Palestinian Literature's Many Faces

LOVE for their own national literature, along with close family ties and strong memories of home, have helped the Palestinians survive long years of exile. Their poetry, fiction, and personal testimonials encode both a spirit of defiance and a plea for others to know them better. It is long overdue, therefore, that Americans gain access to the best the Palestinians have written.

The landmark publication of the "Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature," edited and introduced by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, quite generously fulfills this need.

This is Jayyusi's fifth major anthology of Arabic literature in translation. It is perhaps the closest to her heart, as she is a leading Palestinian poet and mentor to her nation's younger writers. Jayyusi has almost an alchemist's knack for transmuting Arabic into English, as shown in the fine effort she has coaxed from such able co-translators (and fine poets in their own right) as W. S. Merwin and Naomi Shihab Nye.

The broad range of poems selected here testifies to the adaptability, both territorial and linguistic, of the Palestinian voice. Nye is Palestinian-American, and her own family-centered poems are collected in a section of original writing in English. Here, too, is the bluntly declarative verse of Hanan Mikha'il `Ashrawi, her delegation's spokeswoman at the peace talks, whose vivid poem "Night Patrol" is narrated by an Israeli soldier who tries to stare down a group of child protesters and instead sees hi mself in their young faces.

It is interesting to compare the private lyricism of the Israeli Palestinian Anton Shammas, who often writes in Hebrew, and the highly charged politics of the PLO's unofficial poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish, one of whose metaphors once nearly caused former Israeli President Shamir to suspend the peace process. Darwish's passion burns most keenly here in his patriotic epic "Poem of the Land" and his essay on Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Jayyusi's introduction provides a helpful literary history and recalls an all-important geographical factor. Just as Jerusalem's Wailing Wall was sealed off from Israeli Jews until 1967, so too, Israeli Palestinians were sealed off from their compatriots on the West Bank and in exile. This nearly complete separation, with each side having different audiences, influences, and aims, resulted in a bifurcated literature lasting more than a generation.

In newly created Israel, Palestinian poets addressed an audience stunned by the psychic loss of identity and language. Poetry was nearly all that was left of what once had been theirs. Hebrew surrounded them everywhere else - in schools and offices, on radio and road signs. Poets of the Diaspora on the other hand confronted the physical loss of land and home, while all Palestinians faced the separation of friends and family.

Reader feedback made for other differences as well. In Israel, this feedback came often in the form of a censor's report or jail sentence. Writers in exile meanwhile addressed readers throughout the entire Arab world, who began to find the pan-Arab predicament reflected in a specifically Palestinian lament.

Emile Habiby, whose satiric novel "The Secret Life of Saeed" helped win him Israel's highest literary award, is a sharp observer of the Palestinian's split literature. His bittersweet story "The Odds-and-Ends Woman" is about a scrap dealer seeking hidden treasure in the stuffing of old sofas. What she hopes to find are the valuables left behind when her people quickly left their homes during the 1948 war. Instead, she discovers caches of love letters, schoolgirl poems, and secret diaries left unread for 20 years.

The stylistic range of the collection's short fiction pieces is impressive. Mahmoud Shuqair's story about a married couple's public humiliation is composed almost entirely of dialogue, while Akram Haniyyeh's comic fable about the disappearance of the Dome of the Rock unwinds from multiple points of view. It comes as a surprise to learn that these two writers, whose stories seemingly steer so far from politics, have been deported by the Israelis.

The chapter of personal-account literature provides some of the most lyrical pages, including pre-1948 childhood memoirs by Palestine's preeminent man of letters Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and his compatriot, political historian Hisham Sharabi. Jayyusi explains the Palestinians' feeling for this genre as "an urgent need to reject this isolation, to beat a path into the consciousness of others by simply telling the story over and over again, piecemeal and in all its myriad aspects... ."

Even after dipping into only a few of these pages, one comes to see that what Jayyusi has done here is more than simply to anthologize a neglected literature. Beyond that, she has delicately uncovered the deep-seated impulse that drives all Palestinians seeking to convey their faith, compassion, and abiding steadfastness to their cause.

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