Palestinian Studies

2017 Workshop

Yara Hawari

PhD candidate in Palestine Studies, University of Exeter

Indigenous Oral History and the Decolonisation of Palestine

This working paper explores the extent to which oral history can contribute to the decolonisation of Palestine. While historiography on Palestinian liberation has traditionally been interested in comparisons with classic anti-colonialist national movements, we reflect on the implications of accepting the paradigm of settler colonialism in defining new terms for comparisons, more suitable to understand decolonisation in Palestine as settler decolonisation. Contrary to colonialism, settler colonialism, in the words of Patrick Wolfe (2000), “is a structure, not an event.” Therefore, settler colonial formations must be understood in terms of incompleteness and ongoing dispossession of indigenous people (Veracini 2010; Wolfe 1999). Decolonisation from classic colonialism has taken a straightforward pattern in virtually all cases, where a variety of anticolonial struggles resulted in the common outcome of colonial power disengagement. Decolonising settler contexts, on the other hand, presents a number of obstacles, some of which we will address in this paper due to their relevance to the Palestinian case. 

Building on previous scholarship on Palestinian oral history, settler colonial and critical Indigenous studies, we suggest to reflect on the importance of decolonising knowledge for configuring practical paths toward decolonisation of settler colonial phenomena. The “Native question” in settler states has been mainly addressed through processes of recognition and reconciliation. However, it is important to note that reconciliation does not necessarily result in decolonisation, and that it can be mobilised by settler states with the purpose of perpetuating settler colonial dispossession (Coulthard 2014). Thus, this paper also opens up questions on how to undertake practices of reconciliation within settler colonial contexts of decolonisation. The decolonisation of knowledge, which is premised upon the inclusion of Palestine in the framework of Indigenous research, is therefore here understood as a necessary condition to reconciliation. In particular, we argue that the concept of indigeneity, thus far limited within the historiography of Palestine, is both required to provide a more exhaustive picture of the settler-Indigenous relationship, and an empowering tool for decolonial strategies. 

Oral history and memory have traditionally played a pivotal role in shaping processes of reconciliation between settler and indigenous communities across the settler colonial world. These processes were characterised by stark differences in the nature of the settler colonial structures imposed on the local populations, but were most importantly not always conducive to successful decolonisation. In the last few decades, oral history scholarship and initiatives in Palestine have begun to contribute to decolonisation, namely in the field of knowledge production. In its infancy, as both a field of study and a methodological tool, it was used to shed light on the events of the 1948 Nakba and present a counter hegemonic narrative. Oral history is now increasingly being used as a tool for the continuous production and reproduction of knowledge on Palestine. Indeed, oral history is not limited to knowledge of the past, it also acknowledges the importance in the way that people choose to remember past events. Within this understanding that memories are not stagnant repositories of information, rather they form an ever evolving body, oral history can tell us as much about the past as about the present and the future. 

Our intent is to locate Palestinian oral history within the field of Indigenous studies, which we understand as a development of the employment of the settler colonial paradigm. The necessity of including Palestine in Indigenous studies responds to two imperatives (which are part of our academic agenda): on the one hand, to problematise largely structuralist tendencies in the field, which risk to obscure Indigenous agency and resistance; on the other hand, to reframe indigeneity in opposition to dominant perceptions of fragility and endangeredness that informed Yaser Arafat’s famous remark “we are not red Indians.” The first step in this direction is to indeed link a reconceptualization of Palestinian indigeneity to decolonisation of knowledge, which is our departure point to explore wider implications of this paradigm for future decolonisation efforts. 

Within this understanding of oral history and locating this body of knowledge in the theory on settler colonialism indigenous studies, we hope to raise questions on how oral history can be mobilised politically as part of the anti-settler colonial struggle.

(See Francesco Amoruso.)

Yara Hawari is a PhD candidate in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. Her research focuses on oral history initiatives and political mobilization among the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Her broader research interests include collective memory within indigenous communities.