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Sunday, February 05, 2012

"Nakba" didn't originally mean what Arabs say it means

The first time that the word "Nakba" was used by an Arab in the context of the 1948 war was by Lebanese Arab nationalist Constantine Zureiq.

Barry Rubin notes:
Constantine Zurayk was vice-president of the American University of Beirut. His book was entitled The Meaning of the Disaster. Here’s the key passage:

"Seven Arab states declare war on Zionism in Palestine, stop impotent before it and turn on their heels. The representatives of the Arabs deliver fiery speeches in the highest government forums, warning what the Arab states and peoples will do if this or that decision be enacted. Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet, and steel and iron are rusted and twisted, quick to bend and disintegrate.”

This is the old style of Arab discourse. Zurayk openly acknowledged the Arab states rejected all compromise, made ferocious threats, and invaded the new state of Israel to destroy it. For him, the “nakba” taught that they needed to modernize and democratize their system. Only thoroughgoing reform could fix the shortcomings of the Arabic-speaking world. What happened instead was another 55 years of the same thing, followed by this new era opening last year which will probably also bring a half-century of the same thing. Nakba has become the opposite of what Zurayk wanted it to be: Blaming your opponent rather than acknowledging your own shortcomings and fixing them.

...The nakba concept of which Zurayk wrote was much broader, the Arabic-speaking world’s failure to embrace modernity, science, real democracy, an other such things. In that respect, every day is a nakba and 2011 was not the year of the “Arab Spring” but the year of renewing the nakba strategy. It is a self-inflicted nakba and the victims are the Arabic-speaking people themselves.

What did Zurayk think about Zionism and its triumph? Here’s what he wrote:

“The reason for the victory of the Zionists was that the roots of Zionism are grounded in modern Western life while we for the most part are still distant from this life and hostile to it. They live in the present and for the future, while we continue to dream the dreams of the past and to stupefy ourselves with its fading glory.”

“To dream the dreams of the past and to stupefy ourselves with its fading glory.” Isn’t that precisely what the Nakba concept is used for today? To say: we cannot make a compromise peace because those horrible Israelis were so mean to us more than 60 years ago. We are victims. We want revenge. We dream of total victory.

And those dreams and that stupefying guarantees failure for the Arabs, and most of all the Palestinians, today.

If Zurayk were alive today he’d be an Arab liberal fighting radical Islamism. Zurayk wanted the Arabs to learn from their mistakes.
As usual, Rubin is right. The coiner of the term "nakba" had an entirely different meaning in mind. To him, "nakba" doesn't mean Israel's victory in 1948, but Arabs' failure to solve their problems. Here's how Nissim Rejwan summarized Zurayk's book in 1988:

Immediately following the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949 a number of Arab writers and thinkers, profoundly shocked by the defeat the armies of five Arab states suffered at the hands of what the Arabs called "the Zionist bands," set out to analyze the causes and draw the lessons of the debacle. Foremost among these was Constantine Zureiq, a Lebanese professor of history and a prolific political writer with strong Arab nationalist leanings. His book on the subject, Ma'na al-Nakba (The Meaning of the Disaster), was published soon after the outbreak of the war— August 1948 — and was mainly a work of self-criticism. The battle against Israel, he wrote, will not be won "as long as the Arabs remain in their present condition." The road to final and complete victory, he added, "lies in a fundamental change of the situation of the Arabs, in a complete transformation in their modes of thought, action and life." Subsequently, writing in 1966. Zureiq was to observe that the Arabs still had a long way to go to attain their goals in Palestine. He also coined a new term, 'ilm al-nakba —the science of Catastrophe or, better still, catastrophology — adding that the Arabs must now approach their problems with Israel "in a scientific Way."
The word had nothing to do with refugees. It meant that, just as today, Arabs blamed others for their own self-inflicted problems.

I believe that the first time that the word "catastrophe" was used in reference to the refugee problem by Palestinian Arabs was in a letter from the Arab Higher Committee to the UN in May 1949, where they said:
The Arabs believe that the United Nations Organization which is the author of the partition plan, is responsible for the catastrophe that has befallen the Palestinian refugees. As such it is the duty of the United Nations to remove the injustice done to the Arabs. We submit that by removing the cause of the problem of the refugees, the United Nations will have substantially solved their serious problem.
Meaning that they wanted to UN to dissolve Israel, supposedly as a means to solve the refugee issue.

This is how the word is used nowadays - as a means to destroy Israel, not the way the coiner of the term intended it, as criticism of the Arabs.