Being There, Being Here: Palestinian Writings in the World, by Maurice Ebileeni
Syracuse University Press (2022)
In a comparative study of works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by writers who identify as Palestinian, Maurice Ebileeni argues that this cultural and linguistic identity must include authors and academics of a multitude of diaspora origins, born and raised outside of historic Palestine.
The parents or grandparents of these writers were forced to flee the region by the soldiers and politics of then nascent Israel in the 1947–48 war, and many fled the war before it arrived at their doorsteps, in what the Arab world has since called the Nakba (the catastrophe). Others left earlier, during the British Mandate period or even the Ottoman Empire, or later, and so these authors grew up writing in other languages, be it English, Spanish, Italian or Danish, while the descendants of Palestinians who remained in what became Israel wrote in Arabic or Hebrew.
In fact, when the reader considers the authors of Palestinian origin whose work is examined in Being There, Being Here, it is apparent that those who do not write in Arabic, especially Anglophones, far outnumber those who do, with the possible exception of poets. This is what Ebileeni calls the “polylingual framework” of Palestinian identity.
The “cultural diversification” of Palestinian identity is largely what Ebileeni is after here, and it is, anthropologically, a fascinating if unsurprising development, as so many Palestinians have been exiled from their family’s country. Just as English ceased to be the language only of the British and the Americans and the Australians and New Zealanders, but a world language, Palestinians, by becoming citizens of other nations and writing in a language other than Arabic (or Hebrew in rarer cases), are becoming more universal. Could this be a good thing for the Palestinian culture, making it impossible for Israel to completely marginalize it? If Palestinian writers are getting books published in English, French, Danish, German, Spanish and other languages, doesn’t that reinforce Palestinian identity?
An all-important component of the scripted narrative of this identity is “el awdah” — the return to the homeland. But for Ebileeni, it is the narrative of an identity without borders.
The narrative, Ebileeni writes, “certainly stores passions of allegiance and delineates the sense of a distinct moral being across borders, but owing to the appearance of linguistically distinct Palestinian writers around the globe, its monolingual character does not adequately encompass…literary and cultural productions…of both the diaspora and the homeland. The long-term implications of displacement overflow the edges of this curricular national framework and necessitate the creation of new spaces to expand the scope of Palestinian literature and cultural production.”
In other words, the on-going cultural diversification of what is often a shared, scripted identity needs that polylingual framework. While fascinating for the literati, Ebileeni’s study can be a tough read for the lay reader, including myself, a journalist based in Paris with a certain amount of experience working in Palestine and in Israel. But it is well worth the effort.
Maurice Ebileeni himself was born in Copenhagen of Palestinian parents from what is now the prosperous Israeli northern Galilee town of Tarshiha, linked by administration to Ma’alot, close to the Lebanese border. He writes that he grew up a Dane loving all things Danish, but also vacationed with family in Tarshiha every summer. He studied in Israel and married a girl from Tarshiha, and moved there, his home now for decades. He teaches in the department of English language and literature at the University of Haifa. Ebileeni is in effect Palestinian, Danish and Israeli, regardless of his passports. This is a privileged position in academic, cultural and political arenas. The Israeli government does not accord all foreign-born Palestinians the right to live in Israel, even when they are married to a so-called “local girl” and come from a friendly western European or North American country. He never mentions this, but it might have something to do with him being from a Christian family.
Who are these authors who are at once considered American, British, Chilean, Danish and also Palestinian, according to Elibeeni? The list is long. I think it is more easily read as a list than put in paragraph form, as Ebileeni himself does.
- Suheir Hammad—poet (Brooklyn, USA): Born Palestinian, Born Black 1996, Breaking Poems 2009
- Mazen Maarouf—poet (Iceland): Our Grief Resembles Bread 2000
- Rula Jebreal—novelist and journalist (Italy): Miral 2009
- Randa Abdel—Fattah (Australia): Does My Head Look Big In This 2005
- Randa Jarrar—novelist (USA): A Map of Home 2008, Him, Me, Muhamad Ali: Stories 2016, Love is an Ex-Country 2021
- Susan Abulhawa—novelist (USA): Mornings In Jenin, The Blue Between Sky and Water 2015 Against the Loveless World 2021
- Lena Mahmoud—novelist (USA): Amreekiya 2018
- Etaf Rum—novelist (USA): A Woman is No Man 2019
- Susan Muaddi Darraj—fiction writer (USA): The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly 2007, A Curious Land: Stories from Home 2015
- Hala Alyan—novelist and poet (USA): Salt Houses 2017
- Nathalie Handal—poet (France-USA): La Estrella Invisible 2012
- Selma Dabbagh—novelist (Great Britain): Out of It 2012
- Isabella Hammad—novelist (Great Britain): The Parisian 2019
- Rodrigo Hasbún—novelist (Bolivia): El Lugar del Cuerpo 2012, Los Affectos 2015
- Lina Meruane—essayist and novelist (Chile): Volverse Palestina 2014
Then there are authors Yahya Hassan, Ahmad Mahmoud and Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, all from Denmark. The reader does not learn much about them from this study. strangely enough, considering Ebileeni is himself from Denmark.
And of course, there are Palestinian authors from Israel: Sayed Kashua (now in the USA), Anton Shammas (many years in the USA), khulud khamis [sic], a feminist from Haifa of half Slovakian origin, and Ayman Sikseck. The most well known is Kashua, a star editorialist at Haaretz. He writes in Hebrew, but are his novels — Dancing Arabs 2002, Let It Be Morning 2005, Second Person Singular 2010 and Track Changes 2017 — examples of Israeli or Palestinian literature? Ebileeni notes that that the work of Kashua and Anton Shammas “interrelatedly belong in both the Israeli and Palestinian canons.”
Anton Shammas wrote his acclaimed 1986 memoir-novel Arabesques in Hebrew, though by now after decades teaching in the States, he writes in English. So today, he is Palestinian, Israeli and American. I think the same could be said about the other authors discussed here. They are at once Palestinian and American, British, Danish or Chilean.
Not surprisingly, the most numerous productions of what Ebileeni calls the “polylingual framework” of Palestinian literature are in English. Well-known American author Susan Abulhawa follows the national script of displacement. In Mornings in Jenin, her Americanized daughter Susan “remains deeply endeared by their parents’ tragic heritage…never allowed to break free.” She says “Mom, I’m going to Palestine. I want you to come too…I want to know who I am.”
In Let It Be Morning, Sayed Kashua’s character returns to the village of Tira after years spent in the totally Jewish Israeli environment of Tel Aviv. Ebileeni writes, “although Albuhawa’s and Kashua’s statuses as Palestinian authors differ — one in exile while the other is a citizen of Israel (but today lives in self-imposed exile in the States) — they, nonetheless, represent quintessential Palestinian positions.”
In another chapter entitled “Sexual Politics and Nationhood,” Ebileeni begins with a fictional and iconic exchange between two Palestinian men at a political event. The cynic tells the activist against the Israel establishment, “You want to liberate the homeland? Go liberate your sister’s cunt first.”
The cynic’s statement is universally recognizable in Arabic,: “Badak itharer watan? Harer kos oktak bil-awal.”
“The Palestinian national call…is rooted in nostalgic sentiments over a lost pastoral past…socially conservative agendas, supporting the male centered tenor of the national script, while marginalizing progressive ones, particularly in relation to women,” Ebileeni writes.
Having personally witnessed this patriarchal domination in modern Palestinian society and the emotional, intellectual and physical crushing of single women, wives and daughters, and its consequences, in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, among other places, I would call this quote an understatement. Ebileeni continues: “The national script definitely cancels out ideas of sexual liberation; ‘monster Palestine’ cannot tolerate the sexualized Palestinian woman.”
The term “monster Palestine” comes from a rare female author writing in Arabic, 81-year-old Sahar Khalifeh from Nablus in her 1994 novel Bab el Saha, which Ebileeni translates as The Door of the Courtyard, elsewhere called Passage to the Plaza. Her 27-year-old protagonist Hazha is a prostitute. Ms. Khalifeh has been a women’s activist over the course of her 11 novels and related activities.
The large numbers of dynamic women among the polylingual authors in the global Palestinian diaspora is a strong contrast to their paucity in Palestine, with welcome exceptions such as Khalifeh.
Literary activity within the confines of the West Bank, where residents are forced to juggle between an often violent Israeli occupation by soldiers and settlers, and an inept, corrupt and unpopular Palestinian Authority, is probably limited. This is not dealt with in Being There Being Here. In Gaza, an increasingly impoverished population has been crushed by Israeli and Egyptian border restrictions, and by the corrupt and militant Hamas government. Their literary achievements are not discussed here, although Ebileeni might have mentioned the talented young poet, Mosab Abu Toha, who is making a strong literary debut with Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza (City Lights 2022), which he wrote in English.
The question should be asked, aside from poetry, how many literary works are published in the Arab world, subject to censorship by often military or Islamic dictatorships, or simply corrupt rulers such as the increasingly unpopular Palestinian Authority.
There are some exceptions, but the examples can be confusing. The theme of “el awdaah,” the return, is obviously a major component of the national script in diaspora Palestinian literature, as the author explains so well, but also in memoirs. These include I Saw Ramallah by distinguished poet Mourid Barghouti, born in Deir Ghassanah next to Ramallah in 1944, died in Amman in 2021.
Barghouti writes: “It is over. The long Occupation (the existence of Israel) that created Israeli generations born in Israel and not knowing another ‘homeland’ created at the same time generations of Palestinians strange to Palestine, born in exile and not knowing anything of the homeland except stories and news…The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”
And as a first generation exiled Palestinian in 1967, who was then also exiled from Egypt, Barghouti is part of a disappearing native-born diaspora. He wrote in Arabic, not English, Spanish or Hebrew.
In stating that diaspora writers should be considered Palestinian and at the same time British, American, Italian or Israeli, Ebileeni mentions prize-winning Francophone writers Tahar Ben Jelloun from Tunisia and Amin Maalouf from Lebanon, who are both French nationals and distinguished literati.
The point is that they do not write in Arabic. He does not mention Yasmina Khadra, the Algerian army officer and author of many novels…in French. The academic from Essaouira, Morocco, Hamza Ben Dris Ottmani, author of Mogador, Cité sous les Alizées, writes in French, not Arabic. And above all, there is Raja Shehadeh, acclaimed lawyer and peace activist from Ramallah and London, who wrote Palestinian Walks and other non-fiction works, in English, not Arabic.
This is a question that Ebileeni does not really delve into. But I believe that local society along Route 60 in the West Bank can profit by examples of progressive change from western Palestinian literary figures, though I wonder how much of this work exists in Arabic translation. And I am sure that Maurice Ebileeni, a Danish, Palestinian, Israeli university academic in Haifa on the Israeli side of the Green Line, knows this.
He concludes his study by wondering what a Palestine gaining independence in 2048 would look like. He muses, let’s say it is a democracy. It would bring together all the different branches of global Palestinian societies, in which westerners would have a reduced role compared to the West Bank and Gaza locals.
And here, Ebileeni’s political analysis does not meet his high-level literary and academic standards. In my humble opinion, he is wrong — dead wrong. Given ongoing tendencies in the Arab world, including in the West Bank and Gaza, the consensus among many I’ve spoken with is that it would be all out civil war between more secular, western-influenced forces and radical Islamic fundamentalists linked to the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad or even to Daesh. And if they took power, very quickly the Islamic radicals would most likely burn all the important and often intense literature and nonfiction produced by diaspora Palestinians, whom Ebileeni has so brilliantly showcased in Being There, Being Here.