“We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing. As if travel were a path of clouds. We buried our loved ones in the shade of clouds and between roots of trees.” Thus wrote Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet. Born in the village of al-Birwe, in the Upper Galilee, he spent his life in exile: in 1948, when he was just six, his family fled to Lebanon as the Israeli army occupied and destroyed his village, and though they managed to return ‘illegally’ a year later to what had by then become the State of Israel, they remained classified as ‘present-absent aliens’.
Caught in a labyrinthine web of military rulings designed to make Palestinian lives unliveable, he could not even travel from village to village without permission. He finally left in 1970 and did not return until 1996, when he was allowed to settle in the West Bank – but for him, this was nevertheless exile. He died in 2007 and is now buried on a hill above Ramallah, from where, on a clear day, you can just see the Mediterranean of his childhood.
Let me see an end to this journey, said Darwish. The exile of which he wrote is a fate shared by millions: there were 4 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN in 2002, and many thousands more were killed in the massacres of 1948 and have died under the subsequent 62 years of Israeli occupation. May 15th, Nakba Day, commemorates what in Arabic is called the ‘catastrophe’; yet it also expresses the steadfastness of the Palestinian people in their hope to one day return home. Though Darwish did not live to see that day, let us hope that today’s exiles will.