Unit 9: The Land of Sad Oranges.
A story of Palestinian refugees
Ibrahim Abu-Sneineh in the ruins of Ijlil village (2004). From the Zochrot archives

In this Unit we’ll read a short story that will introduce us to the Palestinian refugee experience. We’ll use the story to consider the topic of collective memory, and work through our responses to the story.

1. Read and understand the short story, “The Land of Sad Oranges”, by Ghassan Kanafani.
2. Examine the Palestinians’ view of the refugee experience, as expressed in the story.
3. Understand what the students think, and how they feel, after reading the story.

Keywords: Art, Collective, Memory

1.  Introduction: 
Briefly introduce the author, Ghassan Kanafani (cf. Supplementary Material 1)

To the teacher:  We recommend that you include information about Palestinian refugees as part of the introduction.  Material can be found in the Theoretical Background section of this Unit, and in the additional readings.

2.  Reading the story:
Read “In the Land of Sad Oranges” in class aloud to the students (cf. Supplementary Material 2). Take your time in pointing out to the students the various sections of the story (the opening, the development of the story, the conclusion), and also in explaining words that might be found difficult, as well as those that are important to the story (such as “oranges,” “weapon,” etc.).

3.  Understanding the story:
a. Before beginning to read the story aloud, put the following chart on the board and the fill it in together with the students, either as you read, or when you have finished:


The opening




Real:  juicy, alive, healthy, good

Annoying, appearing only once

Returning only at the end of the story: as “the land of oranges” = homeland, distant, wilting. Like a dried-up orange, withered

The father

Powerful, decisive, saves another family’s son, talks to the farmer, takes an orange as reminder

Confused, restless, nervous, depending on others (Arab soldiers), irrational, depending on the uncle’s support and help

Ill, weak, exhausted, old, suicidal, doesn’t use a weapon (doesn’t fight), despairing

Geographic locations

From Jaffa to Acre – not a tragedy

From Acre to Sidon – tragedy

A village near Sidon - despair


Armed, willingly handing over their weapons

Arousing enthusiasm, but “frozen and mute” – appearing defeated

Implicitly understood – the Arab army has been defeated

Plotting the story graphically

In Acre:  a horizontal, or ascending line (nothing unusual); arriving at the border: descending

As refugees in Sidon, meeting relatives: descending; 15 May: descending

Impossible to return: descending or immobilized

b. Questions – after reading the opening (the first four paragraphs)
Who is the narrating “I”? The narrator is a pupil in school, young (you can see this in the text when he differentiates himself from the men and the women, and when he says, “we were young”), Palestinian.

What do we know about the event he’s describing? How does the narrator feel about it?  The child-narrator experienced the event as an incomprehensible catastrophe (you can see this in the story’s first line: “When we left Java to Akka, I felt no agony.”   That is, something occurred later that was a tragedy.)

c. Questions to ask after having finished reading the story:
What do we know about the family in the story? Cite relevant lines from the story to answer the question. The family was wealthy; it owned homes and orchards. Lines that could be cited as evidence: “Your father’s eyes sparkled with the splendor of all the orange trees he left behind for the Jews, all those good, healthy trees that he had purchased one by one.” (Paragraph 4); “Again he was speechless, and your father no longer had the heart to talk of Palestine and his blissful past in his groves and in his homes” (Paragraph 14).

What is the family going through? Cite relevant lines from the story to answer the question. The family is falling apart. For example:  “No one spoke, staring at the black road and awaiting the fate that will suddenly appear out of nowhere to solve our problems, put a roof over our heads.” (Paragraph 7); “When we awoke in the morning we discovered that the men had sat mourning all night long. The tragedy began stumbling into our souls.” (Paragraph 5).  “Your mother pleaded with your father to look for a job, or for us to return to the oranges, but my brother called out to her, “Mother, please,” and she was silent. The family’s worries began to concern us. The happy, united family we had left behind on the lands and the homes and the empty spaces.” (Paragraph 10). 

d.  Understanding the story - summary
We learn from the story that the Nakba is more than a disaster for families and for individuals: it is the dissolution of the family unit, and of the nation.

6.  Working through:
a.  Fill in the chart together with the students.
b.  Class discussion:  Read the testimony (Supplementary Material 3) aloud to the students, and have them discuss it: 
-  What’s the difference between the two descriptions of the oranges, in the story and in the historical testimony?
-  The story repeats the oranges motif. They are a symbol for the Palestinian people.  What do the oranges symbolize for them?
-  What do oranges symbolize for us, and for Israeli culture in general?
-  What does it mean to remember a living thing (as opposed, for example, to remember land, a place)? What does it mean to grasp the oranges?
-  What does it mean to use oranges to symbolize Palestinian memories of the country?
c.  On the empathy the story arouses:
-  Writing assignment:  Write a letter as if you were the child who had narrated the story and it was sixty years later. The letter is to your brother, who had remained in what is today Israel. Tell him what happened to you – in particular, about the effect the period described in the story had on your life afterwards.

-  Class discussion: Literature allows us to empathize with another person. How does literature encourage us to empathize with someone whom we ordinarily view as an enemy? [“Empathy” refers to the ability to recognize how the other is feeling, and to identify with her/him. In doing so, one develops sensitivity, solicitude, and concern for the other.]

7.  Conclusion
“The Land of Sad Oranges” can be read as a personal, family story, and as a national Palestinian tale. The two are intertwined, describing an experience of loss and dissolution during the course of which longings for the irrecoverable homeland weaken and consume the Palestinian refugees.

Supplementary Materials Index

Supplementary Material 1:  Background
About Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972)

Supplementary Material 2:  A story


Translated (to Hebrew) by Shimon Balas

Theoretical background

The Palestinian refugee issue is central to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and extremely sensitive for both sides. The issue has remained unresolved since 1948, and is an inseparable part of most Palestinians’ daily life. During the Nakba, Palestinian society as it had existed prior to 1948 was destroyed: 800,000 refugees were expelled, and some 530 villages were demolished by Israel. The experience of being uprooted and of living as a refugee in exile continues today to shape Palestinian existence, identity, and nationhood.

According to the UN definition, a refugee is anyone who, as a result of violence, is forced to leave his country, is left unprotected by his country, and is unable, or afraid, to return home. The Palestinian refugee population is the oldest of the refugee populations recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and it's also the largest. As of 2005, it numbered 6.3 million persons (one-third of the world’s refugees) throughout the world – most of them living in Jordan, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.  After 1948, some 30,000 refugees remained within the borders of Israel – “internal refugees.” They became Israeli citizens, but the state expropriated their property and did not permit them to return to their homes.  Today, they number about 250,000 persons (for more information and data, see the suggestions for additional readings). In this Unit, we view the Palestinian refugee issue through art. Many Palestinian works of art address the refugee condition, which has become a central component of Palestinian identity and culture. This approach will deepen our understanding of Palestinian lives, of their uprooting, of the reality that makes it impossible for them to return home. Exposure to Palestinian works addressing the refugee condition will connect Israeli students more closely with the Palestinian refugee experience, some aspects of which they’ll be able to identify with, while others will be more difficult for them.

Pedagogical rationale
The Unit’s activity will focus on the story, “In the Land of Sad Oranges”, by Ghassan Kanafani.  Kanafani was a Palestinian writer, journalist, poet, and political activist. He was born in Acre in 1936 and was expelled to Lebanon in 1948 when he was 12 years old. He was a central figure in Palestinian cultural life and in the Palestinian struggle. In 1972 he was murdered by a bomb apparently planted in his car by the Israeli Mossad. As many of Kanafani’s works, “In the Land of Sad Oranges” focuses on the expulsion of Palestinians and on the refugee experience. 

The activity is divided into two main parts:
1.  Understanding the story, both its content and the author’s technique.
2.  Class discussion, at the end of which the students will elaborate on what they learned about the experience of Palestinian refugees, both emotionally and in moral terms.  

The goal of the first part of the activity is to help students understand the story. In general, the story describes the abrupt transition from having a high socio-economic status to being a refugee. The plot development begins with the move from Jaffa to Acre, a move described as being almost routine. The second move, from Acre to Sidon, is the tragic relocation, as a result of which the family members become refugees in Lebanon. The exposition (up to Paragraph 5) ends when they become refugees.  The second part of the story takes place in the days prior to 15 May 1948, as the family waits for the Arab armies to invade Palestine, an invasion on which all their hopes of returning to their homes and their lands depends. But their encounter that day with Arab soldiers is not encouraging. The third part of the story – its conclusion – opens with the father’s psychological and physical deterioration (beginning in Paragraph 15), when he realizes that he’s lost everything – his position, his property, and his identity. Concurrently, the young narrator loses faith in the values on which he was raised. During the class activity, the students will come to understand the story by tracing its central motifs:  oranges, the father, geographical locations, soldiers. Students could also illustrate the plot development graphically.

The oranges are the story’s central motif, and the second part of the activity will focus on analyzing it. The oranges change their character in the course of the story:  when it opens they’re real, living oranges, part of the family’s groves. As the story develops, the actual oranges almost disappear, and the oranges in the story become an exasperating symbol of the refugee condition and of the distance from home. Towards the end of the story, the oranges symbolize the land: they’re wilting and dying. Only one actual orange is left, dry and withered. The orange becomes something abstract, a distant memory rather than a representative of the good life the family led before its members became refugees. In the story, the orange symbolizes a personal, family and national crisis. It symbolizes the refugee condition, hopelessness and recognition of the actuality of loss. In examining how the orange serves as a symbol of memory, the class can be asked what it means to choose a living thing to symbolize the act of remembering, and discuss what that teaches us about the Palestinians and the ways they preserve their memories. 

This discussion leads into the final part of the Unit in which we’ll examine how the story leads us to feel empathy, by writing a letter in the voice of the youthful Palestinian narrator. Because Palestinians are viewed as the enemy, many Israelis have difficulty empathizing with them. That is why we believed it necessary to uncover the feelings of empathy that the story is likely to arouse and to work through them together in class.  Working through the feelings of empathy will encourage the students to expose their feelings, to describe and accept them. Expressing empathy after reading a literary text, via the letter-writing exercise following the class discussion, lays the groundwork for similar feelings to arise when confronting other kinds of texts, such as historical testimonies.

Additional readings
-  BADIL, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refuge: www.badil.org  (BADIL also publishes material in Hebrew that can be obtained from that organization or from Zochrot)

-  UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East:  http://www.unrwa.org/hebrew.php

- Refugee Studies Center – issue 26, August 2006: "Palestinian displacement: a case apart?": http://www.fmreview.org/palestine.htm


1 Note to the English reader: this English translation is from a text found online. It wasn't checked if the translation is accurate. http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/sad_orange.pdf

2 The quotes, including the references to the paragraphs, are translations from Hebrew.

3 Data from Abu-Sitta, S. (2007).  The Return Journey, London: Palestine Land Society

Zochrot online