What do the words Nakba and Naksa really mean?

Guest contribution by Omar Chaaban

Perhaps there is some utility to maintaining the way the Palestinians choose to describe their collective experience. It is true that if one were to look at the literal superficial meaning of terms like Nakba and Naksa, one can only find unfortunate generalities that can obfuscate the experience that the Palestinians have had to endure for over 65 years. But, there is more to the words Nakba and Naksa and they do not merely mean ‘catastrophe’ and ‘setback’ as it is often referred to in non-Arabic literature.

Related read: The misuse of terminology in the Palestinian narrative is a failing coping mechanism.

The word Nakba in Arabic has very deep and powerful connotations that no word in English can fully grasp. For the Palestinian that found himself forced, at gunpoint, to leave his house and land, with his wife and large family, what happened to him is not simply a ‘catastrophe.’ It is an extremely powerful psychological experience that involved vicious uprooting from the land that his father, grandfather, and great grandfather have farmed for generations. It is an experience that exacted upon the Palestinians a traumatic humiliation in the face of an aggressive invasion and Arab betrayal.

When the Palestinians chose the term Nakba, they did not do so to describe a single historic event. Despite their strict belief that they will one day return back to their homeland, they knew very well that this Zionist invasion and this Arab betrayal is not going to be a single historical occurrence and that there will be more. And to their dismay what they expected happened in proportions far worse than what they had predicted in 1948. So they chose the word Nakba which, in Arabic, refers to a supreme calamity that happens once in an eon. That is to say, this disastrous collective experience exacted upon the Palestinians is an unprecedented trauma that had to be referred to by a word that communicates to the entire world that nothing can happen that is worse than being uprooted in the manner they were in the events leading to and following Israel’s declaration of statehood.

Similarly, the word Naksa does not really mean ‘setback.’ In classical Arabic, Naksa is used to describe an event where a thing is literally flipped upside down. The great Arabic lexicon Lisan Al-‘Arab — The Tongue of the Arab People — says that when a Naksa happens to a thing, its top becomes its bottom and its front becomes its back. It then goes as far as saying that in many cases a Naksa can be so bad that the chances of it being reversible are almost nonexistent and that no good can be found in it. So in Arabic, the word Naksa is not merely a setback that can be recovered from with a some determination and good will. It is irreversible. And to my knowledge this is perhaps the best word that can describe the Arab failure at winning a slight victory against the Zionist enemy.

Palestinians wanted to make sure that in their collective memory they have a narrative which ensures that future generations remember what the Zionists have done to them and the way their Arab neighbors have betrayed them. They wanted to make sure what happened and what continues to happen are understood in their entirety, internalized and enshrined within our collective identity as Palestinians. Our grandparents would never refer to what happened in 1948 with any other word that does not fully encompass what the word Nakba does, and our parents will never and should never describe the events of 1967 with a word other than Naksa, for what has happened are without any doubt a Nakba and a Naksa.

Omar Chaaban

Omar Chaaban is a Palestinian activist based in Vancouver, BC. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of British Columbia and focuses on Syria and Palestine. Visit his blog: http://omar-chaaban.blogspot.ca. Follow him on Twitter here.


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