Once Upon a Land: A Guidebook.Authors and editors: Tomer Gardi, Noga Kadman, Umar al-Ghubari. Published by Pardess and Zochrot, 509 pp., NIS 80.
If there was ever a book you couldn’t be neutral about – here it is. It has, at first glance, no literary interest. Even assigning it to the genre of “guidebooks” or “travelogues” would be a political rather than a literary act, as will be clear in what follows. And still, the book embodies the greatest drama of all: Whose land is this, really? Is there only a single truth? Where do you begin to write history in a country where the two antagonists each claim “it’s all mine,” refuse to share? And how can a historical injustice be rectified, if such a thing is at all possible, without creating new injustices that may be irreparable?
This book is, above all, an invitation to talk about the essence of history: human history, whose principal component is war and its consequences – the endless dynamic of defining sovereignties and altering geographic, ethnic and political boundaries. The facts aren’t the only principal players in the drama known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; there’s also the narrative and the language. Is it really possible to resolve two such different perspectives? “Once Upon a Land” is based on people’s recollections, a monk’s diary, booklets published by “Zochrot,” “Filastin” – the local paper, the biblical scholar Edward Robinson and others. Let’s begin with the basics – at least, what appear to be the basics: “Once Upon a Land” is a bilingual guidebook, Hebrew-Arabic, an invitation to 18 tour routes in the country, in towns and their outskirts. But someone who picks up the book and begins following its instructions will quickly discover that its seemingly innocent elements – its title, language, genre – are well-planned honey traps. The title of the books is borrowed, of course, from Shaul Tchernichovsky’s familiar poem. That may be the reason why the editors – Tomer Gardi, Noga Kadman, Umar al-Ghubari – chose the title. They may have wanted it to arouse recollections shrouded in nostalgia. But only for a moment – because then something “interferes.” The readers discoversthey’re about to become acquainted with a land that’s different from the one in the poem.
Something similar “interferes” regarding the “guidebook” genre. Getting to know the country – geographically, historically, emotionally – by walking through its landscapes is rooted in the Zionist ethos. The editors want to upend our understanding of that genre. They use it to decolonialize our understanding of the essence of tours through abandoned and destroyed Palestinian neighborhoods and villages. The essence of those tours can be summed up in a word, “nakba” (catastrophe, great disaster), its past significance and its implications for the present and future.
The book’s authors and editors recognize the power of words and carefully choose the terms they use, aware of the significance of their nuances, their particularly subversive nature, their educational value (for re-education). And for good reason. Whatever makes you “shudder,” “uncomfortable,” is valuable, because the form in which the material is presented to readers is an ironic paraphrase of the innocent hike. But the layer below is explosive: the routes won’t return hikers to places they knew as children or to the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael they remember nostalgically, they won’t walk in the footsteps of the Maccabees or follow the route of the Lamed-Heh. This book invites you to discover what lies beneath the Israeli localities established after 1948, or in the ruins nearby.
The 18 tour routes, prepared and photographed by Israeli Jews (except for one), volunteers, seek to fracture what we think we know about familiar sites in the center of the country such as Ramat Aviv, Jaffa, Ein Hod, Achziv, Beit Dagan, etc. They heighten our awareness of the facts about the past of locations such as Shaykh Muwaniss, Ayn Hawd, Jammasin, Sumayl, Manshiyya, Salameh and others.
Since the change which the book seeks to bring about is, first and foremost, a change in consciousness, it consciously engages in linguistic manipulations, including the terms used by published Zionist historiography to describe injustices committed against Jews, primarily during the Holocaust. In the extensive chapter about Beersheba, for example, Noga Kadman writes that after the town was captured in 1948, “the IDF left about 100 healthy men in town as forced laborers to remove garbage.” The book describes Palestinians as “Nakba survivors,” their places of refuge are their “diaspora” and the war of independence becomes “the Israeli conquest.” This manipulation is more emotional than linguistic, of course: expropriation of this terminology to describe as victims those whom Israelis are used to viewing as aggressors or as enemies is intentionally disruptive; it permits “cleansing” the words and phrases so they no longer echo the familiar, habitual meanings which are considered self-evident. The book’s rhetoric seeks, therefore, to open a channel to a different heritage as a means of political and civil recognition of the Palestinian Nakba.
And that’s why the organization that published the guidebook is called “Zochrot” [the feminine form of “remembering”] rather than “Zochrim” [the masculine form, which would be standard in Hebrew], even though both men and women work there. While “Zochrim” may sound natural, “Zochrot” disrupts language, creates a fissure that allows access to the Nakba’s significance. “Once Upon a Land” assigns such an exaggerated importance to language that in its afterword, “Not the last word,” Amal Aqiak complains that the tour routes were written in Hebrew and translated into Arabic, in itself an act of estrangement.
“A position,” Tomer Gardi writes in the book, “is somewhere you dig in so you can stand, shoot and then duck down again. Those who wrote this book had no position; they didn’t write and photograph from the trenches.” That’s somewhat disingenuous, of course. Not having a position definitely involves taking a position, and it’s obvious that the entire book expresses a clear position, one that treats both sides equally: injustice (the Holocaust or the expulsion of Jews from the countries in which they lived) can’t be rectified by another injustice (the nakba and the expulsion of Palestinians from their villages). That position has a political bottom line whose essence is the creation of a state of “returning refugees,” Jews and Arabs, instead of the Israeli nation state.
“The Sand Dunes of Paris,” Edna Shemesh’s new book, will be published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad.
This article was published first at Haaretz in Hebrew.
Translation to English: Charles Kamen