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Documentary about the 1948 Nakba 'validates voices'

The Holy Land and Us: Documentary about Palestinians during the Nakba 'validates voices'
6 min read
27 March, 2023
A two-part BBC documentary on the Nakba has bucked the trend of mainstream British media to give unprecedented coverage of the Palestinian plight. The New Arab sat down with Sarah Agha, the programme's co-host, to explain the show's significance.

Standing on the soil where her family once lived in the village of Delhamiyya in Galilee, northern Palestine, Sarah Agha looks around – there is no trace of human life anymore.

Seventy-five years ago, her family and hundreds of others fled the area during the ‘Nakba’, Arabic for ‘catastrophe’, when 700,000 Palestinians escaped or were expelled from their homes and never returned “not because they didn’t want to,” Sarah says, “but because they weren’t allowed to.”

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The scene is from a two-part BBC documentary in which the actor and writer, with co-presenter Rob Rinder, visit the Holy Land to learn about their respective families’ histories and examine the impact that the founding of Israel in 1948 had on people’s lives and in the region.

The first episode of The Holy Land and Us: Our Untold Stories, which aired last week on BBC Two, strikes a delicate balance between facts and emotions, exploring what happened during this historic period and who, to this day, is still affected by the events of that time. 

Arabs are no strangers to war and the need to reflect on its legacy – this week Iraq marks 20 years since the US-led invasion, and Iraqis continue to grapple with the aftermath of an occupation that left devastation in its wake and from which the nation has not recovered. Yet crucially, this BBC documentary tackles a deeply contentious topic from a neutral standpoint. 

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While it seems questionable for a show about a region engulfed in geographic, racial and religious divisions to sidestep the political tensions between Israel and Palestine, its attempts at impartiality serve a purpose: this is not a series about occupation; instead it addresses the impact of the Zionist movement to found modern-day Israel through family stories and aims to uncover what happened to certain individuals as the Middle East was being radically reshaped.

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The ‘both sides’ narrative follows Sarah, Rob and four British families – two of Jewish and two of Palestinian heritage – as they unravel key moments in their ancestors’ lives connected to 1948.

Speaking to The New A, Sarah – who is half-Palestinian, half-Irish admits she was initially hesitant about taking on this project from a two-sided approach because of the portrayal, or lack thereof, of Palestinians and their adversity in mainstream media. “I was worried that people might assume it’s a normalisation project and maybe not give it a chance,” she says, adding that Palestinians have previously “been so disappointed by big western platforms” for silencing or misrepresenting their perspectives. “There is a lack of trust and wariness that I had to put aside.”

Yet the legacy stories told in The Holy Land and Us offer Palestinians more than a platform, they “validate our voices”, says Sarah. “Sometimes our very existence and our place in the region is denied… but because this is about family lineage, [people] can’t deny that we were there. It’s much harder to deny tangible evidence, particularly if it’s presented on a western platform.”

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Attempts to eradicate Palestine from the global narrative persist – just this week Israel’s far-right finance minister sparked outrage after claiming that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” weeks after calling for a Palestinian town to be “erased”.

For Arab audiences, the documentary may serve as a rare corrective to the imbalanced representation and exclusion of Palestinian voices from the conversation. Despite many “sleepless nights”, Sarah says she has “been relieved and really bolstered that [the show] has resonated with and meant so much to Palestinians that have reached out to me,” she says of the public reaction.

For the “non-initiated”, as she puts it, it’s a chance to learn about a nation whose identity has either been politicised or omitted altogether. “I kept reminding myself how important this project is because we’re trying to get to the people who know nothing [about Palestine]. It’s invisible to so many people, they don’t have a clue about our stories.”

In both episodes, Britons of Palestinian descent have the chance to tell theirs and express the emotional effects of uncovering their forbears’ history, using terms that have previously been too controversial to utter in western media coverage. ‘Nakba’, for example, is a taboo term, one that explicitly highlights the devastation of 1948 on Palestinians, from which they continue to suffer; that it’s mentioned from the start of the show is a small victory for Sarah and many people of the region, a recognition of struggle and a step towards the truth.

During the first episode, a woman named Shireen learns while speaking to a historian that 22 members of her family were killed during an attack by two Zionist militia groups on Deir Yassin, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where her grandmother was from. While she weeps, he tells her that “what happened was not a clash, it was not a war, it was a massacre.” 

To Palestinians, this is a statement of fact, but from a western lens, the word is provocative. Its use in the show is a “big step” in pivoting the narrative on Palestine to one that acknowledges the people’s plight, then and now. Sarah adds: “Language is important. It feels monumental to have words like these used on a big mainstream platform.” Presented on a western stage, to British audiences these events will be validated as fact, she argues, while showcasing “the Palestinian strength, resilience and steadfastness”.

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By revisiting the Holy Land and the events of 1948, Sarah and other British Palestinians in the series are not merely retelling a historical account; they are sharing Palestine’s reality.

Its past and present sit under the shadow of 1948 because “there has been no resolution” both for displaced people and those under occupation, she says.

The Nakba continues in different guises, the conflict is “absolutely ongoing”. “For me everything comes back to 1948. It’s not just a moment in history, it’s our ongoing story.”

The Holy Land and Us aired on BBC Two and both episodes are available on BBC iPlayer

Dalia Dawood is a British-Iraqi freelance journalist and editor based in London and a lecturer of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication.

Follow her on Twitter: @dda_wood