Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
A Palestinian scholarly tradition tends to isolate Palestinian history from a world historical context and other nationalist struggles. Laleh Khalili takes the opposite tack, setting Palestinian commemorative practices in a context of transnational ideologies and world events. She notes, for example, how the Palestinian resistance movement was contemporary with the Non-Aligned Movement, a peak moment of anti-colonialism when writers like Fanon, Cabral and Guevara offered “an intellectual community of resistance.” Later, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant rise of human rights discourse and Islamism interacted with fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement to modify commemorative themes. The guerrilla hero melts into the martyr, and heroic battles are replaced by massacres, with different audiences and contexts evoking different representations.

Commemorations have been a particularly powerful form for making as well as transmitting Palestinian history since 1948 — even before, if one remembers the political effect of the death of Sheikh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam. Dispersion and statelessness after 1948 made national day commemorations almost the only means of history transmission before the creation of the PLO. Since 1964 the forms of commemoration have become more organized and complex, as Palestinian diasporic history adds to a litany of resistance and tragedy. It is not popular memory that interests Khalili, however, but commemorations as mnemonic practices. She emphasizes their materiality and connectedness to everyday life, and shows how they alter over time and reflect disparate political environments. A roster of commemorative forms, especially images, the organization of time/space and ceremonial gatherings, is filled out with ethnographic description and archival research. What interests Khalili most is the content of commemorative narratives and their potential as “strategies of cohesion and struggle.”

Between 1969 and 1982 Lebanon was context for messages — speeches, publications, posters — that emphasized heroism, the guerrilla fighter and faith in armed struggle. After the PLO’s evacuation in 1982, it was narratives of sumud (steadfastness) that predominated, a widespread cultural motif attached to Lebanon as a region where refugee loss and suffering have been extraordinary. The third main narrative theme, suffering and victimhood, is deeply rooted in popular discourse, but Khalili reminds us that human rights discourse influenced national representation, just as audiences do. The One Hundred Martyrs exhibition shown in Beirut in 2002, pitched to a mainly international and urban audience, underlined the shift away from the heroic fighter to the unintentional martyr. NGO discourse and “misery tours” of the camps efface the resistance period. Khalili quotes a camp teacher’s critique of the NGO’s suffering narrative as giving children a “victimized mentality,” echoing Palestinian resistance criticism of UNRWA in the 1960s.

In parallel, there was a shift from commemorating battles (Karama, for example, or the Battle of Beirut in 1982) to commemorating massacres. Khalili argues that this shift reflects a move away from armed struggle toward negotiation. Martyrdom as a theme unifies and identifies Palestinians across the diaspora, yet its “polyvalence” subverts the resistance message. Khalili’s analysis of variations on the themes of martyrdom and massacre among different periods, factions and diaspora regions points to fragmentation, and the influence of local contexts. After the Oslo accords and Jordanian-Israeli peace (1994), Black September disappears from Fatah calendars. In Lebanon, commemoration of the Shatila massacre omits the Lebanese perpetrators. In the Occupied Territories a Fatah calendar celebrates the peace accords, legislative elections and Arafat’s “homecoming”; in Lebanon a contemporaneous Fatah-related NGO calendar still emphasizes massacres.

As the most concrete and flagrant reminders of the nakba, camps figure centrally in Heroes and Martyrs. The walls of camps are “billboards of commemoration,” and particular camps such as Shatila and Jenin have become emblems of resistance. The meaning of camps in national discourse has changed from “symbols of potent nationalism” in the late 1960s to sumud in the 1980s, to suffering in the 1990s. The people of the camps have been a special audience for resistance movement discourse, and sustain it through their lifeways. Only recently the death of a popular elder in Burj al-Barajna brought out most of the camp for his funeral. Not intentionally national, such practices maintain a culture of “weaving of death into everyday practices” that ensures that camps remain a habitat of collective solidarity and memory.

Yet fissures between the national leadership and camp people’s testimonies appear. There is a difference between descriptions of massacres in national movement discourse and the way survivors remember them. Resistance accounts of the Tall al-Za‘tar siege do not mention the hundreds of children who died of dehydration — specifics of suffering expressed in songs and stories at the time. Asked about his worst memories, a man in Burj al-Barajna said, “I didn’t have a childhood. My whole childhood was wars.” Khalili comments, “‘The battle’ was no longer what made heroes out of children but had rather become an affliction obliterating their childhood.”

Rather than segregating gender in a single chapter, Khalili brings it in throughout, noting, for example, the “hypermasculinity” of the armed struggle discourse, the portrayal of the nakba as blight on male honor and the depiction of battle as redemption of manhood. Women and children are the selected symbols of the NGO discourse of suffering. Nation-state discourse in general deepens gender difference, depicting men as active and women as passive. In periods such as the “war of the camps,” when women took a basic role in defense, they occupy the foreground, demonstrating that though sumud is part of women’s gender identity, it means more than patience.

Camp people often say, “Maybe no other people could have borne such suffering.” Khalili is to be congratulated for her perception that commemorative practices would offer an illuminating path to reworking a history that combines tragedy and resistance in unusual measure. The skill with which she brings together wide-ranging archival research and live-in observation has produced an outstanding study that balances cool analysis with lively sympathy.

How to cite this article:

Rosemary Sayigh "Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine," Middle East Report 245 (Winter 2007).
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