Linda Dittmar, an Israeli-American native of Caesarea,1 describes a 2007 visit to her home town in northwest Israel, with her friend Deborah Bright, “an American photographer, whose previous work included a large-format series of battlefield panoramas, [and who] was in Israel to search out and record what little remains of depopulated Palestinian villages demolished during the war of 1948.”
An estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and somewhere between 400 and 450 villages were demolished…. Caesarea was among them. For us Israelis, it’s the “War of Independence”; for the Palestinians it’s the “Nakba,”2 the catastrophe that saw the birth of the Palestinian refugee disaster. (34)
Although Caesarea is very much a modern Israeli tourist site,
We immediately discovered that there was no historic or emotional distance for us…as we came across the leavings of deliberate destruction: the remnant of a wall disintegrating among a jumble of untended prickly pears, an abandoned well half-blocked with rocks, or desiccated fruit trees barely clinging to the crumbling remains of what used to be some farmer’s hillside terrace…..
They testify to a life lived here within memory, people I may have seen as a child growing up in Israel, people whose descendants may still be living in a refugee camp—second, third, and even fourth generations may still be there…. (34)
While wandering among the gift shops and galleries, Dittmar is startled by the sight of an abandoned minaret she remembers climbing as a child in the early 1950s. Her retelling of this childhood experience is visceral in its re-imagining of her sensations in climbing the tower, and it should be read in its entirety.
I wonder whether this sweeping, bird’s-eye view might not also include, hidden in its folds, a sense of dominion—the raw power bestowed by heights—practiced in a child’s game of “King of the Mountain.”
What is there, in those vistas that spread below us, beyond beauty, awe, and geographic knowledge?
Doesn’t their allure lie, at least in part, in a sense of possession similar to the way S. Yizhar’s Israeli soldiers survey the Arab village they are about to capture in his extraordinary novella, Khirbet Khizeh? Yizhar’s village, surveyed by these young men from above, seems miniscule, its people doll-like, its fields a distant patchwork carpet.
In the gaze of the soldiers as they survey the village resting on the still-populated Palestinian village of 1948, there is admiration for the cultivated valley and its fertile availability. But there is also, in this gaze from above, a coveting, a drive to possess, and also, already, an inkling of incipient ownership. The land that stretches before us is available to be known, husbanded, and mastered. (36-37)
Dittmar is troubled by “the indifference of passers-by to this relic of a disastrous past—a past that is unseen even when it is in full view.” She writes that neither she nor her family in 1950s Caesarea
can claim that we never noticed the minaret or the derelict buildings nearby. But what did such noticing mean? For us, like many other Israeli Jews, it was a willed blindness, a blurry image faintly outlined at the edge of our retina.
The word “Nakba” has only come into Hebrew use lately, and still barely. The “Nakba Law” equates its public mourning with a rejection of Israel’s very existence and proscribes the observation of “Nakba Day.”3 Passers-by barely register the minarets that still stand in Israel in full view. (38)
At a 1971 concert in Caesarea’s Roman amphitheater, exiled Greek composer and activist Mikis Theodorakis sang songs rejecting tyranny that roused the audience of native-born sabra Israelis, mostly of European descent and middle class.
Many of us grew up on songs of freedom and justice—Soviet, Yiddish, American, Spanish, and more. We admired the American civil rights movement and knew that Theodorakis, a former communist and heir to the anti-fascist partisan spirit of World War II, had been a political prisoner….
And yet, for me at least, something changed. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point my memory of the inspiration that suffused those evenings gave way to another realization: beneath our shared elation at ideals of freedom and justice lurked the absence of the Palestinians to whose situation, by 1971, when I sat in that amphitheater, that music spoke most urgently.
The Nakba was within living memory at the time; Bosnian Qaysaria’s recent ruins were still in plain view, barely reclaimed for tourism. In 1982, I learned later, Theodorakis, who had previously composed the acclaimed “Ballad of Mauthausen” in response to the Holocaust, had responded to Yasser Arafat’s invitation and composed the PLO hymn. (40)
The last paragraph of Dittmar’s essay holds this chilling observation from her 2007 return to Caesarea:
“Something else struck me as I looked at the tourists streaming by the old village mosque: how comfortable we are with oblivion.” (40)
Notes & Image Sources
1 Caesarea was founded in 30 BCE as a Herodian city. In 1101 it became a Crusader castle; in 1884, a Bosniak Ottoman village; and in 1952, an Israeli town.
2 Palestinians refer to it as “Al Nakba”, which literally translates as “The Catastrophe.” It refers to the mass exodus of at least 750,000 Arabs from Palestine. Though most believe this event began in 1948, in fact, Al Nakba began decades earlier.
See Al Nakba: the history of Palestine since 1799 – Palestine Remix from the website PALESTINE REMIX, sponsored by Al Jazeera.
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Explore the modern history of Palestine in an easy-to-use format. Click on any year in our timeline to discover the story’s milestones and major players. Watch amazing drone footage high above historic Palestinian towns. Explore a data visualization that highlights how and when hundreds of villages were destroyed, turning hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugees overnight. Vanishing Palestine is an interactive map that summarizes in one minute how Palestine was colonized – and what the land looks like today.
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