Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout (b. 1937 in Jerusalem) is an accomplished historian, journalist, writer, and professor. Her book about the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 in Lebanon may be the most thorough and reliable account of the atrocities that happened. Until her retirement, she was professor of political science at the Lebanese University.
Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout
Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout was born in Jerusalem in 1937. She lived with her family in upper al-Baq‘a, a beautiful and quiet neighborhood close to the German Colony in the New City. She grew up in what she refers to as a “100 percent Arab home.” Both her parents were of Lebanese descent. Her mother taught them anthems of the Arab revolution; al-Hout’s maternal uncle had given his life in the battle of Majdal Shams against the French in Syria. Her father, Ajaj Nuwayhed, was a proficient orator, historian, writer, and translator who also studied law and served as Secretary of the Constitution Committee at the General Islamic Conference in 1931. He also co-founded al-Istiqlal Party in 1932 and founded the al-Arab weekly magazine in Jerusalem in 1932. Ajaj Nuwayhed was an avid reader and had an extensive collection of books and letters in their Jerusalem home. However, the much-loved library, as well as the family’s entire belongings, were destroyed by the Israeli forces following the 1948 War.
Exile from Jerusalem
“The last day I lived in my Jerusalem home was on April 26, 1948,” al-Hout recalls.1 She was 10 years old when she left Jerusalem. As the situation was getting more dangerous, her father sent his wife and daughters to stay with family in Ras al-Mitn (Beirut) for a couple of months, until the situation stabilized. Meanwhile, he and his son Khaldoun remained in Jerusalem. Al-Hout remembers her mother crying when the taxi that drove them away passed by Mamilla Cemetery, where her oldest daughter was buried; she had died at age three years.
Little did al-Hout know that she would be deprived of not just her home, but also the school that she so loved. In her opinion, the (German) Schmidt’s Girls’ School, which at the time was located close to Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, was the most beautiful school she ever saw. Later she would describe the bus journey from her neighborhood of al-Baq‘a, toward King George Street, and on to the entrance of the school. She had not realized that the day would come “when I would get entirely deprived of my school, my home, and my city.”2
Part of the tragedy in losing one’s homeland is assuming that we abundantly speak about losing it, yet a lifetime goes by before we realize: what we have not said far exceeds that which we have remembered.3
Al-Hout, her mother, and her sisters arrived in Lebanon via Amman on May 1, 1948. Never would the family have imagined that their stay in Lebanon, which was supposed to be for a couple of months at most, would be permanent. Her father stayed in Jerusalem. His high-profile career had him constantly moving between Amman and Ramallah.
On May 13, he went to Jordan to meet with the king for a couple of days and learned while he was there that his house in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The neighbors later notified him that the Israeli forces stormed the house. Of all the belongings that the family lost, Ajaj Nuwayhed was most heartbroken by the loss of his library. The valuable collection included personal letters from Shakib Arslan, the prolific Druze author who was known as the prince of eloquence. Neighbors recalled that it took the Israelis several hours to remove all the books from the bookshelves and toss them into a truck.
Nuwayhed eventually went to Amman, where his family joined him for a while; in 1959, the family moved to Beirut. Meanwhile, the memory of their house in Jerusalem would haunt them forever.
As expressed by al-Hout:
I admit that I have no wish other than to visit my home just once, even under the pall of occupation. I know that our garden has changed, that the apricot, pomegranate and elder trees are dead and gone, and that the earth has swallowed the blossoms of the morning glory that would creep up the walls and spread over every bit of garden soil. Recently I saw how a section of the garden was lopped off and turned into a parking lot. I also saw, in pictures and video clips made for me by a friend who is a European diplomat, that my house has a number now. It is No. 19 on Rehov Harakevet, or Railway Street. Perhaps all this is no more than mere nostalgia—which is no sin. Nor is visiting one’s home. Yet the question remains: what is a home? What does the word mean? Home is the homeland. When Palestine is the homeland it is not so only for its people, but for those who love it, who believe its history, every era of its history with no exception, and place their trust in its heritage, its Aqsa Mosque and its Church of the Resurrection.4
Education and Career
In the early 1950s, al-Hout lived and studied at the Queen Zein High School in Amman. It was during that time, in a class where the teacher asked the refugees in the room to stand up, that she discovered she had become a “Palestinian refugee.”
Al-Hout took her secondary school examination in Ramallah. Then she enrolled in a female teachers’ training institute in Ramallah, from which she graduated two years later, in 1956. Between 1956 and 1959, she lived in Amman and taught Arabic. The two years she spent in Ramallah, as well as the three years in Amman that followed, all proved to be significant for her; they instilled her national belonging and taught her about political life.
In 1959, al-Hout moved to Lebanon, where she has remained to this day. She first worked as a journalist at Dar As-Sayyad until 1965 while she went to university. In 1963, she earned a PhD in political science from the Lebanese University. She later headed the documentary section at the Palestine Research Center, as well as the Center for Arab Unity Studies. She went back to school in 1970 and earned a degree in public law from the Lebanese University.
Al-Hout would become an acknowledged writer, particularly on the history and politics of Palestine. From 1979 to 2001, she taught the Palestine question and Middle Eastern studies at the Faculty of Law and Political Science of the Lebanese University. She also served as a member of the Arab National Conference; she was a founding member of both the National Islamic Conference and the al-Quds Institution. She also did translation work and has been a member of the World Arabic Translators Association since 2004.
Personal Life, Political Activism, and the Siege of Beirut
In her earlier days in Jordan, al-Hout was especially influenced by the Arab Socialist Ba‘th Party. She recalls how she read the constitution and bylaws of the Ba‘th Party one evening and was so moved by its principles that she could not sleep that night. “It was as if I was the one who wrote those words,”5 she noted in an interview years later. She swore her allegiance to the Ba‘th Party in the first session she attended in Jordan. At the time, those meetings were clandestine.
Once back in Lebanon, she met Shafiq al-Hout, a Palestinian refugee from Jaffa, and found that they shared a love of writing, Palestine, and Arab nationalism. They got married in 1962 and had three children: Hader, Hanine, and Syrine.
Shafiq al-Hout would later become a journalist, a senior political leader, and one of the founders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This connection would give Bayan even greater insight into regional politics. Among the regular guests at their home was PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Lebanese chief of intelligence Johnny Abdo. Despite the professional advantages associated with having a front-row seat on events, there were serious risks, too, not least of which were the repeated assassination attempts on Shafiq al-Hout.
The year 1982 was a particularly difficult time to be in Beirut. That was the year when the beautiful city underwent 88 days of bombing and siege by the Israeli army. Al-Hout recalls one incident during the Israeli invasion of Beirut: Already in June 1982, four Israeli soldiers went inside her home, looking for her husband. Things would become even more dangerous during the massive bombing. Warned by everyone around her who advised her to leave, al-Hout absolutely refused to leave Lebanon. She wrote:
We lost our house in Jerusalem. More importantly, we lost our library in Jerusalem. I refused to lose our library for a second time.6
The memory of the Nakba of 1948 had been too staggering for al-Hout to risk a second displacement. Furthermore, she had family and university duties to attend to in Lebanon. The slaughter that followed, however, was so atrocious that it became a turning point in her life and career.
The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila
Al-Hout recalls how she first found out about the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, when Lebanese militias were led into the two camps under control of the Israeli army and slaughtered Palestinian and Lebanese residents. “I heard the news on Monte Carlo radio . . . The reporter was crying as he narrated the news.”7 She was devastated by the events that occurred so close to her home. As she notes in the introduction of her book:
For 40 continuous hours between sunset on Thursday 16 September and midday on Saturday 18 September 1982, the massacre of Sabra and Shatila took place, one of the most barbaric of the twentieth century.8
An excellent observer, al-Hout was a researcher par excellence. She took it upon herself to collect information about the people whose lives were supposed to be protected under the terms of the PLO evacuation agreement. What followed was a five-year commitment to document a timeline of the massacre. She entered the refugee camps after the massacre and began collecting personal accounts in the form of oral history, as well as gathering details from the “tombs” (her word) following the massacre.
From her interviews of survivors, al-Hout concluded that the number of killed, kidnapped, and disappeared was at least 3,500, much larger than Israeli and Lebanese sources were reporting. Her book focused on 64 narratives; “all are painful.”9 At first, she had been hesitant to document accounts that seemed far-fetched and too unbelievable to have occurred. Upon further research, however, she realized that survivor accounts of seeing victims thrown into mass graves and women being stabbed in the abdomen were factual—not embellished at all.
If the book is difficult to read, it was exponentially more difficult to write. “Massacres are often similar,”10 al-Hout notes. “The sleepless nights and challenges [in writing this book] are too many to name . . . They haunt me to this day.”11
In the history of massacres, the first speaker is death, then the murdered, and finally the murderer. Death has spoken and so have the murdered, as the witnesses have spoken. Meanwhile, the living victims are still awaiting the murderer to speak.12
In addition to her vivid narrative of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, al-Hout has published several books and many articles and essays. Her in-depth study, Political Leaderships and Institutions in Palestine 1917–1948, examined the social structure of the Palestinian political elite and its significance to the Palestinian national movement. It is an authoritative source about the Palestinian committees, conferences, parties, and delegations during the pre-Nakba decades. She also wrote about Izzeddine al-Qassam, the Syrian Muslim preacher who opposed foreign colonialism and Zionism. He became a leader in the struggles against the British and French occupations of Palestine and Syria and moved to Palestine to confront the Zionist threat to Palestine; he was killed there in 1935. Decades later, Hamas named its military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in his honor.
Al-Hout also wrote about distinguished nonmilitant figures, including her late father, Ajaj Nuwayhed, the prominent orator, historian, and translator; historian Walid al-Khalidi; and the leader of the Independence Party of Palestine, Rashid al-Haj Ibrahim. She has also shared her reflections about the Schmidt’s school, her city of Jerusalem, and the Armenian neighborhood in the Old City of Jerusalem. She has been invited to speak in various regional conferences and appeared in numerous TV interviews.
Political Leaderships and Institutions in Palestine 1917–1948. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1981.
The Mujahed Sheikh Izzeddine al-Qassam in the History of Palestine. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Dar al-Istiqlal, 1987.
Palestine: The Cause, the People, the Civilization: A Political History from the Canaanite Era to the Twentieth Century (1917). [In Arabic.] Beirut: Dar al-Istiqlal, 1991.
The Diaries of Ajaj Nuwayhed: Sixty Years with the Arab Caravan. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Dar al-Istiqlal, 1993.
Sabra and Shatila: September 1982. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 2003; in English: London: Pluto Press, 2004.
Abu Roukti, Zaal. “TV Interview with Writer and Researcher Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout.” [In Arabic.] April 18, 2012.
BBC News. “The Massacres of Sabra and Shatila and the Siege of Lebanon—With Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout.” [In Arabic.] September 24, 2018.
al-Hout, Bayan Nywayhed. “Sabra and Shatila: 25 Years After.” [In Arabic.] As-Safir, September 13, 2007.
al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayhed. “About a Homeland That Won’t Become Memories: My Home in Jerusalem.” [In Arabic.] Falastine. June 2010.
al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayhed. “Evenings in Upper Baq’a: Remembering Ajaj Nuwayhed and Home.” Jerusalem Quarterly 46 (Summer 2011): 15–22.
al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayhed. “On the Wings of Memory: Schmidt’s Girls School.” Jerusalem Quarterly 74 (Summer 2018): 86–103.
al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayhed. “On the Wings of Memory: ‘Schmidt.’” [In Arabic]. Journal of Palestinian Studies 113 (Winter 2018): 74–89.
Institute for Palestine Studies. “Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout.” [In Arabic.] Accessed May 28, 2021.
Learn Palestine: The Palestinian Revolution. “Bayan al-Hout: Joining.” [In Arabic.] January 28, 2017.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA). “Al-Hout, Bayan Nuwayhed (1937–).” Accessed May 27, 2021.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA). “Nuwayhed, Ajaj (1896–1982).” Accessed May 27, 2021.
Saudi, Mona, interviewed, in Nabulsi, K, and Takriti, A.R, eds., The Palestinian Revolution, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2021.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Shafiq al-Hout.” Last modified May 26, 2021, 11:37.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Shakib Arslan.” Last modified April 17, 2021, 22:25.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.” Last modified May 19, 2021, 16:44.
[Profile photo: © Midadulqalam]
Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, “On the Wings of Memory: ‘Schmidt’” [in Arabic], Journal of Palestine Studies 113 (Winter 2018): 74–89. 2018.
al-Hout, “On the Wings of Memory.”
Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, “About a Homeland That Won’t Become Memories: My Home in Jerusalem” [in Arabic], Falastine, June 2010.
Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, “Evenings in Upper Baq‘a: Remembering Ajaj Nuwayhed and Home,” Jerusalem Quarterly 46 (Summer 2011): 15–22.
Learn Palestine: The Palestinian Revolution, “Bayan al-Hout: Joining” [in Arabic], January 28, 2017.
BBC News, “The Massacres of Sabra and Shatila and the Siege of Lebanon—with Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout” [in Arabic], September 24, 2018.
Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, Sabra and Shatila: September 1982 (London: Pluto Press, 2004).
Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, “Sabra and Shatila: 25 Years After” [in Arabic], As-Safir, September 13, 2007.
al-Hout, “Sabra and Shatila.”