The Power of Narrative & Why Edward Said Would Be Proud: 35 Palestinian Narratives to Read

In 1984, The London Review of Books published Palestinian theorist, writer, literary critic Edward Said’s article on “Permission to Narrate,” the story of the Palestinians. Said had already published The Question of Palestine (1979), the first critical text to discuss the history of the Palestinian struggle, and his own narrative Out of Place: A Memoir (1999) would be released a few years later.

The article serves as a reflection on the power of narratives and the illusion of truth when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians. In addition, Said offers a comprehensive review of Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle (1983), which he calls “a dogged exposé of human corruption, greed and intellectual dishonesty.” Chomsky’s book was the first to provide an extensive discussion on the U.S. involvement in Palestine. “[Chomsky’s] major claim is that,” Said writes, “Israel and the US – especially the latter, seen by Chomsky as the arch-villain of the piece – are rejectionists opposed to peace, whereas the Arabs, including the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization founded in 1964, my note), have for years been trying to accommodate themselves to the reality of Israel.” If you read Said’s article, congratulations– you will also have read one of the best book reviews ever written, but that’s another story.

Said’s point is this: countless official reports, as well as critical books like The Fateful Triangle explicitly demonstrate the facts, revealing the systemic oppression that has displaced, murdered, and dehumanized the Palestinians. However, as we all have seen recently, the media continue to deny the Palestinians the permission to narrate, share, and circulate their lived experiences (See for example, well, any credible text written on the question of Palestine, but if you need a quick read, see “Israeli Censorship of the Palestinian Press”, “Digital Apartheid,” “Big Tech’s Complicity in Censoring Palestinians”).

Since Said wrote his piece following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, also known as “Operation Peace for Galilee,” he discusses, as an example, the investigation led by Seán MacBride that looked into reported Israeli violations of international law. He writes:

The findings are horrifying – and almost as much because they are forgotten or routinely denied in press reports as because they occurred.

The commission says that Israel was indeed guilty of acts of aggression contrary to international law; it made use of forbidden weapons and methods; it deliberately, indiscriminately and recklessly bombed civilian targets – ‘for example, schools, hospitals and other non-military targets’; it systematically bombed towns, cities, villages and refugee camps; it deported, dispersed and ill-treated civilian populations; it had no really valid reasons ‘under international law for its invasion of Lebanon, for the manner in which it conducted hostilities, or for its actions as an occupying force’; it was directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

You can read the full report on JSTOR here; please contact me if you don’t have access and I can send you a summary.

Said encourages us to look at the invasion of 1982 more closely:

A handful of poorly armed Palestinians and Lebanese held off a very large Israeli army, air force and navy from 5 June till the middle of August. This was a major political achievement for the Palestinians. Something else was at stake in the invasion, however, to judge by its results a year and a half later – results which include Arab inaction, Syrian complicity in the unsuccessful PLO mutiny, and a virulent American hostility to Palestinian nationalism. That something was, I think, the inadmissible existence of the Palestinian people whose history, actuality and aspirations, as possessed of a coherent narrative direction pointed towards self-determination, were the object of this violence.

Israel’s war was designed to reduce Palestinian existence as much as possible. Most Israeli leaders and newspapers admitted the war’s political motive. In Rafael Eytan’s words, to destroy Palestinian nationalism and institutions in Lebanon would make it easier to destroy them on the West Bank and in Gaza: Palestinians were to be turned into ‘drugged roaches in a bottle’. Meanwhile the clichés advocating Israel’s right to do what it wants grind on: Palestinians are rejectionists and terrorists, Israel wants peace and security, the Arabs won’t accept Israel and want to destroy it, Israel is a democracy, Zionism is (or can be made consonant with) humanism, socialism, liberalism, Western civilisation, the Palestinian Arabs ran away in 1948 because the other Arabs told them to, the PLO destroyed Lebanon, Israel’s campaign was a model of decorum greeted warmly by ‘the Lebanese’ and was only about the protection of the Galilee villagers.

The UN conference held in 1983 following Israeli war against Lebanon only reiterated and documented these facts (You can read the full report on the UN conference here). In 1984, Edward Said asked the very question that we -those who recognize the facts- have been asking: How can the majority of people, especially in the global North, still view the question of Palestine as “too complicated,” or see the narrative on freeing Palestine as anti-semitism?

“Despite the MacBride Commission’s view that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ in the case of Zionism’s war against the Palestinians,” Said explains, “the facts have never done so, especially in America, where Israeli propaganda seems to lead a life of its own.” He highlights the imbalance of political power between Israel/America and Palestine, pointing to the sheer fact that “insofar as the West has complementarily endowed Zionism with a role to play in Palestine along with its own, it has stood against the perhaps humble narrative of native Palestinians once resident there and now reconstituting themselves in exile in the Occupied Territories.”

He explains further:

Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them. Such a narrative has to have a beginning and an end: in the Palestinian case, a homeland for the resolution of its exile since 1948. But, as Hayden White has noted in a seminal article, ‘narrative in general, from the folk tale to the novel, from annals to the fully realised “history”, has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.’1 Now there are numerous UN Resolutions certifying the Palestinians as a people, their struggle as a legitimate one, their right to have an independent state as ‘inalienable’. Such Resolutions, however, do not have the authority of which White speaks. None has drawn any acknowledgment from Israel or the United States, which have restricted themselves to such non-narrative and indefinite formulae as – in the language of the lackadaisical US pronouncements – ‘resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects’.

Simply put, the mythological Zionist narrative dominates the discourse on the question of Palestine, particularly in the global North, and Palestinians are perpetually asked to quit complaining. They are asked to quietly move on and relocate like the millions of refugees that the history has witnessed. What is often overlooked in this context, however, as Said reminds us, is the uniqueness of the situation in Palestine:

The unique thing about this situation is Palestine’s unusual centrality, which privileges a Western master narrative, highlighting Jewish alienation and redemption – with all of it taking place as a modern spectacle before the world’s eyes.

So that when Palestinians are told to stop complaining and to settle elsewhere like other refugees before them, they are entitled to respond that no other refugees have been required systematically to watch an unending ceremony of public approbation for the political movement, army or country that made them refugees and occupies their territory. Occupying armies, as Chomsky observes, do not as a rule ‘bask in the admiration of American intellectuals for their unique and remarkable commitment to “purity of arms”.

Said underlines the pivotal role narrative evidence plays in a political and cultural climate where Palestinians are continuously asked to participate in “the dismantling of their own history”– in the erasure of their stories and lived experiences. His emphasis on the importance of narratives also speaks to the question of what we can do with all the official facts and statistics that ironically do not seem to matter at all. The antidote here, he suggests, is to create an archive of Palestinian narratives by writing, recording, remembering, reading, and circulating. “I recall during the siege of Beirut obsessively telling friends and family there, over the phone, that they ought to record, write down their experiences,” he notes, “it seemed crucial as a starting-point to furnish the world some narrative evidence, over and above atomised and reified TV clips, of what it was like to be at the receiving end of Israeli ‘anti-terrorism.’”

He goes on to explain that:

Naturally, they were all far too busy surviving to take seriously the unclear theoretical imperatives being urged on them intermittently by a distant son, brother or friend. As a result, most of the easily available written material produced since the fall of Beirut has in fact not been Palestinian and, just as significant, it has been of a fairly narrow range of types4: a small archive to be discussed in terms of absences and gaps – in terms either pre-narrative or, in a sense, anti-narrative. The archive speaks of the depressed condition of the Palestinian narrative at present.

Said’s call to narrate and to record has never stopped being relevant in the Palestinian struggle. In fact, as Said himself highlights in his narrative After the Last Sky (1999) (by asking the difficult, yet important questions, “Do we exist? What proof do we have? The further we get from the Palestine of our past, the more precarious our status, the more disrupted our being, the more intermittent our presence”), Palestinian narratives have taken an increasingly important role in the resistance against the systemic erasure of their history. And the recent flare-up of Israeli violence against the Palestinians is a case in point.

Despite the censorship of Palestinian political speech, Palestinians since the last two intifadas have used social media to record and directly show the world what it means to be “at the received end of Israeli violence.” Unfortunately, we have witnessed once again that facts are somehow inadequate as many writers and activists, as well as those who preach “love” still remain silent. Fortunately, we are also witnessing the dwindling credibility of the mainstream western media as narratives told by Palestinians themselves, whether in the form of social media clips or of fiction and non-fiction, are gaining more and more power. As I discussed in my piece about Sudan and the power of narrative, narrative evidence, in whatever shape or form, allows us to transgress headlines that permeate the hegemonic discourse; it brings us closer to the complex realities of peoples. And the latest surge of Israeli violence has demonstrated that Palestinians no longer need any permission to narrate their stories.

On that note, I will leave you with thirty-five essential narratives that amplify Palestinian voices. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it highlights some of the contemporary Palestinian narratives from a variety of genres, as well as some of the classics that you need to read.

35 Essential Narratives that Amplify Palestinian Voices

1- Arsonists’ City (2021) by Hala Alyan, Fiction

The Arsonists’ City moves back and forth in time, telling the intergenerational story of a Lebanese/Syrian family who emigrates to California during the war of ‘78. The plot weaves together various displacement and civil war narratives—Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian— to show the harrowing ways in which history repeats itself. 

The novel tackles such themes as love, grief, loss, identity, and cultural, as well as family trauma. The story is filled with heartbreaking, hilarious, and heartwarming moments. Alyan’s poetic language is enchanting.

2- Passage to the Plaza (2020) by Sahar Khalife, Trans. by Sawad Hussain, Fiction

In Bab Al-Saha, a quarter of Nablus, Palestine, sits a house of ill-repute. In it lives Nuzha, a young woman ostracized from and shamed by her community. When the Intifada breaks out, Nuzha’s abode unexpectedly becomes a sanctuary for those in the quarter: Hussam, an injured resistance fighter; Samar, a university researcher exploring the impact of the Intifada on women’s lives; and Sitt Zakia, the pious midwife.

In the furnace of conflict at the heart of the 1987 Intifada, notions of freedom, love, respectability, nationhood, the rights of women and Palestinian identity—both among the reluctant residents of the house and the inhabitants of the quarter at large—will be melted and re-forged. Vividly recounted through the eyes of its female protagonists, Passage to the Plaza is a ground-breaking story that shatters the myth of a uniform gendered experience of conflict. From Seagull Books

3- The Journals of Sarab Affan (1992; 2007) by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. Trans. by Ghassan Nasr, Fiction

Palestinian Iraqi artist, literary critic, writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919-1994) needs his own separate post, but I must mention one of my all time favorite books, The Journals of Sarab Affan.

Like many Palestinians, Jabra was compelled to flee Palestine in 1948; he’d emigrated to Bagdad where he became an Iraqi citizen. Jabra is indeed one of the greatest Arab (and world) writers, and it’s likely that you’ve heard of his novel Hunters in a Narrow Street (1960), a love story between a Christian Arab who escaped Jerusalem in 1948 and a Muslim Arab in Iraq. Or you may have heard of In Search of Walid Masoud (1978) which is about a Palestinian activist and writer who unexpectedly disappears. These two narratives are some of Jabra’s finest works that epitomize his idiosyncratic writing, but my favorite is The Journals of Sarab Affan, a postmodern love story between a strong female character Sarab and Nael, a novelist whom she plots to meet. I cannot tell you how brilliant this novel is; it challenges identity as a fixed entity and questions the concept of love in a most beautiful way.

In a literature course I taught at the University of Missouri, I assigned a chapter from the novel, and my students who had never even heard of Arab writing, Palestinian literature, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra were fascinated by his writing (some of them did find it difficult, I admit, but that’s why we were there, studying the novel!)

4- A Map of Home (2008) by Randa Jarrar, Fiction

A Map of Home is a coming-of-age narrative that explores what it means to grow up in Palestine as its protagonist Nidali moves across borders, from Boston, Kuwait, Palestine, and Egypt to Texas. 

The novel unfolds against the Israeli war against Palestine and the Gulf war, highlighting how history as constructed/manipulated by the west repeats itself. I taught this novel in another literature class entitled “Love in Literature.” It allowed my students to understand what it means to lose one’s “home,” and most enjoyed the language and writing as well.

5- The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion (Release Date: Oct. 2021) by Akram Musallam, Trans. by Sawad Hussain, Fiction

On a plastic chair in a parking lot in Ramallah sits a young man writing a novel, reflecting on his life: working in a dance club on the Israeli side of the border, scratching his father’s amputated leg, dreaming nightly of a haunting scorpion, witnessing the powerful aura of his mountain-lodging aunt. His work in progress is a meditation on absence, loss, and emptiness. He poses deep questions: What does it mean to exist? How can you confirm the existence of a place, a person, a limb? How do we engage with what is no longer there? Absurd at times, raw at others, The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion explores Palestinian identity through Akram Musallam’s extended metaphors in the hope of transcending the loss of territory and erasure of history. From Seagull Books

6- Against Loveless World (2020) by Susan Abulhawa, Fiction

I’ve heard such amazing things about Susan Abulhawa and her novels, particularly Against the Loveless World which is on the top of my reading list.

As Nahr sits, locked away in solitary confinement, she spends her days reflecting on the dramatic events that landed her in prison in a country she barely knows. Born in Kuwait in the 70s to Palestinian refugees, she dreamed of falling in love with the perfect man, raising children, and possibly opening her own beauty salon. Instead, the man she thinks she loves jilts her after a brief marriage, her family teeters on the brink of poverty, she’s forced to prostitute herself, and the US invasion of Iraq makes her a refugee, as her parents had been. After trekking through another temporary home in Jordan, she lands in Palestine, where she finally makes a home, falls in love, and her destiny unfolds under Israeli occupation. Nahr’s subversive humor and moral ambiguity will resonate with fans of My Sister, The Serial Killer, and her dark, contemporary struggle places her as the perfect sister to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

Written with Susan Abulhawa’s distinctive “richly detailed, beautiful, and resonant” (Publishers Weekly) prose, this powerful novel presents a searing, darkly funny, and wholly unique portrait of a Palestinian woman who refuses to be a victim. From Simon and Schuster

7-The Lady from Tel Aviv (2013) by Raba’i al-Madhoun, Trans. by Elliot Colla, Fiction

Wail Dahman is going home. Returning to Gaza after nearly four decades in exile, he looks forward to embracing his mother and reconnecting with the people and place he once left behind.

Boarding the flight from London, Wald’s life intersects with that of Dana, an Israeli actress, on her way back to Tel Aviv. As the night sky hurtles past, what each confides and conceals will expose the chasm between them in the land they both call home. The Lady from Tel Aviv is a powerful and poetic story of love, loss and belonging. From Saqi Books

8- My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century by Adina Hoffman, Non-fiction/Biography

This first biography of a Palestinian writer also provides a moving account of the ways “ordinary” individuals are swept up by the floodtides of both war and peace. Beautifully written, and composed with a novelist’s eye for detail,this booktells the story of an exceptional man and the culture from which he emerged.

Taha Muhammad Ali was born in 1931 in the Galilee village of Saffuriyya and was forced to flee during the war in 1948. He traveled on foot to Lebanon and returned a year later to find his village destroyed. An autodidact, he has since run a souvenir shop in Nazareth, at the same time evolving into what National Book Critics Circle Award–winner Eliot Weinberger has dubbed “perhaps the most accessible and delightful poet alive today.”

As it places Muhammad Ali’s life in the context of the lives of his predecessors and peers, My Happiness offers a sweeping depiction of a charged and fateful epoch. It is a work that Arabic scholar Michael Sells describes as “among the five ‘must read’ books on the Israel-Palestine tragedy.” In an era when talk of the “Clash of Civilizations” dominates, this biography offers something else entirely: a view of the people and culture of the Middle East that is rich, nuanced, and, above all else, deeply human. From Yale University Press

9- The Twenty-Ninth Year (2019) by Hala Alyan, Poetry

For Hala Alyan, twenty-nine is a year of transformation and upheaval, a year in which the past—memories of family members, old friends and past lovers, the heat of another land, another language, a different faith—winds itself around the present. Hala’s ever-shifting, subversive verse sifts together and through different forms of forced displacement and the tolls they take on mind and body. Poems leap from war-torn cities in the Middle East, to an Oklahoma Olive Garden, a Brooklyn brownstone; from alcoholism to recovery; from a single woman to a wife. This collection summons breathtaking chaos, one that seeps into the bones of these odes, the shape of these elegies. 

A vivid catalog of heartache, loneliness, love and joy, The Twenty-Ninth Year is an education in looking for home and self in the space between disparate identities. From HMH Books

10- The Eye of the Mirror (2008) by Liana Badr, Fiction

Taken from the quiet sanctuary of a convent school, where she works as a maid, Aisha is thrown back into the chaotic world of her parents’ home in the Tal Ezza’tar refugee camp when the Lebanese civil war begins. From then on she is caught up in a series of tragedies, including the continuous bombardment of the camp by the Phalangists and the subsequent invasion and massacres within the settlement. Aisha’s family and friends are torn apart by events beyond their control and although she finds love and marries, amid such violence the decision to start her own family becomes harder still.Set within one of the most bloody conflicts of modern times, this heart-wrenching story shows how women’s experience of war is particularly cruel as they confront the dilemma of bringing a new life into a war-zone. Based on seven years of meticulous research, Liana Badr has created an epic novel around the life of one girl. Its accurate historical setting adds force and poignancy. Turning a simple love story into a complex portrayal of Palestinian history, Liana Badr has triumphantly re-told a nation’s history for its women. From Garnet Publishing

11- The Woman from Tantoura (2014) by Radwa Ashour, Trans. by Key Heikkinen, Fiction

Palestine. For most of us, the word brings to mind a series of confused images and disjointed associations—massacres, refugee camps, UN resolutions, settlements, terrorist attacks, war, occupation, checkered kuffiyehs and suicide bombers, a seemingly endless cycle of death and destruction. This novel does not shy away from such painful images, but it is first and foremost a powerful human story, following the life of a young girl from her days in the village of al-Tantoura in Palestine up to the dawn of the new century. We participate in events as they unfold, seeing them through the uneducated but sharply intelligent mind of Ruqayya, as she tries to make sense of all that has happened to her and her family. With her, we live her love of her land and of her people; we feel the repeated pain of loss, of diaspora, and of cross-generational misunderstanding; and above all, we come to know her indomitable human spirit. As we read we discover that we have become part of Ruqayya’s family, and her voice will remain with us long after we have closed the book. From The American University in Cairo Press

Note that Radwa Ashour was Egyptian and was married to Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti.

12- Gaza Weddings (2017) by Ibrahim Nasrallah, Trans. by Nancy Roberts, Fiction

Twin sisters Randa and Lamis live in the besieged Gaza Strip. Inseparable to the point that even their mother cannot tell them apart, they grow up surrounded by the random carnage that characterizes life under occupation. Randa, who wants to be a journalist, writes to record the devastation around her, taking pictures of martyred children. Meanwhile, their beloved neighbor Amna quietly converses with all those she has lost, as she plans the wedding of Lamis and her son Saleh. With their menfolk almost entirely absent, it is the women who take center stage in this poignant novel of resilience, determination, and living against the odds. From The American University in Cairo Press

13- Where the Bird Disappeared (2018) by Ghassan Zaqtan, Trans. by Samuel Wilder, Fiction

Winner of the 2019 Palestine Book Awards Translation Prize.

This lyrical novel, set in the surroundings of the Palestinian village of Zakariyya, weaves a narrative rich in sensory detail yet troubled by the porousness of memory. It tells the story of the relationship between two figures of deep mythical resonance in the region, Yahya and Zakariyya, figures who live in the present but bear the names—and many traits—of two saints. Ranging from today back to pre-1948 Palestine, the book presents both a compelling portrait of a contemporary village and a sacred geography that lies beyond and beneath the present state of the world. Sensual, rich in allusion, yet at the same time focused on the struggles of today, Where the Bird Disappeared is a powerful novel of both connection and dispossession. From Seagull Books

14- Palestine as Metaphor (2019), Interviews with Mahmoud Darwish, Non-fiction

First English publication of interviews with the late Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of Palestine.

Palestine as Metaphor consists of a series of interviews with Mahmoud Darwish, which have never appeared in English before. The interviews are a wealth of information on the poet’s personal life, his relationships, his numerous works, and his tragedy. They illuminate Darwish’s conception of poetry as a supreme art that transcends time and place. Several writers and journalists conducted the interviews, including a Lebanese poet, a Syrian literary critic, three Palestinian writers, and an Israeli journalist. Each encounter took place in a different city from Nicosia to London, Paris, and Amman. These vivid dialogues unravel the threads of a rich life haunted by the loss of Palestine and illuminate the genius and the distress of a major world poet. From Interlink Books

15- Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (2003; 2013) by Mahmoud Darwish, Poetry

This edition houses Darwish’s selected poems translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forcé with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein. In 2001, they write in their introduction that “it is our hope that this volume […] will extend his readership in the English-speaking world in this time of calamity in the poet’s homeland.”

16- You Exist Too Much (2020) by Zaina Arafat, Fiction

Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much is one of my favorite debuts. It follows the curious trajectory of an unnamed queer Palestinian American woman who crosses and straddles cultural, social, religious, and sexual boundaries. As the narrator moves back and forth through time, telling her story in vignettes, we learn about the root of her destructive relationship(s) with herself and others. You Exist Too Much not only deals with the challenges of having a hyphenated, queer identity but it also delves deep into how such difficulties affect one’s mental health as well as emotional and physical well-being.

17- Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine (2014) Ed. by Refaat Alareer, Fiction/NF

This collection of short stories has been on my list for a long time. I can’t provide a review yet, but we will take Susan Abulhawa’s word for it:

“The raw humanity, tenderness, and defiance in this collection of short stories by young Palestinians in Gaza stands as a testament to the resilience, moral fortitude, and beauty of oppressed and violated people everywhere. The writers are barely in their twenties and though their lives echo of bombs, bullets, and Israel’s intentional programs to dismantle them, their stories teach us what it means to have an unconquered spirit and unbroken will. These are the next generation of Palestinian writers and intellectuals. We should all nurture their voices, lift them up, and read their stories then pass them on.” Susan Abulhawa, Author, My Voice Sought the Wind and Mornings in Jenin

18-Baddawi (2015) by Leila Abdelrazaq, Graphic Novel

Baddawi is the story of a young boy named Ahmad struggling to find his place in the world. Raised in a refugee camp called Baddawi in northern Lebanon, Ahmad is just one of the many thousands of refugee children born to Palestinians who fled their homeland after the war in 1948 established the state of Israel. In this visually arresting graphic novel, Leila Abdelrazaq explores her father’s childhood in the 1960s and ’70s from a boy’s eye view as he witnesses the world crumbling around him and attempts to carry on, forging his own path in the midst of terrible uncertainty. Since its publication in 2015, Baddawi has been translated into Korean (Hudd Books, Seoul, 2016), Arabic (Kalimat Group, Sharjah, 2017), and French (Steinkis Editions, Paris, 2018). Baddawi was also shortlisted for the 2015 Palestine Book Award. From Just World Books

19-White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine (2017) by Mohammad Sabaaneh, Illustration

Mohammad Sabaaneh, a talented political cartoonist from Palestine, has gained worldwide renown for his stark black-and-white sketches, which draw attention to brutalities of the Israeli occupation and celebrate the Palestinians’ popular resistance. These provocative drawings do not flinch from tackling the tough subjects that confront Palestinians, from Israel’s everyday injustices in the West Bank to their frequent military operations on Gaza. This collection includes 180 of Sabaaneh’s best cartoons, some of them depicting the experience of Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israel.

In his Foreword, titled “Sabaaneh’s Social Surrealism”, veteran American political cartoonist Seth Tobocman notes the influence of Picasso and Braque on Sabaaneh’s work, and asks: “Can there be an accurate depiction of an insane situation? Why should we draw in perspective when the world has lost its perspective? When reality becomes bizarre social realism gives way to social surrealism.” From Just World Books

20-Touch (2020) by Adania Shibli, Trans. by Paula Haydar, Fiction

Touch centers on a girl, the youngest of nine sisters in a Palestinian family. In the singular world of this novella, this young woman’s everyday experiences resonate until they have become as weighty as any national tragedy. The smallest sensations compel, the events of history only lurk at the edges-the question of Palestine, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. In a language that feels at once natural and alienated, Shibli breaks with the traditions of modern Arabic fiction, creating a work that has been and will continue to be hailed across literatures. Here every ordinary word, ordinary action is a small stone dropped into water: of inevitable consequence. We find ourselves mesmerized one quiet ripple at a time. From Interlink Books

21-Exhausted on the Cross (2021) by Najwan Darwish, Trans. by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Poetry

“We drag histories behind us,” the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish writes in Exhausted on the Cross, “here / where there’s neither land / nor sky.” In pared-down lines, brilliantly translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Darwish records what Raúl Zurita describes as “something immemorial, almost unspeakable”—a poetry driven by a “moral imperative” to be a “colossal record of violence and, at the same time, the no less colossal record of compassion.” Darwish’s poems cross histories, cultures, and geographies, taking us from the grime of modern-day Shatila and the opulence of medieval Baghdad to the gardens of Samarkand and the open-air prison of present-day Gaza. We join the Persian poet Hafez in the conquered city of Shiraz and converse with the Prophet Mohammad in Medina. Poem after poem evokes the humor in the face of despair, the hope in the face of nightmare. From NYRB Poets

22-Rifqa (Release Date: Oct. 2021) by Mohammed El-Kurd, Poetry

If you’ve been following the latest surge of Israeli violence in Palestine on the news and/or on social media, you may already be familiar with Mohammed El-Kurd who has been actively reporting on the developments. And his debut collection of poetry is coming out in October this year. Here’s the synopsis from Haymarket Books:

In Rifqa, El-Kurd tightropes between statelessness and uncertainty, still one thing remains clear: “Jerusalem is ours! / The biggest punchline of all time.”

Rifqa is Mohammed El-Kurd’s debut collection of poetry, written in the tradition of Ghassan Kanafani’s Palestinian Resistance Literature. The book narrates the author’s own experience of dispossession in Sheikh Jarrah–an infamous neighborhood in Jerusalem, Palestine, whose population of refugees continues to live on the brink of homelessness at the hands of the Israeli government and US-based settler organizations. The book, named after the author’s late grandmother who was forced to flee from Haifa upon the genocidal establishment of Israel, makes the observation that home takeovers and demolitions across historical Palestine are not reminiscent of 1948 Nakba, but are in fact a continuation of it: a legalized, ideologically-driven practice of ethnic cleansing.

23- The Book of Ramallah (2021) Ed. by Maya Abu Al-Hayat, Fiction

The Book of Ramallah, a collection of stories, came out in March this year. Here’s the synopsis from Comma Press:

A coffee seller waits all day for one of his customers to ask him how he is, until eventually he just tells the city itself…A teenager is ordered off a bus at a checkpoint and told he must kiss a complete stranger if he wants the bus to be let through… A woman pilgrimages to the Cave of the Prophets, to pray for rain for her tiny patch of land, knowing it will take more than water to save it…

Unlike most other Palestinian cities, Ramallah is a relatively new town, a de facto capital of the West Bank allowed to thrive after the Oslo Peace Accords, but just as quickly hemmed in and suffocated by the Occupation as the Accords have failed. Perched along the top of a mountainous ridge, it plays host to many contradictions: traditional Palestinian architecture jostling against aspirational developments and cultural initiatives, a thriving nightlife in one district, with much more conservative, religious attitudes in the next. Most striking however – as these stories show – is the quiet dignity, resilience and humour of its people; citizens who take their lives into their hands every time they travel from one place to the next, who continue to live through countless sieges, and yet still find the time, and resourcefulness, to create.

24- Born Palestinian, Born Black & the Gaza Suite (1996; 2010) by Suheir Hammad, Poetry

Suheir Hammad’s poetry collection was first published in 1996; the 2010 edition includes a preface by Hammad, new poems, under the heading, “The Gaza Suite,” as well as a new publisher’s note by Zohra Saed, an introduction by Marco Villalobos, and an afterword by Kazim Ali. I haven’t read the updated edition yet and cannot wait to!

25- Salt Houses (2017) by Hala Alyan, Fiction

Alyan’s 2017 novel follows a Palestinian family as they are compelled to leave their home behind.

Salt Houses is a piercingly elegant novel that registers Palestine with deep resonance for what it is: a once beloved home, known, lost, and re-imagined into life. A place where families decide between security and happiness, religion and heritage, where war is constant, yet peace is found. In the exquisite prose of a poet, Hala Alyan shows how we carry our origins in our hearts wherever we may roam, and how that history is calibrated by the places we choose to put down roots. This is a book with the power to both break and mend your heart.” Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane

26-Where the Streets Had a Name (2010) by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Fiction

Another wonderful book that I haven’t read yet but is on my list. Here’s a brief review from Kirkus:

As she did in Does My Head Look Big in This? (2007) and Ten Things I Hate About Me (2009), Abdel-Fattah introduces a bright, articulate Muslim heroine coping with contemporary life, this time during the West Bank Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2004. After the Israelis confiscate and demolish their home, 13-year-old Hayaat and her Palestinian family endure curfews, checkpoints and concrete walls, exiled in a cramped apartment in Bethlehem. Hayaat’s father silently mourns his lost olive groves, while her grandmother longs for the Jerusalem home her family abandoned in 1948. With her face scarred by shattered glass, Hayaat wears her own reminder of the occupation. Determined to retrieve some Jerusalem soil for her ailing grandmother, Hayaat and her Christian pal, Samy, secretly embark on a short but harrowing mission into forbidden territory. Hayaat chronicles this life-altering journey in the first-person, present tense, giving readers an intimate glimpse into the life of her warm, eccentric Muslim family, who survive despite the volatile political environment. A refreshing and hopeful teen perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma. 

27-I Saw Ramallah (1997; 2003) by Mourid Barghouti, Trans. by Ahdaf Soueif, Non-fiction/Memoir

I don’t even know where to begin with Barghouti’s memoir. Since its publication,I Saw Ramallah has become one of the most important return narratives that demonstrates the struggles of Palestinians. 

Barred from his homeland after 1967’s Six-Day War, the poet Mourid Barghouti spent thirty years in exile—shuttling among the world’s cities, yet secure in none of them; separated from his family for years at a time; never certain whether he was a visitor, a refugee, a citizen, or a guest. As he returns home for the first time since the Israeli occupation, Barghouti crosses a wooden bridge over the Jordan River into Ramallah and is unable to recognize the city of his youth. Sifting through memories of the old Palestine as they come up against what he now encounters in this mere “idea of Palestine,” he discovers what it means to be deprived not only of a homeland but of “the habitual place and status of a person.” A tour de force of memory and reflection, lamentation and resilience, I Saw Ramallah is a deeply humane book, essential to any balanced understanding of today’s Middle East.From Anchor

28-Men in the Sun (1963;1998) by Ghassan Kanafani, Fiction

Kanafani’s collection of stories is another must-read when it comes to Palestinian narratives. The novella Men in the Sun, as well as the rest of the stories in this edition reflects the geopolitical tensions that escalated in the 60s. Kanafani himself had to escape Palestine in 1948, emigrating to Damascus, Kuwait and later to Beirut. As a life-long refugee and an activist, he knew too well the struggle of Palestinians which is the central theme in Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa (1969).

29- Out of Place (1999; 2000) by Edward Said, Non-fiction/Memoir

If you haven’t read Edward Said’s memoir yet, please go ahead and do it. You will not regret it. I promise. 

From one of the most important intellectuals of our time comes an extraordinary story of exile and a celebration of an irrecoverable past. A fatal medical diagnosis in 1991 convinced Edward Said that he should leave a record of where he was born and spent his childhood, and so with this memoir he rediscovers the lost Arab world of his early years in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Said writes with great passion and wit about his family and his friends from his birthplace in Jerusalem, schools in Cairo, and summers in the mountains above Beirut, to boarding school and college in the United States, revealing an unimaginable world of rich, colorful characters and exotic eastern landscapes. Underscoring all is the confusion of identity the young Said experienced as he came to terms with the dissonance of being an American citizen, a Christian and a Palestinian, and, ultimately, an outsider. Richly detailed, moving, often profound, Out of Place depicts a young man’s coming of age and the genesis of a great modern thinker. From Vintage

30- Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood (2007) & Balcony on the Moon (2018) by Ibtisam Barakat, Non-fiction/Memoir

I was introduced to Ibtisam Barakat when I was browsing the shelves of our local bookshop in Columbia, Missouri; I later found out that she’d studied journalism at the University of Missouri and lives in Columbia. Although I’ve never gotten the chance to meet her, I read her memoirs both of which are moving and written beautifully.

Picking up where Ibtisam Barakat’s first memoir, Tasting the Sky, left off, Balcony on the Moon follows her through her childhood and adolescence in Palestine from 1972-1981 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. This memoir about pursuing dreams in the face of adversity chronicles Ibitsam’s desire to be a writer and shows how she finds inspiration through writing letters to pen pals and from an adult who encourages her to keep at it. But the most surprising turn of all for Ibtisam happens when her mother decides that she would like to seek out an education, too. Enlightening and at times funny, Balcony on the Moon is a not often depicted look at daily life in a politically tumultuous region. From Farrar, Straus and Giroux

31-Olive Harvest in Palestine: A Story of Childhood Memories (2019) by Wafa Shami, Children’s Books

A story about the harvest traditions that have been shared among Palestinian farmers for centuries. The story takes the reader’s imagination on a journey, starting from how the olives are picked, through how they are pressed into oil, bottled and finally arrive in the consumer’s hands. Along the way the reader shares in this festive working atmosphere filled with singing, eating, love and laughter portrayed from the eyes of a child. From R.R Bowker

32- The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary (2015) by Atef Abu Saif, Non-fiction/Memoir

Marcello Di Cintio, author of Pay No Heed to the Rockets, writes:

“ ‘I am not reporting on the war,’ ” Seif told me when we spoke in 2015. ‘I am writing from the perspective of a family. A family that is being besieged and being attacked…. Things happen out of their control and they want to being order to their little world.’ The Drone Eats With Me recounts Abu Saif’s experience of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza […] and is intimate, humane, and intensely personal.

33-Jasmine Falling (2015) by Shereen Malherbe, Fiction

I was introduced to writer Shereen Malherbe through Instagram, or rather, “bookstagram” which I call the best corner of the internet. Jasmine Falling has been on my TBR list since then. Here’s the synopsis: 

When Jasmine’s mother dies inside their English mansion, hope comes in the form of her multi-million pound inheritance. But with her inheritance threatened, Jasmine is left to contemplate a future she does not know how to live. Jasmine has only ten days to uncover the circumstances of her father’s decade long disappearance before her fortune is lost forever. Forced to return to his homeland in Palestine, she follows his footsteps through stories long ingrained in the local’s minds. She is helped on her journey by a mysterious stranger who guides her through the trails of the Holy Land to the scattered broken villages each harbouring its own secrets.

Under the watchful eyes of the ever-encroaching Occupation, Jasmine must piece together her history in the broken land, before it destroys her future. From Beacon Books

34- Everything Comes Next (2020) by Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry

Beloved and acclaimed poet Naomi Shihab Nye is the current Young People’s Poet Laureate, serving until August 2021. This celebratory book collects in one volume her most popular and accessible poems from the past forty years.

Featuring new, never-before-published poems, an introduction by bestselling poet and author Edward Hirsch, as well as a foreword and writing tips by the poet, and stunning artwork by bestselling artist Rafael López, Everything Comes Next is essential for poetry readers, classroom teachers, and library collections.

Everything Comes Next is a treasure chest of Naomi Shihab Nye’s most beloved poems. From favorites such as “Famous” and “A Valentine for Ernest Mann,” to the widely shared “Kindness” and “Gate A-4,” this collection celebrates her term as Young People’s Poet Laureate. The book is an introduction to the poet’s work for new readers as well as a comprehensive edition for classroom and family sharing. Writing prompts and tips by the award-winning poet make this an outstanding choice for aspiring poets of all ages. From Greenwillow Books

35- Jaffa Prepares Morning Coffee (2012) by Anwar Hamed, Fiction

In Jaffa Prepares Morning Coffee which was nominated for The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2013, Palestinian writer Anwar Hamed explores the quotidian details in the lives of Palestinians before the Nakba, the 1948 Palestinian exodus. I’m not sure if there’s a translation in progress, but an English translation isn’t available at the moment. If you read in Arabic, I’m already envious of you! If you can’t read in Arabic like me, you can find his writing in a collection of short stories Palestine +100: Stories from a century after the Nakba published in 2019.

Here’s a brief review of Jaffa from arabfiction.org:

The events of the novel take place in the Palestinian city of Jaffa and the nearby village of Bait Dajan in the 1940s. Unlike many other novels set in this period, Jaffa Prepares Morning Coffee does not describe the flight of exiles and refugee camps but markets, Turkish baths, family outings to the shore of Lake Tiberias and late night socialising. Preparations for war and the sound of bullets flying do not dominate the atmosphere. Rather, the focus is on ordinary details and customs of daily life in the city and the country: staying up late during Ramadan, social visits paid at Christmas and wedding traditions. The characters are feudal lords and peasants, illiterate people and graduates of the best universities, Muslims, Christians and Jews. The reader meets both intellectuals and thugs, women whose life is spent in the kitchen and girls wanting to fly high. It portrays a lifestyle, long forgotten but revived from memories cherished by old men and women interviewed by the author. The sleeping Jaffa has just woken up and prepared morning coffee. 


I know that there are many, many more to add to this list; I’ve been working on it for a week now and would love to add any other titles/names. Please share your favorites, books on your TBR list, any Palestinian writers that need to be translated into English–I’d love to hear from you!

In solidarity,

Neriman

2 thoughts on “The Power of Narrative & Why Edward Said Would Be Proud: 35 Palestinian Narratives to Read

  1. Hello Neri, Wow! Really, just wow! This is an amazing post, almost a syllabus for a two-semester course. My initial reaction was that you should publish this far and wide. I don’t know if you are in touch with Andy Hoberek, but he might be able to advise you as to how to expand your audience. Although you might be fine with the resources you already have. I also really appreciated your end-of-the-year list, in part because it was a small number (3? 5?) in contrast to most such lists which are overwhelming. But I am always falling behind in my reading, and The Moor’s Lament, which you inspired me to buy, stands on my shelf looking down on me and telling me to get at the job.

    I hope you are well over there! Over here, the straining Covid semester is done, and for the most part things are getting back to normal. No international travel for me this summer, which is hard to take, but I’ll visit domestically and do OK. Daughter number one, the Country Mouse (if you know that fable) is in Colorado, and number two, the City Mouse, is in Brooklyn, and I’m spending a week at each place.

    I really appreciate this return to Said and the introduction to so many Palestinian writers. I’ll never finish this list, but I pledge to spend time in some of the books you describe.

    Keep it up, Neri! Bill

    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Bill, it’s so nice to hear from you–thanks for the note! It’s funny you say that this looks like a syllabus for a two-semester course; I was initially thinking about preparing a “mock” syllabus for a course on Palestine narratives (which I would absolutely teach if I was teaching literature at the moment), but I thought I’d start with a list of books that need attention. I usually offer a few books on these lists, but I wanted to put all the literary resources out there for this one in case people are preparing syllabi or need narratives to delve deeper into what’s going on in Palestine.

      I would love for this post to reach a wider audience because some still think this is a complex issue. I also have an Instagram page @readingundertheolivetree that I created to reach a wider audience, but Instagram usually cannot take longer pieces/articles such as this one since people are more interested in “bite-size” posts. Anyways, I’m glad to hear all is well–I do see that things are getting back to normal on campus and in the States, and I’m envious. Our campus will probably open next Fall, but I’m teaching online in the Summer, since my age group (and students) still haven’t gotten our shots. I am “a City Mouse” like your daughter number two so I’ll be spending most of my time in Istanbul 🙂 I hope you enjoy your travels–although I’m a city mouse I LOVED Colorado and would love to live there. Take care, and hope to catch up soon!

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