Palestinian Refugee Narrative and the Right to Return Home

Baddawi, by Leila Abdelrazaq

Baddawi, by Leila Abdelrazaq

Baddawi (2015), a graphic novel written by Leila Abdelrazaq, follows protagonist Ahmad as he grows up in Lebanon as a Palestinian refugee.  Based on the life of Abdelrazaq’s father, Baddawi contains roughly 100 pages of black and white illustrations and text to outline both the political context of the Palestinian conflict between 1959 and 1980, as well as the personal implications these conflicts had on individuals such as Ahmad.  In the aftermath of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, which dispersed Palestinians into occupied territories or into neighboring countries in light of the establishment of Israel, Palestinians no longer had legal citizenships to call their own (Abdelrazaq 11).  This was the result of a Zionist movement that led Jews from all over the world to the area of Palestine to form the state of Israel after the events of the holocaust.  Only two regions in Israel were left for a small population of Palestinians to inhabit: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; however, starting in 1967, Israel began to illegally occupy these territories (Shlaim).  The influence of the Nakba created a huge mass of Palestinian refugees who have gone through loss and trauma, are unable to become full citizens in their countries of refuge, and who long for their right to return to the land that has been their home for generations.  Baddawi explores what life is like for one such Palestinian refugee as he dodges violent attacks and bounces between refugee camps in Lebanon amid rising political tensions and the beginning of the Lebanese civil war.

Leila Abdelrazaq

Leila Abdelrazaq

Beddawi illuminates the inadequacy of the standards of living for Palestinian refugees as individuals who are barred from a home space which is an integral part of their cultural identity.   Abdelrazaq utilizes literary devices such as alliteration, metaphoric imagery, allusion, and illustrated symbolism within a framework of historical moments such as the Lebanese civil war and the Al Naska of 1967 to exemplify moments in which Ahmad struggles to hang onto his Palestinian identity.  These devices help to demonstrate how the loss of Palestinian home translates into a loss of cultural memory.  Additionally, in the context of the Right of Return movement, particular aspects of Palestinian culture such as tatreez embroidery act as a method of hanging onto as much Palestinian identity as possible, even if actually reaching Palestine is not a possibility.  Despite this impossibility, Ahmad realizes in Beddawi that even if he cannot physically reach Palestine, he will never stop reaching towards it.

After finishing school in Beddawi camp, Ahmad moves to the city of Beirut to join his father, who gets a job there.  Once he starts to adjust to life in Beirut, Ahmad experiences numerous bombings as a byproduct of militarizing right-wing forces in the Lebanese civil war.  This war was a complicated conglomeration between many groups, each with their own agendas.  Each group, though, fell vaguely underneath one of two sides: pro Maronite-dominated government or pro governmental reform (Abdelrazaq 119-120).  One day, Ahmad’s favorite shop owner, Abu Muhammad, is killed after an air strike.  After this moment, Abdelrazaq writes that “Ahmad frequently traveled between Beirut and Baddawi” (Abdelrazaq 101).  This phrasing utilizes alliteration to emphasize this new point in Ahmad’s life.  The repeated “b” sounds at the beginning of the words “between,” “Beirut,” and “Baddawi” help to separate and accentuate each of these three key words.  A greater focus on this moment, emphasized by the alliteration, is significant considering that the death of Abu Muhammad marks an inciting incident in Ahamd’s life which will cause him to alternate between Beirut and Beddawi in order to remain safe.  The text which states that Ahmad needs to bounce between two cities is paired with the image of him curled in a ball, being overtaken by demons that haunt him as a result of all the violence that surrounds him (Abdelrazaq 101).  Unsafety and fear from the civil war make Ahmad’s fetal position a telling depiction of the effects near homelessness has on his psyche.

Not having a clear home space, as Ahmad experiences, is a major issue for Palestinian refugees.  “Exiled at Home: Writing Return and the Palestinian Home,” an article written by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Sarah Ihmoud, delves into the influence of Palestinian home ideology.  Written in 2014 for the journal Biography, this long-form article discusses the forced dispersal of Palestinians who otherwise would suffer from the effects of setter colonial violence in occupied territories within Palestine.  Zionist militarization all interfere with the Palestinian home space, which according to the article is imperative for Palestinians to preserve their memories, identities, and a family unit (Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Ihmoud).  As Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Ihmoud detail, the loss of home for Palestinians is more than just a physical phenomenon, but rather, “it is charged with public and communal meaning as a space for the creation and transmission of Palestinian memory and cultural and political identity” (Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Ihmoud 381).  Connecting home identity to the point of the graphic novel in which Ahmad is unsafe in his status as a refugee complicates the idea of home as perhaps having evolved into being synonymous with safety, at least provisionally until Palestinians are not in direct danger and can again focus on returning to Palestine.

Home identity, as discussed in this article, helps deepen the pathos for Ahmad’s situation.  Not only does he have to travel between cities to escape violence, as the alliteration “between Beirut and Beddawi” helps highlight, but neither of the two “homes” he travels between are the true home of Palestine.  The tragedy of Ahmad’s condition, even as one of the lucky ones, is that he becomes a refugee within the country his family had once fled to as a place of refuge.  Alex Mangles comments on this misfortune in his 2015 review of Baddawi in his Los Angelos Review of Books article, “Stitching Out a Life in Graphic Memoir.”  He emphasizes how Abdelrazaq’s portrayal of Ahmad is a way of preserving the story of how Palestinians are treated, which in itself is an act of resistance which gives voice to the non-dominant parties of history (Mangles).  Even within allocated living spaces for Palestinians such as Beddawi, the traditional cultural space of home remains missing for families living provisionally away from Palestine.  Ahmad’s story brings this sense of loss to light.

More concretely, the desire to move back to Palestine is rooted in legal entitlement.  On December 11, 1948, UN resolution 194 was passed in the General Assembly, specifying that Palestinians all have the right to return to their homes in Palestine (Siklawi 78).  Israel, to this day, has yet to follow through with these terms, as Palestinians are still barred from Israel.  Rami Siklawi writes in his article for Arab Studies Quarterly (2019) that “the Palestinians have the legitimate right to continue their national struggle against Israel, which is the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their national goal for total liberation” (Siklawi 78).  Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have hence formed a resistance to their unfair economic social treatment within their camps, and continue to advocate for their legal and human right of a place of belonging (Siklawi 78).  In a 2014 interview at DuPaul University with Quest Sawyer, Abdelrazaq recounts how students without any heritage stemming from Palestine are able to visit Israel each year on birth right trips.  However, she notes, “Palestinians around the world are kept out of the country” (Leila Abdelrazaq Interview 3).  This is a frustrating truth for all of those that risk their lives for the Right of Return movement.

The inability to live in Palestine troubles Ahmad at various crossroads in his life.  Near the end of the graphic novel, Ahmad gets accepted into a university in Texas right around the same time his parents approve of a marriage between him and his study partner, Manal.  Having only a refugee status and no actual Lebanese citizenship, if Ahmad were to go to the U.S., he would be unable to return to Lebanon for years (Abdelrazaq 115-116).  Abdelrazaq illustrates Ahmad’s internal struggle of how to proceed with his life in a full-page drawing which utilizes metaphoric visual imagery.  In the drawing, Ahmad is facing two paths.  One leads through a shape resembling the United States, where he can attend college and start a new life for himself.  The other path leads through the shape of Lebanon, where he would remain in the Palestinian camp to marry his friend Manal and raise a family.  Neither of these paths, however, lead to the shape of Israel/Palestine, pictured glowing in the background sky, unattainable by either of the two paths drawn (Abdelrazaq 113).

Drawn onto the country of Israel is a stripe of the traditional Palestinian tatreez embroidery pattern (Abdelrazaq 113). Author Randa Otaibi describes in a brief Kalimat Magazine column titled, Tatreez…Preserving Palestinian Identity, how tatreez survived diaspora and became transformed “from a village handicraft into an artistic expression of Palestinian identity” (Otaibi 53).  The image of the tatreez on Israel as a final detail of visual imagery, therefore, completes the metaphor by exhibiting how Ahmad, as just one of many Palestinian refugees, has different choices he can make as he enters adulthood.  However, none of these choices will lead him back to his homeland, the source of the tatreez and his Palestinian roots.  The image of Palestine and his culture, represented by the tatreez, remains glowing in the center distance.  As Ahmad is facing this unattainable place, and not Lebanon or the United States, he is represented as desiring Palestine as his first choice to live his life.



On this same page, Abdelrazaq provides an allusion to the Palestinian figure, Handala.  A political cartoon character created by Naji al-Ali in 1975, Handala is represented as a young Palestinian refugee boy with his hands clasped behind him while he witnesses the political events of his surroundings.  Abdelrazaq explains in Beddawi’s preface that, “Naji al-Ali promised that once the Palestinian people were free and allowed to return home, Handala would grow up and the world would see his face” (Abdelrazaq 11).  The ideology behind Handala is therefore heavily rooted in the Right of Return movement.  In the illustration where Ahmad is facing his two separate paths, he is depicted in a similar stance as Handala—back facing the reader with hands clasped behind his back.  In this way, the allusion to Handala ties in to the notion that Ahmad is unable to reach Palestine, which in Abdelrazaq’s illustration is lit up, unlike the dark silhouettes of the United States and Lebanon.  Ahmad’s face, as a representation of personal identity, would therefore only be visible in the light of his homeland of Palestine.  The connection Abdelrazaq draws between Ahmad and Handala resonates in the inability for Palestinians to live their lives as they please.  Until the return to Palestine is realized, Palestinians must cope with the idea that they are fairly unseen people.

The essence of Handala’s Right of Return ideology becomes less hopeful after the Al Naska, which was a new Israeli occupation beginning in 1976 in which “Another 300,00 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed” (Abdelrazaq 35).  After this event, several illustrated symbols in the graphic novel help depict Ahmad’s crashing realization that he will never reach Palestine.  One day, Ahmad helps his mother make za’atar, a common Palestinian seasoning.  She tells him, “You know, Ahmad, next time you gather thyme for the za’atar, it will be in Palestine” (Abdelrazaq 34).  In response to this, Abdelrazaq writes, “Ahmad wondered what Palestine would be like.  He thought of his mother’s stories” (Abdelrazaq 34).  An illustration, bordered in tatreez, of Ahmad lost in reverie accompanies this last statement. Ahmad is pictured in the bottom left corner looking down a path that leads to a sunset and large tree; the tatreez helps connote that the scene pictured is Palestine.  This illustration is replicated and then modified on the following page, which includes a text box including historical information about the Al Naska.  In this second image, Ahmad is again drawn in the bottom left corner, this time poking out from the Beddawi camp and stretching out his right arm in the air as if to grab something.  Extending from his arm is a path labeled with a sign, written in Arabic, that points to Palestine.  The path has a major crack down the middle due to the destructive events of the Al Naksa described on this page (Abdelrazaq 35).  At the end of the illustrated path, symbolically destroyed by the Al Naksa, there is a flag with tatreez on it, a mosque, and a tree similar to the last scene, which helps connect the two scenes as being alternate realities of the same path leading to Palestine.  The tatreez flag and mosque also signal that tradition and religion are major components of this lost home space.  The mirroring of Ahmad’s idyllic vision of Palestine in the first image then becomes completely unattainable in the second due to a new wave of destruction that keeps him barred to the life of a refugee.

Beddawi utilizes historic and political components of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Lebanese civil war as a backdrop and instigator to the problems one refugee, Ahmad, faces.  The key debate on this conflict teeters between the idea that Jews have been persecuted for centuries and therefore deserve a protected space on the site of their historic homeland, yet Palestinians are left without a home, citizenship, or a fair standard of living.  In focusing in on the perspective of just one refugee, Abdelrazaq informs readers with a certain amount of pathos for the human ramifications war and conflict have on civilians.  Beddawi directs attention toward not just a housing problem that is commonly associated with a refugee crisis, but issues of identity and belonging.  This graphic novel demonstrates that the seemingly quixotic desire to return to the Palestinian homeland is not ideologically rooted in hatred or spite, but rather in a legal and personal necessity to live in acceptance on the land where Palestinian heritage was created.

Works Cited

Abdelrazaq, Leila. Baddawi. Charlottesville: Just World Books, 2015.

Abdelrazaq, Leila. Leila Abdelrazaq Interview Quest Sawyer. DuPaul University, 18 May 2018.

Mangles, Alex. “Stitching Out a Life in Graphic Memoir.” 8 June 2015. Los Angelos Review of Books. 7 March 2019. <!>.

Otaibi, Randa. “Tatreez…Preserving Palestinian Identity.” Kalimat Magazine (2012): 53.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera & Ihmoud, Sarah. “Exiled at Home: Writing Return and the Palestinian Home.” Biography, vol. 37 no. 2, 2014, pp. 377-397. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bio.2014.0029

Shlaim, Avi. “Is Zionism Today the Real Enemy of the Jews? Yes.” 4 February 2005. The New York Times. 10 April 2019. <>.

Siklawi, Rami. “The Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon Post 1990: Dilemmas of Survival and Return to Palestine.” Arab Studies Quarterly 1 January 2019: 78-94.

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