The Naksa at 50: Nostalgia and Memory in the Middle East and Beyond

The Naksa at 50: Nostalgia and Memory in the Middle East and BeyondElliott Cola, Hosam Aboul-Ela and Nadia Yaqub field audience questions after their presentations. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

A multi-campus conference at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, known among Arabs as the Naksa.

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, May 11, 2017 — June 2017 will mark 50 years since the beginning of the Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and the displacement of Palestinian residents from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights that followed. This displacement is widely referred to in the Arab world as the Naksa, or the “setback.”

On April 28, the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the UC Berkeley Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the UC Santa Barbara Center for Middle East Studies sponsored a multi-campus conference in commemoration of the Naksa. Each campus streamed a separate panel discussion. Click here for a video and podcast of UCLA's panel.

Each of the individual panels featured experts on Middle Eastern affairs discussing the legal, economic and cultural effects of the Naksa on the Arab world. The UCLA panel focused on the impact of the war and the displacement of Palestinians on culture, nostalgia and memory, featuring discussions of cultural production and institutional aspects of Arab art.

Viewing 1967 Arab cinema in the 2010s

The panel’s first speaker, Nadia Yaqub of the University of North Carolina, Chapel HiIll, presented her research on Arab films inspired by the events of 1967. Yaqub explained that for decades, most Palestinian films from the 1960s and 70s were presumed to be lost until an archive was rediscovered and modern technology facilitated their redistribution. With this rediscovery came the opportunity to better understand the history of Arab film, as well as a chance for contemporary Palestinian filmmakers to look to the past for inspiration, she said.

Yaqub argued that the effects of the Naksa on Arab cinema extended beyond the borders of Palestine and were tangible even before the archives were rediscovered. She listed the Naksa as the inspiration for progressive, alternative film movements in Syria and Egypt that emerged in the years directly following 1967. “These were short, exciting and experimental works related to the Palestinian liberation movement,” explained Yaqub. “Within a very few years, this politically engaged cinema moved beyond nascent efforts and dominated the [Arab world].”

Some national cinema programs, such as Tunisia’s, encouraged films and events promoting the liberation of Palestine, she said. The rediscovery of the lost Palestinian films enabled comparisons with other cinematic movements in the region, allowing scholars to form a more comprehensive picture of this particular period in the history of Arab filmmaking.

Yaqub then outlined certain trends that emerged after contemporary Palestinian filmmakers revisited the films inspired by the Naksa. These trends include the incorporation of direct quotes from old Palestinian movies into the dialogue of contemporary films and shot-by-shot recreations of scenes from those films. “[This reproduction] was not only an engagement with an earlier period, but also represented a desire to reclaim [the lost archive] as a living part of Palestinian film history,” said the speaker.

Looking forward, Yaqub pointed to an emergent experimental style of Palestinian filmmaking, wherein films engage with images inspired by 1967 but refuse to lament the Naksa as a loss. “A new chapter in Palestinian filmmaking is being written,” she concluded.

Arab intellectuals and the Naksa

Hosam Aboul-Ela of the University of Houston examined how various Arab Intellectuals have related to literature about the Naksa. After opening with an introduction to the Palestinian writer Edward Said and his 1978 book, “Orientalism,” which criticizes the condescending views of the East perpetrated by Western institutions and schools of thought, the speaker focused his attention on Moroccan writer Abdallah Laroui.]

Laroui’s work also criticized Western perceptions of Arabs, said Aboul-Ela, but his criticism extended to Arab nationalist movements. Specifically, Laroui saw post-1967 Arab nationalism as regressive, rather than progressive, because it promoted a return to traditionalism. Although critical of the West himself, Laroui was afraid that outright rejection of Western ideology by reactive Arab nationalism (and its desire to return to tradition) would prevent Arabs from moving forward from the Naksa and reflecting on the events of 1967.

The speaker concluded by discussing the Sonallah Ibrahim novel “67.” The novel was penned the year after the Naksa, but is only now being published. “The book redirects the reader toward the radical idea that the novel is about a year,” said the speaker. “‘67’ changed 1967 from being a war into a calendar year,” he said. “It portrays a year in a society, instead of the year that the society collapsed.”

Aboul-Ela explained that the novel looks to the future, by presenting the year as a starting point for discussion and reflection on the future of Palestine.

The Naksa in Emile Habibi’s “Six-Day Sextet”

The final panelist, Elliott Cola of Georgetown University, presented his research on Palestinian writer Emile Habibi’s work of fiction, “Sudasiyyat al-ayyam al-sittah (The Six-Day Sextet).” The collection of short stories was published in six parts—one for each day of the 1967 war—in Arabic in 1968. Habibi’s stories portray bittersweet reunions between Palestinians who had been living in Israel since the 1948 Palestine War and Palestinians living in the West Bank, two group separated for over a decade whose encounters were made possible when Israel occupied the West Bank.

“Each [story] sketches a meeting that is troubled and incomplete,” explained the speaker. Habibi’s stories describe lovers torn apart by war, children separated from their families and enamored activists who are separated in prison. Cola explained that the repeating themes and motifs were intentionally confusing and are meant to convey the incertitude surrounding the future of Palestine, the often sad context of meetings between estranged Palestinians and the tension of separation and reunion.

“The characters in these stories are,” said Cola, directly quoting Habibi, “‘a single people who have reunited after a long separation under a single roof: the roof of a prison cell.’ This is the metaphor of the post-1967 situation,” the speaker said.

Cola lamented scholars’ tendency to overlook short fiction when analyzing Arab literature, especially in the context of the Naksa. “People don't translate Arabic literature, and if something does get published, it's a novel,” he explained. “Short stories get lost in the shuffle.”

Cola concluded by arguing that stories like Habibi’s are crucial for both understanding the Naksa and sparking dialogue. “[The] meanings [of the Six Day War] were unclear, but its implications were not,” he observed. “As Habibi’s stories make clear, fiction could raise questions, but the important meetings would have to take place outside of the text.” 


Published: Thursday, May 11, 2017