Book Review: Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced February 16, 2015 22:30

By Rochelle A. Davis, Stanford University Press, 2010, paperback, 360 pp.

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Reviewed by Andrew Stimson

After almost 63 years of diaspora and occupation, how will Palestinians continue to remain connected to the more than 400 villages depopulated and destroyed by Jewish militias and the Israeli army in the 1947-1949 war? The answer to this question is not just philosophical, it is crucial to the pressing issues of the right of return and demarcation of boundaries. Most of these villages were destroyed or saw their buildings appropriated and resettled by waves of Israeli immigrants. In addition, the generation of those old enough to remember life before 1948 continues to decrease and the challenge of remembrance is made more difficult because there is no Palestinian state, and thus no national museums or other institutional bodies to help develop and preserve an official, unified history.

Palestinians have managed to embed village histories in their daily life by naming refugee camp streets and schools after these long-lost hometowns. Since the 1980s, oral histories have become the most detailed source of remembrance. Many of these stories have been recorded in village memorial books which document geographical locations, genealogies, cultural traditions and livelihood. These books and their authors are the subject of Rochelle A. Davis' insightful book,Palestinian Village Histories. These histories, she argues, help maintain and reflect a Palestinian identity that exists despite the fact that many of the authors never have lived in their ancestral village. Perhaps more importantly, these records of dispossession help establish political authority, subverting Western and Zionist accounts dismissive of pre-1948 Palestine.

Davis, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgetown University, spent many years living in Egypt and Jordan, amassing a collection of 112 village memorial books. Excellently researched,Palestinian Village Histories includes textual analyses of more than 120 village books, personal interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork Davis conducted in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. In breathless detail, she illustrates the myriad ways these stories pass on village knowledge, connecting each to the Palestinian homeland, and passing on the memories to younger generations.

Because their authors often work independently, without the imprimatur of official history, village books are intensely scrutinized, often contested and argued over within the communities they are meant to serve. Intercommunal and familial disputes, distortions of old memories, and some nostalgia challenge Western standards of accurate historical accounting. Indeed, as one author points out to Davis, "this new generation thinks that we were all kings back then....They don't want to accept the fact that we were riding donkeys and walking around barefoot." However, Davis argues, "we must understand how people see their past in order to know how they conceive of their lives and of their place in the world today." For many refugees, the true past is still preferable to the squalor of the camps they live in today.

The proliferation of Palestinian village books during the 1980s, 30 years after the destruction of Palestine, reflects the increasing importance of the national struggle as well as the failures of national leadership. Early Palestinian historians often stressed their Arab-ness as a counter to increasing Zionist influence. However, the failure of Arab nationalism and the rise of the PLO ushered in the emphasis on the Palestinian nature of the struggle. In 1985, when Israelis seized the archives of the PLO's Palestine Research Center in Beirut, Palestinians realized that they had to seek alternative sources of documentation. Subsequent failures of Palestinian leadership further encouraged individuals to invest in their voices of remembrance. This produced a unique development, Davis observes, wherein villagers, once governed by village elites and landowners, became empowered with the authority to represent who Palestinians are today.

Davis conducts a welcome examination of gendered themes within the village books. She notes that, among other topics, modern gender roles, common in urban settings, have altered interpretations of the past. Today, few Palestinian women work outside of the home, yet only elite village women enjoyed the kind of wealth that would have let them engage solely in housework. Either through selective memories or editorial choice, however, many village books eliminate stories that discuss the difficult work endured by women in order to help provide for their families.

Despite a few short sections that deal with exclusively academic debates, Palestinian Village Histories is eminently accessible for a general audience. The book's most notable flaw, however, is sheer ambition in the author's development of a number of important theses instead of a clear, central thesis. Perhaps this could have been avoided by dividing the book into multiple volumes. Ultimately, Davis offers the reader an invaluable study on how Palestinians are maintaining the knowledge of their village histories while simultaneously maintaining their identities against the odds.