Skip to content

The City and the Writer: A Literary Map of Palestinian Writers

By Nathalie Handal

In the early 1990s, while living in Paris, I discovered that Salma Khadra Jayyusi, one of the Arab world's most distinguished literary personalities—widely known for her poetry, literary criticism, and scholarship, and whose work I hold in great esteem—had a visiting research position in Berlin. I decided to write to her and ask advice regarding research on Arab women poets that I wanted to undertake. This was my first everything: my first time conducting research on such a large scale, editing a book, contacting intellectuals, writers, translators, and publishers. I don’t think I really believed she would respond. But she did, with an extensive letter guiding me in multiple ways—books to read, ways to conduct research, as well as a deep emphasis on working on my own poetry and creative pieces. We have been in touch ever since.

Jayyusi is a pioneer and a visionary. The scope of her knowledge, the discipline, dynamism, and determination set forth in every one of her thorough and colossal undertakings has left us with a wide scope of material on Arabic and Palestinian literature and culture. She’s always been ahead of the curve; as founder and director of PROTA, which was founded in 1980, for the translation of the best in Arabic literature into English, and of East-West Nexus, founded in 1991 for the dissemination of the knowledge of Arabic culture and civilization outside the Arab world. She started translating and publishing Arabic literature before it became a trend. She became the canonmaker of Palestinian literature when she published her comprehensive Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature in 1992. And on a more personal note, our paths have crossed in endless cities—London, Jerusalem, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Boston.

I dedicate this map to her—a small gesture to show my profound gratitude and admiration for her tireless work of close to six decades disseminating and promoting literature. (More on this initiative here.) These are not maps in the traditional sense. This metaphorical map continues the conversation set forth by Jayyusi, with one distinction: all the pieces take place as their theme, in accord with “The City and the Writer” series; the map is a collection of written texts and visual essays that highlight the best-known and most-read voices today. Each feature also provides readers with reading suggestions that include pioneers of modern Palestinian letters—poets, novelists, short story writers, playwrights and memoirists—who have a body of creative work that has had an impact beyond their time.

We will start with writers from the North (cities such as Acre, Haifa, Jenin, Nablus, Nazareth, Safad, Tiberias and Tulkarem). Acre will be our first stop with Salma Khadra Jayyusi.

To understand the map and modern Palestinian literature, we must have a notion of what it means to be Palestinian today. The endless list of conflicts is daunting, but some dates are essential to chart the trajectory of Palestinians: the Ottoman Empire (Middle Ages to the early nineteenth century); the British occupation, circa 1920 to 1948; the Nakba or Catastrophe, where three-quarters of a million Palestinians were dispossessed and those who remained in what became the State of Israel were isolated from the Palestinians in the West Bank, then under Jordanian control, and the Gaza Strip, under Egyptian control, while the rest were forced out and dispersed throughout the region and beyond; the June War, also known as the Six-Day War or the 1967 War, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights and annexed the Old City of Jerusalem, further displacing Palestinians; the First Intifada or uprising in 1987 against Israeli military occupation; 1988 to the 1993, the Oslo Agreement, and the post-Oslo period, which became defined by restrictions on movement as Palestinians now needed permits to move from one city to the next; the Second Intifada of 2000 and the wall. This past May marked sixty-seven years since 1948, and as the places Palestinians have to create art increasingly shrink, their imaginary spaces expand.

As I mentioned in the essay “The Shape of Time” in Words without Borders's May 2015 issue, wherever Palestinians are scattered in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, in refugee camps in the Arab world, or displaced around the globe, they are confined to the particularities of whatever boundaries—national or physical, psychological or emotional—they were dealt after 1948. The restrictions on their freedom and movement are interminable: checkpoints, the Green Line, Areas A, B, and C, or whatever identity card or passport they hold. Gazans aren’t permitted into the West Bank or anywhere. West Bank residents can’t go to the 1948 territories unless given a special permit, and those are rare. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship can’t live in the West Bank, and Palestinians in the diaspora are refugees and can’t live in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza due to Israeli laws. And Jerusalem blue-card holders are under constant threat of losing their residency. 

For nearly seven decades, Palestinian writers’ oeuvres have contributed to Palestinian, Arabic, and other letters, and left notable and cherished poetry collections, novels, plays, and memoirs. Some literary masters include Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Samih al-Qasim, Ghassan Kanafani, Ibrahim Tuqan, and Mahmoud Darwish. Today, Palestinians write in multiple languages and have different nationalities, cultural influences, and varied aesthetics; many also belong to other literary traditions and nations. Some well-known authors writing in various languages include Amir Nizar Zuabi, living in Jaffa; Raja Shehadeh. living in Ramallah; Palestinian American Naomi Shihab Nye; Palestinian Australian Randa Abdel-Fattah—all write in English; Ramsey Nasr writes in Dutch, and Chilean Diamela Eltit, of Palestinian descent, writes in Spanish. The cultural multiplicity and exilic experience is wide-ranging. Their movement never ceases and their notions of home tend to be transitory. Despite their distinct experiences, their consciousness and mindscapes are marked by place—its memory and its history.

In these text-maps by Palestinian writers, you will find a fusion of voices. Writers were asked to write a portrait of the city or town their families come from—experienced or imagined. They were to draw from family members, stories, dreams, or other channels. The contributors are listed under their city of origin; those who come from two different cities are placed under the city they wrote about.

The City and the Writer Literary Maps: In Acre with Salma Khadra Jayyusi

The City and the Writer Literary Maps: In Salfit with Ramsey Nasr

The City and the Writer Literary Maps: In Yasuf with Hannah Khalil

The City and the Writer: In Umm Al-Zienat with Mohammad al-Assad

The City and the Writer: In Jaffa with Ibtisam Azem

The City and the Writer: In Jerusalem and Jaffa with Ismail Khalidi

The City and the Writer: In Jaffa with Selma Dabbagh

The City and the Writer: In Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh

The City and the Writer: In Jerusalem with Liana Badr

The City and the Writer: In Qadita with Ala Hlehel

“The City and the Writer” Maps


Published Sep 22, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.