Sunday, October 30, 2011

Figures of Defiance: Refugees in Palestinian literature

Assmaa Naguib
Wed, 21/09/2011

In Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s largely escapist novel “The Ship,” written a few years after the Arab defeat of 1967, an infuriated refugee exclaims: “We spoke the truth till our throats grew hoarse, and we ended up as refugees in tents.”

On Friday, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally requests full United Nations membership for a Palestinian state, refugees, more than 40 years after Jabra’s exclamation, watch the unfolding events with careful anticipation. Many Palestinian writers have since joined Jabra in drawing attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees, who have been repeatedly failed by the international community, neighboring Arab states and Palestinian quasi-state actors.

Susan Abulhawa’s 2010 novel “Mornings in Jenin,” written in English and published in the US, imagines Palestinian refugees in the few days after the 1948 Nakba - the displacement following Israeli occupation - gradually coming to the realization that “they were slowly being erased from the world, from its history and from its future.”

To counter this realization in the early pages of the novel, Abulhawa, who was born to Palestinian refugee parents, provides an exhaustive literary work that covers every single incident of the Palestinian Israeli conflict in detail: starting from 1948, through the Naksa of 1967 when Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the battle of Karamah in 1970, the Dayr Yasin massacre, the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982, the Palestinian intifada in 1987, and the massacre at Jenin refugee camp in 2002, among many other incidents. However, what is most striking about this passionate text is how the narrative is silent about the years from 1993-2001 following the Oslo Accords in condemnation of the failed peace process, which not only made the refugee question one of the final status issues, but squandered Palestinian rights under the guise of diplomacy. Abulhawa’s novel thus completely sidelines the diplomatic circus and instead highlights the steadfastness of the displaced families and their attempts at survival for over half a century.

When Abbas’s voice resounds in the corridors of the UN building, if Palestinian refugees listen cynically to the sound of the approach of another diplomatic initiative, or seem reluctant to believe that the international system would take their side, however different the circumstances are this time around, the world should understand. Abulhawa is by no means alone in her contempt for the world’s prolonged impotence in dealing with the Palestinian refugee problem; and the negative memory of Oslo is not behind us yet.

It definitely was not diplomacy that these literary creations sought to emphasize, but Palestinians' episodes of struggle and the resolve to forge stronger resistance. Written only one year after the start of the Oslo Peace Process, Ibrahim Nasrallah’s novel “Birds of Caution” powerfully carved the struggle of the Palestinian refugees in literary form from the point of view of a nameless Palestinian child. When the child observed soon after 1948 that the refugee camp where he lived in Jordan was changing - simple tents were replaced with cement buildings, narrow alleyways gradually filled with more and more children, the fences and walls grew even higher - Nasrallah was mirroring the perpetuation of the refugee crisis.

Like the famous Handalah, who at the age of 10 turned his back to the world in defiance of its handling of the refugee problem, Nasrallah’s brainchild, who attains his martyrdom at the end of the novel, also became a figure of defiance and condemnation. Both figures are artistic creations of Palestinian refugees: the late Naji al-Ali who lived in Shatila camp in Lebanon and Nasrallah who was born in al-Wihdat refugee camp in Jordan.

Like Nasrallah and Abulhawa, countless Palestinian writers have brought the same struggle to light; many of them living in the Arab world and an increasing number now finding a voice abroad like Randa Jarrar, Abulhawa and others. These writers offer much more than romantic reminiscing for the lost home and the safety of a homeland. The voices of their different generations in both fictional and autobiographical accounts by Ghassan Kanafani, Jarrar, Suad Amiry, Ghada Karmi, the late Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish and others attest to the power of literature to transcend the world’s consistent attempt to silence these voices within an already oppressed group. One would not be surprised to know that Kanafani’s famous account of Umm Sa’ad, the hopeful refugee whose symbolic act of planting a tree in a refugee camp in Lebanon after the 1967 defeat, still inspires activism and rebellion decades after Kanafani’s 1972 assassination.

Having watched over the past few months, the various diplomatic attempts to pursue or hinder the UN initiative, it is the struggle of the Palestinian people all over the world that we should support regardless of all diplomatic (mis-)calculations.

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