Over the last month, many of us have been consumed by the news cycles related to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. If we read about the events only through reportage and analysis, we sometimes start relating to the people behind the news as just numbers or statistics. At times like these, it is literature that allows us to connect with people in all of their humanity. It is through fiction that we are able to see the Palestinian people not just as a nation that has suffered immense tragedy and injustice, but as ordinary people whose stories also contain humour, love and romance, and the mundane minutiae of everyday life that renders them relatable and universal.
I wanted to share a few of my favourite books by Palestinian authors that have moved me with the sheer brilliance of their storytelling.
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa is a beautifully written multi-generational saga of a Palestinian family. What makes the fictional narrative so powerful is that it is almost entirely based on real events over a period of 50 years.
While parts of the book are heart-wrenching, it is so much more than that. Mornings in Jenin makes you ponder what it means to call a place home and to experience life in extremes: great loss and, its inverse, great love.
In the Foreword to the collection, author Adania Shibli wrote her reaction to reading one of Azzam’s stories, “The text engraved in my soul a deep yearning for all that had been, including the normal, the banal and the tragic, to such an extent that I could no longer accept the marginalized, minor life to which we’ve been exiled since 1948, when our existence turned into a ‘problem’”.
Adania Shibli’s novel begins in 1949, based on a true story, when Israeli soldiers murder an encampment of Bedouin in the Negev desert, and capture a Palestinian young woman who they rape, kill and bury in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah discovers that the murder happened 25 years ago on the same day as her birthday. She becomes obsessed with this ‘minor detail’. Shibli masterfully layers the two narratives showing how the present is haunted by the past.
Opening against the backdrop of the First World War, The Parisian by Isabella Hammad is a historical epic of a young Palestinian man Midhat Kamal who goes to France to study medicine. As the years pass, Midhat’s personal stories of love, loss and betrayal are interconnected with the geopolitics of his time: the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Palestinian struggle for independence from the British Mandate, and the looming shadow of the Second World War.
I have never read anything as brave as this memoir by Ahed Tamimi, who was only sixteen when she was jailed for confronting an Israeli soldier following the killing of her cousin. Her activism, however, started at a much younger age with peaceful protests with people from her village Nabi Saleh when Israeli settlers encroached upon their village’s fresh water well. Her family, including both her parents, were routinely brutalised and taken to jails.
What I loved about this memoir, written beautifully by journalist Dena Takruri, was seeing Ahed for the first time as the young girl she was: with a sense of humour, interested in music and novels, and a longing to just be able to go to the beach with her family without permits or curfews. Unfortunately at the time of writing, Ahed is back in jail on charges of inciting violence as the situation in the West Bank has become dire in recent weeks.
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