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Telling the Other Version of the Story: National Identity in the Modern Arab Palestinian Novel



This article explores the parameters of the Palestinian national identity as represented in the fictional world of almost all the Palestinian narratives written in Arabic and other languages over the past hundred years. More specifically, the article traces the dramatic transition of identity formation from personal discomfiture with the breakdown of self-interested enterprises to mass awareness of the existential threat posed by the Zionist Movement Project1 against the national aspiration of the Palestinian people in Palestine as their only homeland. The threat in question was the consequence of the militant immigrant Jewish settlers who infiltrated into Palestine in successive waves of European Jewish immigrants in the wake of Sykes-Picot agreement3 and Balfour Declaration2. Ever since the coming out of al-Wareth4, the issue of identity has been steadily gaining a central place in the Palestinian novel, irrespective of the stance and angle of vision from which the story is told. As a form of art of fiction, the Palestinian novel says something about the loss or distortion of the Palestinian national identity through a deliberate, programmed erosion of individual and collective memories, including history and popular culture. This purposeful erosion has been consistently the target of the single-handed historical narrative provided by the official annals of Israel5 as an immigrant state. The Palestinian narratives under study bring out into the open the long-denied version of the truth by unfolding the hidden side of the story for the fullness of history. Key Words: Identity, Palestinian novel, Hebrew narratives, memory, Zionist project
Telling the Other Side of the Story
National Identity in the Arab Palestinian Novel*
Ibrahim A. El-Hussari
Lebanese American University
This article explores the parameters of the Palestinian national identity as represented
in the fictional world of almost all the Palestinian narratives written in Arabic and other
languages over the past hundred years. More specifically, the article traces the dramatic
transition of identity formation from personal discomfiture with the breakdown of self-
interested enterprises to mass awareness of the existential threat posed by the Zionist
Movement Project1 against the national aspiration of the Palestinian people in Palestine as
their only homeland. The threat in question was the consequence of the militant
immigrant Jewish settlers who infiltrated into Palestine in successive waves of European
Jewish immigrants in the wake of Sykes-Picot agreement3 and Balfour Declaration2. Ever
since the coming out of al-Wareth4, the issue of identity has been steadily gaining a
central place in the Palestinian novel, irrespective of the stance and angle of vision from
which the story is told. As a form of art of fiction, the Palestinian novel says something
about the loss or distortion of the Palestinian national identity through a deliberate,
programmed erosion of individual and collective memories, including history and
popular culture. This purposeful erosion has been consistently the target of the single-
handed historical narrative provided by the official annals of Israel5 as an immigrant state.
The Palestinian narratives under study bring out into the open the long-denied version of
the truth by unfolding the hidden side of the story for the fullness of history.
Key Words: Identity, Palestinian novel, Hebrew narratives, memory, Zionist project
The Jewish-Arab existential struggle over Palestine started with the launching of the
Zionist political project based on the myth of the Promised Land. The project was
proclaimed by the first Jewish Congress held in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897. Yet, the
struggle began to escalate in 1917 with the issuance of the Sykes-Picot Plan “to partition
*This paper was originally an academic lecture carrying a similar title given out at the School of
Arts and Sciences of the American University in Rome, 22-25 October, 2015. It is now expanded
into the present form to meet ATINER’s publication guidelines.
the Asiatic geographical space of the Ottoman Empire” (Said 220) , only to reach its peak
with the forced expulsion of around 800,000 Palestinians from their homeland in1948
and the creation of the State of Israel in almost 80% of historical Palestine as a
consequence of that. In his book Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), Ilan Pappe, a
renowned Israeli scholar, demonstrates how ethnic cleansing in Palestine then was not a
consequence of war, but rather a deliberate goal of combat for early Jewish military units
led by Ben-Gurion, who had a plan conceived on March 10, 1948, that is two months
before the British colonial troops pulled out from Palestine and two months before the
first Arab-Israeli war broke out on May 15, 1948. The plan6, Pappe contends, was meant
to demolish and depopulate hundreds of Arab villages, thus causing an exodus of
intimidated Palestinian civilians who fled their towns and villages for what they thought
was a short-time safe haven in the Arab neighboring countries.
Since 1948, the scene has been steadily growing darker, not only for the displaced
Palestinians who discovered early on that they had become refugees and had to bear with
life in exile, but also for those 140,000 Palestinians who stayed on, and who have become
by now a big minority in the state of Israel today (over one million, that is 20% of the
entire population) posing a demographic threat to the long-standing Zionist plan to
manufacture an ethnically pure Jewish state, as Pappe argues in the same book. Jimmy
Carter, the 39th president of the United States was under no obligation as a world peace
activist when he chose Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) as the title of his new
book. In this respect, it should not be redundant to lament the UN resolutions issued in
favor of a peaceful settlement in Palestine and the Middle East but have been left
unimplemented since 1947. In narrative art, which is the subject of this paper, new
images representing both Palestinians and Israelis cannot be overlooked when it comes to
approaching the conflict entangling the two adversary parties. The most recently
published literary and quasi-literary narratives produced by Israeli and Palestinian
writers, each in their own way, seem to have cut through layers of fossilized legends and
myths fueling the struggle over land. This paper, in particular, will focus on an anthology
of Arab Palestinian works of fiction across which the issue of national identity takes
shape as it moves from the personal, problematic vision undermining self interest to the
public vision addressing the existential problem threatening to oust the Palestinian people
from geography and history, from time and space.
Arab Palestinian Narratives and Identity
Apart from folk tales and other popular narratives, which were always part of the
Palestinian socio-cultural life and character for a long time, the Palestinians were also
producing narrative art. The first Palestinian novel ever was Khalil Baidas’s al-Wareth
(The Inheritor) which came up in 1920 (Wadi 21-22); that is four years after Sykes-Picot
agreement and three years after Balfour Declaration. In his tale, Baidas cautioned against
the Shylock-image of the Zionist project pioneers who were posing a real threat to the
socio-moral and economic life of the well-to-do Palestinians, at the time the Jewish
waves of immigration into Palestine under the British Mandate were multiplying; and the
Palestinian national uprising against such waves of immigration was widely visible. Let
alone the aesthetic value of the tale, al-Wareth has not entirely responded to the historical
condition behind its birth, nor has it relentlessly betrayed that condition; it simply
positioned itself as a watchdog trying to envision what was going on, but that vision was
simply defective, for the story “failed to see the full impact of the Zionist project in
Palestine” (Wadi 22).
It would take thirty-six years for the modern Palestinian novel to appear with the
publication of Ghassan Kanafani’s Rijal fil Shams (Men in the Sun) in 1956. This does
not mean that the period between 1920 and 1956 brought up no Palestinian narratives at
all. In fact, a lot of stories were told; however, only a few of them would implicitly depict
the drama of the Palestinians whose land, property, culture and national identity were
facing the most horrendous plan of extermination ever targeting a people on earth, save
perhaps the native Americans, the Tasmanians, and the Armenians. Among those
narratives (see Iskandar El-Khoury; Mohammed Ezzat Darwaza; Gabriel Abu Sa’adi;
Is’haq Mousa El-Husseini and others), it should be noted that El-Husseini’s story
Muzakkarat Dajaja (Memoirs of a Mother Hen) in 1943, perhaps the most famous and
widely-read story in the Arab World during the 1940s, dramatizes the Palestinian
situation on the eve of al-Nakba7 in 1948 as something pre-destined. Owing its narrative
form, language and style to the Oriental literary heritage, namely the fables of Kalila wa
Dimna, the story uses animal characters as a vehicle carrying the writer’s vision about
life where the artistic, the mental, the narrative and the philosophical spaces overlap.
Being too wise and too good to avenge the looting of her home by the giant intruders,
also animal characters, and standing in the way of the new fledging generation that needs
to restore their home by force, the Mother Hen resorts to wisdom as she addresses her
impatient children:
You’ve got no choice but to disperse across the world and preach
the value of virtue and convince the aggressors that their aggression
won’t pay off. Only then would you be able to resolve a larger problem
of which yours is only part and I’m pretty sure that we shall meet
again in this very home after we have purified the world from those
who strayed away from the right path (El-Husseini 153-157).
[translation mine]
Although this Mother Hen is quite aware of the fatal danger threatening to exterminate
her very existence, she resorts to moral philosophy as a way to combat a well-armed
intruder. It is quite meaningless and absurd on the part of El-Husseini to try to resolve a
big national problem in that way, for such an attempt would be readily dismissed as
romantic nonsense, if not classified as a document of high treason. Although allusive and
indirect to avoid the censorship of printed matter by the British Mandatory authorities in
Palestine then, the fable does say one thing at best; it justifies defeat by accepting
Ghassan Kanafani tells a different story. His first novel, Rijal fil Shams (Men in the
Sun), is a tragedy without a tragic hero. It is the story of three Palestinian refugees of
different age groups (symbolically three generations: the elderly Abu-Qais, the young
man Asaad, and the teen-age Marwan) who accept to be smuggled inside an empty water-
carrying cistern across the Iraqi-Kuwaiti borders in pursuit of a crust of bread in a
country where “a man can collect money in the twinkling of an eye … and where the first
thing you will learn is that money comes first, and then morals” (Kanafani 6, 28).
Ironically, the three men are led by Abul-Khaizuran, an emasculated Palestinian refugee,
who works as a water-tank driver for a Kuwaiti Sheikh whose hobby is game hunting.
Helplessly waiting for the slow bureaucratic paper work clearance to be done at the
Kuwaiti borders, the three men perish inside the cistern under the scorching sun of
August. Nonchalantly, the driver drives the lorry into the desert and pulls over to a
garbage heap where he strips the three corpses of their personal possessions, including
their identification papers. In an attempt “to shirk and shift responsibility for their cheap
death and group punishment” (Hussari 186), the smuggler blames it on the dead bodies
for not having knocked on the burning sides of the metallic water-tank: “Why didn’t you
knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you say anything? Why?” (Kanafani 56). The
symbolic association between the tightly-closed water tank and the Palestinian refugee
camp as an enclosure does not lend itself to further interpretation.
Upon its first publication in Arabic, the tale was received with a shock. Some critics,
who may have invested much on the rising wave of the Arab Nationalistic Movement
(Nasserism) at the time, accused Kanafani of being a skeptic who threw the hopes of
three Palestinian generations onto the garbage. Is it there that Palestinian runaways, with
shattered personal dreams, should lie down as nobody? Artistically, however, Kanafani’s
ingenious blend of the symbolic and the realistic does save the tale from falling into the
documentary, as he sacrifices neither of the two in the interest of recording a historical
reality. In Rijal fil Shams, it is Kanafani the artist, not the politician which he was, who
compels the Palestinian refugees to voice themselves and seek other possibilities, in order
to recover their national identity and defend their natural human rights before they are
ambushed, as individuals seeking personal gains, and perish silently into oblivion. The
last scene of the tale, though too tragic to be tolerated, says it all.
In his second novel, Ma Tabaqqa Lakum (All That’s Left to You, 1966), Kanafani,
influenced by Faulkner’s narrative technique in The Sound and the Fury (1929), creates a
young would-be hero, Hamid, out of despair and disgrace. It is the story of a brother and
sister living in Gaza as refugees and separated from their family, also refugees living in
the West Bank under Jordan then. The story illuminates the inextricable issues of family
and land, and the rage over their loss. Feeling ashamed of his elder sister being sexually
disgraced by a Palestinian collaborator, Hamid reluctantly accepts to marry off his
pregnant sister to the collaborator for no dowry, and decides to cross the Naqab Desert
for a family reunion. It is in the desert, which Kanafani personifies as a character, that
Hamid feels at home and accidentally ambushes an Israeli border guard. At the same
moment, his sister Mariam recounts her disgrace and realizes that her husband is none but
the enemy of the people. Separated by age and distance, Hamid and Mariam are now
united in a common struggle: one facing the enemy within, the other the enemy without.
Interestingly enough, however, as the story progresses at a quicker pace, Hamid and the
hostage Israeli soldier seem to be going around in a vicious circle. Only then does Hamid
try to initiate a ‘conversation’ with his hostage, but to no avail, for the language used
does not seem to serve their communication:
Perhaps you only know Hebrew, but that doesn’t matter. But
really, isn’t it amazing that we should meet so dramatically
here in this emptiness, and then find that we can’t communicate?”
He went on looking at me, his face dark and hesitant and somewhat
suspicious, but there was no doubt he was afraid. As for me, I’d crossed
the barrier of fear, and the emotions I was feeling were strange and
inexplicable … All I intended to do was make it clear to him that there
was nothing that merited his interest, that I wasn’t harboring any
concealed plan, and that if necessary we’d sit there until… until what?
(35, 47).
In light of the real power struggle between the Palestinians and the Israelis before
1967, Hamid’s attempt to start a dialogue with the Israeli soldier would have been
considered unripe and ineffective, but not in the least futile. In Ma Tabaqqa Lakum,
Kanafani scores an advantage over all earlier Palestinian narratives as regards the issue of
national identity as well as the moment of truth that culminates in the face-to-face
encounter between Palestinian natives and Jewish settlers on one hand, and Palestinian
patriots and their countrymen collaborators on the other. Nothing could be more telling
than that symbolic moment of revelation when the voices of Hamed and Mariam, each
fighting their own battle, fuse into each other despite the distance that separates them.
The moment Hamed ambushes the Israeli soldier and is ready to slit his throat as an
intruder is the same moment Mariam plunges the kitchen knife in the loins of her
husband as a collaborator and enemy of the people. Only then does Kanafani’s art of
fiction in this novel succeed to define the birth-right parameters of national identity and
Unlike Kanafani who wrote stories about Palestinian refugees in the remaining parts
of their land and in exile, Emile Habibi stayed in his homeland after 1948 and wrote
stories about the Palestinians from inside the state of Israel. Habibi’s masterpiece, for
short al-Mutashael (The Secret Life of Sa’eed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, 1974) is a
series of tragicomic episodes, reported in the epistolary style of narration and addressed
by Sa’eed, the pessoptimist, who is mounting the back of an outer space creature, to
someone on earth for publicity. The events unfolded cover a span of almost twenty years
(1948-1967) in the life of a Palestinian who returns to his city, Haifa, soon after
discovering with thousands of other Palestinians forced to flee their homeland that they
would become refugees in the neighboring countries. Having successfully infiltrated back
into his own birthplace, Sa’eed chooses to collaborate with the occupation forces for his
personal safety. He gradually, however, works against all the odds to transform himself
from a mean informer for the Zionist state into a simple man who only needs to survive.
His story -- feeding on fact and fantasy, tragedy and comedy -- uncovers the
contradictions deriving from the dynamics of the various situations he finds himself in as
he unwillingly fills the distance between the pioneer settler Zionists and the Palestinian
resistance fighters. Failing to redeem himself or pay it some homage, despite the two
heroic situations, which might have elevated him (namely the heroic death of his wife
and son, and his imprisonment as enemy of the state), Sa’eed also fails to belong or fit.
Unable to restore his former despicable role as collaborator or join the struggle for a
greater cause, Saeed is caught in the trap of his own impotency. Only then does he choose
to escape into the miraculous and the fantastic for salvation, which is denied him on
earth. Sitting on a symbolic stake, and not responding to the calls of various people
(including the apologetic Israeli secret police officer the Big Man), Sa’eed can only
expect a miracle as a way out.
“My master!” I shouted, “chief of all those of outer space,
I have no one but you!”
“I know that,” he replied.
“You came just in time.”
“I only come to you just in the nick of time.”
“Save me, reverend,” I pleaded.
“I just wanted to say to you: this is the way you always are.
When you can bear the misery of your reality no longer
but will not pay the price necessary to change it, only then
you come to me…” (159).
By using an outer space creature, supposedly a mythical deliverer, Habibi seems to be
parodying the Greeks and Romans who used deus ex machina as a theatrical device to
save the tale from reaching an inevitable deadlock. His use of this supernatural agency is
in no way a matter of begging deliverance. The frequent reference to the Savior (the
Christ) and Al-Mahdi (the long-awaited) is highly ironical. As the story opens and ends
with the outer space creature commenting on Saeed’s difficult situation, it also allows this
black comedy to expose the sordid reality engulfing the life of the Palestinian people on
earth. It seems that for the Palestinians to voice themselves in a maddening world devoid
of mercy and justice, they need the job to be done by some “divine intervention” -- to use
the title of the Palestinian Elia Suleiman’s film, which is also a black comedy. However,
Sa’eed is in no wise a defeatist, indolent hero. Like Voltaire’s hero in Candide, Sa’eed
uncovers much for us to discover more about what it means to be a Palestinian exiled in
his own country by an oppressor whose main concern is masked behind the claim of
“national security”. If Sa’eed does not measure up to be a hero in the traditional sense of
the term, the tale does by all means hint to heroic nuances, among which the derision of
tolerance as an absurd human value vis-à-vis occupation as well as the exposing of Israel
as an ethnic and false democracy in the Middle East. It is by defining the Israeli other as
an armed-to-teeth settler and victimizer of the native Palestinian that Sa’eed succeeds to
define himself as an outlaw in his own land. Power relations are part and parcel of the
process of his definition of identity politics.
Habib’s vision is exclusively focused on Sa’eed, a prototype for a passive fictional
character, who, despite all the concessions he keeps making to the Israeli security people,
fails to adapt to the new realities conditioned by the creation of the state of Israel. In an
interview with Radwa Ashour, Habibi says, “I’ve chosen for my story a character with
many defects which I need to expose in the first place” (Ashour qtd. in Filistin a-Thawra,
my translation). Among Sa’eed’s defects are cowardice, meanness, opportunism, and
collaboration with the enemy, to mention only a few. For instance, deciding to visit his
own house being occupied by the new European Jewish settlers, Sa’eed says:
When I reached the front of our house and saw laundry
hanging out, my courage deserted me and I pretended
to be taking a stroll along the seashore (47).
And tolerating the de facto situation that could have never been any better, the
Panglossian part in him admits that, Anyone who marries my mother becomes my
stepfather (49). Unable to harbor any clear plan whatsoever, his opportunistic attitude
shows him as an insect on the wing, ready to land anywhere as he straddles the borderline
between what is and what could be:
I was impressed by the Jewish workers’ ignorance of Hebrew
that I decided that this state [Israel] was not fated to survive.
Why should I not therefore protect my line of retreat?” (50).
And above all that, he still keeps “a clear conscience” (66).
It is in Habibi’s smart use of irony, which multiplies at crucial moments, that the
story goes beyond Sa’eed as a fictional character to embrace the national cause of the
Palestinian people. Habibi borrows Sa’eed’s penetrating eye-sight, which excludes no
detail, to scratch beneath the surface of reality and uncover all the sordid events in the life
of his people. The journey taken by Sa’eed from the very outset of the tale is a search for
a roadmap to restore identity. The harsher reality slaps him in the face, the further Sa’eed
goes into that search. Even compromising a way out from several dilemmas is part of
Sa’eed’s tactics to keep himself visible as an Arab Palestinian minority in Israel today.
In the final scene, “The Glorious Finale”, Sa’eed is seen climbing on the back of the
creature from the outer space, beneath him down on earth “the sound of joyful ululation”
(159). Among others, there is the born-in-exile Yu’aad (the returnee) whose visit permit
to see her next of kin has been cancelled – she being deported by the Israeli military rule:
Finally, there was Yuaad. As she raised her head to the sky
and pointed to us [Sa’eed and the outer space creature],
I heard her say, “When this cloud passes, the sun will shine
once more!” (160).
If there is any message created through the outer space creature episode at all, it could
be anything within the satirical mode of narration except for the idea of salvation. Habibi
seems to have created this superstitious means to an imagined salvation only to refute it
once and for all, be it part of a religious myth or otherwise. The outer space creature, as
the long-awaited savior, does not exist except in the minds of the dervish-minded
communities whose indolent nature cannot be inventive for a big change. Habibi made
this crystal clear in the epilogue that closes the tale.
With Anton Shammas writing as an insider, the ball is kept rolling but this time it is
moved further into the Israeli circle of intelligentsia. Arabesques (1986), his semi-
autobiographical novel, is “a Palestinian tale in Hebrew letters” (Amit 73) and “a text
written in the language of the conquerors” (Hever 176). Addressed to the Hebrew-
speaking readers in the first place, the tale places Israeli liberal doves in an uneasy
position, for it “questions their cultural assumptions and expectations” (Hever 176).
Defining his position as author of and character in the tale, Shammas harbors no clear
plans as who he really is, for he tries to coin his identity as a hybrid product of a de facto
complex situation. This is where he stands: between a personal memory recollected from
oral tales about his origin as an Arab Palestinian, and a futuristic vision he is trying to
crystallize as a non-Jewish Israeli citizen. The novel was severely criticized by his Arab
and Jewish reviewers alike (see Eid 1988; Darwish 1990; Oz 1982; Grossman 1993).
In an interview with Daliyah Amit, and perhaps in response to the Israeli critic and
novelist, A. B. Yehoshua, who advises him to pick up his belongings and move a
hundred meters east, to the becoming Palestinian nation where he could realize his
Palestinian identity fully” (Davar 9), Shammas says, “What I’m trying to do is to un-Jew
the Hebrew language … to bring it back to its semantic origins, back to its place (Amit
75) [emphasis mine]. Un-Jewing the Hebrew language would simply mean breaking one
leg of the tripod upon which the Zionist project rests. As laid down by Herzl and other
Jewish leaders, Zionist nationalism interlocks identity, homeland, and language. To write
in Hebrew, Shammas adds, “[this] requires a lot of chutzpah8 [which] I didn’t bring from
my childhood village. There is no chutzpah there. I borrowed it from other places(Amit
76). Azmi Beshara (2005), an ex-member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), refers to
chutzpah, a Hebrew word, which indicates full assimilation into the Jewish cultural
Arabesques invited much criticism in Israel, not only by Israeli critics who laced into
the novel as a non-Jewish narrative undermining their national assumptions, but also by
Israeli writers who feature in the novel as characters debating with Shammas about his
using the Hebrew language to write a non-Hebrew story. Besides Yehoshua, many other
moderate liberal Israeli writers, including Amos Oz and David Grossman, made
I think of [the publication] as a triumph … not for the Israeli society,
but for the Hebrew language. If the Hebrew language is becoming
attractive for a non-Jewish Israeli to write in, then we have arrived!
(qtd. in Hebrew 48).
… invited into the language, the guest [Shammas] already begins
the process of conquering (Grossman 194).
Deriving its name and structure from arabesque, an elaborate and fanciful design of
twisted shapes, geometrical figures, and so forth, the novel is a tedious search for identity
in two parts, each of which informs a little about the other. The first part recalling the
author’s family is history retrieved for honesty of record; the second part recording the
author’s journey to the United States, as participant in a cultural activity, is an attempt to
redefine his present ambivalent identity through debate. Still in the eyes of other
characters, Shammas is a “sample Arab”, whom Yehoshua Bar-On, an Israeli writer and
character in the second part of the story, offers salvation through the Hebrew language
which he refers to as a sanctified territory that cannot be transgressed.
My Arab [Shammas] will build his confused tower on my space,
in the language of grace. That is his only possible salvation
(Shammas 82-83). [Emphasis mine.]
Shammas does not continue shaping his national identity in the second part of
Arabesques; instead, he dissolves the self into the animation of the story of others. For
Shammas, the Hebrew language, as a cultural space, does exclude and discriminate
against its non-Jewish users. In this respect, Shammas does not stand alone. Mahmoud
Darwish, the Palestinian poet who lived and died in exile, sees Hebrew as “my language
of love and friendship … the language of my childhood memories” (Darwish 195).
Trying to compromise his position vis-à-vis the question of identity, Shammas does
not seem to have garnered support for using the Hebrew language as a vehicle of the
minority discourse. Renouncing his Arab Palestinian identity and hoping to liberate his
Israeli identity from its Jewishness, Shammas stands in no man’s land.
Once again, I find myself standing at the entrance of the big gate.
My life followed the path of a winding arabesque that has led me
to the very same place where I began my journey (Shammas 203).
By appropriating the Hebrew language as a common cultural space between the
Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority to serve an imaginative solution of identity,
Shammas admits that he has adamantly transgressed a Jewish territory. His endeavor
seems to have been provocative enough even to those Israeli doves who pretend that the
Jewish Israelis, alone, are the owners of Hebrew as the national language of Israel. His
attempt, however, cannot be dismissed as meaningless. He is fighting his battle on the
same ground the Jewish Israelis claim it is theirs. Using their Hebrew language to pass a
clear-cut message about identity and citizenry, Shammas is viewed as a conqueror of the
Jewish sanctity in which none is allowed to enter. Although identity is not a subject to be
compromised, Shammas takes the risk to do that, testing the tolerance of the Israeli
liberal doves whose reaction turns out to be ironically hawkish.
For the past hundred years, the Palestinian people, both at home and in exile, have
been making narratives that would tell about who they were and are in space and time.
Although those narratives are distinct in scope, subject matter, and the themes attempted,
it should be noted that they have undergone a gradual line of perception in the area of
developing, shaping and representing their national identity. The stories examined in this
article show that there is a remarkable shift in the way those writers have represented the
issue of identity; that is, from the romantic to the realistic, from the egoistic to the
altruistic, from the individualistic to the communal way of life, not way of living. The
Palestinians have been trying to tell their own side of the story, the long-denied version of
the truth, the hidden part of the historical narrative in which the fates of Arabs, Jews and
other ethnic groups are enmeshed. More particularly, the Palestinian novelists who tell
their own narratives also manage to adjust the focus of others’ vision on their visibility as
a people who have always been there. If the places from which they have been writing
are distinct, and if critical reviews of their works have often polarized their voice, the
shift from alienation to initiation as an issue permeating most of their narratives seems to
have enabled them to show a strong sense of visibility. It is the “We” standing out against
the “I” that levels out their distinctions of origin (see also Edward Said 1999; Hisham
Sharabi 1978; and Salma Jayyusi 1993). It is the Palestinian authentic voice that is more
audible now than phrases like “the Arab of the interior”, “the Arab Israeli”, “the Jew of
the Jews”, or “the refugee” which until recently have been the most common labels
signifying the Palestinian. As tellers of their own narratives, the Palestinians have
invariably voiced themselves on the platform of the Middle East in the battle of
discourses and identity politics.
1Zionism was created by Theodor Herzl in central and eastern Europe in 1896 as a national
Jewish movement in search of a homeland for the Jews in Diaspora. Although offered land in
Africa and Latin America (Uganda and Argentina, for example) by colonial Europe, the Zionist
leaders settled on Palestine as the Promised Land. Palestine and the Palestinian population then
were part of the Ottoman Empire.
2Sykes-Picot Agreement, aka Asia Minor Agreement, was a secret memorandum of
understanding concluded on May 9, 1916 between Great Britain represented by Sir Mark Sykes
and France represented by Georges Picot to partition the Asian region of the Ottoman Empire
which then included Greater Syria (Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan) and Iraq. The agreement
came into effect when it was officially abrogated by the Allies at the San Remo Conference in
April 1920, Mandate for Palestine being conferred upon Britain.
3On November 2, 1917 Lord Arthur James Balfour, the foreign secretary of Great Britain issued a
declaration in the form of a letter addressed to Baron Walter Rothschild but delivered through
Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist activist, expressing the British support for creating a “Jewish
national home” in Palestine.
4al-Wareth (The Inheritor) is the first Palestinian novel written by Khalil Baydas, both journalist
and translator, and published in 1920. See also Nasser-eddine el-Assad, Lectures on Khalil
Baydas: Pioneer of the Arabic Narrative in Palestine, Cairo: Institute of Higher Arabic Studies,
The Arab League, 1963.
5Israel is the immigrant state created by the militant Jewish settlers in Palestine in 1948,
following the forced expulsion of 800,000 civilian citizens who lost home and became refugees in
various parts of the world. This state was officially created and recognized in a resolution issued
by the General Assembly of the United Nations same year.
6Pappe implies to Hagannah, Stern, and Irgun as the military units operating during the British
Mandate for Palestine (1920-1948), and whose job was to intimidate the civilian Arab
Palestinians by using military force. Ironically, those units were led by David Ben-Gurion,
Manachem Begin, and Yitzhak Shamir, who would become political leaders in the wake of the
creation of Israel as a state in 1948, and Israel’s Prime Ministers for Labor and Likud parties
7al-Nakba, an Anglicized Arabic term for mass catastrophe used to describe the Palestinian
exodus from Palestine into the Arab neighboring countries and elsewhere due to the Jewish
settlers overuse of force and violence against the Arab civilians of Palestine who fled their homes
and property and became homeless, refugees and stateless.
8 Chuzpah is a Hebrew word meaning full integration into the Jewish language and culture in
which Hebrew is used as a medium of everyday communication.
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