday life, overlooked in the rigid politicizing of resistance, are important to construct a thorough visualization of individual and shared trauma. Likewise, the role which Palestinian women played in resisting Israel through everyday actions of sumud (steadfast perseverance), must not be normalized merely as a reaction against the colonizer.
Through actions and storytelling, Palestinian women have participated in anti-colonial struggle. The link between pre and post Nakba narratives is found in details which preserve the traditions of a people before their experience of rupture. Food, social customs, religion, sexuality, and social norms, all explored within the context of storytelling, are discerned in narrations describing the aftermath of the Nakba and beyond. The recollections are purposeful; primarily they serve to indicate how exile was viewed as a temporary necessity, until families witnessed and experienced Zionist atrocities first-hand.
To celebrate Palestinian women’s roles in culture and resistance, the focus has to shift from the stereotypical associations which attribute anti-colonial struggle to men.
History indicates the centrality of the women’s role in the Palestinian struggle and collective memory. To celebrate Palestinian women’s roles in culture and resistance, the focus has to shift from the stereotypical associations which attribute anti-colonial struggle to men while women are portrayed in supportive roles.
Folktales challenged the stereotypes through criticism of female subjugation and male domination. Female narrators have taken a leadership role in preserving oral history and tradition, yet their leadership in organization and mobilization of resistance is less prominent. In terms of visibility, it has been established that Palestinian refugees are at a great risk of oblivion due to their humanitarian predicament, despite the fact that the Palestinian history of forced displacement is derived from this dispersed and diverse group. Women, on the other hand, are largely absent from the wider narrative unless these occupy prominent political roles which clash with the status quo enforced by Israel’s colonial and military occupation.
Palestinian women have preserved stories to pass on for future generations. Refuting their connection to the struggle is in direct contradiction with the reliable role Palestinian women have adhered to since the Nakba. In terms of continuity and the preservation of oral history and memory, as well as the active role Palestinian women play in leadership and community activism, denying recognition, or lessening its importance, is to harm the Palestinian struggle itself.