Being There, Being Here: Palestinian Writings in the World
The variations of Palestinian literature, both in terms of language and themes, are discussed in depth in Maurice Ebileeni’s recent book, Being There, Being Here: Palestinian Writings in the World.
The 1948 Nakba played a major role in shaping Palestinian literature.
The shared experience encompassing various trajectories, from internal displacement to exile abroad, shaped Palestinian narrations and writings as they engage not only with their experience of Palestine or their elders’ memory of Palestine, but also with their current political and social space.
"It is important to acknowledge that the world has yet to witness the birth of an autonomous Palestinian text conceived by a Palestinian author in a free and independent Palestine"
Ebileeni identifies two main premises upon which his research on Palestinian literature unfolds.
Many Palestinians still write in Arabic, but a number have chosen other languages to convey their literature, such as English, Hebrew, Spanish and Danish.
Through such engagement in terms of literature and culture, Palestinian writings have explored different experiences in which the Palestinian narrative is also contextualised.
Speaking to The New Arab, Ebileeni notes that Palestinian literature by Palestinians in Israel-Palestine should not be forgotten.
“The reason is that in comparing diasporic literary trajectories to their older Arabic sibling, it might seem that these new directions have grown out of an autonomous local literary tradition. However, as I describe in my book Being There, Being Here, it is important to acknowledge that the world has yet to witness the birth of an autonomous Palestinian text conceived by a Palestinian author in a free and independent Palestine.”
“The political and social climate of Ottoman Palestine and then Mandatory Palestine shaped the early Palestinian Arabic text," Ebileeni informs The New Arab.
"Following the Nakba of 1948 and till this day, the Palestinian text has matured in several contexts such as in refugee camps and a number of Arab capitals such as Cairo, Baghdad, and Amman; the Palestinian text also exists under occupation and it even carries an Israeli identity card; it is widely agreed that the Palestinian text is both local and diasporic; and, as I contend in my book, it is, today, being composed in a number of languages other than Arabic and, in most instances, it is a minority text that is shaped in a variety of host-nations across the world.
"The point is that the Palestinian text has never enjoyed autonomy in the way we might, for example, imagine a German text which has been composed by a German author in a free and independent Germany.”
"Given the vast context for polylingual Palestinian literature, what role does it play in terms of the national struggle? Ebileeni insists that the past seven decades and their cultural significance need to be emphasised to understand the consequences of displacement upon literary production and expression"
In his book, Ebileeni writes, “it seems critically fruitful to keep our finger on the pulse of historic progression in order to explore how Palestinian themes are evolving in these various habitats of displacement.”
As the author further explains, Palestinian literature evolved through its immediate and complex political and social circumstances.
“The status of Palestinian authors in Israel, for example, differs significantly from that of their counterparts in Europe and the Americas. They are a special case in that they do not belong to a migrant community, but to the country’s indigenous Arab population.
"They enjoy citizenship under Israeli law. However, while enduring the perils of relative cultural and geographic isolation from their Palestinian counterparts “outside” Israel, they are also generally viewed as culturally and nationally inferior by the country’s Jewish majority.”
By contrast, Ebileeni says, Anglophone Palestinian writings are “definitively, inseparable from the instrumental role played by the British (territorial) empire and the U.S.-led (non-territorial) powers — respectively since the mid-eighteenth century and World War II — in shaping the history as well as the current conditions of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, according to longstanding Orientalist discourses.”
“Palestinian writings from Latin America embody yet different trajectories due to the origins of these communities, many of which were founded through emigration from Palestine between 1879 and 1930.
“Today’s descendants of these migration waves generally belong to middle- and upper-social classes and are well-represented among political and business elites (representing, for once, a “successful” Palestinian story). Consequently, they do not easily fit into the national narrative shaped by experiences of exile in the Arab world, dispossession, and life under the Israeli military occupation,” Ebileeni explains.
Danish writings by Palestinians, on the other hand, are linked to the contemporary public discussions on issues such as immigration, assimilation and “the parallel societies evolving in certain ‘ethnic neighbourhoods such as Nørrebro in Copenhagen, Vollsmose near Odense, and Gellerrup at the heart of Århus.”
Given the vast context for polylingual Palestinian literature, what role does it play in terms of the national struggle? Ebileeni insists that the past seven decades and their cultural significance need to be emphasised to understand the consequences of displacement upon literary production and expression.
“Surely, the claim for self-determination and the right of return are tenets embraced by Palestinians worldwide. As a critic, I believe that it is becoming increasingly important to look beyond these pillars of the national script and begin to acknowledge the developing cultural differences among Palestinian communities to critically comprehend the ongoing repercussions of their historic displacement."
"If all Palestinians would be able to return and build their nation in all of Palestine since, as I hypothesize in the book, all Israelis have decided to return their respective diasporas as nationhood could not really house Jewish identities that for millennia had been shaped in contexts of displacement, what would happen?"
Ebileeni continues by saying that "The various geographical, cultural, and social settings housing today’s Palestinians have yielded multiple lifestyles and value systems based upon widely different socio-economic conditions. Such cultural diversities call for the emergence of new venues to reassess and redefine the notion of a modern Palestinian (trans)national identity.”
While return remains imagined as home for Palestinians, the imagining stands in sharp contrast to the reality created by Israeli colonisation. Ebileeni explains how, while the right of return remains integral to the Palestinian narrative, the gap between return and home would need to be addressed.
“I don’t think that the question of compatibility between home and homeland will unsettle the sacrosanctity of the right of return in any way. Surely, the call for return will be more pressing to some Palestinian communities and less to others, but still, all Palestinians worldwide would unanimously converge on the right of return as a basic principle of the Palestinian national narrative.”
“Nonetheless, I do insist on thinking about the consequences of displacement, about how displacement has and continues to shape Palestinian experiences in multiple ways. I don’t believe that decades and generations after the Nakba, Palestinians would simply be able to return to Palestine and instantaneously feel at home as if the past seven decades had not happened.
"The symbolic key of return would not fit the imagined lock of the house that was lost, and I wanted to address this irreconcilable situation in my book.”
The imaginings of return and their implications are discussed in the book’s concluding chapter, where Ebileeni invites the reader to imagine a return to Palestine in 2048, a century after the Nakba, and to consider the various contexts of Palestinian displacement.
Ebileeni explains, “I ask, if all Palestinians would be able to return and build their nation in all of Palestine since, as I hypothesize in the book, all Israelis have decided to return their respective diasporas as nationhood could not really house Jewish identities that for millennia had been shaped in contexts of displacement, what would happen? What would Palestine be like? Would it be possible to go back and continue where we left of as if nothing had happened? Would it be possible to extract the camp from the refugee, the diaspora from the exiled, the occupation from the occupied, or the ramifications of Israeli citizenship from those who lived in Israel, and simply return to be Palestinians the way return is imagined in the national narrative?”
In addition, writers have also embarked on forms of censorship to advance their own concept of the homeland.
Ebileeni notes, “While studying Palestinian literature in multiple languages, I could see how writers from different Palestinian communities had to censor other Palestinian communities to make their specific fantasy of the homeland work.
"The Palestinian cause has, for example, in some locations allied itself with feminist movements and civil rights movements, while in other locations Palestinian society remains patriarchal, clannish, and sectarian.
"In some locations, the Palestinian cause is associated with progressive political views while in other such as, for example in Israel, Mansour Abbas – head of the Islamic movement – ran his last election campaign on a basically misogynistic and homophobic agenda, targeting gays in general and certain women like Aida Touma-Sliman from the rivalling Arab party, The Joint List.”
The author concludes by saying: “There are many other contradictions among the various visions of Palestine and I’m not claiming that other societies are homogenous and free of such contradictions.
"However, displacement and statelessness has situated the idea of Palestine in a constant state of emergency that have Palestinians feverishly holding on to discourses of unity rather than diversity, and as history has taught us so well over and again, unification is constituted by suppression and exclusion.
"In writing Being There, Being Here, I saw it as my responsibility to exit the state of emergency to focus the ongoing diversification of Palestinians across borders, generations, and languages.”
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.
Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent