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Book Review: A moving Palestinian memoir

“Mapping My Return” documents Palestinian author and intellectual Salman Abu Sitta’s lifelong quest to return to Al-Ma’in, his home near Beersheba. Though Israel is currently emboldened in its plans for illegal settlements, nothing could have ever deterred Abu Sitta in his desire to return to his homeland. Perseverance coupled with a remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances and beckoning opportunities have played an important role in Abu Sitta’s life.
He became a refugee in 1948 when David Ben-Gurion created the state of Israel. From there, Abu Sitta’s journey took him to Egypt, Kuwait, England, Canada and other places — but these were only stopovers on his way back home. The enduring desire to return to Al-Ma’in, nurtured by memories of a happy home, is the defining feature of his life. He wrote that his parents’ “presence in my soul as pillars of support was the fuel of my life.” His mother, generous and devoted to her children, made up for his father’s frequent absences due to his job as chief judge at the tribal court of Beersheba.
Although he was still a child, Abu Sitta remembers the importance of the tents where men gathered after dusk in his homeland. Abu Sitta’s father belonged to the Tarabin, “the largest, wealthiest and strongest tribe in southern Palestine.” Each tribe is divided into clans and his father was the sheikh of a clan. Even though the members of the Tarabin clan were settled and no longer nomadic, they were and still are immensely proud of their tribal affiliation and remain faithful to the nomadic code of ideals, which includes hospitality and honor.
Leaving his hometown
Sheikh Hussein, Abu Sitta’s father, taught himself to read and write and became a pioneer in education, building a school at his own expense. He also wanted his sons to have grants to study at Oxford or Cambridge. But the district commissioner told him: “Why Sheikh Hussein? Your sons will be sheikhs, like their father and grandfathers before them. Do you want education for your sons so they can end up as clerks in a government office?” To this, Sheikh Hussein replied: “I want education for them because it is education which brought you from a faraway land to rule over us!”
The declaration of Israel’s statehood was made on May 14, 1948. Abu Sitta was barely 11. His school had been bombed so his father asked his elder son to return at once to Cairo to resume his studies and to take their younger brother along. Everything happened so fast. The author never imagined that he would never see his hometown again.
“My unexpected departure did not feel that it would be such a long separation, it was simply a sojourn in another place for a while. If the future was vague for me at that moment, the past that I had just left behind became frozen in my mind and became my present forever... The events of these two days catapulted us into the unknown. I spent the rest of my life on a long winding journey of return,” Abu Sitta wrote.
The journey took him to Egypt where he excelled as a student. “Education was the most brilliant manifestation of the refugees’ human spirit, which elevated pupils from solving algebra on the tarmac to sitting in lecture halls at Harvard,” he wrote.
From Kuwait to Canada
His first job took him to Kuwait but he found the work there boring and not challenging enough. He wanted in fact to pursue postgraduate education and waited for that opportunity to come by.
One day Abu Sitta happened to see an invitation for young Arab engineers to undergo training with British companies. He had spent less than a year in Kuwait but was soon on his way to the UK where he obtained a postgraduate degree at University College, London.
He eventually settled with his wife in Canada where he taught at the University of Western Ontario. A year after his arrival he bought a house with a front garden and a spacious backyard. When he told his father this was the only land outside of Palestine he could call home, and that he was unthreatened by guns and tanks, his father immediately sent him a letter. He wrote: “You must give me your promise that you pledge before God Almighty that you will never abandon your country.” This was Sheikh Hussein’s last command to his son. He died five months later.
Dedication to the Palestinian cause
Abu Sitta dedicated the rest of his life to the Palestinian cause. He has written six books and more than 300 articles and papers on Palestine, and is best known for his cartographic work. He is also resident of the Palestine Land Society and has been called the “keeper of the keys of return.”
This is one of the best memoirs I have read about Palestine. The content is rich, the tone sincere, the style eloquent, and of all the narrative is imbued with a profound sense of justice.
“Mapping My Return” chronicles a long journey which began in 1948 with the “Nakba,” the mass expulsion of Palestinians. Abu Sitta embodies the resilience and steadfastness of Palestinians in their quest of freedom and dignity.
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