The Shape of Time: New Palestinian Writing

—Are you there?
—Where?
—Here?
—You mean there?
—I mean do you see the sea?
—I see sand.
—But do you see the sea?
—I see time waiting for us.
—You mean you see every ruin in us?
—I see every shore in us.
—So we are lost.
—No, just drawing what shapes us.
—Like the sea does.
—Like the sea has.
—I’ll wait for you by the shore?
—You mean by our longing.
—I mean I don’t know where we are anymore.
Yes, history moves en haste.
—Maybe, but it’s memorized our shape.

I’ve had the same dream twice—once at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 after a conversation with Mahmoud Darwish in Ramallah, and the other last summer after a conversation with Najwan Darwish in Haifa. I’ve contemplated whether there’s a crueler scenario—not being able to see the sea but constantly dreaming it, or being able to see the sea but being forbidden to reach it? It is amid this paradox that Palestinian lives unfold. To comprehend Palestinian literature, we must have an idea of what it is to be Palestinian today.

This May marks sixty-seven years since the 1948 Nakba, or the catastrophe, and Palestinians continue to exist outside of time. Although they have been wedged into a series of closing frames in which the view of their home narrows, their insistence on existing widens. Just this past year—since May 2014, when I was invited to edit this issue, to now—they’ve lived through the 50-day Israeli-Gaza war; Israel’s annexation of nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land in a Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem, which many in the international press called “the biggest land grab in a generation,” only a few days after the Gaza ceasefire; fiscal challenges as the Israeli government withholds tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for their move to join the International Criminal Court in the Hague; the continued ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, where the choices given Palestinians are to leave or to be what they are not, as laws only defend Jewish Israelis; the steady creation of new laws, approved by Israeli courts despite their violation of international standards and resolutions, that divide and offend the human dignity of Palestinians and Jews. There is also the crisis in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. What will happen to the 18,000 refugees still entombed there? 

Wherever Palestinians are scattered, be it in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, in refugee camps in the Arab world, or displaced around the globe, they are confined to the particularities of whatever boundaries—national or physical, psychological or emotional—they were dealt after the Nakba. The restrictions on their freedom and movement are interminable: checkpoints, the green line, Zones A-B-C, or whatever identity card or passport they hold. Gazans aren’t permitted into the West Bank or anywhere. West Bank residents can’t go to the 1948 territories unless given a special permit, and those are rare. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship can’t live in the West Bank, and Palestinians in the diaspora are refugees and can’t live in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza due to Israeli laws. And Jerusalem blue-card holders are under constant threat of losing their residency. How can art thrive in such wreckage?

For close to seven decades, it has: Palestinians’ rich literary production has contributed to Arabic letters, taken part in all its literary experiments, and left enduring poetry collections, novels, plays, and memoirs. Today, Palestinians write in multiple languages and have different nationalities, cultural influences, and varied aesthetics; many also belong to other literary traditions and nations. Their movements are anything but permanent. Despite their disparate experiences, all stem from a place and a memory that have marked their consciousness and their imagination.  

In this issue, readers will discover eight young writers born between 1978 and 1995. Their biographies provide a striking testament to the Palestinian experience. Some write in Arabic, others in English, Spanish, and Danish. One was born in Nazareth and holds an Israeli passport; another, born in Jerusalem, holds a Jerusalem blue-card. One is from a refugee camp in Gaza and still another from a refugee camp in Lebanon, though he now lives in exile in Iceland. You will find a Palestinian American, Palestinian Dane, Palestinian Australian and Palestinian Bolivian. Palestinian letters today is a composite of vast thematic, stylistic, and linguistic traditions.

Mazen Maarouf was born in Beirut, raised in Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, and currently resides in Reykjavik. His poem “Solitary Confinement on the Seventh Floor” echoes disappointment with a world constantly at the periphery of justice, and also possibly with the speaker in the poem. Similar to his other poems, it’s short and anchored in uprootedness, its images fragile and violent. Maarouf seems to find a sliver of freedom in each poem.

In "Both Freedom and Constraint,” an interview with best-selling Palestinian Australian young adult author Randa Abdel-Fattah, we get a glimpse of what it means to be Muslim and Palestinian in Australia. She tells of her unwavering fervor for storytelling, and its unequivocal power. Most poignantly, she tells us that her intent is to invite readers “to suspend their judgments and prejudices and enter the life-worlds of the misunderstood, the misrepresented, the mistreated.” The author reminds us, “there is nothing so personal as that.”

There is nothing more powerful than motherhood in “Your Baby” by Gazan short story writer Asmaa Alghoul. Her work is raw and engaging. “Your Baby” is a tale of the guilt that accompanies motherhood in war, and ultimately about how love can defeat the incoherent dark rubbles of history and darkness, can allow even the most desolate to still deeply desire life.

The desire to fill the loss of a mother is explored in the intimate, chilling story “Long Distance,” by one of Granta’s best young Spanish-language novelists, Rodrigo Hasbún, a Bolivian of Palestinian descent. The narrator searches for comfort in a forbidden place. Hasbún’s sensual eloquence and the story’s filmic quality leave the readers in a beautiful suspension. The narrator’s conversations with his father are filled with arresting silences where what is left unsaid speaks loudest.

The uncompromising portrait of a father, and the severed relation the speaker in the poem has with him in  “Father my Unborn Son,” by Palestinian Danish poet Yahya Hassan, is poignant. The same theme wove throughout Hassan’s highly popular first book, Yahya Hassan. His work is influenced by the spoken word, a novelty for Danish readers.

The sea is a permanent presence in Najwan Darwish’s poems. The poet comes from the heart of the most contested city in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Jerusalem. His work blends wit and historical perspective; this daring fusion has readers probing for answers. In his piercing poem “Life in Mount Carmel,” he leaves us with a disquieting ricochet: “what should I do among all these devotees, / here, / where time has found its end?”

And, one could add, where imagination has resisted violence, as movingly portrayed in Sousan Hammad’s personal essay “A Map of Jerusalem,” a symphony of rememberings and misrememberings. Her nonfiction pieces are sharp and poignant. This one explores the intertwined nature of memory, place, and time as the writer and her grandmother’s memories wander through the city, until the past steadily blends with the present. She maps a heart and takes us to “a century of grief.” To dream shaping time, she writes: “I don’t know what the dream is supposed to mean, but I dream it every night. I saw her: a city compiled by exiles in exile.”

New Palestinian writing offers readers a voyage into what it means to be human; not one entrenched in rhetoric but in feeling. A literature composed of commanding aesthetic creations, of explorations of place and self, lyrical ruminations and transformative narratives. These works contribute to our universal search for truth while also leaving us spellbound by their exquisite compositions.

© 2015 by Nathalie Handal. All rights reserved.