Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Troubled Journey of the Palestinian Novel | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Palestinian book seller stands by his stall selling copies of the Qur’an as well as other books, in Rafah, southern Gaza.
(Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

A Palestinian book seller stands by his stall selling copies of the Qur'an as well as other books, in Rafah, southern Gaza. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

A Palestinian book seller stands by his stall selling copies of the Qur’an as well as other books, in Rafah, southern Gaza.
(Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—If you attempt to search for Gazan fiction, you may get lost in a maze of answers, some of which are clear and precise, while others are like the statements issued by Palestinian factions—ambiguous. Gaza has been under siege for seven years and its writers are a pretty close-knit fraternity; most work written inside the enclave never makes it out. Although Gazan writers have sought to “smuggle” their work—often short stories—out of the city to be printed abroad, few of their manuscripts have reached even the areas bordering Gaza.

At a time of technological advancement and social networking, Gazan fiction has still failed to catch up with the literature written by Palestinians in the West Bank, Jordan or the worldwide diaspora. Its fiction has not reached publishers abroad, nor have publishers approached it, though a simple email with an attachment could easily cross the border and penetrate the siege.

Recently, only three novels have been set in Gaza, two of which were written by Palestinians. Out of It (2011) was written by the British-Palestinian Selma Dabbagh. The second novel The Lady from Tel Aviv, written by myself, is the only Palestinian novel about Gaza to have been translated from Arabic into English. The third is titled A Grave in Gaza and was written by Brit Matt Rees who surprised the Palestinians, rather than the West, when he wrote the four part Omar Yussef detective mysteries.

So what headway have Palestinian writers in Gaza made in writing about their home? What are the characteristics of their writing? Why have Palestinian writers in Gaza kept such a distance from readers in the West Bank, the Arab world and the wider world in general?

In July 2014, Comma Press publishing house brought out The Book of Gaza. It holds ten short stories by Gazan writers, translated from Arabic into English, on life in the Strip as witnessed by different generations. Fiction-writer and storyteller Atef Abu Saif, who edited the book, visited London and spoke to Comma Press about the development of literary forms as seen in Gazan fiction over the past century, his thoughts provide some answers to the questions raised in this article.

Abu Saif said that since the early 1970s Gaza’s writers have focused on short stories as they were easier to smuggle out of the country than lengthier novels. The works written in the seventies and eighties did not exceed 70 pages—and were sometimes as short at 55. In other words, they were ‘long-short stories.’ The characters in the stories were often undeveloped, and repetitive, and “they don’t represent themselves as human beings, they represent an idea,” said Abu Saif.

Palestinian fiction written in the last few decades has focused on recalling the past in an attempt to revive what was destroyed during the Nakba, the catastrophe, as Palestinians describe the 1948 exodus following the establishment of the state of Israel. The settings and characters in the stories remained largely abstract, instead of being set in a real time and place. For example, writer Ahmad Omar Shaheen sought to recall the coastal town of Jaffa, whereas Jabra Ibrahim Jabra used a ship that was travelling from Beirut to Europe as the setting, whilst Ghassan Kanafani remembered Haifa in his work Returning to Haifa.

Abu Saif believes the novel needs a stable society and good community relations to thrive. Some of these elements were achieved after 1994 when the Palestinian Authority was formed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whereby some stability was achieved, and so the characters in Palestinian fiction gained clearer features and the settings became more concrete.

Palestinian writer Dr. Adel Al-Ostah said that not much fiction had been written in Gaza in the twentieth century, and the work that was published under the Israeli occupation and even under the Palestinian Authority remained somewhat feeble. The most prominent of the short-story writers were Gharib Asqalani, Abdallah Tayeh and Mohamed Ayoub, whose works scarcely exceeded 140 pages. They wrote about the people’s suffering under occupation, as seen in Mohamed Ayoub’s Al-Kaf Tulatim Al-Makhraz, which was full of political slogans, rather than being a work of real art. Ostah is of the view that under occupation, Palestinian literature was frail, and fiction was still very much of the long-short story ilk.

In view of the disconnect between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the past fourteen years, since the Second Intifada in 2000, it has been difficult to keep track of literature in Gaza, especially novels. “We [Palestinian writers in Ramallah] read Raba’i Al-Madhoun’s The Lady from Tel Aviv before the work of new Palestinian novelists, such as Khedr Mahjez or Atef Abu Saif. None of their novels has achieved the popularity of The Lady from Tel Aviv,” Osta said.

Novelist Abdallah Tayeh remarks on the Palestinian novel’s role in documenting the changing society in the Gaza Strip through various periods of hardship. “Memory has been a major tool in confronting the occupation, as a novel can contain all the details [of the past] and is considered a major, sincere and shocking source for those eager to study social changes in Gaza.”

Researcher and critic Nahed Zaqout believes that novel-writing in Gaza has been postponed as a result of the political situation there. “The Gaza Strip was the main incubator of all refugees in 1948, and those refugees were the writers who produced the novel in the late 1970s after their living conditions settled down. This is what the novel requires in order to grow, thrive and reflect reality,” Zaqout said.

Zaqout, Tayeh and many other Palestinian critics are of the same view that Gazan writers insisted on focusing their work almost exclusively on the Israeli occupation and its administration’s aggressive policies. The Nakba and its consequences: the status of refugees; their living conditions in tents; the struggle, and resistance operations were reoccurring themes.

Nearly a hundred novels were written by over fifty writers in Gaza between 1975 and 2003. However, due to the lack of publishing houses in Gaza, most of these novels were printed in Jerusalem, and the works that were produced in Gaza were printed at the writers’ own expense.