Palestine History Project: Teaching a Collective Narrative

Refugee youth using photos and newspapers to represent their history and their rights Refugee youth using photos and newspapers to represent their history and their rights Rich Wiles

Until recently, with some rare exceptions, writings about Palestine and the Palestinians tended to fall into the general category of the “grand narrative.” Absent are Palestinians as human beings. Instead, when they are murdered they simply become numbers; when they are driven from their homes they simply become refugees; and when they resist the occupation of their land and the theft of their patrimony they are labeled terrorists.

Some notable exceptions include Rosemary Sayigh who gives Palestinian women a voice in chronicling what happened in the 1948 Nakba. She argues that the absence of Palestinian voices parallels at the textual level the discounting of the indigenous Palestinian population by settler-colonists and imperialists. In the oft-cited Zionist slogan, Palestinians were non-existent on their “land without a people,” in the infamous Balfour Declaration, they become the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In presenting women’s narratives, Sayigh challenges such narrative exclusions and proposes a live portrait of the Palestinian people as important actors in the shaping of their history and identity.1
In Homeland, the Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians, Sam Bahour and his colleagues interview ordinary people who talk about major historical events they had witnessed.2 Palestinian historian Adel Manna calls for opening a new window to Palestinian social history beginning with the lives of ordinary peasants and other marginalized groups instead of simply focusing on political leaders and social elites.3
We are beginning to see the emergence of a new framework for the Palestinian narrative. Instead of the old binaries that focused on erasure versus affirmation or occupation versus resistance, we now witness a trend toward narration that takes the Palestinian individual as a point of departure. In the process, we rediscover what it is about this collectivity that binds it together.
The late Edward Said captured the need for this new focus in the following manner:
...the fate of Palestinian history has been a sad one, since not only was independence not gained, but there was little collective understanding of the importance of constructing a collective history as a part of trying to gain independence. To become a nation in the formal sense of the word, people must turn their selves into more than a collection of tribes, or political organizations of the kind that existed since 1967 which Palestinians have created and supported.4
Said then argues that the Palestinians never clearly understood the “power of a narrative history to mobilize people around a common goal.”5
How can we understand this new trend of a Palestinian-centered history? History overlaps and is intertwined with other fields of knowledge. Anthropology, law, psychology, sociology and philosophy are interwoven with history and therefore, historical research increasingly relies on a combination of these various fields. Furthermore, the renewed interest in the study of indigenous societies and cultures comes as a reaction to the homogenizing trends forwarded and perpetuated by the all-engulfing global capitalist system. These indigenous cultures were once viewed as the “other,” partly human or savage people, in the framework of settler colonialism and imperialism.
We have asked a number of Palestinian history teachers to convene in a focus group discussion on the modalities of teaching Palestinian history.6 We wanted to know how they teach Palestinian history to their students in the eleventh and twelve grades. We wanted to know how they teach the Nakba for instance. What we discovered is not reassuring: they mostly focus on major political events and rarely talk about the social and political context; they rely mostly on official and key documents. No additional materials are used to supplement the textbook. And only one out of the five teachers said that she incorporates oral history techniques in her classroom. The teachers stay focused on the textbook, feeling pressured to finish it during the academic year.
Memorizing dates and events and numbers appear to be the only fundamental skills that the teachers try to achieve. We noticed during the focus group discussion with the teachers that they teach the Nakba in a very classical and frustrating way; for them, Nakba (as with their general approach to history) is just a main event, specifically a political event that created the state of Israel and, at the same time, the Palestinian Diaspora.
The structure of the grading system, exams, activities, and the nature of these methods turn Palestinian students away from living the continuing reality of the Nakba. They are taught to see it as simply another historical event that they should memorize by recalling the numbers of refugees, and showing how different countries stand on this or that issue, whether they are with or against. Students can earn an extra mark for being able to recall these supposedly important facts. The destruction of society, the environment and human beings is totally missing from the texts of the Palestinian official education system. There is no critical thinking, no teaching how to think historically and no attempt to question established facts.
The new framework for the Palestinian narrative, live portrait, voice of the marginalized, human and social context, apparently has not yet penetrated teachers’ discourse and context. Therefore a lot of work needs to be done with the teachers at the level of both the high schools and universities by training them to become more familiar with modern methodologies in order to be able to teach Palestinian history and, at the same time, to begin the process of writing and telling their own history of Palestine, along with their students and their families.
New research methodologies which are sensitive to the needs of indigenous societies urge us to begin “centering our concerns and world views and then coming to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives and for our own purpose”7 This is more likely to help us re-orient our issues and our concerns.
Future plans should proceed in two ways: to encourage the emergence of a new and more effective framework for the Palestinian narrative. Secondly, to reinforce and circulate this trend by communicating it through teachers and students, instead of simply having it limited to English-speaking academic elites. To achieve these aspirations, we are preparing to launch a cooperative project that would include both The Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development (Ramallah) and Mada al-Carmel (Haifa), under the name “The Palestine History Project.” The project will be supervised by Professors Fouad Moughrabi and Nadim Rouhana, and will include training twenty Palestinian history teachers, ten from the West Bank and ten from among Palestinian citizens of Israel at both high school and university levels. The main goal of the project is to train these educators on the use of modern pedagogical methodologies in order to develop their abilities to teach Palestinian history, and at the same time, begin the process of writing and telling their own history of Palestine, along with their students and their families.
The project will involve the participation of Palestinian and Non-Palestinians historians in conducting the workshops for this group. So far our list includes well known historians like May Seikaly, Bishara Doumani, Adel Manaa, Issam Nassar, Salim Tamari, Ahmed Saadi, Rashid Khalidi, Mohammed Bamya, Partha Chatterjee, Homi Bahba, Frederick Hoxie, Steven Friedmann, and Patrick Wolfe, among others. These workshops will hopefully produce alternative resource materials which may even include lesson plans, translations, articles...etc which will be useful not just for the group but also for all Palestinian teachers. These materials will be placed on our website, and can be downloaded by any educator anywhere in the world. Eventually, and armed with a group of highly skilled teachers, we can conduct workshops for Palestinian teachers outside of Palestine.
One would think that now that Palestinians are producing their own history textbooks, Palestinian students will become more knowledgeable about their own history. Unfortunately, what we have discovered is that the emerging generation of Palestinian students lacks basic and fundamental knowledge of their own history. This reality begs the question: is this deliberate or is it an oversight?
After more than a century, the process of Zionist colonization has failed to erase Palestinian identity. However, the current fragmentation and dispersal of Palestinian society poses a new existential question and for us a challenge: without a renewed effort to understand our history in a critical and intelligent manner, we risk marginalization and possible disappearance as a people from the world map. The irony is that while our Zionist enemies have failed to subdue us, our own historical ignorance may end up doing their job for them.
1 Rosemary Sayigh. “Women’s Nakba Stories: Between Being and Knowing”. In: Ahamd H. Sa’adi and Laila Abu-Lughod. Nakba, Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. pp. 135 – 158. See the “Voices: Palestinian Women Narrate Displacement” archive at:
2 Staughtoun Lynd and Sam Bahour and Alice Lynd. Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians. New York: Olive Branch press, 1994
3Adel Manaa’. “From Seferberlik to the Nakba: A Personal Account of the life of Zahra al-Ja’umiyaa”. in: Jerusalem Quarterly, Vol. 30 ( Spring, 2007), pp. 59 – 76
4Edward W. Said. “Invention, Memory, and Place” in: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Winter, 2000), p. 184
5ibid, pp. 184
6 Focus Group Discussion with a number of Palestinian History Teachers, held by Malik Rimawi and Rami Salameh. Qattan Center of Educational Research and Development, Ramallah, 17 Oct 2009.
7 Linda tuhuwau smith. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London and New York: Zed Books Ltd. 1999, p. 39