Trackin’ settler colonial erasures in Palestine: Decolonizing Zionist toponymy
by Chandni Desai
Settler colonial societies use national mythologies to erase the genocidal history that lead to a settler nation’s founding. These national mythologies are profoundly racialized and spatialized stories. Sherene Razack (2002) argues that “although the spatial story that is told varies from one time to another, at each stage the story installs Europeans as entitled to the land, a claim that is codified in law” (p. 3). The legal doctrine of terra nullius – empty, uninhabited lands – describes territory that has supposedly never been subject to the sovereignty of any nation. Settler colonists used such laws to politically and materially occupy Indigenous land.
For example, early Zionist settler colonists rendered the land of Palestine as a “land without a people, for people without a land.” Zionist “imaginative geographies” (Said, 1978) constructed Palestine as terra nullius, the empty wilderness, a land that is “bare”, “abandoned”, “naked”, “virgin” and withered” – a land that had a body without organs (Neumann, 2011, p. 79). Such imaginative geographies enabled Zionist settlers to conquer the land of Palestine while producing narratives of Palestinian absence from the land and denying the ethnic cleansing of over 750,000 Palestinians from their lands, which is known as the al-Nakba (the catastrophe). Colonizers use geography to produce their spaces, meanings and most importantly their subjects:
“Just as mapping colonized lands enabled Europeans to imagine and legally claim that they have discovered and owned the lands of the ‘New World’, unmapping is intended to undermine the idea of white settler innocence […] to uncover the ideologies and practices of conquest and domination.” (Razack, 2002, p. 5)
Cultural producers in Palestine, of Palestinian ancestry living in exile around the world, and allies in solidarity with Palestine are increasingly resisting Zionist settler colonialism’s national mythologies and imaginative geographies through their cultural work. In particular, hip hop culture – specifically rap music and graffiti – are mediums used to resist Zionist stories and constructions of settler colonial time and space.
In this essay, I will focus on the rap song and docu-music video, People Not Places, to show how Palestinians living in historic Palestine, those living in exile, and allies in solidarity expose the Indigenous history of Palestine that has been erased by the Zionist settler project. The video features the Detroit based rapper Invincible – an anti-Zionist femcee from a Jewish family, who was born in Israel – who performs two characters, which interchange with the lyrics of the song. Dressed in a blue and white (colours of the Israeli flag) suit, Invincible plays a Taglit birthright trip tour recruiter, promoting a ten day heritage trip to Israel for Jewish youth aged 18 -26 living in the U.S. The second character is herself, a politically consciousness rapper and activist that is historicizing the colonization of Palestine, the ethnic cleansing, land theft, and the erasure of Palestinian culture and memory.
Invincible raps about the significance of toponymy, geographical renaming and (re)mapping of Palestine, by focusing on various locations that the birthright trip would take Jewish youth to visit. In the song, she provides a buried, counter-history of Palestine which opposes the Zionist history that Taglit would narrate to its tourists. Invincible rhymes,
“First stop: museum of the Holocaust, walking outside-in the distance saw a ghost throwing a Molotov, Houses burnt with kerosene, Mass graves, couldn’t bear the scene, it wasn’t a pogrom – it was the ruins of Deir Yassin”.
On April 9th 1948, Zionist militia from the Irgun and the Stern Gang attacked the village of Deir Yassin, a village located between Jerusalem and what is now Tel Aviv, which was comprised of 750 Palestinians residents. Palestinian men “were lined up against a wall and sprayed with bullets, execution style. Teachers were savagely mutilated with knives.” Women were taken hostage and then returned to a bloodbath in which 120 Palestinians were massacred, houses were dynamited, the cemetery was bulldozed and many were driven out of their village by Zionist militia (Elmuti, 2013). Deir Yassin was wiped off the map, and the center of the village was renamed Givat Shaul and became part of the city of Jerusalem. In Palestinian and Zionist colonial history the massacre of Deir Yassin is of great significance because it was the catalyst and scheme for the depopulation of over four hundred Palestinian Arab villages and cities – the Nakba – and the blueprint for the architecture of Israeli apartheid, which Invincible refers to later in the song when she rhymes about the wall, settlements and checkpoint system. When tourists and settlers leave the holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem) they can see the Givat Shaul neighborhood – which lies on the ruins of the Palestinian village Deir Yassin. Invincible outlines the irony of the spatial location of Yad Vashem, as not being an anti- Jewish pogrom but the ruins of a village that Zionist militias had demolished.
“Next stop: shopping at the Kenyon Malcha, built it on the back of the town Al-Malha”.
Once again Invincible uncovers the land that Jerusalem’s largest and most popular shopping mall – Malcha – is built on, which is on a Palestinian village known as al-Maliha. On April 12th 1948, after the attack on Deir Yassin, villagers from al-Maliha began to flee in fear and panic of being massacred. On July 14th 1948, the Zionist militia – Irgun – attacked the village, depopulating it as well. Invincible’s lyrics challenge the “memoricide of the nakba” (Masalha, 2012) by invoking the names of various cities and villages and their destruction, which the Zionist settler state denies or delegitimizes through laws such as the Nakba law[i]. Invincible rhymes,
“The colonizer break it into acres and dunums, erasing the culture when they changed Haifa to Chaifa, changed Yaffa to Yaffo – the old city left to haunt […] to repeat it, with history we disconnect.
My imam misses people not places, has she seen the towns with names in Arabic the Hebrew replaces? The policies are evil and racist, deceitful and heinous; you’ll never be a peaceful state with illegal displacement.”
By confronting the Taglit birthright tour recruiter for reproducing colonial narratives of land and life, Invincible raps about the Zionist-Hebrew toponymy and the de-arabisation of Palestine. The renaming of Palestinian cities, villages and towns is a decolonial act, re-signifying meaning upon the material culture that has been destroyed. As well, Invincible challenges the discourse of “peace” that the Zionist settler state constantly invokes, and suggests that peace without decolonization – refusing to address the issue of the dispossessed refugees and illegal displacement – is not possible.
During two scenes in the music video, Invincible tears off the Taglit poster from the wall, at which point the Palestinian femcee Abeer Alzinaty (aka Sabreena da Witch) begins to rhyme in her mother tongue of Arabic to resist the erasure of her language, culture and Palestinian memory. Abeer was born and raised in the city al-Lydd, which was renamed in Hebrew to Lod. She rhymes,
“Remember the names of our cities before you came and replaced it. Remember and tell me how am I supposed to miss a nation, living within us”.
Abeer underscores the decolonized memory of Palestine that lives inside her and other Palestinians. Though the Zionist settler state has literally re-mapped historic Palestine and changed the landscape through its colonial architecture and trees, she resists forgetting and underscores that she doesn’t miss Palestine because it is alive in her – her memory, her language, and her being. In the music video, Abeer is dressed in a thobe (a traditional Palestinian dress), which is embroidered in patterns that reflect the geographic, spatial location – village, city or region – that a Palestinian woman is from. Loosely hanging from her head, Abeer is also wearing a kuffiyeh/hattah (scarf), which is a scarf worn by the fellahin (peasants/farmers) and became the nationalist symbol of the Palestinian resistance movement in the Sixties. Abeer embodies her resistance through her dress, enacting a decolonial act of visibility that symbolizes that she exists, while claiming her Indigenous cultural symbols that the Zionist settler colonists have attempted to appropriate as theirs, especially the kuffiyeh.
As the song/video progresses, Invincible switches the Taglit birthright tour DVD, which was to be shown to potential Jewish tourists, with a video of the Palestinian rapper Suheil Naffar (from the rap group DAM). Suheil grew up in the city of al-Lydd, where the video is shot, and like Abeer he rhymes in Arabic to resist the erasure of Palestinian material and linguistic culture. Suheil expresses that, despite the settler state’s acts of violence and re-mapping of the landscape, Palestinians are resilient in their resistance. He uses the metaphor of a ship in an ocean to explain the power of the Zionist project.
“We’re in an ocean, the Zionist project is a ship, rowing with the right and left wing, straight to the waterfall, when they fall off the ledge, the holy land will stop being a hell land (a land in hell)”.
In the song, this particular line is significant because the rapper is calling for the decolonization of Palestine through the sinking of the Zionist ship. This is similar to the call that Dene scholar and activist Glen Coulthard makes when he suggests that decolonization means “we have to sink the fucking ship,” referring to the Two-Row Wampum (Guswenta) Treaty belt, and the course of two vessels on which the European ship traveling down the river, next to a Haudenosaunee canoe, is to never interfere with the others internal affairs. Since the settler colonizers have violated various treaties, like Suheil, Coulthard believes that decolonization (in Canada) can be achieved by “sinking the ship” of the settler nation. For colonized subjects, decolonization is possible through an anti-colonial participatory politics, which I have argued elsewhere centres the politics of refusal and revolutionary violence at its core. Remixing Suheil’s rap into People Not Places moves beyond simply excavating erased history, material culture, and memory of Palestine but also articulates a project of decolonization that is possible through continued resistance to settler colonialism.
A very important feature of the rap docu-music video People Not Places is the oral histories that are inserted in the video. The video features three Palestinians – Ziad Abbas, Hazem Jamjoum and Nada Elia – who reflect on the Zionist project’s violence and memoricide. Ziad speaks about his historic village, Zakaria, where his family fled from during the Nakba. Despite leaving with the keys to their home, his family was unable to return to Zakaria as a consequence of Zionist colonization of the land, causing his family to become refugees in the Dheisha refugee camp (near Bethlehem), where he was born. Ziad explains that the village has been renamed in Hebrew to Kfar Zacharia. Hazem follows and shares how his mother’s neighborhood in Menashiya (Jaffa) was destroyed with the exception of a few buildings, one of which has been transformed into the Irgun Museum. Hazem reminds us of the significance of place and the ruins of the Palestinian neighbourhoods and villages that lie under the Irgun Museum. Additionally, Nada Elia follows and underscores another way in which the Zionist settler state erases Palestinian identity. She explains how her mother’s hometown Jerusalem was erased from her passport and every piece of ID she had, with black ink. Though the settler colonists were able to erase Nada Elia’s mothers land base from documents, they were unable to expunge her memory of place. As such, these narratives serve as decolonial archives of memory that have been passed through oral histories across generations, which the Zionist project has been unable to wipe out.
Moreover, another powerful feature about the docu-music-video People Not Places is the way these oral histories from Palestine, and the rap lyrics, are connected with other movements, such as the Puerto Rican and Indigenous struggle in the U.S. In particular, the importance of connection to place, specifically land, is poignantly told in the video by Alyssa Macy from NVision Indigenous youth media. She shares the oral history of her families separation from one another as a consequence of settler colonialism in the U.S. Alyssa’s grandmother was killed, leaving behind six children for her husband – a Hopi medicine man – to take care of. Unable to afford their care, Alyssa’s mother was removed from her tribal community, land base and language, and placed in a home, away from White River, Arizona where her family was from. This removal fragmented Alyssa’s mother’s life, as her ties to land, community and language were broken. The loss and fragmentation that Alyssa speaks of is similar to the loss and fragmentation Palestinians are faced with, as the Zionist settler project has and continues to remove Palestinians from their land base. The significance of these oral stories and their expression allows remembering and archiving memory that colonialism attempts to obliterate.
People Not Places is a powerful, political piece that centers decolonization and solidarity at its core. The piece re-connects disconnected fragments of history through re-mixing rap lyrics, oral histories, maps, and visual imagery of place, while challenging Zionist histography and toponymy. The song and video’s making embodies a process of solidarity and creative resistance, pushing against settler colonial power, while scratching and re-mixing the Zionist colonial map.
Chandni Desai is a PhD Candidate in Education at the University of Toronto – OISE. Her doctoral dissertation work focuses on the role of Palestinian cultural producers, and cultural resistance in the liberation struggle for the decolonization of Palestine. Chandni is also a political activist and has organized around issues of justice and freedom in various countries around the world.
[i] The Nakba Law was passed in the Israeli Knesset on March 23, 2011. It legislates the withdrawal of state funding from any institution that commemorates the Palestinian Nakba.
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Elmuti, D. (2013).We must never forget the massacre in Deir Yassin. http://electronicintifada.net/content/we-must-never-forget-massacre-deir-yassin/12341
Masalha, N. (2012). The Palestine Nakba: Decolonizing history, narrating the subaltern, reclaiming memory. Zed Books. New York.
Razack, S. (2004). Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Between the Lines. Toronto.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books.