The Role of Oral History in Archiving the Nakba

The Role of Oral History in Archiving the Nakba

While Palestinian identity was not created by the 1948 displacement, the event has remained an important part of Palestinian history and collective experience, marking the loss of Palestine as a physical entity and its birth as a national signifier. In a recent article, Palestinian historian Elias Sanbar writes: “The contemporary history of Palestinians turns on a key date: 1948. That year, a country and its people disappeared from both maps and dictionaries.”1 Sanbar goes on to foreground the importance of cataloguing these disappearances as a means of creating a cultural and historical inventory of relation to pre-1948 Palestine.

Since many refugees from the generation of 1948 were illiterate few memoirs or journals exist and oral transmission has been the primary means by which this cultural heritage has been preserved.

 However, in spite of the calls by Sanbar and others to “counter population statistics with human voices” and reconstruct the local life-worlds lost in the wake of the 1948 expulsion, this crucial period of Palestinian history is rarely explored from the perspective of those who lived through it.2 Although the experiences of the principal victims of this war - the peasants, camp refugees, poorer city dwellers, Bedouin tribes, and so on – have been represented in poetry and literature, they have gone largely unrecorded in the field of Palestinian history, with a few notable exceptions.3

 In light of the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict, Palestinian historiography has found itself closely aligned with the goals of statehood and national struggle, and the need to refute the Zionist version of the 1948 “war.” Revolving around a set of reified symbols that seek to re-inscribe 1948 as a constituting factor of refugee identity, historiography has been ordered and reordered to fit the needs of national self-determination. The authenticity and legitimacy enacted, and often controlled, by this increasingly institutionalized understanding of 1948 history clearly comes at a cost.

This selective reading of the past, which those of us working in the field may be unintentionally co-constructing through our research, can be alienating and distorting, and often leaves many crucial areas of research unexplored. Searching for certain kinds of national truths, can effect the structural forgetting of others: in this context, the diversity of historical experience is sometimes elided in favor of codified nationalist narrative.4 Why, for instance, did residents from certain villages, like Majd al-Krum, decided to flee, while others (in many cases, relatives from the same family) stayed? Why have the massacres in Aylout and Al-Bassa gone unrecorded in Palestinian historiography, while much has been written about the massacres in Deir Yassin and Lydda? Why did treaties brokered between local Jewish settlements and Palestinian mayors prior to the expulsion fail? What factors determined where refugees fled in 1948? Given the volumes that have been written about this period of history, the list of unanswered questions seems unsettlingly long.

 While “lived histories,” in the form of oral histories and testimonies, could provide the necessary experiential data to respond to some of these queries, they are often dismissed as subjective, or viewed as a potential threat to the coherence of nationalist history. The persistent bias in favor of “objective” archival evidence is undergirded by the assumption that scholarly authority – as defined by a Western historical tradition – is grounded in textual references rather than the spoken word. In recent revisionist Palestinian histories and Israeli critiques of Zionist historiography, archival documents from the pre-mandate period, military records and memoirs of key political figures, are normatively privileged over the experiences of ordinary civilians,5 and in both cases, oral histories are strategically excluded on the grounds that they are likely to be inaccurate.6 What this discourse of historical “objectivity” fails to acknowledge is that history itself is a strategically deployed narrative that is made up, in Jean-François Lyotard’s evocative phrase, of “clouds of stories.”7

 A growing interest in oral histories of al-Nakba by researchers, institutions representing refugee interests and international activist networks, and an awareness of the need to record these eyewitness accounts of these events before it is too late, must be understood as centrally connected to politics and timing. During the last decade the battle over the interpretation of 1948 has intensified between scholars and activists calling for further investigation into the human tragedy of 1948 from a more ethical perspective and traditional Zionist scholars who continue to view the events of 1948 in terms of realpolitik.8

The collapse of the Oslo peace process, the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, continued Israeli expansion in the West Bank and recent peace initiatives that do not recognize any comprehensive right of return have all raised the historical stakes, and the perceived importance of associating the Palestinian narrative with the question of responsibility for the expulsions of 1948. This renewed interest in oral testimony – at the very moment when “Palestine” as a historical signifier at times appears in danger of losing its signified – thus appears to be both retroactive and prospective in that it looks back to the catastrophe of 1948, and forward to the possibility of further erasure.9

In approaching oral testimony as a way of acknowledging a violent past, calling for redress, or preventing suffering in the future, we need to be attentive to the ways in which a politically expedient re-framing of the past might also conceal important distinctions. For instance, the assumption that refugees from different generations, with vastly different experiences continue to identify with Palestine in much the same way as their parents or grandparents, may speak more to our sympathies as scholars and activists in solidarity with Palestinian nationalist aims and the rights of refugees, than to empirical reality.

 Since 2002, I have been working on an archival project to record testimonies on film with first generation refugees in camps around Lebanon about life in their communities prior to 1948, and their experiences of the expulsion. The Nakba archive, co-directed by myself and Mahmoud Zeidan, has been conducted in all twelve refugee camps in Lebanon, as well as with unregistered refugees in “gatherings,” and consists of approximately 500 filmed recordings with refugees from over 132 villages.10

The selective ways in which 1948 was remembered and forgotten in the course of our interviews brought into focus the residual experiences of several generations of refugees silenced or left unassimilated by this nationalist history. The gravitational pull that a nationalist meta-narrative exerts on personal memory became clearer, as individual stories fell into and out of discursive alignment with national goals, shedding light on the contingent conditions and processes of historical production within the Palestinian community in Lebanon. As the oral historian Alessandro Portelli has argued, the specific utility of oral histories “lies not so much in their ability to preserve the past, as in the very changes wrought by memory. These changes reveal the narrators’ efforts to make sense of the past and to give a form to their lives…”11

 In the course of conversations with elders and their families, pre-1948 Palestine or the events of the expulsion often emerged as anecdotal reminiscence rather than as a coherent historical narrative. On one occasion it was the aroma of za`tar that sparked a series of interconnected memories, taking Umm Salih first to Jish and the memory of picking za`tar in the mountains with her grandmother, before turning to a recent visit with her sister in `Ayn Hilwa camp where she had seen families pounding their own za`tar. This unsystematic weaving of events and places suggests a refusal to suture partial memories into an interpretive schema. The value of this fractured reminiscence may lie in its ability to enact a doubling of witness, transmitting not only historical details but also the shattering effects that this history has had on the lives of those who have lived it.12

In the case of a family that I knew in Shatila, the grandfather would recreate memory maps of his village of Sufsaf, noting the placement of the wells, mosques, school and homes of principal families. These narrative and performative strategies, in which history appears more an active process for constructing meaning than a passive depository of facts, clearly record another history; they inscribe the means by which individual biography becomes social text, and public past.

 This has been in several ways a unique moment for such a study of the creation and transmission of Palestinian histories in exile. As the living ranks of the 1948 generation continue to thin, the cultural value placed on their narratives by communities within the Palestinian diaspora continues to rise. The sense of urgency is in fact twofold. I have indicated that these histories should be considered not static but protean, continually redefined as they are through cultural practice in the present. In light of this, what is so striking about the Palestinians in Lebanon is the sense of the escalating demands upon the past of an increasingly urgent present. A codified, traumatic history is being ceaselessly re-filtered through the radically unstable lens of the current situation; in other words, the context of narration giving meaning to these histories includes the need not only to make sense of and transmit a traumatic past, but also the attempt to take hold of and give shape to an imminently uncertain present and future.


Diana K. Allan is the Co-director of The Nakba Archive and the director of Lens on Lebanon, a grassroots media collective funded by the Soros Foundation which is documenting the long-term effects of the 2006 conflict with Israel. She is the producer of the documentaries Chatila, Beirut (2002) and is currently working on a book project, Photo48, while completing a doctorate in anthropology and film at Harvard University. Her publications include “Mythologizing al-Nakba: Narratives, Collective Identity and Cultural Practice among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon” Oral History 33(1) (Spring 2005:47-56), “Photo48: Looking at Palestine” Bidoun, September 2005 and “The Politics of Witness,” in Lila Abu Lughod and Ahmad Sa’di (ed.) Faultlines of Memory.

 Duplicate sets of the Nakba Archive (a collection of 1100 DVDs with accompanying database) and “The Nakba Archive Documentary” are now available for purchase. All proceeds go to the costs of continuing the work of the archive in Syria. See: and For further information please contact Diana: [email protected].


1. Elias Sanbar, ‘Out of Place, Out of Time,’ Mediterranean Historical Review, vol 16, 2001, pp 87-94.

2. Rosemary Sayigh, “The History of the Palestinian Oral history: Individual vitality and Institutional Paralysis,” in Al-Jana, 2002, p4.

3. Prominent scholars who have shaped the field of oral history in Palestine studies are Rosemary Sayigh, Randa Farah, Saleh Abdel Jawad, Sonia el-Nimr, Sharif Kanaana, Adel Yahya, Mai Seikaly and Salim Tamari.

4. For instance, Ted Swedenburg, in his study of pre-1948 peasant resistance movements, observes how nationalist history has tended to gloss over class and regional divisions within the peasant population by vesting agency initially with the educated elite (effendi), and subsequently the nationalist leadership of the PLO. See Ted Swedenburg, ‘Popular Memory and the Palestinian National Past’, in Golden Ages, Dark Ages, eds. Jay O’Brien and William Roseberry, University of California Press: 1991, p167.

5. It is telling that even in the work of revisionist historians that seek to question established readings of Palestinian history and identity, such as Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity (1997) or more recently, Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim’s edited volume, The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, no oral histories are cited.

6. Benny Morris in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1997)

7. Jean-François Lyotard, Instructions païennes, Paris, 1977, p39.

8. The intensification of debate over 1948 and the explicit linking of history to current political events was well illustrated in the conflicts sparked by Teddy Katz’s thesis on the massacre at Tantura, and the disciplinary action taken against his advisor, Ilan Pappe, at the University of Haifa between December 2000 –November 2001; and also by Benny Morris’ (2002) recantation of his former position regarding the war of 1948 in “ A Change of Heart” published in The Guardian, February 21, 2002, and Shlaim’s response published in the same paper the following day.

9. In a recent workshop led by Karma Nabulsi on the importance of oral history in the Palestinian context, she explicitly links these two concerns, suggesting that oral history could provide the basis for “restitution demands for the victims of the post-Nakbah ethnic cleansing and campaigning against the danger of another.” Karma Nabulsi, “Draft Summary of Workshop on Oral History, Nuffield, September 15/16th, 2002.”

10. The Nakba Archive has been funded by the Welfare Foundation, the Ford Foundation and through private donations. For more information about this project, please visit our website:

11. Alessandro Portelli, op.cit, p52.

12. For more on this notion of doubling of witness see Samera Esmeir’s article “!948: Law, History, Memory,” in Social Text 21.2 (2003).