Haifa in Oral Memory: Neighbourhoods, Houses, and People

As part of the Memory of Palestine series, the ACRPS has published Haifa inOral Memory: Neighbourhoods, Homes, and People (472 pp.) by Rawda Ghanaim. The book traces the history of five neighbourhoods in the Palestinian city of Haifa through the autobiographical accounts of early residents, recounting the history of their families and details of their daily lives. These narrations provide a living biography of the city and Palestine in general and are complemented by photos from personal albums that reflect the developments and events that have unfolded since the end of the Ottoman period.

Haifa has a unique history, undergoing a transformative shift throughout the 19th century from a small fishing village to a developed industrial city and bustling trade centre. Its port and railway attracted huge waves of migration from both the Arab region and Europe, creating a cultural hub with a distinct character. This unique story is what Ghanaim captures through her collection of microhistories, buried in the memories of Haifa’s residents, providing rare insight into the often-neglected lived experiences of the ordinary Haifan. The author channels the human experience of this period in Haifa through 44 oral accounts, detailing rich stories of forced migration and the Nakba. Some recount the return of residents to their homes following the Nakba, illustrating the looting, devastation, and loss in its aftermath. These close ups of the collective trauma of the city cannot be found in the testimonies of officials and administrators.

Each neighbourhood discussed in the book has its own dynamics and character, which have in turn, transformed at different paces. While some were more rural and of a higher altitude, some were at the foot of the mountains and coastal, boasting trade centres, factories and workshops. The Arab neighbourhoods of Haifa have slowly been cut off from nature, with areas such as Al Atika now scheduled to be razed and replaced by a new development, and others under threat of the same fate. The author is thus charged with the daunting task of preserving the memory of this city before the destruction and Judaization of its neighbourhoods came to pose an existential threat to the Palestinians and Palestinian history of Haifa. As the Arabic language and Palestinian culture continue to face ongoing marginalisation, personal histories become ever more crucial to historical preservation to counteract attempts to Judaize cities like Haifa.

In the author’s words:

These experiences generated questions for me about the concept of homeland, and what it means to be Palestinian. I found the answers in the interviews I had with people, through their family photo albums, and in the walls of their homes, where I was able to recreate a past that was once alive, then nostalgia and memories. During those interviews, the country became a tangible place, and I found that the Palestine that we often evoke is like a vague shadow that is reflected in people's daily lives; It is the voices that fill the markets, and the form of life in the port and on the roads. It is the Arabic language that has prevailed for centuries and the beautiful mountains, plains, soil, sea and air. Palestine is the names of families, the names of the remaining cities, villages, and neighbourhoods, and in turn it is the streets whose names have been wiped out, and the dreams that have been shut down and faded. Palestine is the narrations of the people who lived to bear its memory, and these narrations are a living testimony to them.

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