Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Outside image
The Palestinian village of Bayt Nabala was home to around 2,600 people before the Nakba 75 years ago. This image was generated using an artificial intelligence tool by AJ Labs [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

'Rebuilt memory by memory' - recreating a Palestinian village 75 years after the Nakba

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: How it took the collective memories of several generations, painstaking interviews and a determined search through tall grass and prickly plants to recreate a destroyed community

 

On a Monday in late March, I found myself trapped in a field of tall grass and spiny, prickly plants, despite having faithfully followed the directions on Google Maps to reach the ruins of Bayt Nabala, a Palestinian village destroyed in September 1948 by Israeli forces. 

The sun was blazing overhead, my throat was parched and I had been walking in circles for what felt like an eternity, unable to locate any of the landmarks that Bayt Nabala’s former inhabitants had told me about when I spoke to them. “You’ll see what’s left of the main village well, close by is the cemetery, and there’s cacti around it. You can’t miss it,” one of my interviewees had told me confidently. 

Believing that it was impossible for me not to be able to find the last vestiges of the village with the aid of modern technology, I had set off from Tel Aviv by public bus, carrying just a canvas bag with a small bottle of water, a book, my phone, a portable charger and all the hubris of someone who has never attempted to search for a place that has been ravaged by time and the Israeli military. Two hours later, the bus deposited me by the side of a busy highway and I began walking down a dirt path towards what Google told me was Bayt Nabala. I was hopelessly lost and already out of water. 

Bayt Nabala 1
The field the author found herself lost in while searching for the ruins of Bayt Nabala [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

This was the penultimate day of my reporting trip to Palestine and Israel. Rather serendipitously, I had been on commission for another longform story in the West Bank, when an editor from Al Jazeera English whom I have worked with several times contacted me and asked if I would be available for an assignment. The plan was to collaborate with the Slow Journalism and Interactive teams on an ambitious project to recreate one of the 530 Palestinian villages that were demolished during the creation of Israel. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, we hoped to launch a project that would intertwine the narratives of survivors and their descendants with artificial intelligence (AI)-generated depictions of their ancestral village. 

In one of our early online meetings, I had suggested focusing on Bayt Nabala. I had heard about the village completely by chance while chatting with Muammar Nakhleh, who runs Wattan TV, one of Palestine’s largest independent media stations. He had casually mentioned to me that Ben-Gurion Airport - Israel’s main commuter airport which is notorious for some of the most stringent security checks in the world - had been built over part of the land of his ancestral village. 

Everyone on the Al Jazeera team was immediately struck by the significance of Bayt Nabala’s location and how it represents the oppressiveness of the Israeli occupation. 19.2 million passengers travelled through Ben-Gurion last year, but few if any at all were Palestinian, since the latter cannot fly from the airport without special permission from the Israeli authorities. We decided to recreate Bayt Nabala to the best of our abilities. 

Bayt Nabala 2
The gate to the moshav (an agricultural community in Israel) which has since been built on top of the southwestern area of what was once the Palestinian community of Bayt Nabala [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Our first task, which would fall on my shoulders as I was the only member of the team physically in Palestine, was to identify former inhabitants of the village who still had memories of it, and would be able to tell us how the village used to look. This information would be vital in the making of the AI images. I would interview them first, before speaking to second and third generation villagers - or “Nabalis”, as they often colloquially call themselves. Then, after exiting the West Bank and before flying back from Tel Aviv back to London where I live, I would try to find and photograph whatever was left of Bayt Nabala.

 

Battling nature

As I struggled to find my way out of the thick vegetation, I tripped and fell multiple times, pricking my fingers on thorns. I thought I was becoming delirious from the heat. One of the most rewarding things about being a journalist is to have your expectations of the reporting process thwarted; you learn that people and places can surprise you and teach you something new. But this isn’t so pleasant when you’re caught off guard by how unprepared you are for the possibilities. Later, I would find out that even descendants of the villagers who left during the Nakba struggled to locate their homes without detailed guidance from relatives.

I ended up being picked up by a young Israeli soldier in a van. He was concerned that instead of heading to Beit Nehemia, the moshav (a type of agricultural community in Israel) that had been built atop Bayt Nabala’s southwestern end, I was walking – in a rather disoriented fashion – towards his camp, which he politely mentioned was most certainly off limits to tourists like myself. Not wanting to reveal I was a journalist and desperate for a brief respite from the unforgiving sun, I meekly accepted a lift from him to a road that led to Beit Nehemia.

Bayt Nabala 3
Shoham Forest Park today stands on the remains of Bayt Nabala [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

I thought that after multiple conversations with different people from Bayt Nabala, I would have had no trouble finding the village; clearly I had been humbled by the forces of nature. In the two weeks prior, I located, met and spoke to three elderly former residents of Bayt Nabala, all of whom had fled as children with their families in the early days of the Nakba, and had been living in the Deir Ammar and Jalazone refugee camps located close to the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah for most of their lives. 

I had underestimated how chaotic it would be to interview them in and around their homes: Palestinian refugee camps, built by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) with cinder blocks from 1950 onwards, are extremely cramped spaces with very little privacy. A Palestinian man I met in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp had joked that “in a refugee camp, if you sneeze, your neighbour can hear you”. 

Later, as I played back the audio recordings of my interviews, I would be amused by the constant interruptions during the conversations - children walking into the room to chat with the interviewees, cats yowling on the street, cars driving past with their passengers waving at us, the translator pausing the interview to take a call on his phone. Even while talking about their painful experiences of exile, my interviewees in the refugee camps never failed to astound me with their humour, and the ease with which they switched between their quotidian routines in the present and their memories of the past. But these nuances in the conversations were not adequately captured the first time round by my translators because of the hullaballoo in every interview; I had to go through them again with a Palestinian friend who kindly helped to translate. You learn that a patient ear can hear the tenderest of revelations through all the noise.

Bayt Nabala 4
Ali Abdelrahman Assaf, 80, was five years old when his family was forced to flee Bayt Nabala during the Nakba. He now lives in the Deir Ammar refugee camp for displaced Palestinians 40km away, where the author interviewed him about his recollections of the village [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

 

A ‘collective memory’

Perhaps what fascinated me most about this project was the incremental nature of collective memory - and also how slippery it can be. The first-generation survivors from Bayt Nabala might not, for example, be able to recall the clashes between Zionist invaders and Palestinians in and around the village, but they would reveal in poignant detail vignettes from their childhood: watching the trains go by; trading candy for wheat; picking vegetables in the orchard; running in the valleys around the village and watching the planes land at the airfield in the nearby town of Lydda, which was later expanded 100 times to become Ben-Gurion Airport. 

Follow-up interviews with them, conducted by a Palestinian journalist, would elicit in disorientating fragments their recollections of the immediate aftermath of the Nakba. They spent months, even years, sleeping wherever they could - under olive trees, in caves, in the homes of other Palestinians in villages that hadn’t been seized by the Israelis. This is perhaps a forgotten aspect of people’s experiences of the Nakba that I’m very heartened to have been able to capture in the story.

Bayt Nabala 5
Ali Abdelrahman Assaf was 5 when his family was forced to flee Bayt Nabala. He remembers his father taking him on walks through the village's olive groves. This image has been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

It was the second-generation villagers I spoke to, born just a few years after the Nakba and who are now scattered around the world from Jordan to the US, who filled me in on the rich history of the village. They had, after all, heard so much about Bayt Nabala from their parents, and recognised that life there was worlds apart from the squalor and abject poverty of the refugee camps they had grown up in. From them, I learnt all about the communitarian ethos of the olive harvests, where people made it a point to pick olives from the trees belonging to other families or clans, then sharing what they had harvested with everyone else.

Speaking to the third-generation descendants of Bayt Nabala, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fecundity of their imagination – and how this, in a way, breathed life into the village decades after it no longer physically existed. One of them said that she had spent her whole life conjuring up different possibilities for the lives she could have led had the village not been destroyed. Another had written short stories, dreamlike sequences, about a parallel life in Bayt Nabala, where she could hop on a train to Damascus and travel could take place on a whim, unfettered by hideously long and insulting searches at Israeli checkpoints. All together, my interviewees - of very different dispositions and life experiences - enabled us to create, in over 10,000 words, a patchwork of memories and stories about how life had been like in Bayt Nabala.

Bayt Nabala 6
Recreated from the recollections of those who were there and from what was told to their descendants - residents of Bayt Nabala would gather in the village square for a wedding. This image as been generated using an artificial intelligence tool [Al Jazeera/Midjourney]

 

It takes a village

As one of my editors put it so wonderfully, it takes a village to recreate one. Through the panoply of stories that we had collected, along with books, documents and photographs dating back to the period around the Nakba, the interactive team was able to produce an array of AI images that we felt might form an accurate visual representation of Bayt Nabala. We consulted some of our interviewees through this process: did the houses need to be closer together; would homeowners have had a carpet on the floor; how simple did the windows need to be? In the week leading up to the publication of the article, the team worked tirelessly on the feedback of my interviewees to perfect these details. The challenge was how to convey a sense of what the village might have looked like, without these re-creations being mistaken for an exact replica. 

Without the AI, I doubt that the story would’ve been as emotionally arresting as it was. When it went live, I sent it to one of my interviewees. She responded, “thank you for taking me home.” It’s comments like these that remind me of why I chose to be a journalist. We may not change the world with the stories we tell, but, in the words of the inimitable Martha Gellhorn: “I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don’t need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort.”

Read the result of this investigation and recreation of a Palestinian village by Al Jazeera: 'My village': Destroyed in the Nakba, rebuilt memory by memory

 

 

More Articles

Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram
Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023