‘My village’: Destroyed in the Nakba, rebuilt memory by memory

Bayt Nabala was among 530 Palestinian villages destroyed at Israel’s birth. Its people still dream of returning home.

The people of Bayt Nabala collecting olives from the ancient groves that dot the hills around their village. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]
The people of Bayt Nabala collecting olives from the ancient groves that dot the hills around their village. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

More than 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their land and thousands were killed at the creation of Israel in 1948. Left behind were the ruins of 530 villages and towns destroyed by Zionist militias and the Israeli army. Seventy-five years later, Al Jazeera recreates one of those villages, Bayt Nabala, and all that was lost, based on memories of survivors and their descendants, artificial intelligence-generated representations and documented history.

The last olive season

It was mid-October in 1947, and the first rains had arrived in the Palestinian village of Bayt Nabala like a silver haze. Weary from the scorching summer, the undulating lands seemed to stir with life as they drank from the skies. In their stone homes nestled on a rocky slope, the villagers knew that it was time to check on the groves of ancient, gnarled trees scattered across the hills. Another olive season was upon them.

The people of Bayt Nabala were proud of their olives, famous for their fruity flavour and immunity-boosting properties. They would use their camels and mules to drive oil presses made of heavy stones across the olives they had collected. The oil’s fragrance would tell them where the olives had fallen from: those that came from the top of the tree would fill the air with the lightest, sweetest scent.

But the olive season that year also brought tragedy to the community of more than 2,600 people. The hill on which Bayt Nabala stood was ensconced in valleys – al-Shami to the north, and Kereikah and Wadi Sarar to the south. The valleys flooded as they did every November, transforming into rivers.

The Palestinian village of Bayt Nabala was home to approximately 2,600 people before the Nakba. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]
The Palestinian village of Bayt Nabala was home to approximately 2,600 people before the Nakba. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Helmiyya al-Sayed, a girl just entering her teens, had been plucking some of the last olives on the trees dotting the steep sides of al-Shami when she lost her footing and tumbled down into the water. Later that evening, her body washed up in the neighbouring village of Deir Tarif.

They did not know it then, but the incident would echo in the memories of Helmiyya’s friends for decades, a personal loss presaging an irreversible rupture in the life of Bayt Nabala.

It was a village where everyone seemed to know everyone else. Bayt Nabala’s rich produce —  its citrus fruits and vegetables, barley, wheat and legumes — was the currency, minted in trust, that underwrote trade, business and relationships.

A lentil farmer would keep what his family needed and trade the excess with a neighbour for some chickens. A doting father might exchange several boxes of oranges for a bicycle to take home to his daughter. The local barber who ran a small salon in the middle of the village was paid with bags of wheat. Because the nearest large clinic was in Lydda, a town 6km (3.7 miles) away, people would also go to the barber for medical assistance: he pulled out rotten teeth and treated other ailments with leeches.

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Made of stone and mud, houses stood next to each other on wide, unpaved roads. When villagers visited one another, they would sit on floors covered with rugs and carpets as their hosts served bread baked outside over an open fire. Tucked away into the walls of the house were the mattresses that families slept on at night.

An AI rendering shows the inside of a typical home in the village of Bayt Nabala with exposed curved stone walls, a single window letting in sunlight and a stone floor with a patterned red rug
Bayt Nabala's houses were made of stone and mud, with large compartments in the wall where mattresses would be stored. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

At the crack of dawn, men and women would head out to their fields — a sprawling 12,156 dunams of land (approximately 3.5 times the size of New York’s Central Park) belonging to the village. Nothing that came from the land was wasted: the ploughs were themselves made from the roots of Bayt Nabala’s olive trees. In the golden light of the evenings, they sowed seeds, waiting patiently for the first shoots to surface a few weeks later.

The village bayara (irrigated orchard), bursting with clementines, lemons, grapefruit and oranges, was west of the village, at the bottom of the hill. Wearing traditional thobes (embroidered dresses) in red, black and beige, the women would pick fruit together, sharing meals during their breaks and splitting the harvest among all the families.

The village well was close to a camp set up in 1940 by the British. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Some men would trudge down the hill to work in a camp set up in 1940 by the British, who had taken charge of the administration of Palestine and the Transjordan region under a League of Nations mandate at the end of World War I. The camp’s large swimming pool and dining halls were reserved for British soldiers, but it also had workshops for carpentry and metalwork where the people of Bayt Nabala honed construction skills they used to build and repair their own homes, helped by neighbours.

Adjacent to the camp was the old village well, extending 100 metres into the ground. The villagers would walk downhill for about half a kilometre to fill their earthen jars with water for their homes.

Opposite the camp, across a road that led to Lydda, stood the village school. Set up in 1921 with four rooms for the first to the fourth grades, the school, made of cream-coloured stone, had a library and was shielded from the sun by the verdant canopies of a dozen or so trees. Eight teachers taught about 230 students, including, occasionally, a few girls who would join the boys in class.

An AI rendering shows the flat roofed, single-storey cream stone building that served as the village school. In the foreground is a patch of ground. There are several trees on all sides of the school. A group of boys stand under a large tree at the front of the school
The village school was set up in 1921. It is the only structure in Bayt Nabala that is still standing today. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Some of the 700 men who had learned to read at school would occasionally travel to Yafa (now Jaffa) to buy newspapers, but residents of the village got most of their news via Bayt Nabala’s only radio. Kept in the house of the village mukhtar (head), Hajj Mahmoud Hussein, it broadcast the only station available — the Arabic-language, British-run Near East Broadcasting Station.

But in late 1947, the news on the radio turned ominous. On November 29 that year, the United Nations (UN) adopted a plan to partition Palestine, allocating 55 percent of the country’s land to an envisaged “national home” for Jewish people after the horrors of the Holocaust. Bayt Nabala was to remain in the Arab-controlled part of Palestine under the plan, but by then, it was increasingly clear to the people of the village that the future of their country — whose cleavage they opposed — would be determined by events unfolding before their eyes, and not by diplomatic decrees issued thousands of miles away. They had already heard accounts of how members of a Zionist paramilitary group called the Haganah had dynamited the homes of prominent Palestinian landowners throughout 1947. The news would only get worse.

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On December 13, they learned that the Irgun, an offshoot of the Haganah, had stormed al-Abbasiyya, a village just beyond Bayt Nabala’s western borders. The next day, soldiers from the Arab Legion – comprising the police force and army of the Emirate of Transjordan – attacked and killed 13 men on a convoy leaving Ben Shemen, a Jewish settlement 7km (4.3 miles) away from the village.

A series of clashes followed: a villager working at the British camp next to Bayt Nabala was killed; Palestinian resistance fighters carried out attacks in response; a Zionist militia attacked trains carrying British troops. No longer was Bayt Nabala learning of these attacks and counterstrikes on the radio; the violence was on its doorstep.

Some of the villagers joined the resistance forces. Using what little money they had, and the proceeds from women selling their gold jewellery, they bought guns from Gaza and Egypt for approximately 100 Palestinian pounds each. The men of Bayt Nabala also stocked up on some guns left behind by the British at the end of World War II.

All of this was little match for the firepower of the Zionist militia, many of whose members had been trained by the British, alongside whom they had fought in World War II. Still, the men of Bayt Nabala had some combat experience. They had fought alongside Hassan Salameh, a leader of the 1936-39 Arab revolt against the British Mandate, blowing up railway tracks and electrical poles, disrupting the lines of communication used by British forces and Zionists.

Now about a dozen of them set off once again with their modest arsenal of ammunition to help defend nearby villages that were under attack.

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They lost most of those battles. Then on April 8, standing around the trusty radio that had for so long been their main source of news, the villagers heard that the Haganah had killed Abd al-Qader al-Husseini, one of the leaders of the Palestinian nationalist struggle along with Salameh. Women wept. One man, incensed and heartbroken, threw the radio out of the mukhtar’s house.

The next day, 130 members of the Irgun and the Lehi (another Zionist paramilitary group) stormed the village of Deir Yassin, about 40km (25 miles) away from Bayt Nabala. More than 100 of the 600 residents of the village are thought to have been killed, though historians continue to debate the precise figure. 

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Refugees fleeing eastwards from other villages seized by Zionist militias passed through Bayt Nabala. They brought with them stories of the atrocities committed in Deir Yassin — how attackers had raped women, slashing open the bellies of those who were pregnant, and killed even the youngest children. Some of these families did not stay long in Bayt Nabala and began walking directly to the east, hoping to find a safe place to stay in villages and towns on the way to Ramallah, which they knew was still an Arab Legion stronghold.

Only the children of Bayt Nabala remained relatively unaffected by the tensions rising around them. After school, they would rush out onto the streets to play. Apart from hide and seek, they loved a game called chura: this involved taking an empty soft drink can or tin of ghee, and hitting it with tree branches until the container was destroyed. Some days, their parents would bring home some sweets.

Then one evening at about 5pm, a group of young boys was playing near the school, 200m outside the village. Looking up, they were startled to see several men they did not recognise. The men were wearing red keffiyehs, a traditional headdress popular throughout the Middle East, but which they associated in particular with Jordanian soldiers.

When the strangers began shooting in the air, the boys ran back to the village. Some had heard stories from their parents about how Zionist fighters would disguise themselves as members of the Arab Legion, and they knew they had to warn their families of the attack. Inside the school, a teacher told some students who were still in class to duck under their desks.

In the village, everyone rushed home to seek refuge. But at about 7pm, the deafening roar of low-flying aircraft and bombs falling in the neighbouring valleys exploded whatever hopes of peace the villagers still harboured.

The Nakba had come to Bayt Nabala.

Along with between 750,000 and 1,000,000 other Palestinians, the people of the village would be forced to leave their homes, as Zionist gangs and the fledgling Israeli army took control of large parts of Palestine. Israel destroyed more than 530 Palestinian villages in a systematic attempt to prevent the return of their original inhabitants.

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In May, the Arab Legion asked the people of Bayt Nabala to vacate the village so it could set up a hilltop base there to fight the Zionists. Most people left for wherever they were able to go. Neighbours lost touch and extended families were split up.

Some stayed on, until July 10, when hundreds of people from Lydda started streaming in. The day before, marauding militias – which had since May 1948 formally come together to create the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) – shelled Lydda to pressure its people to leave. When that failed, Israeli jeeps rolled in with rifles and machine guns, shooting at the townspeople and throwing grenades into homes. The Israeli troops detained thousands of unarmed civilians in a mosque, then fired a missile at it. More than 420 bodies lay where they fell: The mosque’s walls were smeared with the remains of men, women and children.

Those who survived were ordered into exile, after soldiers confiscated their watches, gold and purses. It was Ramadan, and most people were fasting. In the blistering heat – it was 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit) in the shade – many collapsed from fatigue or perished along the way. Those who died – mostly the elderly and young children – were buried immediately in the corn fields.

The carnage in Lydda, widely recognised as the bloodiest massacre of the Nakba, convinced the last villagers of Bayt Nabala that they needed to leave, at least temporarily.

Seventy-five years later, those alive are still waiting to return home.

People flee their homes during the Nakba. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]
People flee their homes during the Nakba. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

The long walk

Today, Bayt Nabala is virtually unrecognisable except to those who were intimately familiar with the village.

As its residents fled eastwards during the Nakba, plans were under way to demolish their homes. On September 13, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, made a formal request for the destruction of Bayt Nabala to the Ministerial Committee on Abandoned Property, an arm of the state that methodically aided the confiscation of Palestinian lands for Israeli use. By the end of that same month, almost every building in the village had been reduced to rubble.

From its westernmost point, 116 dunams (29 acres) of the village – along with 23,546 dunams from nine other villages in the vicinity – were seized by the Israelis for the expansion of Lydda Airport.

Before 1948, the airport was a modest airfield with only four airstrips, located in the sleepy purlieus of Lydda. Built in 1934 by the British, the old Lydda Airport was used predominantly for military operations during World War II. Bayt Nabala sat directly adjacent to it: at the time, the village was 60 times larger than the airport. Young girls and boys would watch planes landing from the neighbouring Jindas plains.

Now, the airport — named after Ben-Gurion in 1973 — is 100 times bigger than it was. It is no longer a source of wonder for Palestinian children. Instead, it is a reminder of how Palestinians today endure some of the most draconian travel restrictions in the world.

In 2022, 19.2 million passengers travelled through the airport, the main entry point for all of Israel. But Palestinians cannot fly from Ben-Gurion without special permission from their local District Coordination Office, which monitors their movements in and out of the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli authorities make this permit almost impossible to obtain, with the only alternative being overland travel to Jordan to use the airport in Amman.

Until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Palestinians were able to fly from the Qalandiya Airport in Jerusalem. But since then, with full Israeli control over Palestinian borders, they have not had their own airport.

To the east of Ben-Gurion, another large portion of the village has been converted into a forest park, named after the town to its east. Shoham Forest Park is accessible by a dirt road that veers like an abrupt afterthought off the Yitzhak Rabin Highway, which runs from the north to the south of Israel.

Israeli families drive there for weekend barbecues. In the wide clearings between the trees, children can sometimes be seen kicking a ball around, or playing catch.

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Shoham Forest Park today stands on the remains of Bayt Nabala [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

The park is run by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organisation that has a history of forcibly evicting Palestinians from their lands and repurposing them for Israeli settlement. Shoham is one of 46 parks built on 372 Palestinian villages since 1948.

On the remains of Bayt Nabala’s orchards, which were levelled during the Nakba, the JNF has grown new olive and almond trees. Visitors are invited to explore parts of the park, marked out with welcoming names like “The Orchards Path”, but there is nothing to acknowledge that Palestinian hands once tended these orchards.

After Bayt Nabala was razed to the ground, the land at its southwestern end was used to build a moshav – a cooperative agricultural community pioneered by the Labour Zionists at the turn of the century – called Beit Nehemia. It is currently home to more than 890 people. On a weekday, the streets of the moshav are quiet, while the playground is empty. Israeli flags are festooned at the entrance of many homes.

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A playground in the moshav built on the remains of Bayt Nabala [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Forty kilometres (25 miles) away in Deir Ammar refugee camp, 80-year-old Ali Abdelrahman Assaf remembers a very different Bayt Nabala.

Wearing a long khaki coat over a dark-coloured traditional thobe, Ali needs the help of a cane to get around, and the vision in his right eye is hazy. He slowly pulls a brown plastic chair to sit down at the driveway of his two-storey home. The white paint on the walls outside is peeling, and the large blue metal door to the house yawns open into a gloomy stairwell. He is soft-spoken, and often pauses solemnly when talking about his childhood.

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Ali Abdelrahman Assaf was five years old when he and his family had to flee Bayt Nabala [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

As a five-year-old, Ali was frail and had problems with his spleen, which left him in constant discomfort. The plentiful olives around the village would come to his rescue.

His father Abdelrahman would collect the olives, and use an oil press to grind them and their pits into a pulp. “On nights that were cold and wet, he covered me in the pomice [oil leftover from the pulp] to keep me warm,” he reminisces. He believes that his ailment is the reason why he sometimes forgets events that happened around the time of the Nakba.

“My father was told that the cure was to walk,” Ali says of the condition affecting his spleen. And walk they did: father and son would stroll around the olive groves on the periphery of the village, and in the two valleys around it, to strengthen Ali’s body. His father also took him on four or five errands a day, insisting that moving about was good for Ali's health.

Ali's father would take him on walks through the village's olive groves. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

These errands were part of what Abdelrahman did as an odd-job labourer at the British camp, helping out with various tasks from delivery to construction. Outside of his work for the camp, Abdelrahman would also till the fields from early in the morning before the sun had warmed the earth. On the plot of land he owned, right next to Lydda Airport, he grew barley, okra and wheat.

Ali’s condition prevented him from going too far from home, but his father would travel to Lydda sometimes and buy the boy’s favourite fruit – the Miskawi apricot, which comes from Egypt. “It had a pit inside that could be broken, and I would eat the sweet core,” he says, grinning widely. In Deir Ammar, Ali still eats this apricot, though for him its lusciousness will always be inextricable from his childhood.

Too young to go to school, Ali would sometimes accompany his father to the fields where he worked. He was exhilarated to be close to the coastal railway, which passed by Bayt Nabala. As the passenger trains rushed by, he lay flat on the ground and imagined that they were wondrous, hulking metal beasts. “It was loud and as it passed through our land it would huff and squeal,” he says. “My father would always remind us to stay away from the tracks whenever we heard the sound of the train approaching. I remember being so happy to see the train pass by.” Ali’s dream had always been to ride the train. This was not to be.

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The coastal railway passed by Bayt Nabala. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Just beyond the village, Ali's maternal grandfather, Masoud Khaled Safi, lived in a house in the hills next to the bayara. The old man was blind, so when he would visit his relatives in the village or his plot of land in the bayara, where he grew figs, almonds and cacti, Ali would help him. "When we walked across the Kereikah valley, he would ask me to help him step over the stones so he didn't fall," Ali recalls.

The guesthouse at the centre of the village was a meeting spot for villagers and their guests. This image has been generated by an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

On his visits, Masoud would meet his friends and, together, the elderly men would drink coffee in the guesthouse at the centre of the village. With its vaulted ceiling, the stone building's airy second floor was ideal for hosting visitors, while the ground floor sheltered their animals.

But Ali recalls that it was a local tobacco grown in Bayt Nabala that Masoud and his friends were most interested in. "We would harvest the leaves, dry them up under the sun, grind them and smoke them in pipes. We continued to grow this tobacco in the camp," he says.

When the Nakba came, neither the old man nor his grandson had the chance to say goodbye to their friends.

Ali’s family went first to Budros, 4km (2.5 miles) to the southeast, where they stayed for a month. From there, they walked for days until they reached the village of Deir Ammar, which neighbours the camp that took its name. “There is a large olive tree there [in Deir Ammar],” he recalls. “We all sheltered under it for days.”

Families fleeing the Nakba would often take shelter under olive trees on their way to other villages and towns. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Then a family they knew in the village of Rantis, 10km (6 miles) from Deir Ammar, offered to let them stay in a yakhor – a large basement for sheep and cattle. Ali recounts how, on their way to Rantis, they stopped at a spring where his mother Fatma sat with some other displaced women. She shared with them her prayer that the family would be back in Bayt Nabala by the time her 10-month-old daughter, Hosnia, began to walk. Ali’s lips curl into a small, wry smile as he recalls what the other women said. "[They] were laughing at my mother, telling her 'What are you talking about? We will be back to our hometowns long before Hosnia starts walking’."

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But Ali and his relatives lived in the crowded yakhor for two years - each family taking one corner of the structure, although, he says, there were "no barriers or anything" to separate their living spaces. Then, in 1950, like many other Palestinian refugees, they moved into the Deir Ammar refugee camp.

In the decades that passed, Ali had 16 children – eight sons and eight daughters, most of whom still live with or near him in Deir Ammar. He recounts “every single detail” of his life in Bayt Nabala to his grandchildren so that these experiences are not lost. But he is pessimistic about his descendants ever settling in the village. “By 1967 [the year Israel occupied the West Bank], the impossibility of returning became real to me. To think of going back is like the devil’s hope. I feel sorry for the land and dignity which was taken from us.”

Yet in 1968, at the age of 25, Ali set off with a friend called Fakhry, hoping to lay eyes on Bayt Nabala once more. “We went on foot,” he says. He couldn’t see anything left of Bayt Nabala except the land itself. “Me and Fakhry took a box of candy and we sat in the valley of Kereikah, where I used to walk my grandfather back home,” he says.

It was not the homecoming he wanted, but Ali was back in Bayt Nabala — even if only for a few hours — eating sweets as he once did on the land that had been his entire world until the spring of 1948.

The children of Bayt Nabala would play together under the village's olive trees. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]
The children of Bayt Nabala would play together under the village's olive trees. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Broken bonds

Six years old at the time, Mahmoud Abdullah Nakhleh was among the boys playing outside the village school when the Zionist fighters passed by, firing in the air.

That evening, after a hasty dinner of eggplant from the bayara, he, his four brothers and his parents rushed from their home to the shelter of the olive grove at the easternmost point of Bayt Nabala, about 1.5km (0.9 miles) away.

The only clothes they carried were the ones on their backs. They would wash those clothes in the wells close to the olive trees. “We wore them again when they were still wet,” recalls Mahmoud, now 81.

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Mahmoud was six years old when he had to flee Bayt Nabala with his family [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Dressed in a blue jacket over a brown jumper, Mahmoud sits in a neighbour’s workshop in Jalazone. Located in Ramallah, the refugee camp is one of the most densely populated in the West Bank with a population of more than 17,000 crammed into just 0.253 square kilometres — Bayt Nabala, by contrast, was 60 times bigger in size and had a sixth of Jalazone’s population. Almost a quarter of Bayt Nabala’s population ended up there.

The lines around his eyes crinkle when he smiles, as he speaks over the din of a drill boring into the road about life in Bayt Nabala before the Nakba — and how that was lost forever.

Mahmoud’s parents had owned a three-room house in the village and had lived in relative comfort. “Everything was good and we ate well in Bayt Nabala,” he says.

He used to love riding the family’s donkey into the bayara and back; the creature waited patiently as his mother harvested the vegetables. Sometimes they would have a basket full of tomatoes, other times it would be okra. “My mother would go back into the village with a big basket on her head, calling out to people and asking them to buy our vegetables,” Mahmoud says. “I used to loudly cry out, ‘We have eggplant! We have tomatoes!’” His family would barter their vegetables for wheat or barley. Occasionally, Mahmoud and his mother would take the train to Lydda, where they would buy cake.

This AI rendering shows a woman walking through an olive grove carrying two baskets, one of which is full of olives. A donkey walks beside her
Mahmoud's mother would go with the family's donkey into the bayara, where she would harvest vegetables. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Hiding in the olive grove, there was no excited shouting any more as the family scrounged for whatever aubergine, black-eyed peas and green beans they could find on the land. They would cook the vegetables and bake bread over a fire under the trees.

Dozens of families joined them in the grove. Sporadic gunshots rang out from the western end of the village, but occasionally, people would try to return to their homes to retrieve property deeds or money. They did not all survive, but those who did, returned with gruesome tales of the dead lying in the streets, some with their faces devoured by feral cats.

People who passed by the grove as they fled their own villages brought other stories with them. Mahmoud recalls how they would ask: "Did you hear about the collective killings?"

As it became clear that the fighting was not going to stop, Mahmoud's family - like most residents of Bayt Nabala - headed eastwards, towards villages that had not been seized and where Arab forces were dominant. But they didn't all make it. Two of Mahmoud's cousins had joined the resistance. He never saw them again. "They were killed by the Zionists," he explains. Ahmad Sharif and Mustafa Said were about 18 years old.

For two years, the family went wherever they could lay their heads at night, passing through a series of villages and towns, moving further away from Bayt Nabala. They would stay with the families of his father’s former co-workers at the British camp, or with other acquaintances.

A view shows Palestinian Jalazone refugee camp which will be visited by Britain's Prince William, near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
A view of the Jalazone refugee camp, near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank [File: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman]

Then in the winter of 1950, Mahmoud’s parents heard that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was providing fabric tents in Jalazone.

He remembers there had been a snowstorm when they first arrived at the camp: “The snow was about a metre high, and us kids had snow fights.” Two years later, the family was moved out of the tent into a one-room cinder block house without kitchen or toilet facilities. Since then, Jalazone has been Mahmoud’s home.

To save money, his family mostly ate camel meat, which was cheaper than beef or lamb, and generally considered inferior. The family also did everything they could to make money. Sometimes, the UNRWA gave out blankets to refugees who didn’t need them, and Mahmoud’s father would go around collecting these extra blankets to sell to people outside the camp, in Ramallah.

“We would carry about 10 blankets to sell,” he says. “We earned about five piastres per blanket [about 0.05 Jordanian dinars, or about 14 cents at the time].” The earnings from the blankets bought them food, which kept the family warm when they were cold: Mahmoud says it got particularly chilly in Jalazone when it would rain.

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A Palestinian family stands beside their makeshift tent in Rafah in March 1949 [File: AP Photo]

His father wanted him to go to school, but he dropped out after the fourth grade, when he was 10 or 11 years old. “I insisted on working,” he says. “Wherever I found work, I did it.” He sold ice cream and newspapers in Jalazone. Later, venturing out to Ramallah, he met an Armenian man who would send him on errands, and pay him to clean his home. He would sort out paperwork at a travel agency for Jordanian authorities, and help customers at a photography studio.

Mahmoud made sure that his brothers were able to afford the mahr (marriage payment) when they got engaged. One of his father’s friends who visited Jalazone told them that more than 40 people from his village had emigrated to Colombia for work, and suggested that he too should send one of his sons. “Since I was the only unmarried man [in the family], my father decided that I should go,” Mahmoud says. His friend helped to get him a visa that cost about 100 dinars, and he left for Bogota.

“Then I moved to a village, three hours from the capital,” he says of his time in Colombia. There he opened a small grocery store where he met his wife, Marisa. “We have been married for 60 years,” he says. “My son is now about 56 years old.”

Mahmoud says he chose to return to Palestine with his family as he was getting old: Colombia never felt much like home to him, and he yearned to return to Bayt Nabala.

“I still have hope that I will go back,” he says. But he knows that little remains of the village outside his memories. Five years ago, on his last visit, he saw that his home was gone. Mahmoud walked to the only structure still standing: the school, outside which the Nakba had started for him.

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A photo of the school in Bayt Nabala today. It is the only structure still standing [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Missing also were the sounds of the village: the clanging of the tins he and friends would beat with branches; the laughter of men and women as they worked in the fields; and the tunes of joy and longing that marked celebrations and brought people together.

This AI generated image shows people gathered in the square of a Palestinian village. A man is on a horse close to the centre of the square while people line the square. The square is surrounded by simple cream stone houses
Residents of Bayt Nabala would gather in the village square for a wedding. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]
Residents of Bayt Nabala gather in the village square for a wedding. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Love and loss

As she rocks back and forth gently, fragments of the lyrics of her favourite wedding song from seven decades earlier come back to Saada Safi: “I wish I was a bead on a sash, a hair pin to hold the hair … The one who took you is the happiest, the one who left you is the saddest.”

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Saada Saafi was one of 230 people from Bayt Nabala who ended up in Deir Ammar refugee camp [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Some 10km (6 miles) away from Jalazone in Deir Ammar, Saada – who thinks she is about 87 or 88 years old – sits on a floral bed in a room built of concrete. Petite and quick to laugh, she is one of 230 people from Bayt Nabala who found their way to the camp.

She points to her most valued treasures: her cabinet full of photographs from over the years, the thobes she has collected, the multi-coloured rugs on the ground. Her flaming red hair is tucked under a white hijab, and she wears a black cardigan over a maroon thobe with small flowers printed on it. There is a girlishness to her manner as she recalls events that took place so many years ago, and her voice is lilting as she speaks.

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Saada displays one of her thobes [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Weddings were a highlight of Saada’s life in Bayt Nabala. Usually held after the harvests, they lasted three or four days, and the village would come alive with music and dancing. Villagers would help the family of the groom with cooking and supplies for the feast.

“We used to go to henna parties,” Saada says, referring to a practice that dates back to antiquity. After sunset on the eve of the wedding, the bri​​de’s female friends and relatives would go to her home, bearing straw plates on their heads with mounds of henna. These processions were accompanied by children, who would shower the women with rice. At the bride’s home, the women would sing traditional Arabic songs, while using a natural dye to pipe ornate patterns onto their hands and feet. Many of these songs had political references and were not just about love or marriage; they also paid tribute to revolutionaries from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The bride would receive the kisweh, or wedding trousseau, as the women around her sang and danced. The trousseau, consisting of new clothes and gold jewellery, would be stored in a large wooden chest, which she would keep with her for the rest of her life. “This custom remained even after the Nakba in the [refugee] camps,” Saada says. “I still have my wooden chest, which I kept with me when I left my family’s home in Jalazone.”

While the women were in the home of the bride leading up to the wedding, the men celebrated in a more public way. “They would line up for the sahjeh,” Saada says. This was a synchronised group dance with repetitive steps.

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Bayt Nabala’s men were known for a unique version of the dance, called the sahjeh nabaliyeh. They would gather in a wide square in the village, with large pots of milk placed on the ground. The men would then stand in rows facing each other and start clapping and chanting poetry about courage and devotion, love and courtship. The men also danced the traditional dabke, a routine that involved stomping their feet rhythmically.

On the big day, the groom wore a shirt, an overgarment called a qumbaz, a jacket, his traditional keffiyeh, and the black agal that held the keffiyeh in place. With a boisterous party following him, he would ride across the village to the bride’s home on a horse, escorted by three or four elderly men, and sometimes women, from his family.

The elders would then ask the patriarch of the bride’s family if he wanted to give her away. With his consent, the wedding party would begin in earnest. After sunset, relatives would present gifts to the bride. Then, the men from the bride’s family would lift her onto the horse, and she would ride behind her new family while the groom walked ahead of her. Wedding days in Bayt Nabala were packed with spectacular events, including horse racing in the fields just beyond their homes.

Men wearing traditional costumes perform Dabke, a Levantine folk dance seen at joyous occasions, in front of Palestinian women waving flowers while marking International Women's Day along the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City, Tuesday, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Men wearing traditional costumes perform dabke, a Levantine folk dance, in Gaza City [File: AP Photo/Adel Hana]

Saada’s own wedding in 1950 was a more subdued affair. By then, her family was in the Jalazone camp, forced away from their homes like everyone else from Bayt Nabala.

The ceremony took place in a small shed built out of rocks, and there were no horse races to mark the marriage.

At the time of the Nakba, she was 13 or 14, and like Mahmoud, she had lived amid the olive trees briefly. Her memory of those days is blurry. “When a person … runs away in fear, she doesn't look at anyone and doesn't understand anything. No one thinks of anyone, no one has time for anyone.”

But she remembers that when her two brothers, two sisters, mother and she started walking from Bayt Nabala towards Shuqba, the rolling fields beyond the village were still “yellowish and a little dry”, suggesting that she had also left sometime in early May, before the harvest season turned the wheat green. “The planes bombed the outskirts of the village, between our village and Deir Tarif. Families in Deir Tarif had left a day before us,” she says. “People feared that their fate would be like Deir Yassin.”

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Palestinian refugees carry their possessions on their heads as they flee their village in 1948 [File: Reuters]

Seared in her mind are the memories of people crying as they left with their carts and animals. The thorns hurt her feet as she walked for more than an hour to reach Shuqba, where she stayed in a spacious cave that could accommodate “many families,” she recalls.

At night, they slept on stones and soil, but despite the discomfort, Saada no longer felt as afraid as when they had first heard the sound of gunfire encroaching on Bayt Nabala and Deir Tarif. The Safi family did not stay there for long, continuing with their journey after about a week.

In Deir Ammar, where Saada moved with her husband after her wedding, she saw some familiar faces again. “Not far from our house [in Bayt Nabala], there was a shop where we bought essentials,” she says. “Muhammad Musa owned the shop, and sold everything [we needed]. He settled down after the Nakba with his wife in Deir Ammar.” Both Muhammad Musa and his wife ended up as Saada’s neighbours in the camp, where they lived out their days.

But she never found out what happened to one of her favourite people in Bayt Nabala, Yousef Raba – the local butcher from whom she used to buy spools of thread to make her dresses. Yousef had lived next door to her in the centre of the village. “He was a tall, thin and kindly man,” she sighs.

Just months before the Nakba, Saada had grieved the death of a friend: Helmiyya al-Sayed, the girl who was swept away in the al-Shami flood — an incident both she and Ali Abdelrehman would recall while speaking of that period.

Now, as her family fled the village, she lost touch with two more of her closest childhood friends. Back in Bayt Nabala, Saada enjoyed running through the Jindas plains located to the southwest of the village with her closest friends, Amna Saeed Jabina, Tamam al-Abd Zaben and Fatima Issa Term. Watching the planes glide closer to the seemingly endless plains as they headed towards Lydda Airport was a sight to behold. “We used to see them landing,” she says, beaming.

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Lydda Airport in 1934 [US Library of Congress]

The turbulent years of the Nakba would separate the friends. “Fatima is the only one I met, after my marriage and after I moved to Deir Ammar,” Saada says. Over the decades, they remained close, and would visit each other often in their homes. “When I gave birth to my children, she helped me, and when she gave birth, I helped her,” Saada explains. But Saada’s first son, Ribhi, died from the cold a few months after he was born. Fatima eventually also passed on in the camp.

None of the people she was close to in Bayt Nabala who ended up in Deir Ammar are around any more. “Now I am the only one who is still alive,” Saada says with a melancholic smile.

She jokes that she has not gone back to Bayt Nabala because “riding in a car makes me dizzy”. But, she admits: “We’ve not got to feel real happiness or joy since we left. I want to see my house again.”

For now, she keeps a slice of her life from the village close to her. One of her three daughters brings in a babur (kerosene stove) and a stone mill that her family took from their house when they fled to the olive grove: 75 years later, they look as good as new. “Someone wanted to buy the millstone from me later on, but I refused to sell it. A neighbour here in Deir Ammar said that people who own a millstone will have good things in their home. Why would you throw that away, or sell it for a thousand shekels? We’re still using it!” Saada smiles.

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Saada holds the kerosene stove her family took with them when they fled Bayt Nabala 75 years ago [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Her twinkling eyes turn coy when asked if she fell in love with any boys in the village as a young teenager. “They chased after me all the time, but I would tell them to go away, I was not interested,” she laughs.

For others, romance did blossom in Bayt Nabala’s olive trees. That’s where the parents of 72-year-old Musa Saleh, a surgeon who has been living in Jordan for the most part of the last 56 years, fell in love.

Maryam was strikingly beautiful, and many of the young men in Bayt Nabala were besotted with her green eyes. She had dreamt of going to school like the daughters of some of her relatives, and “always talked bitterly about the fact that her father refused to send her”, Musa says.

Among those who were smitten by her was Mustafa. “My parents were cousins,” Musa says, explaining that his paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather were siblings who had been on “very bad terms with each other” owing to a dispute over inheritance. His grandmother had, after an argument with her brother, demanded shares of the family’s land for herself and her sisters – unheard of for women at the time, as land was traditionally passed on only to sons.

Mustafa often saw Maryam walking around the village with her father, and would gaze at her with longing. Despite the disapproval of Maryam’s father, they regularly walked among the trees surrounding the village, gathering the olives along with others of all ages. Musa says that at the time, it was very common for young people of the opposite sex to mingle respectfully, and getting to know each other in this way would ordinarily not have been frowned upon. After numerous walks together, Mustafa braved his uncle’s ire to ask for permission to marry Maryam. His uncle, who was still angry about his sister’s flouting of social convention when she asked for land, turned down his nephew several times.

In this AI generated image people can be seen picking olives under some olive trees. In the distance there is a village comprised of cream stone buildings
Men and women of all ages would work together to pick the olives in Bayt Nabala. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

Finally, anguished and lovesick, Mustafa showed up at his uncle’s house. He was offered traditional Arab hospitality and served food and drink, but refused to consume anything until he was given what he asked for: the woman he wanted as his wife. “He had to pay 500 Palestinian pounds [as dowry] to my grandfather,” Musa says. This was 1944, a time when the average dowry was about 80 to 100 pounds. “But because my grandfather wanted to make it extremely difficult for this marriage to go on, he raised the cost to almost fivefold. My father said, ‘Yes, I will pay’.”

Mustafa sold a plot of land in order to afford the wedding. His father had two wives, and as the only son of the second wife, Mustafa had “a bit more land than his four brothers”, Musa says. Maryam and Mustafa were about 19 or 20 when they married, and they lived 15 happy years together until Mustafa’s untimely passing in an accident in 1960.

The Saleh family fled Bayt Nabala on July 10, 1948, horrified by the news of the massacre at the mosque in Lydda. They shared a home in Shuqba with a relative for more than two years. Musa was born on Christmas Day in 1950. When he was five months old, he moved with his brother, two sisters, parents and grandmother to a small two-room house in Deir Ammar. They kept chickens in one room, while in the other, his mother Maryam would be meticulously embroidering the dresses for women’s kisweh. Rather unusually, Musa’s father, Mustafa, had not been a farmer like the other men of Bayt Nabala. “I don’t know how [he learned], but he was a tailor,” he laughs over the phone.

After Mustafa passed, Maryam became the sole breadwinner, and continued to sew clothes for women to feed her seven children.

Despite those financial constraints, Musa was a top student in the public examinations in the West Bank in 1967, and won a scholarship to study medicine in Egypt. He specialised in general surgery while studying further in the United Kingdom, before settling in Jordan. There, he set up a hospital in the city of Zarqa in 1994. He ran it until 2008 before moving to Amman, the capital, where he still works as a general consultant.

Now he is also president of the Amman-based Al Hannouneh Society for Popular Culture, where preserving and reviving the culture and heritage of Palestine are his focus. Musa has spent years studying the history of Bayt Nabala. Since 1990, the society has been regularly putting on dance performances across the world, from the Middle East to the United States. Many of these dances, Musa says, will have been familiar to people of his parents’ generation from Bayt Nabala.

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A photo showing students taking part in a Dabke training course [Al Hannouneh Society for Popular Culture]

“I think one of the Israeli politicians once said that the old people die, and the youngest people will forget,” he says, referring to a statement by Ben-Gurion in 1949. “I think my mission, and the mission of so many Palestinians, is to take from the old before they die and give to the young, so they always remember what is ours.”

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The Dheisheh camp where more than 5,000 Palestinian refugees were living in tents and shacks located outside the West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 9, 1955 [AP Photo]
The Dheisheh camp where more than 5,000 Palestinian refugees were living in tents and shacks located outside the West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 9, 1955 [AP Photo]

'Your grandmother was living in a shack'

The Nakba forced Palestinians to search for new homes around the world, from Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt to Chile, Colombia and even the Midwestern US state of Kansas.

Gene Zaid – formerly Najib Zaid – never saw the lands of Bayt Nabala in its glory days. But the 72-year-old, born in Jalazone in 1951, grew up hearing about the sesame harvest season from his father Hassan. “It was just a really, really idyllic life,” he muses over the phone from Kansas, where he runs a pharmaceutical company called Genzada.

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Gene Zaid was born in Jalazone refugee camp but grew up hearing stories about Bayt Nabala [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

“We were just hardworking farmers,” Gene says. Hassan would tell him about the harvesting of sesame, which often took place in the evenings. “They would go out on their mules and donkeys and camel and oxen to the fields and plough them, my father and his brothers.” All night long, the gentle crackling of sesame plants as they gave up their seeds reverberated through the village: this was the sound of normalcy and the way things were expected to be.

It was very different for Gene’s generation. The stories they had been fed on, of perfumed valleys blooming with cyclamen and vibrant red anemone, orchards flush with juicy fruit and bucolic walks through some of the most fertile land in Palestine, bore no resemblance to their reality.

Instead, one of Gene’s earliest memories was queueing for food rations in Jalazone. “You had a bowl of soup, and that’s what you ate that day,” he recalls. If there was a bit of bread to go around, then everyone in the family would share it. His father got a job as a janitor with the Jordanian Department of Agriculture, and was also tasked with different odd jobs by his employer. He was able to move the family out of Jalazone into a small house in East Jerusalem, under Jordanian control at the time.

Ten of them – Gene’s four brothers, three sisters and their parents – were crammed into two rooms. There was no electricity, running water or kitchen, and the toilet was outdoors. Still, it was an improvement on life in Jalazone, which Gene describes as being unsanitary and where he says people struggled to find work. “We used to go to the weddings and the funerals in the refugee camp. My relatives, when we visited them, had no food or money,” he says. “It was a horrible life, very subsistence. You can’t talk about how your grandmother’s cooking is, or the dish you like. Because that never happened: your grandmother was living in a shack, surrounded by sickness.”

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Poverty held him back from performing even better at school, says Gene, frustration creeping into his voice. “When your stomach is gurgling, you can’t focus. I remember thinking I would have been smarter than I was, if only I wasn’t hungry.”

He was especially good at maths, and was always near the top of the class. “But I couldn’t afford to buy a compass and protractor,” he says, referring to the tools often used in geometry classes. “So when I was asked to draw a circle of a certain radius, I’d draw it by hand and get a zero. The teacher wouldn’t give me credit for that.”

Neither of his parents had been to school, and from a young age, he had to help them read important paperwork. His other siblings were not academically inclined, either. He credits his parents for encouraging him to continue with his education, saying, “My dad would have preferred that we left school and went and got a job, because there was not enough money to go around. But they [his parents] saw that I was doing good at school, and they thought it would be better for me to continue.” At night, Gene did his homework by the light of a kerosene lamp, dreaming of the day he would be able to leave and pursue his studies abroad.

In his early teens, Gene worked six days a week at a restaurant in Jerusalem, cleaning and washing the floors. At the end of the week, he would be paid one dollar. The restaurant’s owner promised to let him eat for free in exchange for his labour. But instead, he piled leftovers from his customers on a plate and served them to Gene. To this day, Gene says he “doesn’t touch leftovers”, because they remind him of how poorly he was treated. These experiences were a gash on his psyche that never fully healed – but they also fuelled a lifelong drive and ambition. “To this day, I never forget these things, because they make you angry. And I decided that I would never be poor again, no matter where I live,” he explains.

In 1967, just after the Arab-Israeli War, 16-year-old Gene was walking by the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of the Mount of Olives next to the Old City of Jerusalem. “This Jewish guy who was passing by looked at me and he said to me in Hebrew, ‘This is our land’,” Gene says, his voice rising slightly. He swore at the man and responded in the same language, “No, this is my land.” The man waved at an Israeli military four-wheel drive that was driving close to them, and started to speak rapidly to the soldiers “in more complicated Hebrew that I didn’t understand”, Gene says. The soldiers told him to get into the vehicle, took him to a spot near a monastery on the Mount of Olives and beat him until he passed out. He refused to plead with them.“But I was just a kid, I was scared to death,” he says.

Israeli leaders David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin lead a group of soldiers past the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on a victory tour following the June 1967 war in Jerusalem [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

The incident incentivised him to study even harder so he could leave Palestine, and earn enough to help his family escape the indignities of the Israeli occupation as much as possible. “I spent all of ‘68 just finishing school, going to Jordan to get my passport,” he says, referring to the temporary travel documents that the Jordanian government continues to issue to Palestinians wishing to go abroad. For months, he had been researching universities in the US, and enrolled at Kansas Wesleyan University to study chemistry.

His father’s colleagues from work helped to type up the letters and personal statements he needed to submit to the university, and to translate his academic transcripts. He saved up for the first semester of university by selling postcards to Israeli soldiers that he had bought from a local library. “When they conquered Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho, they just wanted to see what those cities looked like because some of them may have come from the Egyptian front and others from the Syrian front,” he says, referring to the 1967 war in which a coalition of Arab nations, primarily Egypt, Syria and Jordan, fought Israel.

Gene ended up making about $1,500 from the sale of those postcards.That same year, he got on a flight to the US to start university. He was the first in his family to pursue higher education. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” he says.

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Gene Zaid's mother and father in Jerusalem taken when he went back to visit his family in 1973 [Photo courtesy of Gene Zaid]

Without a scholarship, he washed dishes and served tables in restaurants, and cleaned libraries and toilets to pay for his tuition and living expenses. After graduation, he worked in different industries from meatpacking to oil and gas, while finishing a PhD in chemistry at Wichita State University, also in Kansas. Upon completing his studies, he settled in Kansas, setting up a small laboratory in the back yard of the house where he lived, and creating a product for the oil industry that prevented corrosion in production machines and equipment. After successfully patenting this product, Gene set up his own oilfield chemical manufacturing company.

In 1980, he was finally able to bring his parents to the US. But they did not stay, telling him: “This is not for us. We’re going home.” So Gene ended up buying houses for his family members in Jerusalem, where his parents lived until they passed away; his father in 2008, and his mother a decade later. In 1994, he formally Americanised his name to “Gene” from his birth name, Najib, after being fed up that people couldn’t pronounce it properly. “Anyway, I wanted people to focus on my work rather than where I was from,” he says.

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Gene Zaid and his mother in Kansas, when his parents visited him [Photo courtesy of Gene Zaid]

After 30 years running his company, he sold it and invested the $75m he got from it into building his current pharmaceutical company, Genzada, that is focused on creating a cancer treatment using traditional medicinal Palestinian plants.

Over the years, Gene has visited Palestine repeatedly to see his family. His voice cracks slightly when he talks about his desire to return for good – but only if it is free, and not under Israeli control. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” he says, suddenly overcome with emotion. “I’d love to go back, but not be beaten by Israeli soldiers. I’d volunteer my time to teach in the community where I choose to live. But this is a dream.”

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Three elderly women from Bayt Nabala returning to their village in 2016 [Photo courtesy of Tarek Bakri]
Three elderly women from Bayt Nabala returning to their village in 2016 [Photo courtesy of Tarek Bakri]

'This is my village'

Signs of Israel — from the Beit Nehemia moshav to the Shoham Forest Park and Ben-Gurion Airport — dominate the landscape that was once Bayt Nabala.

Still, there is a smattering of reminders of the village that used to exist, for those who know how to find them amid overgrown grass and thorny bushes. Just six to eight metres west of the school, where Mahmoud and his friends were playing when the village was first attacked, the old village well comes into view.

East of the school is the cemetery, still surrounded by cacti. These cacti, says Musa Saleh, the surgeon in Jordan, bear witness to the fact that Palestinians used to live here. “Cacti don't grow by themselves,” he says. “Somebody has to cultivate them.”

Haleemah Khaddash, 78, stands in front of a large cactus in the place where her village once stood, during a visit to Bayt Nabala in 2016 [Photo courtesy of Tarek Bakri]

Since 1948, the cactus has turned into a symbol of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. It is sturdy, grows in the harshest environments, and is called saber, which also means “patience” in Arabic.

On his visits to the village, Musa likes spending time by the tombstones in the cemetery. Though they are mostly destroyed, he finds comfort in the fact that his grandparents and great-grandparents were buried there. “At least they didn’t have to experience the pain of losing their homes,” he says.

But Bayt Nabala is “home” not just for those who lived there. Over the last 20 years, a younger generation has been trying to reclaim their ancestral village in their own ways, by returning frequently to learn as much as they can about it.

Sometimes, that means using their imagination to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Haneen Saleh, Musa’s 37-year-old daughter, has gone to the village several times since she was nine. On her first visit, she was struck by her father’s reaction to walking around a place he had heard so many stories about, but had never had the chance to live in. “He was trying so hard, I could see him trying to look for something that he recognised. It was heartbreaking to see him looking for something he could connect with.” But over the years, after multiple trips with other relatives who had lived in Bayt Nabala, she believes that her father has finally found the relationship with the land he was looking for.

For a time, Haneen would dream up an alternative universe where she still lives in Bayt Nabala. “I started this blog on Facebook Notes, where I created imaginary friends in the village,” she says. “I would write about different things. There would be a neighbour, Saleem. The mother of Saleem would always be trying to find me a husband.”

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Haneen Saleh, Musa Saleh's daughter, has been back to Bayt Nabala, the village her father's family fled, several times [Photo courtesy of Haneen Saleh]

Although buoyed by the positive responses to these posts, she eventually stopped writing them. She says she is not sure why, but feels it’s possible that “reality hit, that I would not be able to go and live in Bayt Nabala”. Recently, she has been thinking of starting them again.

“I always say that I had a Palestinian upbringing rather than a Muslim or Arab one,” she says, laughing. “For me, Palestine was a place where we learnt how to live and socialise. My parents would say things like, ‘Palestinians study harder. Palestinians don’t lie.’ We were surrounded all the time by the folkloric dances, the songs. My grandmother wore a thobe until she was very old. So I’ve always known where I come from.”

But she later realised that many Palestinians living in the West Bank did not feel the same way about her, perhaps believing that she had escaped the visceral realities of the Israeli occupation. “Every time I talked about Palestine with someone living there, they would say, ‘Yeah, what would you know? You don’t live here.’”

Determined to prove her connection to the land, Haneen lived in Ramallah from 2013 until 2022. She eventually left for Dubai, disillusioned by the reality of her life under Israeli occupation while acknowledging the privilege of being able to leave. “I had to prioritise my sanity and mental health over living in a place where I’m reminded every day that my life is not significant, that I could die at any moment without anyone being accountable for my life,” she says.

While in Ramallah, however, Haneen says that “usually, I’d just get this feeling that I needed to go [to Bayt Nabala].” And so she did – every few months or so. She marvelled at how the fields of the village seemed to come alive with different shades of colour through the seasons. “I’ve seen it when the flowers are blooming, beautiful and yellow at the beginning of spring. Once I went, and it was just filled with lavender. I plucked some to take with me, and it felt a bit like reclaiming my land.”

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Haneen picking lavender from a field in Bayt Nabala [Photo courtesy of Haneen Saleh]

Like Haneen, 31-year-old Rand Safi has often thought about what life would be like if she was living in Bayt Nabala, where her paternal grandfather, Abd al Rahim Hasan Safi, grew up.

Rand lives in Ramallah, where she works with young Palestinian tech entrepreneurs.

Her grandfather, whom Rand says was always reticent about his experience of the Nakba, had fled to Jordan in 1948. “But he couldn’t take it because it was too far, and came back,” she says. He lived the rest of his life in Deir Ammar.

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Rand Safi with other descendants of people from Bayt Nabala, on the old village well during a visit on January 7, 2022 [Photo courtesy of Rand Safi]

On her first visit back to Bayt Nabala in 2018, Rand went with Tarek Bakri, a Palestinian-born researcher and archivist who has been running a project called “We Were And Still Are… Here” for almost 10 years. By poring over photographs from 1948, maps and diagrams from historian Salman Abu Sitta’s Atlas of Palestine, informal directions from survivors of the Nakba, and an eclectic range of other resources, Tarek has helped to arrange and document trips home for several hundred Palestinians wishing to visit their old villages.

In Bayt Nabala, Rand and Tarek walked for hours, trying to picture how the buildings would have looked.

“It was overwhelming for me,” Rand recalls. “Just imagine putting on virtual reality glasses, and seeing everything built on empty land full of cacti and different plants. I felt like I had walked into another reality, based on the histories, the stories that I’d heard, and the stuff I’d read.”

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Rand shows her jewellery, which symbolises resistance to Israeli occupation [Photo courtesy of Rand Safi]

Last year, Rand took her 13-year-old brother to Bayt Nabala for the first time. “I've always wanted that journey, and the village, to be part of my brother's life,” she says. At the end of the trip, she yearned for more. “There's nothing else you can see, except the cemetery, the school, and the different locations of where the houses were. It’s like, I want to see more, you know? I want to sleep here! I want to feel like I can live here,” she recalls.

Homecoming for Rand is a bizarrely tortuous odyssey from Ramallah, just 40km (25 miles) away – involving three-hour-long waits at the Ni’lin checkpoint, located along the separation wall that segregates the West Bank from Israel. On each visit, as she approaches the checkpoint, she never conceals the jewellery she wears. These include a bracelet with a little silver cactus on it, and a necklace with the image of a popular character called Handala, created by the political cartoonist Naji al-Ali in 1969. Handala represents the Palestinian people: he is a 10-year-old boy whose face is not seen, with his back turned to the viewer and hands clasped behind him, symbolising his resistance to Israel’s occupation.

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It is through her interest in returning to Bayt Nabala that Rand reconnected with an old friend of her father, the short story writer and teacher Ziad Khaddash, who won the Palestinian Prize for Literature in 2015 and lives in Jalazone. Through word of mouth, she had heard about a trip that Ziad was organising to Bayt Nabala in 2021. With about 20 other people, they had set off together in a bus.

Over WhatsApp voice messages, 58-year-old Ziad speaks about how his grandfather’s displacement from Bayt Nabala has charted the course of his life. “Even when I’m writing, I feel I am a refugee writer,” he says. “It’s not just about how I’ve been stripped of my wealth, or how I’m now living in a camp with no land, or that my father uses a plant pot whenever he wants to grow parsley or anything else. I always feel that my grandfather passed down the pain of expulsion to me.”

In 2016, Ziad was walking down the street in Jalazone when he ran into his aunt, Haleemah Khaddash, who was then 78 years old. He greeted her, saying “God willing, we’ll be home next year.” When Haleemah responded that she hadn’t been back to Bayt Nabala since 1948, he was shocked. He called Tarek Bakri, and they decided to organise a trip to the village for Haleemah and two other elderly women from Bayt Nabala.

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Haleemah, in a cream-coloured thobe in the centre, with two other elderly women from Bayt Nabala as they return to the sites of their former homes in the village  [Photo courtesy of Tarek Bakri]

The five of them set off from Ramallah in Tarek’s car. The three women sat in the back, singing songs and talking excitedly. When they arrived at the village, Ziad recalls, “They went up the hill incredibly fast, screaming like children: “Bayt Nabala, Bayt Nabala!” Haleemah, who had taken care to wear her traditional thobe, was a tiny, birdlike figure, leaping about. “Guide us to the three groves so I can show you our old house,” she had told Ziad. Along with Tarek, he led her to the groves. She started shouting: “This is my house, this is my house, this is my house!”

Tarek laughs as he recalls how Haleemah was able to identify exactly where she had lived. “We were standing on ruins, but she could recognise everything!” he says. “We spent maybe two hours there.” The women crouched on the ground, picking the olives that had fallen off the trees and filling plastic bags with them. But when he and Ziad tried to tell them that it was time to leave, they spread out a rug and sat on the ground. Ziad remembers, “She [Haleemah] said, ‘leave me here, I want to sleep here. Get me a tent. I don’t want to go back to Ramallah. This is my village.’”

After that, they drove to the coast. “On a clear day in Ramallah”, Tarek says, “you can see the sea.” But Haleemah had never been, and the two men couldn’t help but smile when she gingerly stood on the sand gazing out towards the turquoise waters, dipping her fingers cautiously into the tide.

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Haleemah, in the centre, had never been to the coast before [Photo courtesy of Tarek Bakri]

Bayt Nabala continues to haunt Ziad, in his writing and in his thoughts. “When anyone utters the words ‘Bayt Nabala’, I get the shivers — my heart spasms from grief, from a mysterious joy,” he says. He too has contemplated what he would have done if the Nakba didn’t happen. “I imagine I’d be a professor at Yafa University, for example – a professor of creative writing. having a small car, a wife and children. We would go to the sea on holidays and vacations. I imagine owning land and having another source of income supplementing my university salary. I imagine staying up at night, going to cafes in Jaffa, in Lydda and Ramla, and getting back home late but safe.”

Often, the nightmare of displacement feels like a hidden-camera prank to him. He imagines that someone will eventually turn off the camera, switching off the collective nightmare that millions of people descended from the Palestinians who fled Bayt Nabala and other villages in those catastrophic months in 1948 have been living since they were born.

But for now, until the day he can return, he can only dream of what he would do if the land were his again. “I will stand – I will hurry toward the hill, the highest point in Bayt Nabala,” he says, “and I will scream a mad scream of love and joy rocking the corners of the earth.”

For the people of Bayt Nabala and their descendants, the dream of returning to their village might appear distant - but it's one that's worth holding on to. It was home. And it will always remain so. This image was generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]
For the people of Bayt Nabala and their descendants, the dream of returning to their village might appear distant - but it's one that's worth holding on to. It was home. And it will always remain so. This image was generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

It takes a village to recreate one. Bayt Nabala's story was only possible to tell because of the memories and support of Ali Abdelrahman Assaf, Mahmoud Abdullah Nakhleh, Saada Safi, Musa Saleh, Tarek Bakri, Sharaf dar Zaid, Gene Zaid, Haneen Saleh, Rand Safi and many, many others; pioneering books like the Atlas of Palestine; and documentation of the tumultuous period from 1947-1950 by historians and journalists.

Source: Al Jazeera