Nadim Bawalsa, Transnational Palestine: Migration and the Right of Return before 1948 (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nadim Bawalsa (NB): This book started as a dissertation project. In 2011, I traveled to Jerusalem to conduct preliminary dissertation research at the Israel State Archive. My hope was to find autobiographical sources of Palestinians in the early twentieth century. I had been researching Khalil Sakakini’s diaries extensively as part of my MA thesis, and the idea was to expand on this work by locating more sources, whether Sakakini’s or others’, in order to construct an intellectual history of early twentieth-century Palestine. I spent a month at the archive, and while I managed to find some autobiographical sources, they were mostly disjointed thanks to very disorganized Israeli archiving; I would find one or two documents in a few mislabeled and messy boxes, but there was no coherence to the different correspondences or diary entries. They were unfortunately not significant finds.

About three weeks into the trip, a friend in the doctoral program, Fredrik Meiton, who was also researching at the archive, came to me with a document he found. It was hand-written in Arabic, and he could not make out what it said, but the printed letterhead was clear: Centro Social Palestino de Monterrey, Mexico, and the date was 1927. We were stunned. There were Palestinians in Mexico in 1927 and they formed a collective with its own letterhead? It took some time, but I managed to decipher the handwriting: it was a letter addressed to Musa Kazim al-Husayni, head of the Arab Executive Committee in Jerusalem. The authors were requesting his assistance in challenging recent British refusals to grant them Palestinian citizenship on arbitrary grounds. The implications, they explained, were serious, as it meant they would lose any legal connections to Palestine, including properties, inheritance, and residency. They were determined to defend their rights to Palestinian nationality as well as their right to return, as they phrased it.

I searched for other documents in the box Fredrik was examining, and managed to find a few more in English, Spanish, and Arabic from Palestinians in other parts of Mexico, but also from similar Palestinian collectives in Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras, Cuba, Chile, and elsewhere in Latin America. Each document had a formal letterhead, they were all authored in the late 1920s, and the content was similar: challenging British Mandate authorities’ decision to deny them Palestinian citizenship. I immediately realized this was a critical topic and that it had not been written about before. The following year, I traveled to London to conduct research at the National Archives there, and two years after that, I visited the national library in Santiago, Chile. Document after document in London revealed British authorities’ carefully designed nationality law, legislated in 1925, through which they naturalized Jewish immigrants as Palestinian citizens and deliberately denied it to tens of thousands of Palestinian migrants in the diaspora. And in Santiago, I found over a dozen Arabic and Spanish periodicals published by early migrants there from Greater Syria. In issue after issue, they condemned British policies and called on one another to defend Palestinian migrants’ rights to their nationality. That Palestinians were migrating alongside Syrians, Lebanese, and other Middle Eastern travelers to every corner of the Americas starting in the late nineteenth century, that they developed collective political consciousness as Palestinians from afar, and that their forcible distancing from Palestine—and hence their right to return to it—started well before 1948 simply had to be written.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NB: Perhaps the most obvious topic is the Palestinian right of return to Palestine, and discovering that it has a longer historical trajectory than 1948, one that is rooted in colonization and the interwar international legal order. This is to say that the so-called liberal world order that emerged in Europe after WWI and that purported to secure liberation and self-determination for nations across the globe was never not colonial, imperial, and fundamentally unequal. British colonial authorities were committed to realizing the Zionist agenda in Palestine and that not only meant prioritizing Jewish settlement, naturalization, and sovereignty in Palestine, it also meant disenfranchising thousands of Palestinian migrants in the process. This contributes to literature critiquing and exposing the interwar legal order for what it was, including the works of Susan Pedersen, Mark Mazower, Antony Anghie, and others.

The book also contributes to Middle Eastern migration and diaspora studies by including Palestinians in literature largely dominated by Lebanese and Syrian migrant narratives. A handful of scholars, including Akram Khater, Stacy Fahrenthold, Camila Pastor, and Sarah Gualtieri are among those leading the way in historical studies of the Lebanese and Syrian diasporas in the Americas. My book contributes to these very impressive works, and in doing so, it contributes to strengthening scholarly connections between the Middle East and Latin America, two regions worth studying together for a variety of reasons, including migrant networks and shared histories of settler colonization, liberation struggles, and much more.

Finally, I hope the book makes a significant contribution to the study of the development of Palestinian national consciousness in the twentieth century. Building on the works of Rashid Khalidi, Salim Tamari, James Gelvin, and others, the book examines the development of a distinct sense of Palestinian self and group understanding from a transnational perspective. That Palestinians across the Americas, as far away from Palestine as the Chilean Andes, were contributing to forging a collective national mode of identification, indicates that the historical study of Palestine and Palestinians must branch out of Palestine. What this means for historians and researchers of Palestine is that our documents and records are not only confined to often inaccessible Israeli and British archives; they are virtually everywhere, waiting to be found.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NB: As a Palestinian myself, I have always been interested in the stories of my people, both historical and contemporary. Choosing to build a career as a historian in Palestinian studies necessarily meant that I am committed to recording and preserving these stories. My previous work was largely focused on locating Palestinian autobiographical sources in order to tell our stories—and not only our stories of loss and dispossession. I have always wanted to reconstruct a record of who we are as a collective in spite of our exile and fragmentation, and in spite of any attempts to deny our existence and our past. When I found those documents in Jerusalem, I felt a strong urge to know who those Palestinian migrants were. While I did not find their diaries or photos, what I found in those periodicals in the microfilms of the national library in Santiago was very moving; there were stories to be told about these pioneering travelers and successful merchants who took on the British empire in hundreds of petitions for decades and from all over Latin America. These impressive people not only set a precedent for demanding our rights to be Palestinians and to be in Palestine, they also recorded their struggle for themselves and their children. I consider it an honor to be able to retell their stories and share them with Palestinians everywhere.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NB: My book is for Palestinians everywhere. Of course, I hope anyone interested in our history will read it, but it would be a dream if descendants of these Palestinian migrants across every corner of Latin America and beyond read the book. I would love for them to know their history, to know where they come from and what their great grandparents did to preserve their culture and connections to their homelands. I would also love for Palestinians in Palestine and across the Arab world to read the book and learn about their compatriots in Latin America and the long battles they waged to defend one another and who they are. And I would love for the book to bring us fragmented Palestinians closer to one another. I was able to experience this last year in Amman, Jordan. I was giving a book talk at the Columbia Global Centers, and during the Q&A, a young woman raised her hand to share that she was Mexican of Palestinian origin, and that she recognized her great grandfather’s name in one of the documents I displayed during the presentation. She said she had always known her family was Palestinian, but that she never knew the details of why they left Palestine, why they chose to settle in Saltillo, Mexico, and how they tried to return to Palestine. In fact, she said no one in her community in Mexico knew this history. She never imagined she would learn all this while attending a lecture in Amman, and she asked what I thought could be done to bring more Palestinians across the world together to learn who they are and about their connected histories. I was deeply touched. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NB: In keeping with my mission to record our stories, I began working on a novel loosely based on a few incredible stories I found and heard while conducting research in Chile and meeting with palestinos-chilenos. I could not include them in the book, so it is my goal to write them and share them with the world as stories. These are harrowing accounts of migration across oceans and continents over a century ago, of love and loss, of family scandals, and much more—stories that will shock and inspire, much like the brilliant novels of Isabella Hammad. If our historical record is interrupted, disjointed, and locked up in Israeli and British archives from which most of us are banned, why can we not imagine it? After all, these are our stories to tell.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, pp. 119-123)

The Voices of Mexico’s Palestinian Petitioners

On 11 November 1926, the British vice-consul in Mexico City sent a letter to Mr. Antonio J. Dieck, then president of the Centro Social Palestino in Monterrey, explaining the reasons for rejecting several applications for Palestinian citizenship made by Palestinian residents of Monterrey earlier that year. The vice-consul explained that the applicants had all been “absent from Palestine for periods of from twelve to twenty-five years:”

I beg to advise you that I have received a dispatch from H.B.M. Consule General in the City of Mexico, stating that the following applications for citizenship have been refused:

Salamon Canavati . . . Azize Marcos de Dieck . . . Zacarias J. Dieck . . . Espiridion Canavati and Salha Mansour Elias Freige. . . .

H.B.M. Consule-General sends me a dispatch from the Officer Administering the Government of Palestine, from which I quote the following in regard to the above applications:

“2” The Applicants have in every case been absent from Palestine for periods of from twelve to twenty-five years, and more and it is apparent that they have severed all connections with this country. In these circumstances I do not propose to accept their applications.

He added that they could reapply for citizenship before 1 August of that year if they fulfilled the six-month residency requirement in Palestine and if they could prove Ottoman nationality and birth in Palestine:

“3” It will, however, be open to them to apply for citizenship under Art. 4 of the order, provided application is made before the 1st. of August, next, and provided also that they qualify by residence in Palestine for a period of six months before the date of application and are able to produce satisfactory evidence of Ottoman nationality and birth in Palestine.

In response to this letter, members of Monterrey’s Centro Social Palestino, now under the leadership of Salamon Canavati, met throughout January 1927 and drafted a petition to send to the high commissioner. In their 5 February petition, they declared that the 1925 Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council contravened international law as it was prescribed by the League of Nations. Canavati, Secretary Kawas, and approximately 220 members of the Centro who signed their names to the petition explained further that excluding the migrants from citizenship—a legal requisite for self-determination—would constitute a disavowal of the British mandate’s purported responsibility, as dictated by the League of Nations, to the aspiring constituents of a Palestinian nation. If the migrants were to permanently be denied citizenship, the petitioners argued, their “personal statute would come to be fixed in such terms which in no way could agree either with the general principles of equity and justice or with the modern practices of International Law.”

Whether London or Jerusalem liked it or not, the disenfranchisement of an individual or community in a newly interconnected world would not go unnoticed if the individual or community petitioned the League of Nations. The process of petitioning the league for redress regarding a mandate’s behavior, questioning the mandate, and appealing rejections created a global space within which ordinary individuals and groups communicated with states, legal bodies, and international regimes. In this way, the “mandate system created ‘mandated peoples’ as figures in international law, granting them standing—a place from which to write.” Concomitantly, the more petitions were dismissed on arbitrary grounds, the more convinced petitioners were that they had the right to appeal the league using more strongly worded petitions. The Monterrey petitioners therefore felt vindicated and certain in their petition to Plumer when they declared: “We firmly believe we have a right to [Palestinian] nationality and to be held as citizens of Palestine.” Ultimately, this relational process between petitioners and their distant overlords cemented the authority of the league and the British mandate, as well as the practice of rejecting appeals, but it also contributed to strengthening networks of solidarity and collective identification among Palestinians in the diaspora.

As Canavati began convening with other members of the Centro Social Palestino de Monterrey to draft a petition, he also reached out to Jesus Talamas, president of the Comité Hijos de Palestina in Saltillo, a group established in 1917 that had secured significant economic and political leverage, especially with the British vice-consulate in Saltillo. A month prior, on 2 January 1927, Talamas submitted the first protest on behalf of the Comité Hijos de Palestina to Plumer. On 3 February, two days before Canavati’s petition, Talamas submitted another one to the minister of the colonies in London, of which he sent copies to Plumer and Musa Kazim al-Husseini, president of the Arabic Executive at the time and former mayor of Jerusalem between 1918 and 1920. In both, he affirmed his and his community’s Palestinianness, committing to protesting any attempts to deny it. With their considerable influence among Palestinian communities in Monterrey and Saltillo, two of Mexico’s larger urban centers in the north, Canavati and Talamas managed to collect signatures of support from palestinos in colonias palestinas throughout the northern corridor. The network of Palestinian jaaliyaat in northern Mexico stretched from the eastern towns of Linares, Monterrey, and Saltillo to San Pedro and Torreon in the center, and all the way to Chihuahua farther to the west. This chain of Palestinian collectives covered three of Mexico’s largest states: Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, which bordered the United States. Palestinian communities in Mexico thus formed an integral part of Mexico’s northern east-west corridor, and their flurry of activism in the early months of 1927 through petitions that reached British authorities in regional consulates in Monterrey and Saltillo, the Consulate General in Mexico City, the Foreign Office in London, the PMC in Geneva, and the Government of Palestine in Jerusalem reflects the economic and political clout of this diaspora collective.

Throughout late January and February, Palestinians in Linares, Saltillo, San Pedro, and Chihuahua submitted telegrams in Spanish and Arabic to the Centro Social Palestino, pledging their support to the campaign to petition the high commissioner in Jerusalem. Each telegram included the signatures of those involved, which totaled approximately 135, excluding the original 220 signatures of members of the Centro Social Palestino. The telegrams written in Spanish were succinct and reflected the formal language used in the Centro’s petition. As an example, the jaaliya in Linares submitted the following telegram on 26 February 1927:

The undersigned, members of the Palestinian colony based in Linares, N.L., energetically protest against the decision of His Excellency Field Marshal Lord Plumer in charge of the English Government in Palestine to ignore our rights to citizenship for being absent from our country more than 12 years, and we support in all its parts the protest presented by the members of our colony in Monterrey, N.L. Mex.

On the other hand, on 10 February, Talamas and thirty-five members of the Comité Hijos de Palestina had sent a concise letter of support to Monterrey in Arabic and in a less formal register: “We, the sons of Palestine generally and those resident in this city, support the protests of our brothers in Monterrey.” Collectively, these telegrams signified the interconnectedness of northern Mexico’s Palestinian communities and their commitment to supporting one another in the defense of their rights to Palestinian citizenship.

For its part in representing these collectives in their joint protest, the Centro Social Palestino amended its 5 February petition and submitted a revised one on 23 February. Canavati and Kawas began the original petition by indicating that they were speaking on behalf of “all natives of Palestine . . . having been born there.” But on 23 February, the vice-president of the Centro, Abraham Masso, and Kawas began their petition with the following statement:

We, the undersigned native-born Palestinians, resident of the Cities of Monterrey, Saltillo, Chihuahua and San Pedro, Coahuila, Republic of Mexico, do hereby most respectfully beg to lay before you the following information and to solicit your aid in the solution of a problem, which for us is most serious.

Similarly, the original petition ended with the signatures of Canavati and Kawas, but the revised one included the following statement: “Signed on behalf of the members of THE PALESTINIAN COLONIES.” Unmistakably, the new petition represented a larger collective, and below these words, Masso and Kawas added: “Attached are the signatures of more than three hundred of our compatriots,” the first of which was Salamon Canavati’s. Throughout January and February 1927, the Centro’s leadership thus managed to add more than one hundred signatures to the original petition from Palestinians residing between Chihuahua and Linares, two towns at the opposite ends of a corridor that stretches more than 900 kilometers across much of northern Mexico.