Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir

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By: Salman Abu Sitta

Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press. 332pp, $44.95, ISBN: 9789774167300

Volume: 5 Issue: 10

October 2017

Review by:

Nancy Gallagher, PhD

University of California

Santa Barbara, CA

Salman Abu Sitta has a plan to return home after a long journey. His initial journey away from home began in al-Ma’an in May 1938 when Zionist forces attacked and drove his family from its home. Then a boy of ten, he fled with his older brother on the back of a horse to Khan Yunis and eventually to Egypt where he was able to enroll in school. He was from a prominent landowning family with connections throughout southern Palestine and Egypt, and through his own efforts and some luck was able to complete his degree in engineering, gain professional work in Kuwait, and eventually emigrate to Canada where he established himself and raised his family.

He skillfully fuses the story of his life with well-known historical events to bring to life the Nakba, the Palestinian resistance, and his growing conviction of what must be done to bring a measure of justice to the tragedies he has lived through. He did extensive archival research to understand who had taken his land. He joined leading Palestinian organizations and founded others. He became active in Canadian politics. He sought out and met with Israelis who had attacked and displaced his family. His story echoes that of many Palestinians.  His narrative joins the growing genre of accomplished and illuminating Palestinian memoirs. He juxtaposes world-shaking and very personal events in an accessible, well-researched account.

In 1995, he was able to visit his homeland for the first time since 1948. He visited a Palestinian family in Acre and learned that the family was not allowed to repair their house or to make changes to it. The Israeli authorities would eventually class it “uncared for.”  If an Israeli purchased it, he would be allowed to repair or change it as he wished. In another instance, in a deserted area of al-Ma’an, he and his daughter followed a sign to an ancient synagogue that he had not remembered to be there. He found the ruins of a Byzantine church with its typical mosaic floor. His daughter found that a menorah had been inserted into the floor but with stones that had been painted.

His goal is the return of Palestinians to their land despite its reconstitution into a Jewish majority state and society. He founded and headed organizations devoted to the return of Palestinians. He attended conferences and became close friends with leading Palestinians like Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu Lughod. He opposed Oslo and other peace plans because they did not address the question of return.

He knows how difficult any sort of return will be. In one telling episode, he had dinner with Uri Avnery, the noted Israeli peace activist. He asked Avnery if he would accept him as a neighbor. Anviery firmly replied, “no.”

Abu Sitta’s great discovery, however, was that Palestinians might be able to return to their land without living next to Israelis. Most of their destroyed villages are in areas that are nearly uninhabited. The vast majority of the Israeli population lives along the coast or in large urban areas.  Palestinians who wish to return could resettle their lands and still be far removed from the dominant society. They would have to work in light industry or other non-farming pursuits, he realizes, but investment is available and development possible.

In the last chapter of his fascinating book, he details his final journey. He hopes to be buried in Amman, in his family cemetery, next to his brothers. He then wants to be taken to the Gaza Strip, one mile from his birthplace to be interred facing al-Ma’an. He then wants to be brought to al-Ma’an, accompanied by family and friends, be interred on the spot where he was born.

Salman Abu Sitta became a refugee at age ten.

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