Once located on a spur off the coastal road between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Tantura was a fishing and agricultural village counting 1,490 residents. Attacked on May 22-23, 1948, the village fell after a brief battle; claims of a massacre are still debated. Some twelve hundred residents were expelled to nearby al-Fureidis and then expelled from Israeli-held territory altogether. Some two hundred, mostly women and children with male relations in Israeli detention, remained in al-Fureidis, sleeping in the open. Nothing further is mentioned about their fate.

—Based on research by Walid Khalidi

Summers are not the time to go to the beach in Israel. The deceptive coolness of dawn turns into a sticky humidity at the Israeli seashore, where the lukewarm water off the eastern Mediterranean offers little relief from the salty film that clings to one’s skin, hair, and food. Yet that was what I suggested to Deborah one oppressively hot evening.

“How about going to Tantura?” I said, using the old Arab name for this fishing village, the name etched in my memory from childhood. “It’s a beautiful beach, the prettiest in Israel.”

By then, in the fall of 2006, Deborah was no longer simply a tourist. An American landscape photographer, she joined me, an Israeli-American, on a special project: we were combing the country for Palestinian villages destroyed during the war of 1948—the “War of Independence” for us Israelis, but the “Nakba” for the Palestinians, the “Catastrophe.”

Though Deborah was new to Israel, she was not new to this work. By the time she joined me there she had already completed an acclaimed series about historic battlefield panoramas as well as other historic sites that got recast over time: the Plymouth Rock, for example, chipped over time by souvenir collectors and now protected by a spiked iron fence; a defunct atomic reactor hidden in the woods outside Chicago; or the old mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, preserved as a tourist attraction. Documenting lingering signs of the Nakba, now assimilated into the vibrant young Israel, was, for her, an extension of that forensic interest. For me, however, it was a different matter. I was to be Deborah’s companion and guide, the insider who speaks the language and is intimately familiar with Israel’s geography, but I was also an Israeli deeply implicated in the painful history we were documenting—a history about which we, Israelis, had been silent for years.

Finding what little can still be seen of such villages (four hundred or more in total) is arduous at all times, but especially as the summer advances. With the villages erased from current maps and memory, one needs to learn to see this scarred land with new eyes. It is a decoding that comes with experience. Sometimes one finds clear markers: a tomb or a minaret that still stands, a building where the masonry is recognizably Palestinian, or even just the remnant of an archway still attached to a crumbling wall. All are telltale signs. Often the decoding is harder, as Deborah and I discovered. We learned to “read” the land by trial and error: to register that a clump of cactus bushes may actually be the remnant of a hedge, that certain rock striations are the remains of agricultural terracing, that a lone fig tree may have once shaded a house, or that a pile of rocks may be hiding a well. One can only know by walking towards such signs, stepping through thorns and clambering over rocks to see what may be found nearby.

Inevitably, this was a melancholy task, especially for me. After all, it is my own history—my family’s and my people’s—that remained in question. Deborah and I each needed some relief from our Nakba work and Tantura suggested that. The beach I remembered seeing shortly after the war, in 1949 or 1950, was pristine and safe from undertow, its sparkling cool waters encircled by flat rocks and protected by small offshore islands.

“There are cabins to rent there.” I said to Deborah. “No Nakba. We could stop overnight.”

I should have known better.

You will not find “Tantura” on current road maps, only the old Canaanite name of “Dor,” now reclaimed for Israeli use. There is no simple way to get there either. The access road requires a detour from the new coastal highway through the old coast road, and then a badly marked turnoff that leads, after several kilometers, into a parking lot where drifts of sand half cover the dead grasses peeking through creviced asphalt. This access road, which brought Deborah and me to Tantura in 2006, was the same one my family took for beach outings almost five decades earlier. It is also the road Tantura’s refugees trudged along in the opposite direction, eastward, in May of 1948, when they were expelled from their homes by the Alexandroni Brigade. There is no sign of their exodus now, but there are records, some of them tangible, as Deborah and I discovered during our research, and as we were about to discover yet again.

Today, if you drive to Dor’s beach, you’d hardly guess that the desiccated land you are crossing was once a village. All that’s left are dun weedy mounds that turn green during the short rainy season— seemingly natural land formations. But the memory of a blurry black and white home movie shot with my father’s ancient 8mm camera still haunts me. It showed the barely recognizable human form that was me, filmed in Tantura during the early 1950s. Taken at a distance and transposed onto video many years later, the image was rendered almost indecipherable, though you could still see my skinny shape silhouetted against a murky gray sky. There are smudgy chunks at the lower part of the frame where a tiny figure seems to be clambering. The terrain is obviously uneven. Sometimes the girl bends to hold onto an invisible support, and sometimes she’s upright, her arms extended for balance.

Those chunks, I could see even then, were the remains of Palestinian homes. What’s left of them now became covered with sandy earth and dry weeds. But when my father filmed me edging my way across them, I already knew that I was walking over ruins, or at least half knew. Some masonry was still exposed, peeking through the thin layer of soil and sand that was already settling over the ruins.

This layer of soil had thickened by the time Deborah and I arrived at Tantura during that pleasant afternoon in 2006. The calm bays of my childhood were still there, encircled by the same rocks, but the beach itself had been fenced off for paid use. The entrance gateway was stained with salty humidity, and the rusting turnstile coughed and grated as it struggled to let us in. A lone ice cream vendor heaved his dented icebox over the turnstile as his last customer approached the exit—a tired-looking woman shepherding three irritable children. Behind them we could see that the beach litter had not been picked up for some time.

Still, something of the old beauty lingered over the beach in the late afternoon light. It was that magical hour “between the suns,” as it’s called in poetic Hebrew, when the light in these parts turns limpid, leaving everything awash in a golden pink glow that edges into mauves and blues. People are gone, the birds settle in for the night, and the trash recedes from sight as the shadows deepen. Peace, it seemed, settled over the land.

That illusion did not last. Walking down the beach, Deborah, who was walking just ahead of me, suddenly paused, staring. A minute later I stopped in my tracks too. A strangely futuristic colony of white-domed cabins came into view, each shaped like a concrete igloo whose size and shape were faintly reminiscent of Palestine’s Moslem shrines.

“What’s that?” she said.

“Well, I suppose these are the cabins. One of these must be ours. What’s our number?”

Deborah looked at the hefty key she was holding but did not answer.

“Look at that,” she added instead, pointing toward the small terracotta fawns—identical, orange-colored Bambis—that stood splay- legged along the sandy paths.

Though I still chuckle at this incongruous scene, I felt betrayed: this was not the beach I loved, my beach, as it seemed to me, pristine and safe. Still, at least for a few hours, as darkness descended and the lulling whisper of the waves took over, reality receded. The iridescent cabins and the fawns melted into the darkness, as did the mounds on which I had walked half a century earlier.

Of course, this place was never mine. Some fifteen hundred Palestinians lived here till their expulsion in 1948. They fished and farmed and had two schools and more than two hundred houses. What I remembered as a pristine beach was actually a village, leveled beyond recognition.

In a rare archival photograph that has since become iconic of the Nakba, you can see a long row of women and children leaving the village, carrying bundles and babies that will soon be too heavy to carry. The image is slightly overexposed in the unforgiving sunlight. Taken by Benno Rothenberg, it is one of the few Nakba photographs in public circulation.

What this photograph doesn’t tell us is that Tantura suffered a massive attack and that, except for this one narrow road, all escape routes had been blocked. Though women and children are pictured walking, the photograph does not record the fate of the men who were separated from their families. It does not tell us that scores died during the attack and many more were wounded. Hundreds were imprisoned, and all ended up in exile.

Though as a child, heading for the beach with my family, I did not realize it, the destitute Arabs I saw shortly after the war, penned behind barbed wire near the Palestinian village of al-Fureidis, were Tantura’s refugees. Among them were girls my age and younger that, for a few seconds, returned my gaze. I remember my horror at the desolation that was there in full view, my fascinated recoil. That’s what Arabs are like? I wondered. What did they think of us, neat and well fed, as we sped by what I now realize was their detention camp?

I remember this scene in monochrome—in muddy browns and grays—an expanse of grimy tents and listless people meandering aimlessly on hard dusty ground, a scene of utter abjection. Every so often, another image invades my resisting memory: the flies creeping near the runny eyes, nostrils, and mouths of children standing by a barbed wire fence, staring at us, impassive, not bothering to shoo the flies away.

In her memoir, In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian Story, Ghada Karmi describes her parents shielding her from the facts of war, much as mine did. A Palestinian my age—we were both about ten in 1948—she also writes about recoiling from the refugees who arrived in her family’s hometown of Tulkarm. Like me, she too is distressed now, as an adult, at that recoil. It is hard, and sometimes terrifying, to see the suffering of others.

And yet that’s where any parallel between us ends. For Karmi, the destitution she saw could have become, in an instant, her own. Her family escaped it only by a slight turn of fate. My family was swept along in the euphoria of nation-building that caused that suffering. As the desperate mood of post-Holocaust days dictated, we, Jews, had to survive—to survive at all costs. Karmi knew the refugee girls as classmates. I glimpsed them only in passing, on my way to a beach where the ruins of their homes were my playground.

I was not thinking of any of this when I suggested to Deborah that beach outing. When we arrived there that evening, I was amused and put off by the domed cabins and tacky fawns, but I still thought of this visit as a reprieve from the Nakba. Not for long, though. As we were soon to discover, even at this holiday beach traces of the Nakba emerged from behind the scrim: Palestine’s Tantura refused to be naturalized into the Israeli modernity of Dor’s cabin complex.

The next morning it all came back, both the present and the past. Walking toward the beach, our eyes were drawn to a large building perched near the water’s edge: excellent masonry, massive proportions, grand vaulted arches open both to the sea and inland, and yet no windows and no other buildings nearby. A large sign warned, DANGER DO NOT ENTER. Some fishing tackle was visible under its vast arches, apparently for use along with two small dinghies beached nearby.

Once again, as it happened so often during our travels, we found ourselves debating the purpose of this strangely solitary building, so odd at the edge of this shallow bay.

“What’s that?” Deborah said.

“How should I know?” I shrugged, frustrated by my failure to be the good guide I was supposed to be. “It’s too close to the water. See the watermarks? The water can reach it in storms. It doesn’t look like anybody lived here.”

“OK, but what does the Arabic inscription mean?” she said, pointing to the elaborately carved Arabic keystone, high above the main arch.

The early morning sun put that inscription into high relief. Deborah removed the lens cap from her camera and adjusted some dials.

“The light is excellent,” she said as she aimed her camera at this wall.

Though I knew Arabic, I could not make it out. The carved arabesque bas-relief, both beautiful and elaborate, crowded the stone’s surface to the point where letters and ornament melded together. Clearly there was something official about the place—the size, the workmanship, the calligraphy served something other than a family—but what?

I did not yet know that this had been an important seaport: Canaanite, Phoenician, Crusader, Ottoman, and Arab. It had also been a garrison port for Napoleon and, as it got silted, the fishing village of Tantura, and now the tiny Israeli settlement of Dor. The information is readily available, except that Deborah and I did not anticipate needing it. Standing in front of an ancient building that we couldn’t quite place, we found ourselves in a familiar conversation— redolent with questions, skimpy on answers, impatient with guesses. But the building was clearly ancient, its masonry excellent, the curve of its arches probably Crusader, and its keystone Arab, perhaps Ottoman.

That much we could guess, though not much more. According to Walid Khalidi’s research on the Nakba, the keystone inscription named this building as the al-Yahya family home, dated 1882, but to me it looked like the remnant of a fort, not a home. The construction was too massive, the windowless walls too solid, and the arches too tall and wide for a residence. The ancient port became silted and at some point the al-Yahya family moved in.

As Deborah and I turned back toward our cabin, still wondering about that mysterious structure poised at the water’s edge, another strange sight awaited us: a makam—a Sheikh’s shrine— standing among the cabins, its domed roof repeated in each cabin. This, I later read, was Sheikh al-Majrani’s shrine, now incorporated as yet another ornament in the beach colony’s grounds. Legend has it that this Moslem tomb survived the Nakba when the bulldozer’s blades broke, refusing to demolish it.

“Were Dor’s domed cabins designed to copy this shrine or to disguise it?” Deborah wondered.

I shrugged.

She was walking around the building, her camera ready, looking for a good angle on it, with me tagging along. She sounded irritated. The light was no longer good for photography.

“Do vacationers even notice this shrine as the holy Moslem tomb it used to be?” she asked.

It probably recedes behind the fog of inattention, I thought. Should I tell her about our own inattention, I wondered, way back when we went swimming here? Yes, after all, Moslem shrines and minarets still dot the Israeli landscape, protected by law but often allowed to crumble. This one may be so protected because of its location, I thought. For visitors, like my family and me at the time, the choice remains: to see or not to see? Later, I thought, after dinner, I’ll tell Deborah about my Dad’s filming me climbing over the ruins.

When Deborah and I returned to that beach later that year, hoping for better light for her photography, the air thrummed with gentle drumming and pastel banners waved in the breeze. Young people streamed in through the creaky turnstiles carrying food, sleeping bags, and musical instruments. There was an abundance of sun-bleached dreadlocks and tie-dye in view as people set up pup tents and settled down to smoke weed and make music.

“They are here for the Purple Festival,” the woman at the ticket booth told us with a shrug. She didn’t seem curious. Selling tickets was routine.

Deborah rolled her eyes in irritation, adjusted the heavy camera bag on her shoulder, and turned back towards our car. On the way to the weedy parking lot I thought about the young people gathering on the beach, Israelis seeking respite from a war that is taking over their lives. A gentle crowd, this one, yet they will all serve in the military or already had. How, I wondered, do they reconcile this festival with the military’s treatment of Palestinians? Do they know anything at all about the Nakba that occurred right here in Tantura?

Thinking of these young people lounging near Sheikh al- Majrani’s shrine, I found myself humming an old Israeli song from the 1948 war—Ha’pgisha, “The Reunion.” Its lyrics describe a group of soldiers meeting and reminiscing about the war they were still fighting, as if it were already past: “How goes it? . . . Haven’t seen you in ages!” the refrain goes. Mostly it is a song about the comradeship of men at arms, except that two Arabic words stand out among the Hebrew lyrics. “Yahrab Beitak,” the men say in greeting.

To me as a child this was gibberish, nonsense syllables, fun. Now I know better. Repeated in the refrain with percussive emphasis, the words translate as “May your house be destroyed,” or perhaps as “Your house will be destroyed.”

Linda Dittmar

Linda grew up in Israel (1939-1960). She served in the Israeli military, including the Suez Campaign (1956). A PhD from Stanford University, she taught literature and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston for forty years. Her publications include From Hanoi to Hollywood, The Vietnam War in American Film, and Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. Now Professor Emerita, she is writing a memoir about Israel/Palestine and the war of 1948.

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