A memory of the Nakba: 10-years-old and forced out at gunpoint

Dr. Nabil Shaath at his childhood home in Yaffa, the Palestinian name for Jaffa. (Photo courtesy: Nabila Ramdani)

Nabil Shaath was just 10 years old when he was forced out of Yaffa, the Palestinian name for Jaffa, at gunpoint, but he still treats the ancient port city like home. The 76-year-old was the Palestinian Authority’s first ever foreign minister, and remains a hugely influential statesman, but accompanying him through Israel for Nabka Day – May 15th – was ultimately about his childhood.

“I remember the place so well. My boyhood here was a very happy one,” said Shaath, who vividly describes the time before the Nabka, or “Catastrophe.” This was when Yaffa became part of the new Jewish state, and Zionist paramilitary groups such as the Irgun began attacking civilian populations with high explosives fired from mortars.

“We’d never experienced anything like that – on the contrary, Jews, Muslims, Christians and other groups had all lived together in harmony. I had a great Jewish friend at school, a little boy who sat next to me in class. It was a perfect place to grow up. The city was our playground.”

Shaath was clearly deeply emotional as he stood next to his old family home in what used to be the Al-Nuzha, or “picnic area,” of Yaffa. The onetime fine family villa where he lived with his father Ali, his mother Samiha, his brother Nadeem, and his three sisters Maysoon, Noha and Zinab, is now a dilapidated drugs rehabilitation centre.

“My father would’ve fainted if he’d found out what became of our house,” said Shaath. “There were no drug problems when we lived here. Yaffa was a very civilized place, with lots of cinemas, including the renowned Al-Hamra, theaters and two daily newspapers. The best thing about it was the constant smell of jasmine, and the sight of orange trees everywhere.

“Oranges were at the heart of the city’s success. International demand propelled it onto the world stage, and into the global economy. By the 1930s, Yaffa was exporting tens of millions of citrus crates abroad, providing thousands of jobs.

“Tourism was also a very big industry. Tens of thousands of people came on holiday, and there were also many pilgrims to the Christian holy sites scattered around the city. Yaffa was the heart of the country, known for its seafront and sporting activities.

“Yaffa was also a great cultural center. Films came from Cairo, and I used to get into my aunt’s cinema for free. Oum Kalthoum, the Egyptian singer known as the Star of the East and the Diva of the Arabic Song, performed at the theater twice a year. The city was such a vibrant place – it was buzzing all the time.”

Shaath’s father was headmaster of the Amaria School, the largest in Yaffa, while he himself went to Tabeetha, a Scottish Catholic school that accepted children from every faith. Re-visiting the school was another very moving moment for Shaath, especially when he heard the strains of Frère Jacques (Brother Jacques), the “morning bell” French nursery rhyme that was regularly sung when he was a boy.

“So much has changed, but there are constants which never do,” said Shaath, who now lives in Ramallah, in the West Bank, following a brilliant career that has seen him take part in numerous negotiations aimed at trying to end Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land.

He briefly returned to Yaffa in 1994, but this is the first time that he has spent the Nakba anniversary here. “It makes me think of my father organizing protests against the British Mandate, and then all of us escaping the violence,” he said.

There were up to 80,000 people living in Yaffa before the persecution started, but when the Zionists took control thousands were killed. Some 95 percent of the city’s indigenous Arab population was displaced, and buildings were destroyed. The Shaath family first fled to Cairo, and he went on to study in the United States, then became a teacher at the American University in Beirut. He later returned to what is left of Palestine with his wife Raja and their children.

The indefatigable Shaath has spent most of his professional life calling for the right of return for the forcibly dispossessed Palestinians. He was a regular at historic meetings, including at Camp David and Taba, calling for recognition by Israel of Palestinians’ loss and suffering.

“The worst thing about modern Yaffa is of course that it’s now part of Israel,” said Shaath. “The majority of the lovely old houses have gone, or else they’ve been converted into multi-home blocks. Like so many others around the world, my dream is to see a free Palestine centered on Yaffa. This is the kind of vision that drives me.”

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