Transformations in Palestinian Literature

Leo Tolstoy prefaced his Anna Karenina with the following statement: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Palestinians today are unlucky enough to be counted among the world's leading families of multifarious misery, the Zionist project having transformed them, time and again, into refugees in far-flung places-and also into refugees on the land of Palestine in which they were born.

Some of them have had to live through the experience of exile and alienation, of refugee camps and endless waiting. Others have been obliged to live the lives of impossible citizenship, since "the Arab who lives on the Land of Israel" can never be the equal of an Israeli citizen. And, ever since the Oslo Agreement, and despite the media's ability to hold forth at length on the virtues of the "Peace Process," the "process" itself has offered Palestinians only unprecedented varieties of misery. This evidently has been fully in keeping with Israeli intentions at Oslo.

Before the so-called "Peace," a Palestinian could derive hope from contemplating the future. But "after Peace arrived"-and of course it didn't really ever arrive-a Palestinian would have to be content with desperate waiting, putting hope aside for better times, if and when they should come.

Perhaps this continual postponement of the act of hoping, going on now for nearly a hundred years, has led Palestinian writers to revisit-and rewrite-the stories of the old deprivations, even if newer ordeals have now added an unprecedented depth of depression to inherited sadnesses.

Palestinians to this day still fashion their sorrows in the first person plural, whether or not they have heard of Tolstoy's remark. For if the Palestinian people have a collective narrative-a story, rooted in history and usually beginning with Balfour's 1917 Declaration, a promise to European Jewry of a homeland for Jews in historic Palestine—this nation possesses-in the human sense-a wealth of stories that compile the variegated destinies of Palestinians, cutting across themes of exile, resistance and homeland. These stories-both those that are constantly being reinvented and those that are still possible-center around the "ordinary human rights" that Palestinians have been deprived of, thereby transforming the Palestinian into a wretched human being narrating his own private wretched tale.

Thus before the disastrous Nakba of 1948, as Arab historians tell us, Palestinians lived in fear of losing the homeland; after the Nakba they came to know the meanings of loss and alienation. During the next period-of resistance and armed struggle-they contemplated danger and death. Then, following "the Peace that didn't come," they combined disappointment and frustration with deep doubt regarding the possibility of human justice. Throughout, Palestinian writing has been nothing but, essentially, a confrontation with a Zionist will that effectively transported Palestinians from normal human circumstances to those of displaced "immigrants" or "refugee," deprived of the rights enjoyed by other peoples.

At the end of the first decade of the last century, Rawhi Yassin al-Khalidi (1864-1913), in his Zionism, compared the modern Jewish farmer and the circumstances endured by poor Palestinian peasants. Here al-Khalidi, a pioneer of modern Arabic literature, was not analyzing the differences between traditional and modern agriculture; rather, he was expressing his apprehension about the ability of "the people of Ottoman legacy" to resist "a Zionism of a European nature and outlook." Such apprehension could wreck the life of an ordinary human being, but it is what led this intellectual, whose life in France enabled him to become truly acquainted with the Zionist project, to set aside his literary interests and to devote his attention to "the obligatory theme" that directly concerned his past and his future.

If such an enlightened intellectual has added this "obligatory" specialization "imposed" by the Zionist project to his various literary concerns, Najib Nassar (1865-1948), on the other hand, devoted his entire life-from the moment he founded the al-Karmel newspaper in 1959 as the first newspaper in the history of Palestine- to warning of "an inevitable displacement," and a "certain forced migration" of the Palestinian population. An astute intellectual, well-read in English, German and Farsi, Nassar abandoned his beloved legal practice for a profession that he found to be forced upon him "by necessity," namely, journalism. It is no wonder that in his novel The Tale of Muflih al-Ghazzali, the very first Palestinian narrative, he recorded his feeling of panic upon hearing the Balfour Declaration. Nassar had held the belief that "Shakespeare's nation" could never undertake any action that might harm the "refined cultural values" for which it was famous.

Nor would matters differ greatly with regard to the great educator Khalil al-Sakaakini (1878-1953), the most prominent Palestinian intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, who devoted a large part of his Diariesnow recently published in several volumes-to that "obligatory anxiety" which carried the weight of ill-fated destiny. For this reason, al-Sakaakini found himself leading his life in two stages. In the first stage he established the constitutional school, composed his Readings in Language and Literature, and took up responsibilities as a member of the Arabic Academy in Cairo; in the second stage, he would emigrate to Egypt, rejecting the authority of pro-Zionist British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel in Jerusalem and giving up his work as an executive in radio broadcasting-in protest against the radio station's announcement declaring "This is the Land of Israel." In 1948, as a result of the Nakbah catastrophe, he fled to Egypt, leaving behind his famed library.

Zionism, or the response to it, formed an internal, interconnecting thread linking the destinies of these intellectuals and others as well: because of it, they did not always write the things they wanted to write, and they did not practice their chosen professions in full freedom. They were at times even buried in unexpected cemeteries. It was as if Zionism gave the Palestinians a new, forced rebirth after their first biological birth. Even if Zionism could not determine where a Palestinian's new "birthplace" after the departure from Palestine might be, it nevertheless added to the force of Divine Will the forces of "Will to Power," "Natural Selection," and the will to "European Modernity."

As a result, "The National Question"-in one language's wording-or the problem of "The Zionist Challenge"-in another's-achieved pride of place in the poetry of the classical Arabic qasidah of this era, that is, before the "diaspora" or the dispersal of Palestinians as a result of the Nakbah, and which was manifest in the work of the poets Abu Selma, Abdel Rahim Mahmoud, Ibrahim Touqan, and others. It was as if the Palestinian poet had to be the prisoner of an abnormal, inhuman situation that required him to write stirring, inflammatory poems to give hope to all those living on hope, and hopes for resistance. Thus Ibrahim Touqan, who died young, appeared very strange to some, as he wrote poems on love and the beauty of life, right alongside his "patriotic" poems.

As in the case of all agricultural societies, poetry played a commanding role in Palestinian national culture, prior to the establishment of the Israeli state. The few theatrical or narrative scripts that existed were "educational exercises" devoted to prohibiting the sale of land to the Zionists or to celebrating the previous glories of the Arabs. But the arrival of some well-educated and cultured personalities in the Arab cities such as Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus was crucial in the development of the novel without affecting the important role of poetry. The most important contribution in terms of the novel came from Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who wrote his first novel, A Scream in a Long Night, in 1946, publishing it later after his departure from Palestine for Baghdad. This novelist, who graduated from Cambridge University, pioneered the formation of a vanguard of Arab novelists, mainly through his successive novels but especially with his novel as-Safiina, which brought about an unprecedented modernity and renewal of the Arabic novel.

Alongside Jabra-the novelist, the critic, the translator, the short story writer-there was Ghassan Kanafani (1936-72), who united creative writing in a variety of formats with engagement in partisan politics. Although Kanafani was initially known as a novelist due to his famed Men in the Sun, his production as a short story writer is both more creative and more developed; he is without a doubt one of the leading names of the Arabic short story of the twentieth century. His importance in this respect is matched by Samira Azzam-also Palestinian-who began writing her short stories in Palestine and continued without interruption until her unexpected death in 1967. A third key figure, who completes the vanguard of the Palestinian-Arab novel, is Emile Habibi. His Six Days Sextet and The Pessoptimist: The Strange Circumstances Surrounding the Disappearance of Saeed Abi Nahas are two works of distinction: written in the wake of the June 1967 defeat, they conveyed the experience of the Palestinian "refugee" in his own land.

The novel, as well as the short story, manifested a "literature of the oppressed" that extended hope to those who have none. Such traits can be seen in three key features and dimensions of the novel. First, there is a romanticization and beautification of the lost homeland, casting "old Palestine" into the mold of a unique paradise-on-earth and instructing the Palestinian to reflect the sanctified image of his land. And if, as expected, Jabra identified Christ, the Messiah, with the Palestinian human being as he should be, Kanafani distilled the essential Palestinian from the "aesthetics of human will-from the myth of the superman."

A second dimension emerges from this first one, namely an image of the opening up to a future that is the very image of the past: the original blessed pristine Palestine, endowed as it is with sanctity, will return in the future, and it will be blessed just as it was in the past.

A third aspect of the Palestinian novel is an outcome of the above two. It manifests itself in the significance of the period of flight and refuge-a sick and transient time of tribulation that tests the mettle of the Palestinian, and then proclaims his coming victory. The whole concept, one can see, clearly begins in the period of the Fall. This is then followed by a time of loss and suffering, leading ultimately to a moment of absolution and of overcoming exile and alienation. Struggle-or the will-plays the role of the intermediary between the first period and the last. If the writers of exile were excessive in their "religious optimism," which helped them to unify the past and the present, Emile Habibi, living with the Israeli occupation, chose the blackest sarcasm that yearns for the past but whispers to us that the past is not coming back.

Poetry, in the wake of the loss of Palestine, achieved a new continuity that ended up, following the June Defeat of 1967, in what Ghassan Kanafani called "Poetry of Resistance." Among the many names that could be listed here are Tawfiq Zayyad, Samih al-Qassem, and Mahmoud Darwish, the latter achieving a series of successive innovations. And with the appearance of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1965 and the rise of Armed Struggle, a new generation of poets appeared, distinguished by the quantity and quality of their work. Members of this generation include Izzaddine al-Manassrah, Murid al-Barghouti, Ahmed Dahbour, Ibrahim Nasrallah, and others such as Mo'iin Basisu, who in his themes could belong to more than one generation identified the poem with the "future" and with "Palestine."

There was nothing obvious in the qasidah that wasn't in the inflammatory novels of incitement, even if some poets occasionally set "ideology" aside to contemplate the meaning of poetry with regard to the human conditions of the soul-such as is the case with Murid al-Barghouti and more recently, Ghassan Zaqtan. And although Palestinian poets exerted noteworthy efforts toward the modernization of Arabic poetry, it is Mahmoud Darwish, who, in both Arabic poetry as a whole and specifically in Palestinian poetry, represents a uniquely creative voice who can distill a uniquely Palestinian meaning from the experience of "The Oppressed" throughout the ages. By the same token, Darwish's poetry is also able to generate an Arabic qasidah from his reading of the human cultural legacy in its entirety, arriving at a universal qasidah that engages universal poetry in a dialogue and supplies it with new aesthetic dimensions. For this reason Darwish is not to be read in the light of poetry of Ritsos, Eluar, and Renee Char; rather he is to be read, alongside those poets, in the light of the universal and "old-new" qasidah which they all helped to create.

Jabra, Kanafani and Habibi accomplished their literary works both in proximity to the PLO and at a distance from it, at one and the same time. Jabra was a liberal and remained loyal to his liberalism. Kanafani was a Marxist and a nationalist, and Habibi a communist. Each one of the three created his own particular literature, calling for liberation and for the practice of liberated writing. For this reason their literature differed for the from a "new literature of incitement" that developed within the PLO and continued along with it, with the writings of such names as Yahya Yakhluf, Tewfiq Fayyad, Rashad Abu Shawar who wrote poetry, novels, and short stories. This group's output is characterized by its closeness to especially poor Palestinians, the residents of refugee camps in particular. Such is the case with Yahya Yakhluf's novel Apples of the Crazed and Rashad Abu Shawar's novel The Lovers-perhaps the finest novel to describe the misery of Palestinians in the refugee camp setting. It was natural that this type of literature should be tantamount to a live and ongoing societal documentation of Armed Struggle-and that it should elevate optimism to the heights of Absolute Faith.

Just as Palestinian poetry, at an early stage in its development, witnessed efforts to lighten the weight of proselytizing ideology, a need that al-Barghouti felt in his Sidewalk Qasidas, so novel-writing, or related forms, knew similar efforts, whether in the writing of Liana Badr or Farooq Wadi-the latter always considering literature to be first and foremost an exercise in language, with its own specific aesthetics that are not always mediated by patriotic or national intentions.

Sahar Khalifa represents a unique contributor to Palestinian literature. Whereas poetry saw a leading female voice in Fadwa Touqan, and the short story saw a female leading voice in Samira Azzam, Sahar Khalifa has stood, most prominently, for the feminine voice-or the voice of women-in the novel, offering readers a variety of works. Khalifa has united criticism of male chauvinism in traditional Palestinian society with criticism of the Israeli occupation, in a controversial form that renders women's liberation the necessary prelude to national liberation.

The exit of the PLO from Beirut in the Fall of 1982 threw the Palestinian novel, and indeed creative literature in general, into a state of confusion and embarrassment. Kanafani had passed on, and Jabra and Habibi were advanced in their years. Poets had nothing left to consider but the "literary worth" of poetic creation. In this period, the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Nasrallah, who was born and lived in Jordan, wrote his excellent novel Desert Fever, subsequently adding to it other novels in a persistent effort aspiring to document in a literary form what he called "the Palestinian Comedy." And perhaps Husseein al-Barghouti, who recently passed away, made the most important contribution to Palestinian literature in the sphere of prose. The autobiography of this brilliant, cultured man, who studied at the University of Seattle, is best seen in two interrelated works, The Green Light and I Will Be Amidst the Almond Trees. Both of these speak of Palestine as it is recollected in popular memory and children's stories, but also of "the Palestine of alienation" and the Palestine of immigrant exile and loss, brutally dismembered by the Israeli settlements.

What then are the main themes that have been conveyed in Palestinian writing in its development and the various phases it had undergone from the beginning of the twentieth century until the time of the departure of the PLO from Beirut in 1982? In the first phase, brought to an end by the Nakbah flight from Palestine of 1948, the Palestinian intellectual in his enlightened state spoke of the need to modernize and liberate society from ignorance, fatalism, and sectarianism. And in the second phase, stretching from the year of the flight until the birth of the PLO, writers-Jabra, Kanafani, Samira Azzam in particular-called for the education of the Palestinian human being, and for a deeper awareness of the meaning of the cultural conflict between Palestinians and the State of Israel.

As for the third phase, namely that of Armed Struggle, it became on the whole associated with the values of messianism, pure ideological proselytizing and abstract: the "Fida'i," or liberation fighter; the rifle; victory. All without stopping very long to examine the significance of such abstract ideals for the human being whose condition was thusly diagnosed, a human being who ought to be more important than the abstracted ideal rifle or the ideal guerilla training camps. The truth of the matter is that Palestinian literature, which preceded the Armed Struggle, saw the return to Palestine as a political and cultural project-unlike the "literature of the guns" that basically marginalized culture and that celebrated with optimistic slogans. There is nothing surprising in the end of this type of literature after the flight from Beirut.

After the First and Second Intifadas, in 1989 and 2002, respectively, Palestinians began to write a different literature, taking the lived reality as their point of departure, and distinguishing "dreams" from "realities." This literature, whose features became more sharply defined following the tragic failure of the "Peace Process," was molded by Palestinians of differing generations. Mahmoud Darwish gave voice to this new situation in his diwan "State of Siege 2002," in which the poet describes a day in his life under siege and living in narrow confines. So too has the brilliant storyteller Mahmoud Shuqair, who began writing four decades ago and who transforms daily alienation into a linguistic experience that admits and combines both poetry and prose. Similar writers include two poet-novelists, Zakariya Muhamad and Ghassan Zaqtan, the young novelist Adaniya Shibli, and the member of the Israeli Knesset Azmi Bisharat, in his two works The Checkpoint and Love in the Region of Shadows. Perhaps it is the latter's Checkpoint that stands as the most comprehensive effort to date to describe the everyday lives of Palestinians, constrained as they are to forever negotiate passage within an endless series of tortuous checkpoints.

These writings and others have been characterized by three features: a decision to limit the effort to describing representative lives in stark detail and as they are lived, exposed and bare, and remote from any optimistic-or pessimistic-ideologies and wishful thinking; a decision to remain rooted in the bleak everyday, day in and day out lives of their characters, almost as in a nightmare and without any referral to a near or distant future; and finally, the extinguishing of any and all certainty, replacing it with doubt, possibility, and expectation-less waiting.

The pieces published in this issue represent, however partially, the Palestinian situation today in the areas under the jurisdiction of the "Palestinian National Authority." Perhaps the poem of Hala Shurouf, who was born in 1978, is a mirror that reflects this besieged Palestinian existence in its multiple tragic dimensions: deprivation as a mode of existence, the feeling of orphanhood, dialogue with an absented justice; alienation from the smallest of desires; the transformation of minute daily affairs into big dreams... in all of these writings there is talk of "a poor child in the open," sometimes seeking solace. A patient child who has concealed his vulnerability with expert heroic steadfastness, since the tragedy of 1948, until the present day.

Copyright © 2006 by Faisal Darraj. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © by Michael K. Scott. All rights reserved.