The future of Palestinian literature
In a televised interview shortly before his death, Mahmoud Darwish was asked by journalist and diplomat Nabil Amr to speak about his Palestinian literary antecedents: Who were the Palestinian poets in whose tradition Darwish inscribed? Our poet’s answer was simple: “Nobody.” Following a brief moment of silence and giggling among the audience in the studio, Darwish clarified that there are, actually, two ways to answer that question: the first is to give a personal answer – the answer he just stated: he did not consider his poems to belong to a literary tradition that is particularly Palestinian, while the second one is to answer in his capacity as “Palestine’s National Poet” – a responsibility that had been bestowed upon him during his early poetic days. As a National Poet, the invention of a genealogy of national poets to which one belongs to becomes a duty; “only” as a poet, Darwish’s literary ancestors are the poets he actually read and internalized: a handful of Arab poets from Syria and Iraq, none of which were Palestinian.
Darwish’s answer invites to us to think about the open question of what really constitutes Palestinian literature today and what it might look like in the future, as well as about the book we have between our hands: Palestine +100, edited by Basma Ghalayini and published this year by Comma Press in Manchester (the UK).
This book, the second of what is possibly a “+100” series (following Iraq +100, published in 2016), consists of 12 on-demand short stories: Twelve Palestinian writers were posed with the question of what Palestine might look like in 2048, 100 years after the Nakba?
We already observed the importance of the Arabic language for Darwish. Moreover, from his answer to Amr one could assume that it was difficult for Darwish to imagine himself writing in another language besides Arabic; his tradition – whether invented or recognized – belongs to the larger Arabic-speaking world, and “Palestinian literature” is literature written in Arabic by those who happen to be Palestinian.
For the editor of Palestine +100, however, Palestinian literature (specifically fiction prose) is not written exclusively in Arabic: only half of the stories in the book were written in Arabic and appear in English translation, while the other half appear in their English origin.
What do these stories all have in common? For the writers summoned for Palestine +100, the future of their country in a 100 years does not look bright: Palestine is not liberated, refugees are still refugees, Gaza remains under attack and siege, and our current anxieties are brought to the maximum:
In “N” (written in Arabic by Majd Kayyal, translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes), “The Association” (Samir El-Youssef, trans. Raph Cormack) and “Song of the Birds” (Saleem Haddad), for example, the forgetfulness of the Israeli occupation and genocide in Gaza is a reality. In the first two stories, forgetfulness is decreed by a defeatist permanent Peace Agreement signed by the official Palestinian leadership and the Israelis, while in “Song of the Birds” the forgetfulness imposed on the Palestinians is not of their past but of their present situation, and the mere awareness of the fact their country is still occupied becomes an act of resistance against normalization and the occupier.
In Selma Dabbagh’s “Sleep it Off, Dr Schott” excessive religiosity leads to the creation of a secular scientific enclave in the Gaza Strip, while in Ahmed Masoud’s “Application 39,” Palestinian internal political division has led, along the years, to further fragmentations and the creation of what the narrator optimistically calls Palestinian “republics” (Republic of Nablus, Republic of Gaza, etc) – all of which still use the Israeli currency (the Shekel) and have varying degrees of resisting or collaboration with the Israeli occupation of their lands.
In “Vengeance,” by Tasnim Abutabikh, the global ecological and humanitarian crisis led Israel to extend its occupation to the air Palestinians breath, rationing it in accordance with the “criminal record” of Palestinian individuals.
In other words, the anxiety some of these Palestinian writers express is that which has accompanied Palestinians since the Nakba: the temporal becoming permanent. Before the Oslo Accords, it was the fear that the temporal state of internal and external refuge and exile might become a permanent one; today, it is the condition of forgetfulness Palestine lives: that Palestinians, one day, might forget that they are being occupied by a foreign power they are ought to be resisting directly in order to achieve their liberation. This anxiety might partly explain why many of the writers in this collection have resorted to science fiction when thinking about their country’s future.
While Palestinian reality in 2048 does not look bright for Palestinian writers as their country will continue to suffer from the Israeli occupation and further fragmentation, Palestine +100 invites the reader to think about what new directions Palestinian literature is taking toward 2048?
“N,” written in Arabic by Majd Kayyal from Haifa, employs a variety of narrative voices in different sections of the story, a technique which distances current Arabic prose from the canonical writers of Palestinian literature that are mentioned in book’s introduction. While each short story or novel by writers like Ghassan Kanafani or Jabra Ibrahim Jabra had usually maintained a single narrative voice from beginning to end (or, when different narrative voices appear, they are intended to complement the story being told), the narrative voices in “N” are different streams of voices forming an apparently improvised chorus (like in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives).
In addition, the intertextuality and references “N” contains include foreign and Palestinian films, as well as “inside jokes” that are specific to the Arab Palestinian society in Haifa. This aspect of “N” is very intriguing, as it indicates that the growing intersection of Arabic literature with other literatures today (whether through translation or direct reading in foreign languages) does not prevent the local and common references and sensibilities of the Arab lives today from entering world literature and recovering their universal value.
This is not the case, however, of all the stories that compile this collection. Some of the stories that include Israelis as their protagonists (with the exception of Dabbagh’s “Sleep it Off, Dr Schott”), for example, rather than attempting to engage with the nuances of the Israeli state from within wind up with trivializing Israeli society, and consequently trivializing Palestinians and the nature of the conflict. Such is the case, for example, of “Final Warning” by Talal Abu Shawish (trans. Mohamed Ghaleiny), where a group of Palestinians from the occupied city of Ramallah and Israelis from Modi’in —an Israeli settlement built on confiscated Palestinian land— are equally requested, by a voice from outer space in Hebrew and Arabic, to “cut it out” and cease their hostilities in this “tiny sector of the planet’s orbit” since they are affecting the galaxy’s stability.
Between 1981 and 1993, when Mahmoud Darwish and the Syrian Kurd Saleem Barakat edited the Palestinian Arabic literary journal Al Karmel, Palestinians were a minority among collaborators to the journal, for which literary translation was essential. The journal personified the universality and contemporaneity of the Palestinian struggle through its engagement with world literature. While the introduction to Palestine +100 refers to absence as a defining feature of Palestinian fiction, the collection also shows its fullness and its capacity to contain many languages, genres, perspectives and contradictions.