May 15, 2023

Jewish Currents board member Nadia Saah's mother, Nina (left), and her mother's cousin, Leila (right), at home in Jerusalem in 1947.

Courtesy of Nadia Saah
Photo Essay

Our Catastrophe

A photo essay to mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba.

Introduced by Nadia Saah

This photograph is of my mother Nina, on the left. Her given name was Therese Yousef Saad, but her family called her Theresina because she was tiny and adorable—and she remained that way until her death in 2017. She is standing next to her cousin Leila on the balcony of her family’s home in Jerusalem. It is 1947, and she is engaged to my father Issa. (They would not marry until 1963. But that’s another story.) The photo conveys a deep intimacy: my mother’s easy grip on Leila’s hand; their closeness; the depth and warmth of my mom’s almond eyes. She is looking right at you, and at me. She is letting us in.

One year later, the Nakba ended her life in Palestine. I know that my mom and her family fled on a truck to As-Salt, Jordan, in May of 1948, and for a year and a half the six of them—she and her mother Lily, her father Yousef, her sisters Diana and Irma, and her baby brother Mattia—lived together in one room, over a barn. I know that on their first night they cried as they ate their dinner on the floor. And that the walls shook every time a horse kicked below them. I know that my mother prayed for their return to Jerusalem, until the day that she climbed the tallest hill in As-Salt to witness the waves of Palestinian refugees walking toward her with their belongings on their backs.

I will never know the full extent of what happened to my mother in the Nakba, but I can tell you that during the 47 years that I knew her, I never once saw this look in her eyes. The photo captures a time before the trauma of the Nakba, when Zionist militias drove more than 750,000 Palestinians out of their homes and off their land in order to establish the State of Israel as a Jewish-majority country. For me and many other Palestinians, images like this one are gold. Zionist devastation of our lives and suppression of our histories renders our photographs proof of life, crucial evidence of our existence in all its rich complexity and beauty. Such images are passed down along with our family stories as a vital record of a world that was taken from us, abruptly ended—a collective death. (Palestinians die many times before dying.) When I founded Project48, an initiative to tell the story of the Nakba by centering Palestinian voices, I knew that our precious photos would play a profound role in telling our stories. These images cut to the quick, making clear exactly what we mean by the Nakba, our catastrophe.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, Jewish Currents—in partnership with Project48 and the Institute for Middle East Understanding—invited Palestinians to submit photographs that speak to their family’s experience of the Nakba, along with brief reflections on the images. We received many kinds of images, historical and contemporary. Some, like the photo of my mother and her cousin, offer a glimpse of life in Palestine before the first mass expulsion in 1948; others depict beloved objects carried into exile or stolen homes visited by descendents who cannot return to reclaim them; still others speak to the continued process of dispossession, 75 years on. As this archive makes clear, the Nakba is not a discrete event, but an ongoing process of dispossession whose meanings cannot be captured by any single narrative. By asserting our Palestinian histories, we are manifesting a future rooted in justice, charting the way for our return.

— Nadia Saah, 52, Brooklyn, New York

Nakba Day, April 30th, 1948. I was 15 years old. Jaffa was bombarded from three sides by Zionist paramilitary gangs. My whole family was forced to leave our home—our garden with its fruit and flower trees; our neighbors; my friends; my school; our beach and the shortcut we took to get there, through the Muslim cemetery with my grandparents’ graves. We had tickets on the SS Argentina, but shelling from Tel Aviv forced the ship away, so we boarded a nameless wooden cargo sailboat. We were a family of ten among 3,000 Palestinians packed like sardines, headed to Sour (Tyre) in Southern Lebanon. During the three-day journey, we ran out of water and survived a wild storm. A woman a few feet from us aborted her pregnancy; a group of women surrounded her for privacy—then they offered a prayer and gave the baby a burial at sea. Overnight we became stateless refugees.

After 45 years and 3 months in diaspora, I went back home for the first time. My daughter Rema, who works in Palestine, and my sister Fadwa, who lives in Jerusalem, had warned me that an Israeli company had converted our house into an old people’s home. When I arrived, I saw it: The fruit trees and flowers were gone. The airy and lively spaces were gone. Every room, every veranda had been divided in two. The house was packed with old, uncared-for Eastern European Jewish people, many of whom had Alzheimer’s. A fetid smell of urine pervaded the air. I shut off the pain and headed for the beach, by way of the usual shortcut. I found my grandfather’s grave exactly where I remembered it—but, as I looked around, I realized that it had been damaged. My grandmother’s grave hadn’t survived. Bordering the cemetery was a new large green building, the Peres Peace Center; it loomed like a bomb shelter.

I worked my way back to the Orthodox cemetery next door to the Muslim one, where I noticed several new headstones with messages in sparkling gold Cyrillic. I asked the gateman about them. “Russians, all of them,” he told me. “They came to Israel as Jews, but when they died, they chose to die as Russian Orthodox.” A pain shot to my heart: Several hundred thousand Russians had the right to move to my country—yet neither I nor any Palestinian have the right of return to this holy land.

— Hasan Hammami, 90, Punta Gorda, Florida

When I met Nadira in 2015, she was 76 years old and had recently become a refugee again. Nadira—pictured here with her daughter Mona in a shelter outside Dortmund, Germany, in a still from my film Notes on Displacement—was exiled from her first home in 1948, when her family was forced out of Nazareth, Palestine, and fled to a refugee camp in Damascus, Syria. She spent the next 66 years in Syria, until 2014, when eruptions of violence made life there unlivable, and she was forced to leave home once more. She headed with her family for Istanbul, hoping to eventually reach Germany.

When I learned about Nadira’s story, from a newspaper ad Mona had taken out to appeal to the Palestinian president for help, I thought of my grandmother, Shafiqa, who became a refugee when she was expelled from Haifa during the Nakba. In the West Bank city of Jenin, where I grew up, she used to tell me the tale of her flight before bedtime. It was a great source of pain for her, and I think she found some relief in the act of sharing it. I became an artist in part to lift up stories like my grandmother’s—to call attention to the effects of colonial violence on ordinary people.

I met up with Nadira and her family in the middle of their journey, in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, in early September, and traveled with them to Athens, where we took a bus arranged by a smuggler as far north as we could. After it let us out, we walked for hours through a field in the dark—pushing Nadira in her wheelchair, struggling to find our way. We urged one another not to give up, sometimes trying to sing songs from home. At times I forgot that I was a filmmaker documenting their journey; I had become part of their family. Eventually we reached the border with Macedonia, where police led groups of refugees to an overcrowded train. Sleepless, we made our way to Serbia, then Hungary, where we were detained in a camp the police had set up. The tents, filled with holes, did not protect against the heavy rains or the bitter cold; there was very little food, much of it expired. Nadira cried and cried. I felt angry, exhausted, helpless to ease her pain.

Our journey found a temporary end in Dortmund, where we had our first hot meal in eight days. We were taken to a shelter in an abandoned factory, repurposed by the German Red Cross; I stayed in the same room with Nadira and her family. For a moment, we could rest.

— Khaled Jarrar, 47, New York City, New York

In 1948, my paternal grandparents—who were 12 and 14 years old at the time—fled in the night from the homes of their grandparents in Qaqun, Palestine. Zionist militias seized the village and claimed it for the State of Israel, so my father has never set foot on his own hearth. He grew up in Kuwait until the Persian Gulf War made him a refugee twice over—and he fled to the United States, where he gave me the bloodstained gift of American citizenship, with which I would one day forge a path home.

When I went to university, I specialized in the struggles of my family. In 2018, I studied abroad in Venice, where I met Jonathan, a conscientious objector from the Israeli army. Four years later, I flew, for the first time, into Ben Gurion Airport; I spent a week in a fragile peace with Jonathan and his gracious-yet-all-too-settled family and then returned for two weeks to the home of my maternal aunt in Abu Dis, to the beautiful and harsh reality of the world on the other side of the wall. Before I made my way back to the airport bearing the name of the first head of the state that displaced my grandparents, Jonathan and his father Amir offered to take me to my father’s village. So we traveled to Qaqun, now an Israeli national park. Walking without my father, with somebody else’s, I literally stumbled upon the home where my grandfather—and his father, and so on—had once lived. The moment I fell, I felt no fear. The dwelling was awaiting my rightful return, and I landed safely, a niche of nested stones meeting my palm. I imagined Jedo, my grandfather, as a young and thoughtful boy sculpting this enclave to welcome me back. As Jedo caught my hand, Amir caught this photo of our reunion.

— Lama Abu Hantash, 24, Zachary, Louisiana

On the ground floor of the house where I grew up with my grandfather Atiya, the pillar of our family, there’s a wooden chest that holds trophies and photographs. In his bedroom, framed photographs show my grandfather as a small boy with his parents, Aysha and Mahmoud. These items were among the few that his family managed to bring with them during the Nakba, when Israeli soldiers drove them from their home in Barbara and they fled to Gaza on the back of a mule. My grandfather was 11 years old. Even today, he still has the deeds for his home in Barbara.

My great-grandfather gave my great-grandmother the chest on the occasion of their marriage. It is an old custom: In the days before a woman is preparing to move to her husband’s house, her family helps pack her clothes into a chest that she brings to her new home. My grandfather, who often tells me old stories that carry wisdom and reminds me of my family’s traditions, once shared with me why this object is so important to him. “Despite the horrible warfare,” he said, “my mother insisted on bringing the chest with her. She wanted her happy memories to live forever.”

— Hamza Mahmoud Salha, 21, al-Faluja, Palestine

Growing up in our small house in Ramallah in the 1950s and ’60s, I often heard my parents’ stories of our large, beautiful home in Jaffa—and of the day in April of 1948 that they were forced to leave it behind. As I got older, I became aware of the full extent of the tragedy, the loss of our future as a nation. But it was only as an adult, when I got in touch with my cousins who grew up in Israel, that I truly understood the Nakba’s effect on families torn asunder by the creation of the Jewish state: We had been made strangers to each other.

I used to think of the Nakba only as an event in the past, confined to my parents’ generation. But as the occupation has evolved over the course of my life, with the pace of Jewish colonization accelerating, I’ve realized that the Nakba is ongoing. Now, as I look at this photograph taken by my friend Bassam Almohar—which shows the Palestinian village of Wadi Foukin, dominated by the Israeli settlement of Betar Illit—I see another Nakba looming. Betar Illit, one of the most rapidly growing settlements in the West Bank, is connected to Jerusalem through tunnels built for the exclusive use of Israeli travelers, while Wadi Foukin is encircled by a separation wall that cuts it off from the surrounding lands, most of which have been confiscated for the settlement. In this image of choked growth and containment, there is a frightening vision of the next Nakba, realized not by forcing Palestinians from their homes, but by confining them in ghettos, as Israel did to those who managed to stay behind after 1948. With this same pattern repeating all over the West Bank, it is not difficult to imagine what the future holds for the Palestinians.

— Raja Shehadeh, 71, Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine

In 1948, nearly two decades before he became Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Dayan gave the order to conquer Lydd, Ramle, and all of the surrounding towns—including Jimzu, my family’s village. From the start, Dayan’s intention was to ethnically cleanse the area. On July 9th, the Al-Jamal family was forced to leave as the Yiftach Brigade advanced and occupied Jimzu. Ten people were killed that day. After the military operation was over, my great-grandfather, Issa Al-Jamal, snuck back into the decimated village, where he saw the remains of the dead scattered all around. “It’s as if their bodies were dismembered by wild dogs,” he later said. Our homes were destroyed, along with most of the proof of our existence; almost no personal belongings could be salvaged. All we had were our stories, which we took with us all over the world.

To keep the people of Jimzu alive, my great uncle, Ahmed Issa Ibrahim Al-Jamal—who had been the mukhtar, or the head of the village—drew the most detailed map of the village that currently exists. I learned about this map by chance, when my husband saw it on a Reddit post two years ago: “Look,” he said, calling me over to show me his phone, “isn’t this where your family is from?” It’s an extraordinary document: No family home, well, field, mosque, or street was forgotten. I knew my great uncle, who eventually settled in New York and passed away a few years ago, as a keeper of our family’s history and trauma; in many ways, he was the mukhtar of our family as well. His map, I later learned, had been part of an exhibition at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago that included maps and artworks reflecting Palestinian life, until pressure from Zionist patrons caused the exhibit to close early. To them, it seems, the map was a threat. For me and my family, it is a precious record of what we’ve lost.

— Hebh Jamal, 23, Mannheim, Germany

Growing up in Jordan, I often saw family photographs of life before exile and keys on the walls of houses—symbols of eventual return—but I rarely heard my grandparents talk about Palestine. It was too painful to look back; they tried to focus on the present and the future. Even when violence flared in Palestine, I remember talking about it more with my classmates than with my family. It was only in 2021, when the movement to prevent residents of Sheikh Jarrah from being expelled from their homes was in full swing, that I began to have more conversations about Palestine with my family. My dad, living in Canada, saw that this neighborhood near where he grew up was on the news; he finally felt like the world was watching.

I came across this photo in March of that year, when I was back home in Jordan for a visit. It shows my grandparents, Laila Dajani and Yahya Wahbeh, dancing at their wedding in 1957. Theirs was known as the first public wedding in Jerusalem. Previously, couples would marry behind closed doors, in people’s living rooms and gardens, but Yahya wanted everyone to know how much Laila meant to him, so he rented out the Imperial Hotel for the occasion. It’s an image of joy and celebration between two catastrophes: They had both experienced displacement from the Nakba when they were younger, and they would experience it again during the Naksa, when Israel began occupying East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank after the 1967 War. Yahya, a renowned doctor, was exiled to Jordan. My father, who was 10 years old at the time, spent the next two years protesting for his dad’s return, to no avail. To reunite with his father, he, his mother, and his three siblings had to leave Jerusalem—the city where my ninth great-grandfather is buried—for good.

Yahya Wahbeh, 31, London, United Kingdom

Until the age of 10, I lived in the beautiful home in Haifa that my father, Tewfiq Azzam, built on Mount Carmel in the early 1930s. I loved strolling through the garden, lounging in the gazebo—even helping to clean the pool. The house had plenty of room, so in the mid-1940s, upon the request of the British regional governor, who lived nearby, my father rented the second floor to a Jewish couple who took in Jewish orphans fleeing Germany, temporarily sheltering them before taking them to live on various kibbutzim. One day in 1948, an orphan named Gaudi, who had become one of my best friends, came to me in a panic, saying my family had to leave Palestine. His hosts had attended a meeting of the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Lehi, where the Zionist militias had decided to kill as many Palestinians as possible. I told my father what Gaudi had said, but he brushed off the warning.

Soon, the Zionist gangs were attacking the British soldiers—blowing up military cars, even tying 15 officers to trees and shooting them dead—before turning on the Arabs as well. As the situation rapidly deteriorated, the British authorities declared the area on Mount Carmel around the governor’s residence off-limits to civilians. On April 15th, my father moved us into a house in the German Colony, an area downtown at the foot of Mount Carmel, close to the port. One morning in mid-May, my parents had stepped out onto the balcony to share a pot of Turkish coffee, as they did every day; I had woken early to sit on the floor beside them, my head leaning against my father’s knee as he passed his hand gently through my hair. The tranquility was short-lived: Before long the streets had filled with people running and carrying bundles that seemed to have been hastily fashioned from the bed sheets they had lain on only moments before. My father called out to a passing man, who pointed back up to Mount Carmel and shouted, “The Jews are attacking!”

When we looked, we saw a column of tanks moving down the mountain; on each one, a white sheet bearing the Star of David covered the British insignia. (The British, we would later learn, had withdrawn from the city.) My father told my mother to wake up the rest of the family and pack only the essentials, then called the president of Shell Oil, his employer, to ask to borrow a car to take us to the Haifa seaport. The president sent two chauffeurs in case one got shot. In a series of trips, they brought my extended family to the port, where I watched as the tanks on Mount Carmel sprayed fire over the Arab section of the city, and toward us. We made it onto a large commercial sailboat and set off toward Lebanon as the tank barrage intensified—never to return to the city I called home, or our house on Mount Carmel.

— Hani T. Azzam, 86, Easton, Connecticut

When we were growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1960s and ’70s, my brother and I heard constantly about my family’s house in Haifa—not just from my father, but also from my aunts and uncles and grandmother, whenever they came to visit or live with us. They would all vividly describe its stone construction and its commanding perch on Mount Carmel, overlooking the port. I believe I first saw an actual picture of the house in the late 1990s, when a photo was discovered that had been squirreled away amid some family member’s belongings for decades.

I did not see the house with my own eyes until 2014, when I took a trip to Israel with my son Hani and his Israeli American friend Noam. (This photo was taken when I returned the next year, with my brother Dean and daughter Alexandra.) After we turned onto the street where my father had lived as a boy, it took us a moment to recognize the house amid all the others that have been built near it since 1948. Standing before it with my son and his friend, I had the strange sense of being blessed and hollowed out at the same time. At first, we paced around the house, feeling awkward. But eventually, with Noam’s encouragement, we knocked on one of the doors on the first floor and were greeted by a very kind elderly lady. When I told her that my grandfather had built the house, she invited us in for tea. Her name was Carmela; she was born in Haifa and had lived in the house with her late husband for decades. The home had been divided up into apartments, she explained, and five other families currently lived there, too. As she showed us around, my feelings vacillated between pride in what my son and his friend had initiated and sadness at how my father and his siblings would feel seeing others enjoying the home that they were forced to leave at the barrel of a gun.

After we left the house, we wandered up the road to find the best view of the majestic Bahai Gardens and the port of Haifa. I called my father, who was waiting anxiously by the phone for our report. Through laughter and tears, I told him that, despite his gift for storytelling—and ability to embellish at times—he had not exaggerated at all in his description of our home’s grandeur.

— Moneer Azzam, 62, Wellesley, Massachusetts

My mother, Houria or Umm Hussam, is 75—the age of our Nakba. She was only four months old when her mother carried her out of Bayt Dajan, a village south of Jaffa, as it was depopulated by Zionist militias in late April of 1948. In the middle of the violent takeover, my grandmother Fatima was separated from her husband; she and my mother ended up living in Hebron with my great grandfather for three years, until they were reunited with my grandfather again at a refugee camp in Jordan. Fourteen years later, my mother’s father died. The eldest of seven, my mother finished her education diploma in Ramallah and migrated to the Gulf for work so she could support her family. In 1968, she returned to her village of origin for the first time, and visited the site of her grandfather’s house and his old grocery store. Soon after, my parents met while working in the United Arab Emirates, and my four siblings and I came into this world as second-generation exiles.

I have never been to Palestine, so to me my mother is Palestine. It lives in the memories she’s shared: in the stories she’s told of going to Nablus to catch three Egyptian films in a row, in the vivid pictures she’s painted—of fields in Ramallah, of black tulips and wild edible plants, of the smell of fresh zaatar, beautiful landscapes and beautiful people. When I asked my mother once if she would return home for good if she could, she responded through tears: “I have everything in Amman—a house with expensive furniture. I would throw it all away and go live in a tent in our village just to be near the land.”

Rasha Al Jundi, 38, Nairobi, Kenya

This photograph, taken in Jaffa sometime in the mid-1940s, shows my paternal grandmother, Aida, eating sugarcane with her sisters and cousins. My teita is the one on the top left, holding a knife and grinning into the camera. Palestinians often talk about the Nakba as a rupture in time; I love that this picture captures the before, a period my teita didn’t like to speak about. It highlights how even these city girls had a deep connection to the land. It exudes a lightness, a sense of promise—you can feel the sun on their faces.

I knew these women much later, after they had fled Jaffa in 1948 and settled in Beirut. During childhood visits to my grandparents in Lebanon, my teita’s sisters and cousins were the aunties who cooked elaborate meals for my siblings and me and clucked their tongues at our broken Arabic. When, as an adult, I spent long summers in Beirut with my teita, they were all refined older women, pursing their lips as they played bridge together in the afternoon. They seemed so different from these young girls delighting in sugarcane, girls who had no idea they would lose their home and live in exile. Still, there’s something familiar about this image of my teita. Though shy and sometimes reserved, she smiled often. And until the end of her life, she would end each meal with a plate of fruit, using a paring knife to deftly slice apples and oranges.

If the photograph itself evokes the before, the context in which my family found it speaks to the after—or perhaps to how there is no real after for Palestinians in exile. When my teita died in 2017, those of us who had returned to Beirut to be with her in her final weeks went through her belongings in the rental apartment, where she’d spent her entire adult life, more than 60 years; my grandfather had refused to buy property in a country that discriminated against Palestinians and denied them citizenship. This picture was buried in a chest of drawers amid piles of photographs and handwritten recipes. In the same drawers, I discovered decades’ worth of residency permits and requests to stay in Lebanon on a temporary basis. When she died, we had to vacate that apartment, reminding us all that our connection to Lebanon—the place where my dad grew up, where my parents fell in love, where I sat with my teita at the end of the day watching her cut fruit—was always tenuous. We shipped her documents and photographs, including this one, to New York: another exile.

— Marya Hannun, 35, Exeter, United Kingdom