Literature of Exile: Palestine

Like the Kurds, to be a Palestinian is to grow up in exile, and with exile as a family heritage. During the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, “more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people had been uprooted, 531 villages had been destroyed, and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied of their inhabitants (from Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine) After the 6 Day War or Naksa (setback) of 1967 an additional 300,000 Palestinians were expelled. Most have never been allowed to return to their homes, but live in exile in Jordan, Syria, Chile (the largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East) and various other countries. The total Palestinian diaspora is estimated at 6 million people.

Like many Arab countries, Palestine has a rich literary tradition, and writers such as Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish are national folk heroes. Within the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, literary culture flourishes in salons and public poetry readings (for a look at literary Palestine see Marcello Di Cintio’s Pay No Heed to the Rockets). Yet Palestinian diaspora literature is equally prolific; in fact there are so many outstanding writers that it was nearly impossible to pick a handful to review here. We’ve already met graphic artist Leila Abdelrazaq and the Barghouti/Ashour family. Here are a few more Palestinian exile writers you should know.

Rabia al-Madhoun was 3 years old when his family was driven from their home in Ashkelon; like many internal refugees, they took refugee in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. He went on to study in Egypt but was deported for his political activism. His family experiences have inspired all of his fiction: The Idiot of Khan Younis, The Taste of Separation, The Lady from Tel Aviv. His most recent novel Fractured Destinies (translated by Paul Starkey) examines the oxymoronic existence of Palestinians in Israel: simultaneously at home and in exile. A young couple, Jinnin and Bassim who met online while living in the United States, cope with the the absurdist logic of the Occupation: Bassim has an American passport but cannot get residency or employment in Israel; Jinnin is devoted to her life in Jaffa and refuses to move to the West Bank. Their marriage has become a metaphor for Palestinian displacement.

…their love, which had opened a path to return to the homeland, only to separate them when they’d arrived. My God, it’s ridiculous that exile should bring us together and the homeland should drive us apart.

Ibrahim Nasrallah, was born in 1954 to Palestinian parents who were evicted from their land in 1948. He spent his childhood and youth in a refugee camp in Jordan, and began his career as a teacher in Saudi Arabia.

Nasrallah expressed his devotion to his homeland by defending its history. At a time when the very existence of the Palestinians as a people is being denied, Nasrallah produced Time of White Horses, (translated by Nancy Roberts) a sweeping historical saga recounting the history of a fictional Palestinian village from the end of the Ottoman empire through the Nakba in 1948. By focusing on the lives and struggles of the Mahmud family, Nasrallah depicts the tragedy of a nation exploited by one colonizer after another.

Filmmaker and author Liana Badr is on a quest to “rewrite the Palestinian history through the eyes of women”. Born in Palestine in 1967, she became a refugee in Lebanon, where she worked with women in refugee camps. Her triptych of stories, A Balcony over the Fakihani, (translated by Peter Clark & Christopher Tingley) braids the narratives of three Palestinians, each uprooted through different decades from 1948 through the airstrikes on Beirut in 1982. Although some of her protagonist are male, the focus is on the women and how they tell their stories. Like Nasrallah, Badr is committed to telling Palestinian history yet is aware of its limitations:

“You are insistent, calling again. You want me to tell you the story of Scheherazade, who rocks the sad king on her knees as she sings him tales from wonderland. Yet you know that I am not Scheherazade, and that one of the world’s greatest wonders is that I am unable to enter my country or pass through the region around it.

Often our perceptions of Palestinian refugees, (and all refugees) are of massed, faceless poverty and squalor. Hala Alyan explores the role class issues play in Palestinian society and responses to dispossession. Her novel Salt Houses is the moving story of several generations of a Palestinian family, and how their removal from their hometown in 1967 continues to have repercussions decades later. Unlike the stereotypical poverty stricken refugees, the Yacoubs are wealthy landowners; they experience exile in luxury homes in Jordan and Kuwait City. Yet torture and death in prison haunt them, and ongoing dispossession and losses prevent them from ever establishing a sense of permanence.

Selma Dabbagh is another second generation Palestinian refugee for whom the tie remains strong. Though born in Scotland , Dabbagh’s family is rooted in Palestinian history and resistance. During the lead up to the Nakba, her grandfather survived two assassination attempts, and her father was hit by a grenade as a child. Shortly thereafter, her family fled for Syria, convinced, like many Palestinians that this exile would only be temporary. Baddagh’s first novel, Out of It portrays the Mujaheds, a family similar to her own, middle class and educated with deep connections to Palestinian resistance. Yet each family member is on his or her own trajectory: the father has fled home and family for a cushy job in the Gulf states, the mother must remain in Gaza to care for a son crippled by a car bomb, one child escapes to university in London, while the youngest, daughter Iman (faith) must decide where her loyalties lie. Unlike some families, the exile experience has not drawn them together, it has scattered them to the winds.

One of the most devastating recent novels about the Nakba is Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin. Abulhawa’s parents were refugees of the 1967 “Naksa” and Abulhawa was born in Kuwait in 1970. Her novel tells the story of the Abulhejos family, displaced from their olive farming village and sent to refugee camps in 1948. As a child, Amal the granddaughter of the village patriarch learns to equate being Palestinian with suffering:

“Do you know, Mother, that Haj Salem was buried alive in his home? Does he tell you stories in heaven now? I wish I had had a chance to meet him. To see his toothless grin and touch his leathery skin. To beg him, as you did in your youth, for a story from our Palestine. He was over one hundred years old, Mother. To have lived so long, only to be crushed to death by a bulldozer. Is this what it means to be Palestinian?”

Ultimately she will survive the camps and forge a new life, but she will carry her family’s story of heartbreak and loss even as she creates a hopeful future.

Ghayath Almadhoun has experienced exile three times. Born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in 1979, to a family forced out of Palestine, first from Ashkelon to Gaza in the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba and again out of Gaza in 1967, he was forced to leave Syria for political asylum in Stockholm. His poems, like these from his collection Adrenalin (translated by Catherine Cobham) reflect his fervor for social justice and freedom of conscience.

Smiling as if the war hasn’t eaten my brother
I climb Mount Carmel like a vine trellis
To appear beside you in the family photo
And you stand beside me bitter as truth
And warm as a bullet
And long like Sunday.
A woman with a memory riddled with holes
Through which my heart leaks out in the shape of a butterfly

And I could have not left Damascus that autumn evening in 2008
Which would mean we never actually met
And I would never be able to tell you that you seem closer
Whenever I talk to you about Damascus
Or whenever I talk to Damascus about you
For the bodies that we see in the mirror appear closer than they really are
And those that carry our souls have been eaten by a predator
Called the Mediterranean Sea.

Suheir Hammad, a Brooklyn-born Palestinian is part of a younger generation that connects the Palestinian struggle with that of people of color worldwide. Hammad may be the first Palestinian-American to make it big in the spoken-word, or performance poetry, scene: appearing in Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. Hammad celebrates and defends her heritage but in Born Palestinian Born Black she links her exile as a Palestinian to that of Black refugees from Hurricane Katrina:

i have known of fleeing desperate
with children on hips in arms on backs
of house keys strung on necks
of water weighed shoes
disintegrated official papers
leases certificates births deaths taxes

i have known of high ways which lead nowhere
of aches in teeth in heads in hands tied

i have known of women raped by strangers by neighbors
of a hunger in human

i have known of promises to return
to where you come from
but first any bus going any where

tonight the tigris and the mississippi moan
for each other as sisters
full of unnatural things
flooded with predators and prayers

all language bankrupt

Ghada Kami’s two memoirs, In Search of Fatima and Return bring the Palestinian exile full circle. The first book gives an almost war correspondent-like account of the terror of being in her family home near Jerusalem in 1948 as bullets fly every night, armed Jewish and Arab soldiers roam throughout the day, and snipers attack without warning. Desperate for help, Ghada’s family pin their hopes on the British, noting wryly:

 What a tragic turnabout, that those who had been oppressors were now seen as saviors, the malady and its cure rolled into one. And even then, they would betray us again. That, I suppose, was the essence of what it meant to be colonised.

Eventually the family flees to England, where Ghada struggles to fit in. While her mother attempts to create a “little Palestine” in London, Ghada rebels:

The taboos about sex, food and drink I had been taught were all part of what I saw as a war on the body …  So extreme were my feelings that I wanted to dissociate myself completely from what my family stood for. I could see no possible compromise between their position and mine. And since I put it all down to their Arabness, I rejected that too and all Arabs along with them.

Ghada eventually grows up to marry an Englishman, but the marriage is doomed from he start, as she realizes that

the tortured love affair that waited inescapably for me, as for all Palestinians, was the one with Palestine…The truth I could not face as yet was that I was truly displaced, dislocated in both mind and body, straddling two cultures and unable to belong in either.

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

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