“Being There, Being Here: Palestinian Writings in the World”

15 May, 2022
“The Patience Matured,” Fouad Agbaria, 2016 oil on can­vas, 160 x 120cm.


Being There, Being Here: Pales­tin­ian Writ­ings in the World, by Mau­rice Ebileeni
Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press (2022)
ISBN 9780815637653


Brett Kline


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.

Being There, Being Here is pub­lished by Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

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.


diaspora writersHaifaPalestinian identityPalestinian literatureRamallah

Brett Kline is a long-time journalist who has worked in print, online, radio and television media. Originally a New Yorker, he has lived in Paris for the past three decades, and visited Israel/Palestine dozens of times, closely involved with people on both sides of the Green Line. While a full-time bilingual reporter at France Télévisions, he has published articles in Haaretz, The Times of Israel, Globes and the Jerusalem Post. His passion for his friends in Israel/Palestine has been intensely personal, full of hope and disappointment, silence and a whirlwind of words.