Brekhna Aftab: On January 22nd, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a story on the Tantoura massacre, which included testimonies from veterans admitting to it―but we know, of course, that Palestinians remember and have spoken about this massacre since 1948, as they remember and speak about the Nakba more widely. You mention the Tantoura massacre in your new book, The Stone House, which is based on your family’s history, their displacement, relating this to the collective experience of Palestinian dispossession since ’48.
I want to begin this interview by asking what we learn from this Haaretz piece, not in the sense of what we learn about the massacre, because, of course, we know that it happened, but in terms of what we learn about the gaps and silences in colonial archives and who holds authority to narrate history.
Yara Hawari: Thank you for starting with this question, because I think it sets the context in which I wrote this novella. Tantoura, what’s written about it, including this latest piece by Haaretz, is a perfect case study of the dismissal of Palestinian oral history over decades―the norm is to consider this oral history less legitimate and at times totally unreliable, so that Israeli historians and Israeli veterans must admit to this massacre for it to finally receive international attention and mainstream acknowledgement.
Palestinians have known for a long time what happened in Tantoura, just as we know what happened in many other regions of Palestine that suffered similar fates of massacre and ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, this Haaretz article was celebrated in many liberal circles; it was seen as a positive thing that Israelis are coming to terms with the violent foundation of their state.
But in fact, what this all reinforces is the knowledge production hegemony that Israelis still have. When liberal Israelis and liberal Zionists talk about these things, they’re given far more airtime and credibility, whereas Palestinians have to sit back and say, “We’ve been talking about this for decades, and telling you for decades that this happened.”
It’s not just Tantoura, of course—this is the case with the Nakba in general. Palestinians spoke about the Nakba for decades, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Israeli New Historians, who had access to the Israeli archives, came along and said, “Actually, yes. We did a big whoopsy. We ethnically cleansed Palestine some decades back,” that people started to listen.
Yet we have been recording this history as Palestinians for a long time. This also points to the importance of oral history for Palestinians. When there’s so much material destruction on the ground, oral history becomes ever more important. We’ve had our archives looted, we’ve had our cultural centers destroyed. And so oral history for us is very much, as Nur Masalha says, an “emergency science” more than anything.
Farhaana Arefin: Taking up your point on the significance of oral history for Palestinians, I wondered if you could say a bit more about how these stories first entered your consciousness. Could you tell us what your relationship with this history is like, given that you didn’t personally live through it, but it is most certainly your history—a collective history?
Yara Hawari: It’s really difficult for me to pinpoint an exact moment when I first heard these histories and these testimonies. I think that’s because they’ve always been present in the spaces that I’ve grown up in. If you ask anyone when they first learned their family was their family, it’s really hard to pinpoint that moment, and it’s the same with these stories. When did I first know or hear of these stories? It was just an integral part of my upbringing.
But then, as I grew older and became more politicized, I grew acutely aware of how important these are to my Palestinian identity, but also our Palestinian collective narrative; I began asking more questions, and making a concerted effort to know more. Because otherwise it would be lost. The generation that witnessed the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing, firsthand—they’ve all died. Certainly in my family they have all passed now.
I always have this regret—I think many people have this regret—about not having asked our elders more about their stories, about their histories. And so it’s become more important to me as I’ve grown older to collect these stories and to record them—and not just to record them in writing and digitally, but also to record them in my own sort of cognitive space, in my own memory.
Alas, one of the consequences of that is a sort of increased trauma. We Palestinians very much feel the Nakba of 1948 as if it were firsthand experience. It’s an inevitable passing on of trauma, and of course one of the reasons for this is because it’s never been resolved. There’s never been any justice, and also, more importantly, the Nakba, that continuous process of erasure, is ongoing.
The repetitive nature of the trauma makes the trauma that didn’t happen to you directly even more acute. If something happened to your grandmother or your great-grandmother which is happening to you now, you are going to feel that pain, because you don’t have to imagine that pain: you are experiencing it yourself. I think this very much characterizes Palestinian memories and collective narratives because of the nature of the trauma; it is a continuous cycle.
Farhaana Arefin: What you’ve just said reminds me of a short passage from your book in the section from Mahmoud’s perspective. For those who haven’t read it yet, Mahmoud’s character is based on Yara’s father when he was a teenager.
But despite his craving to know more, he found that stories of the Catastrophe rested heavily and painfully on his mind. He could imagine them vividly, with anguish, as if they were his own memories. They overshadowed the present and blurred distinctions in time and between generations.
It’s very clear that though this is Mahmoud’s voice, it also captures the experience of so many Palestinians, including your own.
I wonder if you could describe the process of recording all these family stories—of your father, your grandma, and your great-grandma. Did you find out anything that you didn’t know before through writing the book? What was it like for some of your family members to read their stories in the book?
Yara Hawari: Maybe I’ll start with saying a bit more about the book. It is divided into three chapters, each from the perspective of three characters: Mahmoud (my father), Dheeba (my grandmother), and Hamda (my great-grandmother). It traces their stories from a particular point in time, which is 1968. The book is written as a novel, but it’s also nonfiction; everything that happens in the book is true. All of the stories were collected through research, not only through oral history and gathering testimonies, but also drawing from secondary sources.
The majority of the narrative was based on my conversations with two people in my family, my father and my aunt, as well as on the sort of body of knowledge that I already have had since childhood. I spent much of the first lockdown period on the phone with them, not knowing what this project would eventually look like, but just chatting, identifying various themes and points in time that were important and asking them about them. I also made a point to ask about things that I haven’t ever asked them about before, things that I’d sort of never thought to ask them, specifically about how they felt. Unfortunately, my grandmother is no longer with us, so I would ask my aunt, “How do you think she felt?”
There were some instances where they couldn’t answer that question. My dad couldn’t remember how he felt at a particular moment. And my aunt didn’t know how my grandmother felt because she had never asked her. When this happened, I used my own imagination, but also my own experiences, to articulate how they might have felt. That’s not hard to do in the case of Palestine, because we are experiencing this continuous Nakba, this continuous state of displacement, whether from a place or from a time. Maybe that’s where the fiction comes in, but even that fictionalization is based on personal experience. I think it would be fair to say that it’s not too far off from what they would’ve felt at the time.
This whole process was incredibly emotional. My grandmother played such a central role in our family and her loss over a decade ago was difficult for all of us to bear. It was a particularly tragic loss as it was unexpected. And so this process brought up a lot. As an oral historian, I’m trained to understand how to talk to people and how to record memories and testimonies from what they say. You have to be aware of the ethics around this process, making sure that you don’t re-traumatize people. But when it’s so personal, you don’t realize that you’re also traumatizing yourself in the process. So it was very difficult, but in the end it was incredibly cathartic. To talk at length about my grandmother was, in the end, a great pleasure.
My grandmother was an essential figure in our family. She brought everyone together. I think one of the reasons for that is that my grandfather died when I was very young, and so she became the sort of central person. She had this incredible knack for making everyone feel like they were her favorite. And we didn’t realize this until after she had passed, when we would all confide in each other: “Well, I was actually the favorite.” Then someone else would say, “No, actually, I was the favorite.” She just made you feel incredibly special. And she also played a big role in my mother’s life. In the book, I was thinking a lot about her personality. Sometimes, with relatives, you don’t really think about their personalities, they’re just these adult figures. As you grow older, you start to realize that these are complex characters, they have complex personalities, they’ve had things happen to them.
In the process of writing her story, I realized, even more so, what an epic woman she was, and her mother as well. I really tried hard to distinguish her character from her mother’s character. They certainly weren’t a sort of copy and paste. My great-grandmother was much more aggressively assertive, in a way that my grandmother wasn’t. My grandmother was quietly assertive—not to say that she was passive, because she wasn’t, but she just managed to be assertive without people realizing sometimes. That was an incredible skill.
She went through a lot. She was a Bedouin, and she married a fellah, a farmer. In Palestinian society, there’s a lot of class-based discrimination. I think she did face this discrimination to an extent. These are things that we don’t really talk about much in Palestine, certainly not to an international audience. But I wanted to tease things out, because I think it made her who she is, or who she was. I wanted to make her complex, because she was complex.
Brekhna Aftab: Thank you, Yara. You mentioned earlier that this book is a novella but everything in it is true, and I want to ask why you chose to write the book in this form. At your book launch a couple of weeks ago in London, you said that when writing academic work—in general, of course, but particularly on Palestine—it is so crucial that everything is correctly cited, that your research is rigorous, that your arguments are flawless. In a context where people are looking to exploit mistakes and there already is this massively unequal power dynamic when it comes to knowledge production, it becomes very important to make sure that everything you’ve written can be defended if needed.
We spoke about this at great length at the very beginning of the commissioning and editorial process, wanting to explore how you might write this book differently compared to your academic or policy work. I wonder if you could say a bit more on this difference, and why such different kinds of writing are important in reflecting Palestinian history and this collective experience.
Yara Hawari: For me, it was an incredibly liberating process to write about Palestine and to write about my family in this way. Because, as you mentioned, when you write about Palestine in academic spaces or policy spaces, as I do for my work, everything is quite rigorously reviewed, double-checked, etc. I am an academic, and of course I agree that peer review is an important way to get critiqued and develop your work.
But obviously, when it comes to Palestine, there are double standards. We see that a lot in the media, just as we see it in the academy and in the policy world. It was nice to be free of that in writing this book. This is partly to do with the fact that the book is a novella, but also because I could present a clear, strong, and affirmative politics with regard to Palestine. It was liberating―not just the type of writing but also who I was publishing with gave me this incredible sense of being able to write without any form of self-censorship.
As much as we say that we might not censor ourselves as academics, I think inevitably we do; we don’t live in a void or a vacuum. We face pressures. So, this was a really pleasant thing to do; even though it was emotionally difficult, it was a kind of writing that I had never properly explored before and something that I had always wanted to do. I’ll be forever grateful that you guys came to me.
Brekhna Aftab: And we will be forever grateful to you for trusting us with your work.
Farhaana Arefin: You do it so well, so skilfully. We feel very blessed that you brought this book into the world with us.
This is part one of a two-part conversation. Stay tuned for part two, “We will be defined by liberation.”