The Stone House: Generational histories and vivid Palestinian storytelling

The Stone House: Generational histories and vivid Palestinian storytelling
Book Club: Yara Hawari's novella traces three generations of Palestinians, and how their memory and notions of identity have each been ruptured by the Nakba. Filled with visceral descriptions of life under occupation, The Stone House is a must-read.
5 min read
06 April, 2022
Despite the varied experience of the protagonists, the reader quickly learns that the trauma of the Nakba is constant throughout [Hajar Press]

Every time a new Palestinian literary piece of work is published, a fresh narrative of the Palestinian struggle surfaces and reminds us of the heterogeneity of the Palestinian experience.

In The Stone House, Hawari gives us glimpses into some not-so-common Palestinian narratives. This novella by Yara Hawari contains musings from three characters (Mahmoud, Dheeba, and Hamda) from three different generations, thus three distinct experiences of living in Palestine.

Although these three characters were inspired by Hawari’s father, grandmother, and great-grandmother, the stories in The Stone House reflect the wider community.

"Alternating between these personal accounts and historical lessons, The Stone House is certainly a small but mighty book that accomplishes the goal it set out for itself"

The novella opens with 15-year-old Mahmoud who was born a few years after the Nakba. Mahmoud describes how melancholic and uneasy his childhood was, being born in the shadow of the Nakba.

Despite not fully grasping the events that led to this melancholy, he quickly comes to understand how one single point in their country’s history changed everything: things became ‘before the Nakba’ and ‘after the Nakba’.

Mahmoud’s voice represents many Palestinians born after the creation of Israel and I especially love that through him, Hawari drives home the point of trauma being entrenched in the DNA.

Even though his mum, Dheeba, and grandmum, Hamda taught him everything about Palestine before the Nakba – through storytelling – the feelings of anguish that he describes may as well point to this DNA logic, as well as the potency of al-hakawati (storytelling) in preserving Palestinian identity and oral history. 

In Mahmoud’s chapter, Hawari also vividly paints a harrowing picture of what it means to be a Palestinian living under Israeli citizenship. We don’t often get this particular narrative in Palestinian literature, and readers can understand why this is so when Mahmoud describes the state of Palestinians living in Israel during the Israeli ‘Independence Day’ – which is also the anniversary of the Nakba.

These Palestinians are taunted and expected to ignore their feelings and celebrate their dispossession. They are watched like hawks and are expected to prove their rights to this Israeli citizenship at every turn.

Mahmoud also describes the Naksa and how many Palestinians were expected to prove their loyalty to the Israeli government; to prove that they are happy with the creation of Israeli by virtue of owning Israeli citizenship – as if that can erase their Palestinian identity.

Another character, Ibrahim, explains to Mahmoud the pain of being a Palestinian student in Israeli universities. They are treated with contempt by their Israeli peers, even to the point of violence, and are expected to sit in classes taught by former army generals who partook in the Nakba – the sheer trauma!

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I also love that Hawari, through Dheeba’s chapter, points out how the Israeli forces used rape strategically when destroying Palestinian villages in preparation for the creation of Israel.

It says something that the women in this book are described as the ones to fully enforce the al-hakawati tradition to pass down the history of Palestine and its lands to the new generations – while the men struggle through the trauma of the Nakba, mixed with that extra layer of guilt induced by the shackles of patriarchy.

If the women are also broken, then who will pass down these histories? And how else to break these women except through rape? It is easy to miss this vile tactic when the rape of women is historically common in wars. 

As is customary of Palestinian women's writings, Hawari doesn’t shy away from examining many social ills in the Palestinian society – and rightfully so because multiple wrongs can co-exist, and these ills do not diminish the Palestinian struggle.

One example is the misogyny that Palestinian women suffer within their community. Still recalling the Nakba and that vile rape strategy, Dheeba describes how victims of rape have to live with a lifetime of shame and lessened chances of marriage. These victims suffered the evil of Israeli occupation just like any other Palestinian, but society doesn’t consider that as an excuse.

Hawari also highlights the social prejudices rife in the society, and it is said that, as Dheeba puts it, “a people who have suffered so much oppression could be guilty of turning against each other”.

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Last but certainly not least is Hamda’s chapter where she takes us through Palestine under the Ottoman occupation, and how the people fell for the British’s false promise of liberation.

Through her reminisces, readers get a glimpse of how drastic and shocking the changes were. One minute, they were learning the Ottoman language, and the other, they are surrounded by this strange new tongue (English). Hamda describes how people were initially happy when the British drove out the Ottomans, only to come face to face with the former’s true intentions.

The people that were forced to emulate the ways of the Ottomans, now have to imbibe the culture of these new foreign rulers. I think one of the saddest parts of Hamda’s narration is her description of the “complete and unwavering sense of entitlement” of the British occupiers – and even worse, the despicable way they “handed” over the people’s lands to the Zionists., by just fleeing abruptly.

In this way, The Stone House further brings to the forefront another Palestinian history that isn’t common in contemporary narratives.

Alternating between these personal accounts and historical lessons, The Stone House is certainly a small but mighty book that accomplishes the goal it set out for itself. Hawari weaves the present and histories of Palestine together, with a line of never-ending resistance that is even depicted in the line drawing on the book’s cover. 

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha