Jordan Times, 22 April 2003
APRIL IS A TRAGIC MONTH
April is set to go down in modern Arab history as a month of massacre, invasion and tragedy. In this month, one of the Arab world’s foremost cities, Baghdad, fell to a foreign force, its people terrorised and its riches plundered in a war executed and imposed by foreigners. The damage done is still to be assessed, but thousands, of Iraqi citizens died or were injured, Baghdad’s great museum and library were looted or destroyed and its infrastructure was devastated. In this month also, one year ago, the Palestinian city of Jenin witnessed a massive assault by Israeli forces on its refugee camp whose consequences in trauma, suffering and privation can scarcely be comprehended. Thousands lost their homes, families were shattered and an unknown number were killed or disappeared beneath the rubble of bombed out houses. The re-building of these shattered lives and homes has not been completed and the other, less tangible effects may never be repaired. One year later, the damage is still continuing with recurrent curfews, arbitrary arrests and random or purposeful killing.
But April saw yet another Arab tragedy, no less horrifying in its effect for having taken place 54 years ago this month. On April 9th, (ironically, the same date on which American forces reached the centre of Baghdad), in 1948 a massacre was perpetrated at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. Some one hundred villagers, old men, women and children, members of a peaceable farming community whose men were engaged in stone quarrying, were set upon by Jewish paramilitaries and massacred in cold blood. The details are horrific: young girls raped, pregnant women knifed and babies’ heads smashed in. When news of the atrocity reached the rest of the country, it caused a mass exodus from the cities, especially Jerusalem where we lived. Along with others, our family fled in terror soon after, since the Jewish terrorists boasted they would kill again. Though the Zionists perpetrated many other massacres in Palestine, Deir Yassin remains the most significant and symbolic. For this massacre had a decisive effect on the course of Zionist colonisation of Palestine and, as Menachem Begin, the leader of the terrorists who perpetrated the act, said afterwards, it was worth half a dozen battalions in the war against the Palestinians. He said, ‘there would not have been a state of Israel without the victory at Deir Yassin.’
How will these tragic events be commemorated in time to come? Will we mourn the fall of Baghdad with some ritual or anniversary event or will we prefer to forget? The massacre of Jenin has already become the subject of a moving film documentary directed by Palestinian actor Mohammed Bakri which has been travelling the world. Perhaps the model for these commemorations will be that successfully instituted over the last decade for Deir Yassin. This campaign was started in the US by an American history professor, Dan McGowan, and named ‘Deir Yassin Remembered’. The aim was deceptively simple: to build a memorial at Deir Yassin in memory of the victims of the massacre. This place is now an Israeli mental institution, though the original Palestinian houses remain to remind the visitor what had been there before. From it the Israeli holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, is clearly visible. How fitting, McGowan thought, that these two monuments to atrocity should be standing opposite each other, to remind the world that Palestinians, and not only Jews, have been the victims of racism and injustice. Were this campaign to succeed, then other Zionist atrocities committed against the Palestinians would surface and an Israeli history of lies and denial would have been reversed.
Over the years, Deir Yassin Remembered has gathered many supporters, prominent Jews amongst them, and it has gone from strength to strength. Last year alone, 16 commemorations took place world wide: from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur to London and to San Francisco, covered in articles published in the main Arabic and English press. More events occurred this year. In Britain, a large audience gathered in London on April 6th to hear writers and poets remember Deir Yassin. One of the most moving events, however, was held at Chichester Cathedral in the South of England, which I shared in. A service of remembrance took place on April 9th, the actual anniversary of Deir Yassin, in the beautiful, 900-year old cathedral. Hymns, readings, poetry and literature were skilfully intertwound with prayers and music to make an unforgettable occasion. It was the more remarkable for having been organised, not by Arabs, but by the English Anglican Dean of Chichester, a man of great compassion and humanity, and where the worshippers whom he had gathered were also English Anglicans. When we all walked in slow procession with our lighted candles to the Lady Chapel, to leave them there with our thoughts and prayers, I remember feeling, though I am no Christian, ineffably moved and humbled by the power of ordinary people to express their rejection of injustice and the suffering of others.
Perhaps this showed that at last the Palestinian story had begun to reach those in the West who had hitherto supported the other side. But the real moral, I thought, was not that. Though we commend those who care enough to remember our past tragedies, it is we Arabs who should be the first to commemorate those tragic events, especially those still unaddressed and still unrequited. Where will the next commemorations for Deir Yassin, for Jenin, for Baghdad take place? Could it happen in Jordan, so close to all those conflicts, so much affected by those events?
Ghada Karmi is Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University and author of ‘In Search of Fatima, a Palestinian story’ (Verso).