The Ongoing Nakba: “As if they took all my clothes and left me naked”—Ibrahim Eid Nghnghia (Abu Adnan) in Jenin with his son and a friend—part one

From my journal, interviews, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. These dispatches are based on my latest sojourns in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019 and more recent writing. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic prevents me from returning.

My major intention is to convey the perspectives expressed by the people I interview, allowing for translation problems and misinformation on the parts of all people involved. The histories they present, for instance, I may not agree with. I feel accuracy in reporting is more important than accuracy of their statements. Rather than insert my disagreements with their statements, which could be regarded as an act of white, Eurocentric, male supremacy, I hope to provide open platforms to those I meet.

(With major assistance from Adnan Torokman, my colleague in Jenin, West Bank, Occupied Palestine)

Trees grow in all directions
So do Palestinians

and unlike butterflies
heavy with love
for their borders and their

no people can go forever behind
or under the rain.

—Etel Adnan


It is now one year and eight months since my interview and photographic session with the Jenin folks occurred, then July 4, 2019, now late March 2021. Conditions have changed dramatically. The Covid-19 pandemic still rages in the West Bank and Gaza, while Israel leads in vaccination rates. Israeli citizens—not West Bank-ers or Gazans—have voted in the fourth election in two years, perhaps re-electing Netanyahu for a record-setting sixth term as Prime Minister, despite his being under indictment for corruption. Currently and expected after the election, Israel will have its right-most Knesset (parliament) in history. This contradicts the canard that a government should always be distinguished from its people—right-wing government for a largely right-wing Jewish Israeli population.

Ibrahim Eid Nghnghia (Abu Adnan) (R) with his friend,Yahia Moneeb Al-Sadi, also a first generation Nakba survivor
Adnan Torokman (R), son of Ibrahim Eid Nghnghia—stories of the Nakba

Such is the context for my writing about Ibrahim Eid Nghnghia (Abu Adnan), his son Adnan Torokman, and Ibrahim’s friend, Yahia Moneeb Al-Sadi.

A key contextual element is that the Freedom Theater in Jenin, world renowned, has, because of the pandemic mostly, shrunk its staff to just three people. Ibrahim rents space to the theater. Now that space and its consequent rent have diminished. My friend Mowia, who’s worked with me on this Nakba project, and Adnan, colleague and friend for this episode of the Nakba blog series, lost their jobs and are now working elsewhere. Adnan travels to Israel every workday to his construction job in Afula, a distance of 22 km (15 miles), requiring about 15 minutes, thru the Jalamah checkpoint. Compared to many Palestinians, he is lucky: Palestinian workers in Bethlehem begin their travels to jobs in Israel around 4 am; travel time may be several hours, both ways.

Our session begins around 11 pm, late for me (my bedtime is usually 10 pm), ends sometime after midnight. Near us, families laugh, chat, shout, and kids play; the three interviewees talk over each other, in Arabic except when Adnan translates for me. Later, listening to the audio to write this interview taxes my concentration.

Before the Nakba in 1948, life may have been quieter in the two villages where Yahia and Ibrahim were born and lived their first few years—Al Mazar for Yahia and Al Mansi for Ibrahim. The villages were about 18 km north of Jenin, and relatively close together (ironically near Adnan’s work site). Yahia was 4 years old when Zionist militia expelled him and his village; Ibrahim was much younger.  At the time of the interview nearly two years ago, Yahia was 81, one year older than I am now, and Ibrahim, Adnan says, was 70. Which implies that Ibrahim had just been born when the Nakba thunderously struck—a lightning storm no one predicted but some may have anticipated, given the Balfour Declaration and the British and world-wide tilt toward Jews searching for their homeland.

Their families are Bedouin and lived in tents, farmers cultivating olives and wheat and raising animals, mostly cows and sheep. There were no schools; both learned reading using the Quran and other subjects from a sheik (educated person). Families had no money so they paid the sheik in food, like eggs. Yahia, the older, can recall roads, shops, buildings, and families.

Al Mazar is my family’s hometown. In 1948 the whole family of al-sadi were forced to leave. Under aref el sadi’s (el mokhtar or head man) leadership they went to neighboring Jinin for safety. till this day no Palestinian is allowed in el mazar area. I learned from my mom how beautiful it was. (Jeneen al-Sadi on July 16, 2007)

Both repeat several times, “our problems all began with Balfour.” (UK’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in a letter to Lord Rothschild declared in 1917 the right to a “national home for the Jewish people”, with the little-honored caveat, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The declaration never named the Arabs, only specified them as not Jewish, and did not reference their political rights). They told me, “now, no one listens to our stories.”

Lord Balfour (middle) in Biyamina with Vera and Chaim Weizmann, (L), Russian-born biochemist, Zionist leader and Israeli statesman who served as president of the Zionist Organization and later as the first president of Israel, and Nachum Sokolov (R), a Zionist leader, author, translator, and a pioneer of Hebrew journalism, and others, 1925

Before the Nakba, the villagers had good relations with their Jewish neighbors, a memory most of the people I’ve met have told me. Many of the Jews came from Yemen, displaced before the Nakba. Arabs were generous to Jews. I’m not clear whether the villagers knew about the holocaust.

These relationships all turned violent when the Nakba began. Jewish villagers attacked their Arab neighbors, another story I regularly heard. Fleeing, most villagers thought their exodus would be temporary; the UN promised a quick return. Yahia tells me, “As if they took all my clothes and left me naked.”

Here the stories of the two friends diverge. After two phases, several different places of refuge along the way, Yahia’s family finally arrived in Jenin in 1952 and found refuge in the storage shed of the old railroad station built by the Ottomans a few years before World War 1, “The Great War.” Multiple families divided up the shed into small one-room living spaces, each family in one room. Eventually, for more space, they made tents by sewing burlap sacks together. A few decades later, the Freedom Theater acquired the building and converted it into performance and rehearsal spaces.

In contrast, Ibrahim, an infant, with his family fled to the Jordan Valley because agricultural land was then plentiful. Some families continued their flight, settling finally in Jordan across the river a short distance. Here in a place called Al-Jiftlik, Adnan was born. Families built homes. During the fighting between the armies of Jordan and Israel, many sheep were killed in crossfire.

Al-Jiftlik, West Bank, Ottoman period building, used by the British as a prison, 2011 – Credit: Guillaume Paumier
Israeli army during a house demolition in Jitflik, 2017

“How did both families travel?” I asked. “By foot, horses, and donkeys. We carried what we could rescue from our villages. We slept under trees. We brought as many animals as possible.”

Arab refugees on the Lebanon Road after fleeing their homes in the Galilee during fighting between Israeli and Arab forces, November 1948. Credit – AP

The UN Refugee and Works Administration (UNRWA), established specifically for Palestine refugees—and existing and serving to this day, despite the Trump administration cutting all U.S. funds (to be restored apparently by the Biden administration)—now certain that return was impossible, established the Jenin refugee camp in 1953. Until the Six-Day War of 1967, Jordan ruled this area, the West Bank. During that war, Israel expelled the family from the Jordan Valley, a period known as the Naksa, meaning setback or defeat in Arabic. This was the second wave of expulsions, the ongoing Nakba. By now, the family had sold all its animals.

Jenin, 1928

Ibrahim’s family was expelled or lost their homes 3 times: Nakba in 1948, Naksa after the 1967 war, and then, because of one of his activist or fighter sons, once more in 2002, when Israel demolished his home as punishment.

The Talmud teaches: who can protest and does not is an accomplice in the act. (Sabbath, 54b)



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