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from the November 2006 issue

Time, Place, and Identity in the Literature of the “1948 Region”

A contemporary, retroactive review of the cultural identity of the Palestinian Arabs living inside Israel can form a basis for the critical study of the literary culture of this geographic area that is also known as the 1948 Region. The 1948 Region is delineated by a specific historical juncture and the momentous events related to it, which has had a pervasive, divisive, and acute influence not only on the culture of the Palestinians inside Israel-who are often referred to as Palestinians inside- but also on Palestinian history as a whole. If we consider the Palestinian cultural experience as the context in which much of the current output of the Palestinians inside can be situated, we can begin to define the role that this experience has played for the Palestinians inside, namely as a means of preserving their indigenous, national identity.. Protecting this identity from forces that could contribute to its distortion, obliteration, or mutation has been a national task of the utmost importance for the Palestinian people as a whole, and especially so with respect to Palestinians inside.

Palestinians inside attribute numerous meanings to what they understand as their national identity. The interpretations usually parallel the common denominator of Palestinian identity in general, but some of these meanings have special characteristics that derive legitimacy from the unique living conditions of the Palestinians inside.

First, national identity as understood by the Palestinians inside is the affirmation of a society whose existence and reality are denied -and continue to be denied- by its enemies. Second, for the Palestinians inside, national identity saves them from a sense of alienation in a land where historically they have been sovereign but where a new state was established through force and brutality. This new state, whose violence grows unabated, has deprived them of a homeland and whose policies dismiss their claims to the full rights of citizenship. This unsettling situation creates in the Palestinians inside an acute sense of alienation from self.


It is useful to point out here that before Palestinian identity became such a crucial, volatile issue that continues to arouse a torrent of views, some Israeli studies premised their argument on the idea that there was in the domestic identity of the Palestinians inside a fissure or a certain schizophrenic streak that explained the readiness of some Palestinians to brandish the (wretched) slogan: "My country is waging war against my people." These studies were not innocent of ulterior motives. Indeed, they did not so much aim at diagnosing a condition as at strengthening and consolidating it.

Third, national identity for the Palestinians inside constitutes the protective umbrella for the struggle to revive pre-1948 Palestinian life, whose path of development came to a brutal end as a result of the Nakba ( catastrophe) of 1948: The social and economic life of the Palestinians inside was subjected to radical change not only in terms of numbers (Palestinians became a minority in Israel) but also as an upheaval in social structure and the substantial impact this transformation had on matters related to identity and culture. In fact, many of those who left Palestine as a result of the Nakba of 1948 were of the educated, urban elites; those who stayed behind belonged mostly to the village and rural areas.

At the beginning of the Palestinian cultural movement in the 1948 Region, this movement quickly became a vehicle for protecting and preserving national identity in two specific respects that were dictated by the realities on the ground. First, it was a way of defying and resisting Zionist political and cultural initiatives whose aim was (and continues to be) to force the Palestinians to forget what had occurred. Second, it was the agent for igniting the collective memory of the Palestinians inside by offering them a fertile repository of historical and cultural points of reference connected to the Nakba and the dispersion of the Palestinians, as well as to the national and communal identity of the Palestinians who stayed.

Historically, it was poetry that led the way in literary output. Perhaps one reason for this-possibly the most important-was poetry's ability to spread orally-from tongue to ear to tongue and so on. Printing was almost an impossible mission in those early days of the Palestinians' radically transformed life inside the new state.


Poetry spread both in literary, classical Arabic and in local dialect; in both cases it was a popular form of literature, and it functioned as a means of catharsis. It has been observed that this folk literature's simplicity and directness of expression-devoid of artifice, symbolism, or obscurantism-are the reflections of the primary, raw layer of an authentic Palestinian national culture. This primary culture motivated the Palestinians to, on the one hand, elevate their self-image and, on the other hand, to devote this elevated 'self' to a Palestinian affiliation that promised national consciousness and steadfastness. (Opinions may differ about the artistic merit of these forms of expressions but not about their veracity).

This primary consciousness would later be reflected in and translated to a higher level in a succession of cultural creations that were published in newspapers and journals that "warbled outside the Zionist flock," specifically the venues of the Israeli Communist Party. At the time, such publications were the only ones that accepted to publish writings by Palestinians, and they attracted the most distinguished nationalist, political, and cultural figures . The only other opportunities for Palestinian writers were the various popular poetry festivals. This first generation of Palestinian authors included Tawfiq Zayyad, Hanna Abu Hanna, Isam al-Abbasi, Hanna Ibrahim, and Rashid Husayn. The second generation included, among others, Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim.

To this day, the central question relating to the Nakba remains one of the most important and central motivations behind the continuing return, of the Palestinian Arab literature generation after generation in Israel to the past. For the Palestinian creative artist, whoever he or she may be, this past is at once the foundation for rejecting the present and for discovering a new vision and meaning for the future.

At the heart of this continual return to the past is the Palestinian attempt at "modernity." This return, as it generally appears in Palestinian literature, normally emphasizes a conception of the past that is dissimilar to manifestations of the past in the creations of other peoples. The phrase "return to the past" in Israeli literature illustrates the point I am making here because Israeli literature too is preoccupied with digging through excavating epochal and historical ruptures and intersections. In this respect it is both parallel and in sharp contract to Palestinian literature. The idea of return to the past in Israeli literature rests on a close proximity to the past: It relies in its mechanics and codification on a memory of extreme, saturated suffering, whose closest temporal point of reference is the Nazi holocaust. But at the same time, it depends on a "vision" of the future which is represented more than anything else by the familiar phrase "next year in Jerusalem." For this reason, the proximity to the past here is manifested in various paths that keep pace with the present in a positive way. By contrast, the Palestinian creative artist, even if he or she is not fully aware of it, refuses to collaborate or to coexist with the present, despite his or her understanding of the past and proximity to it. The present, the here-and-now, is not so much a desirable present as a "present until further notice" or a "proxy present" ruptured from the past, a present that is moving toward a future where the past is an organic component in the shaping of a particular identity.

Modernity in Palestinian literature is linked it to the "question of the Nakba." We encounter here two elements that are structurally and conceptually conjoined. The first is the element of construction of a national memory. The second is the element of construction of place, and generally this is achieved by diversifying autobiography or by raising it to the artistic level of literature.

With these two elements in Palestinian literature-in poetry and prose; cinema; theatre; plastic arts-the Palestinian creative artist constructs a national, narrative memory that gathers and unites the dispersed groups of the Palestinian people as a whole from around the world. With the formation of this memory, Palestinian literature crystallizes for itself an existential reality and grants itself the right to frame its identity through a vision and a conception that articulate the aspirations of the Palestinians and the Palestinian people's own understanding of its future and its own conception of this future.

The literature of the Palestinians inside is currently living through a transitional phase and its characteristics cannot be completely defined. But two factors - of time and place-are at the core of this formation and will play a defining role on final outcome.

The influence of the factor of time derives its legitimacy from a question that continues to be problematic to Palestinian criticism. Symptomatic of this problem are the studies that Faisal Darraj-critic and colleague -perseveres in writing. This problem is linked to the subject of time, to which the Palestinian text must be loyal.

The factor of place, on the other hand, is a different story, which has not yet been subjected to systematic criticism. What is missing is the attention to the various places of Palestinian presence and to the single, objective truth that place, for the Palestinian, is not merely a location where the person lives, as it would be for other peoples of the world. It is something that lives inside the Palestinian individual.

Since the regions of Palestine subservient to Israel in the area we previously knew as the "1948 Region" are the place where the Palestinian has lived first and always, tangibly and visually, then the features of this transitional stage are revealed essentially in the new literature or by young writers, such as the poet Bashir Shalash, and fiction writers Adaniya Shibli and Azmi Bishara, Ala' Halihal, Hisham Naffa', and Raja' Bakriya. The work of these writers share several common characteristics: an emphasis on social and cultural expression, with particular attention to the idea of writing as bearing witness; a lessening in the shrillness of the scream and in the sense of entrapment; an entry into new and unconventional regions for the purpose of experimentation and renewal; a challenge to social and cultural taboos , as exemplified in some of the erotic writings of this generation; and finally a veracity in representing the actual situation, the reality on the ground.

Perhaps all these elements are the manifestations of the fact that the relationship of this new literature to society is free of embarrassment and dissimulation, but it contains a duality, a paradox. There is on the one hand a conciliation with society, but there is also an extraordinary ability to criticize it.

Regarding the last characteristic of this new literature- the veracity in representing the actual situation-the language of the new literature is abundant with allusions, but essentially the language is unadorned and direct because it alone is capable of expression the world it describes: violent, searing, vivid. Any other mode of expression would be a misrepresentation of reality. The language of the new literature distances itself from an overly purist language imprisoned by the linguistic eloquence of Arabic.

The two literary works by Azmi Bishara- al-Hajiz (The Checkpoint): Fragments of a Novel and Hubb fi Mintaqa al-Zill (Love in a shadowy Realm): A Novel of Fragments of a Place-both attest to the influence of time and place on this transitional literature. What most concerns Bishara in these two works is to portray realistically and authentically the present as we live it, without any adornment, or pretentious philosophizing, or desire to extract a lesson or draw a moral. The negation of philosophizing and its expulsion from the surface of the text does not entail an absence of any conception of a philosophic vision at its core. In fact, the philosophical scope has expanded in Bishara's second novel because the characters have more depth of experience and knowledge than those of the first novel.

This kind of portrayal abounds with what might be termed as a dual appeal. On the one hand, it invites us to renounce our ignorance (or our pretense of ignorance) of an imperfect, infected reality. On the other hand, it is an invitation for us to play the existential card against the opportunism of "what ought to be... " With its desires, its web of material and psychological associations, our existence is also one of the essential elements that can help us sweep away the darkness and begin building bridges of conciliation and restoration of self and of others.

Copyright © 2006 by Antoine Shulhut. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Tania Tamari Nasir. All rights reserved.

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