The Palestinian Novel

The Palestinian Novel
Literature of the Oppressed in a Dispersed Geography

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A National Products and Books Exhibition

A national products and books exhibition at Birzeit University in 1977. The exhibition included a book fair and national products presented by heritage, industrial, and agricultural production institutions.


The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Emil Ishrawi Collection

In contrast to Palestinian poetry, which emerged in the 1930s and took the form of odes (as written by  Mutliq Abd al-Khaliq, Abu Salma, and Ibrahim Tuqan, among others), the Palestinian novel in its modern form can be dated to the 1946 publication of Screams in a Long Night, written in Jerusalem by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. The young Jabra produced a distinctly avant-garde work that retains its freshness and originality to this day.

After the Balfour Declaration, several nationalist writers wrote didactic and rousing novels that drew on Arab history and emphasized Arab identity in confronting the British Mandate and the Zionist project. Al-Karmel newspaper founder Najib Nassar (1873–1948) wrote two didactic novels, Arab Honor and Arab Loyalty, in which he lauded Arab virtues and strove to use them in the nationalist struggle. The historian Muhammad Izzat Darwaza (1887–1984), similarly inspired by his faith in a glorious Arab past, wrote a novel intended for schools called Al-Nu‘man Visits Chosroes, published in Beirut in 1911. Two years later he wrote The Middleman and the Land-Seller, whose title indicates nationalist concerns at the time.

Prior to Jabra’s 1946 novel, attempts had been made to write a “distinctive and original ” novel. For example, Najib Nassar’s Muflih the Ghassanid was written in the form of an autobiography in which Nassar recounts the ordeals he suffered at the hands of the Ottoman government and his adventures while escaping from a death sentence; he wrote that he was inspired by the English novels he read and “the language of Shakespeare.” Ishaq Musa al-Husseini (1904–90) wrote Memoirs of a Hen, first published in Egypt in 1943 and appearing with a preface by Taha Husayn;  it was intended as a “literary allegory” not unlike Kalila wa Dimna, and in it he extolled the virtue of human tolerance and cooperation above all other mundane and “fortuitous” values.

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920-94) continued to write novels while in exile in Iraq (in addition to translations, short stories, and art criticism). Jerusalem, which he regarded as the most beautiful city in the world, became the focus of his novels, beginning with Hunters in a Narrow Street, then the more ambitious In Search of Walid Mas`ud, and finally his greatest fictional achievement The Ship, one of the most accomplished novels in the history of modern Arabic fiction. These novels clearly established his identity as a Palestinian novelist. (His later works had only limited merit, including the novel he wrote with Abdul-Rahman Munif, World without Maps.)

Jabra adopted a romantic outlook in his fiction; he created a Palestinian character who had exceptional heroic virtues and awaited certain victory. Ghassan Kanafani (1936-72), on the other hand, who also wrote essays, plays and short stories, followed quite a different path. Kanafani wanted to write a “one hundred percent realist” novel, and thus described the tragedies of leaving the homeland, the ordeals of the refugees in their camps, and their inevitable progress “from obscurity to awakening.” He practiced a changing fictional form that observed the Palestinian condition as it were in fact and as it ought to be. Kanafani’s anxiety of form accompanied his short career and may have been responsible for his unfinished novels such as The Lover, The Blind and Deaf Man and The Plums of April. Whatever might be the achievements of this novelist, his novel Men in the Sun (1963) remains the only and most complete work to capture the very depth of the Palestinian tragedy. In this work he adopted the theme of “shame” as a metaphor through which he read the situation of the Palestinians who abandoned their homeland, whatever the reasons that led them to do so. He returned to this theme later in a bold novel entitled The Man Who Returned to Haifa.

While Jabra in his novels epitomized a Palestinian refugee whose superior spiritual qualities ensure an undoubted return to the plundered homeland, Kanafani sought a more practical means of return based on action, will, and consciousness. This is exemplified in his novel Umm Sa‘d, which deals with a poor but resolute woman who stands in stark contrast with the servile and submissive woman in his other novel, What Is Left behind for You. Emile Habibi, the third “beacon,” arrived at the novel by chance, as it were, making use of his work as a journalist, which accompanied his “party commitment” as a member of the Communist Party. Habibi did not experience exile but lived instead the experience of the “confiscated homeland,” an experience he chronicled in his The Sextet of Six Days, written after the defeat of 1967. Here, each story leads into the next with a charming literary style that combines cynicism with black humor. It is arguable that the practice of the short story that evolves into another is what led him in the mid-seventies to write his celebrated work, translated into English as The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist. This work was inspired by Voltaire’s Candide and drew from the maqamat genre and from a deep knowledge of Arab history and literature. If Jabra can be said to have revealed Palestinian identity through “exceptional superiority,” Habibi explored identity through the aesthetics of the Arabic language, as seen in his short work Luka‘ ibn Luka‘ and his last work Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter, an autobiography enveloped in nostalgia and profound grief.

The Palestinian armed struggle produced some novels that celebrated it and promised a swift victory; this theme is first seen in the work of Ghassan Kanafani and continued to appear in novels by Yahya Yakhluf and others in his generation. But this optimistic perspective, which echoed official slogans, did not last for long when the Palestinian resistance left Beirut in 1982. The departure from Beirut and the Oslo Agreement led to the “liberation” of the Palestinian novel and the expression of critical and pessimistic perspectives, as seen in Samia Isa’s Milk of Figs and Secretly in Copenhagen and Maya Abu al-Hayyat’s No One Knows His Blood Group. Sahar Khalifah wrote The Gate of the Square, which reflected upon the intifada of 1987, and The Inheritance, in which she made savage fun of the Palestinian leadership. Hussein Barghouti (1954–2002), a multitalented and original writer, produced two singular novels which are in effect an elegy for a Palestine that will not return: The Blue Light and I Shall be among the Almond Trees.

While the rise of the Palestinian national movement after 1965 stimulated novel writing, the frustration experienced by the Palestinians in the 1980s and 1990s limited the number of novels. As they settled into a state that fluctuated between despair and hope, new voices were heard in the realm of the novel that read the present without “slogans” and looked backwards seeking a “clear” national identity difficult to reconstruct in the present. Akram Musallam wrote an excellent work entitled A Scorpion Drenched with Sweat, which dealt with alienation in the time of the “Provisional  Authority” and Atef Abu Saif criticized contemporary life in Gaza in his novel A Suspended Life. Hasan Hamid, a Palestinian living in Damascus, sought to evoke Jerusalem in his City of God, while Raba‘i al-Madhoun described the Palestinian scene precisely and realistically in his The Lady from Tel Aviv and Destinies, both of which questioned the Palestinian national future.  Mahmud Shuqair returned to the theme of the past in his Eulogy of Women of the Family and Yahya Yakhluf sought to illumine the present with a lesson from the past and turned back to Jaffa in 1795, in Wind Rider.

When reading the Palestinian novel today, one should pause to consider two things: first, the extensive dispersion (diaspora) of the Palestinian people and, second, the effect of the absence of an integrative educational and cultural institution. Historically, the rise of the novel as a genre has been linked with the rise and evolution of the nation-state. When Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated, he left behind several incomplete novel manuscripts; Jabra Ibrahim Jabra did not have the opportunity to create a fictional view of the world within a community of other writers; Emile Habibi remained focused on his experiment with linguistic creativity. The absence of a unifying Palestinian cultural institution has prevented complementarity of efforts and has reduced novel-writing to individual efforts, whether in Occupied Palestine or abroad.

The Palestinian novel cannot be characterized in terms of “before and after Jabra,” as is the case of the Egyptian novel, which drew on Nagib Mahfouz and expanded in the works of others such as Jamal Ghitani, Baha’ Taher, Radwa Ashour, and Mahmoud al-Wardani who rewrote Mahfouz’s novel in different forms. Likewise, the Palestinian exile did not provide the unity of place as experienced by Lebanese novelists who dealt with civil war by focusing on Beirut, as is seen in the works of Huda Barakat, Elias Khouri, or Rabi‘ Jaber. In contrast, Palestinian destinies, as expressed in Palestinian novels, expanded to Kuwait, Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus and in exiles that other Arab novelists did not have to dread. Furthermore, the Palestinian fate leads novelists to experiment with the “literature of the oppressed,” which necessarily compels them to adopt an optimistic perspective that does not conform to a novelist worldview oscillating between alienation and loss and a face-to-face with a ruined world in which one cannot live.

Selected Bibliography: 

Abu-Manneh, Bashir. The Palestinian Novel From 1948 to the Present. Canterbury, UK: University of Kent, 2016.

Darraj, Faisal. Dhakirat al-maghlubin. Beirut: Al-markaz al-thaqafi al-‘arabi, 2002.

al-Kayyali, ‘Abd al-Rahman. Al-sh‘ir al-Filastini fi nakbat Filastin. Beirut: al-mu’assasa al-‘arabiyya li-l-dirasat wa-l-nashr, 1975.

Taha, Ibrahim. The Palestinian Novel: A Communication Study. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Wadi, Faruq. Thalath ‘alqmat fi-l-riwaya al-Filastiniyya. Beirut: Al-mu’assasa al-‘arabiyya li-l-dirasat wa-l-nashr, 1983.

Yaghi, Hashim. Harakat al-naqd al-adabi al-hadith fi Filastin. Cairo: Arab Organization for Education, Culture and Science, 1973.