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Nakba Day marks the loss that Palestinians feel daily

Huda al-Imam | Farid al-Imam (left) in 1928; the Imam's house in the Baq'aa district in 2018.

May 15 is the date when Palestinians observe Nakba Day —“Day of the Catastrophe”— in commemoration of their displacement in 1948 after Israel’s declaration of independence and the ensuing war, but their sense of loss is always with them.


Huda Imam’s home in East Jerusalem is a testament to loss. In her living room are 40 painted tiles that used to be in her grandmother’s house in West Jerusalem. Another 10 line a hallway. Inserted into bathroom and hallway doors are curved glass panes that were once her grandmother’s windows.

Imam, an actress and the founder of the Centre for Jerusalem Studies at Al-Quds University, was seven the first time she saw that house. As soon as the curfew following the war of 1967 was lifted, her father, Farid, took her on the long walk there from the home they lived in in East Jerusalem.

“It was the first time I had seen Jews,” Imam said.

Farid Imam hadn’t seen the house he had built for his mother since 1948, when he had taken her and fled on a moment’s notice to his childhood home in the Old City, where he still lived. “The radio was telling everyone to leave or they would be massacred,” Huda Imam said.

Huda al-Imam in her house in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem.
Huda al-Imam in her house in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem.


At the time, Farid thought they would be leaving the house empty for a matter of days. Instead, nearly two decades passed before he was able to return. After the war of 1948, a chain fence divided the city, and no Arab could cross over to the western side. During the war in 1967, Israel seized the Old City and East Jerusalem, reuniting the city and enabling Arabs to cross to the west once again.

'I had never seen so much sadness'

“My father probably thought he was going to go back to his house and repossess it,” Imam said. “We found out that wasn’t at all the case. They had already accommodated other people.”

A Polish family that had fled the Holocaust had been living there. The Imams approached the door, but the new occupants of the house didn’t want them to even enter the garden.

“I had never seen so much sadness on my father’s face,” Imam said.

Imam’s story is far from unique. More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were pushed out of their houses in 1948, and nearly every Palestinian family in Jerusalem has a story of a family home now lived in by strangers, or knows someone who does.

Today, Nakba Day, is the day when they remember their losses.

Nakba Day was inaugurated by Yasser Arafat in 1998 and, since then, Palestinians around the world mark the day with marches, speeches and rallies.

Nearly 1,000 years in Jerusalem

This year’s Nakba Day is particularly salient, not only because it marks the 70th anniversary of Palestinian dispossession but because it is also when at least 60 Palestinians who were killed in Gaza on Monday during protests over the relocation of the US embassy were buried. Another 2,700 Palestinians were injured in the protests.

Imam, too, protested Monday, at the site of the new embassy. For her, Jerusalem is a single city and the capital of Palestine. More importantly, it is her city. The whole city. Both her mother’s family and her father’s family had long and storied histories in the city, and her relatives have been Jerusalemites for nearly 1,000 years. Her father grew up in the Old City, he built his mother’s house in the west and he raised his children in the east.

Jerusalem is Imam’s city, but like all Palestinians, she can longer feel fully at home there. Talk of occupation is universal among Palestinians, as is their constant awareness that someone else is making the rules. The police are all Israeli, and they all carry machine guns, a ubiquitous reminder of the balance of power.

Imam resists wherever possible. Walking thought her upscale neighbourhood on Sunday, Imam saw a young man being frisked by Israeli police. She stopped to film. Entering the Jerusalem Gate on Monday, she saw a teenager who had been detained by police because he was wearing a keffiyeh, the black and white scarf that has become a symbol of the Palestinian cause. Again, she stopped and filmed. She protested against the embassy and on Nakba Day.

She also has other, more personal forms of resistance. Every Friday she gets into her car and drives over to the family house in West Jerusalem and stands where its current residents can see her.

“Sometimes they call the police,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t. I’m not afraid.”

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