Vulnerable Domestic Spaces of Lifta
By: Yulia Gilichinskaya
2017
Photo of Lifta by Yulia Gilichinskaya

Less than a mile away from the Jerusalem Central Bus station lies the destroyed Palestinian village of Lifta. If you enter Jerusalem by bus, you can see a few of its decaying limestone buildings, though the rest of the village is hidden from sight in a massive valley. Unlike many other destroyed Palestinian villages scattered across Israel that have been renamed, flattened out, or repopulated by Jewish Israelis, Lifta is still sitting there, wrecked and abandoned.

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Before the war (called in Hebrew The War of Independence and referred to by the Palestinians as the Nakba meaning in Arabic “the catastrophe”) the Palestinian population of Lifta was almost 3000 people however by February 1948 the village had been completely depopulated. Today most buildings on the site are abandoned and partially destroyed, however one can still see that the village was once inhabited.

Many Palestinian families who were driven away from their homes in the course of the Nakba kept their keys hoping to promptly return. Now, almost 70 years later, the keys have been passed from generation to generation and carefully kept (usually by women) as a symbol of the Nakba and of hope for an imminent return to the lost home and homeland. However, houses in Lifta have no doors as if to signal that the memory of the Nakba and the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees have been curtailed in the Israeli dominant discourse.

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Now Lifta is a nature reserve recognised by the Israeli travel guides which offer it as a location for tourists and locals to hike, explore, and bathe in a natural spring. One online travel guide insists that Lifta is an “abandoned Arab village that was abandoned with the establishment of Israel in 1948.”  The tautology of “abandonment” is intentional as it reifies the dominant Israeli narrative that absolves Israel from responsibility for the Nakba. Now, with the plans of developing the site and building luxury villas in place of the old destroyed houses, the history and memory of violence perpetrated in Lifta might be obscured even more.

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In its present state, the ghostly presence of destroyed buildings in Lifta evokes the ghostly presence of people who occupied this space before the war. With doors being absent, the division between private and public (indoors and outdoors/internal and external) is being collapsed. While exploring the site, one can enter nearly every remaining building, observe its layout, and in some cases even witness some of the design elements, ornaments, and wall paintings. To enter someone’s home, now abandoned, feels like a violation which is especially true in case of Palestinian homes since in the Arab culture home is considered sacred and strangers are supposed to notify the host before entering to allow women enough time to cover. The domestic space turned into a spectacle becomes vulnerable with no one there to protect it.

Homes in Lifta are concurrently a place of remembrance as well as a battleground. Humphries and Khalili write that in Palestinian nationalist discourse the nation is imagined as a female body. This image is so strongly inscribed in the nation’s psyche that “colonial domination and usurpation of territory is often seen as a rape perpetrated upon female body.”  In this framework any further development of Lifta can be seen as an attempt to inflict more pain and suffering on the actual survivors of the Nakba and as well as on the metaphorical body of the Palestinian nation.

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For Raida Adon, a Palestinian artist, empty houses in Lifta are synonymous to empty dresses. She illuminates the connection between the lost homespace and the lost homeland that is prominent in the Palestinian national narrative. The absence of bodies, women’s bodies specifically, that are being recalled by the readily accessible domestic space is exactly what is so striking about Lifta. Adon speculates about what happened to women after they had been driven away from the village in the course of the Nakba and their subsequent inability to feel their bodies away from their home. 

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Copyright Raida Adon

Women’s history of the Nakba violence is the least researched, theorized, and acknowledged because Palestinian women suffer from multiple forms of marginalization and exclusion by both Zionist settler-colonial occupation and patriarchal social context of Palestinian society. Fatma Kassem in Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory notes that Palestinian women’s voices about the Nakba “by and large… are silent in the public domain.” 

However, Kassem recognizes that “women are active agents in the production and presentation of knowledge and history”  and she interviews women who are Nakba-survivors to establish what “home” means to them. Kassem writes that “‘home’ is an especially complex construct.

Laden with contradictions and heavy with symbolism, this is an idea of the home that is at once lost and sometimes regained, but always a place of commemoration; a site of birth and death, a place of fear and lack of safety, as well as security, warmth and a sense of belonging; private and collective. Beyond these multiple meanings, these women also highlight the importance of home as a site of resistance to the Israeli occupation, thus expanding the range of possible meanings that define the term ‘home.’” 

Lifta with its bare and resilient houses clearly constitutes a site of commemoration as well as resistance which can be further obliterated if the site is to be developed as planned. In Lifta Palestinian women unable to return to their homes destroyed and taken away from them during the Nakba, still have a space that serves as a container for their memories, represents the disrupted course of their life before the Nakba, and can recall what home once was. Houses in Lifta silently testify to that. With its vulnerable domestic spaces Lifta stands in opposition to the founding logic of the Zionist movement best represented in a quote attributed to Golda Meir who called historic Palestine “a land without people.” 

References:

  • Humphries, Isabelle, and Laleh Khalili. “Gender of Nakba Memory.” In Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, 207–28. Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Kassem, Fatma. Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory. London ; New York: Zed Books, 2011.
  • Muir, Diana. “A Land without a People for a People without a Land.” Middle East Quarterly, March 1, 2008. click here
  • “The fountain of Lifta in Jerusalem.” Sabresim, January 27, 2014. click here
  • Zochrot. “Raida Adon, Artist.” Accessed November 14, 2017. click here

Zochrot online