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Time of White Horses – Ibrahim Nasrallah
Better find a comfy reading spot, cause this option is a thick one!
Long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, Time of White Horses has been hailed as *the* national epic, the story that started all stories.
Its 700-some pages (now available in paperback from AUC press, thank goodness) will bring you to a village in the Galilee during the late Ottoman period, where you will meet Khalid and his family, a prominent local family in the imaginary and prototypical Palestinian village of Hadiyeh. The father and sons of the family are pillars of the community, who are at once practical but etherial.
Full of equal part myth and history, the story follows as the family and their village welcome an early European church onto village lands, challenge the Ottoman tax system, work to oust the oppressive British, and then watch as administrative and imperial policy strips villagers of their self-determination. The novel ends, as it must, with the villagers of Hadiyeh on the roadside, their homes in ruins, their fields up in flames, waiting for Red Cross trucks to bring them to the safety of new refugee camps that have sprung up where the wild anemones once grew.
A complex historical and anti-historical novel, Time of White Horses plays with genre and style, including in its pages footnotes of the stunning poetry of a hated British officer, oral testimony about the Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes i 1947-8), and recollections of elders of what it used to be like in a lost Palestine.
Men in the Sun – Ghassan Kanafani
Prepare for a long journey across the desert of exile.
One of the best-known works of Palestinian fiction, Men in the Sun (written in 1962) has five main characters. It follows the journey of four men, all refugees, who have left their camps in Jordan and Lebanon seeking employment in the wake of dispossession from their land. The fourth, also a refugee, has already found work as a driver and weapons runner for a wealthy Arab. Together, they agree to travel in the driver’s water tanker across the desert toward the Persian Gulf where they hoped to work in the oil industry.
Being refugees in 1958 when the story is set, they have no travel documents and passage to the Gulf was illegal for them. They agree to hide inside the belly of the water tanker as they pass the border points on the journey. It is the height of August and the dessert sizzles. This is where the fifth character is introduced: the sun.
“The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin. The sun hung high above their heads, round, blazing, and blindingly bright. None of them bothered to dry their sweat any longer. Assad spread his shirt over his head, bent his legs, and let the sun roast him without resistance,” says the passage of the work where the sun emerges from its role as a secondary character into its role of protagonist at whose mercy the travellers find themselves.
The rest of the book, replete with descriptions so vivid you’ll be sweating, is a battle to the death between the men and the sun, and you’ll have to read the book to know what happens.
We are all Equally Far from Love – Adania Shibly
A departure from the classical cannon, this work from the latest crop of fine Palestinian authors is a story about Palestine in reverse: telling the nation by starting with all of the things you are not supposed to say–especially as a woman.
New on the Palestinian writing scene, the novel is Shibli’s second, and tackles issues of gender, performance, love, family and expectation. In her curtly written collection of interlinked short stories, she looks at the lives of Palestinians who in their intimate portrayals could be anyone in any culture almost globally. Through the privileged gaze of the reader, our omniscient view shows how the social and personal constructions held dear (or not so dear) by the protagonists (and ourselves) prevent them from realizing love.
Shibli tackles romantic love, the love of friends, of family, of community and country, framing her exploration in an unflinching universal specificity. There are no rose-coloured glasses for her characters or their author, and life is portrayed in stark terms, plainly illustrating her well-chosen title, and revealing how we are all kept “equally far from love.”
Return to Haifa – Ghassan Kanafani
While Men in the Sun is the usual choice for readers by Palestine’s best-known author, activist and political writer, Return to Haifa is the most surprising of Kanafani’s works. It follows a Palestinian couple from the seaside city as they return more than a decade after a forced evacuation in 1948. When the state of Israel was declared and the borders sealed, the couple became refugees and were settled outside of their homeland, tragically, without their son.
In the panic of evacuation, the couple’s son was left behind and tides of fleeing residents making their way to the port in fear of their lives prevented either parent from returning to search for the infant until a decade and a half later, when they were granted a short permit to visit. Their apartment was filled by a Jewish couple, who had fled the Holocaust in Europe and were settled where the Palestinians had once lived. The boy they found crying in a cot was adopted and raised as their own, all the time wondering where his birth parents were.
A sensitively written story that examines the questions of blood, land, love and belonging, in a situation that is usually too politically charged for such precision, consideration, and deep thinking. In an age of churn, the topics considered by Kanafani in this book are relevant to all readers, and provoke questions of significance for communities and individuals alike.
Memory for Forgetfulness – Mahmoud Darwish
Mahmoud Darwish, born in the now destroyed village of Birwah in what was then Mandate Palestine, was exiled to Lebanon as a child with his family, which managed to return in the early years of the new State of Israel. Becoming a ‘present absentee’, Darwish lived his displacement mere kilometers from his ancestral home. His budding poetic career veered toward the national which put him under house arrest, and often in Israeli prisons. Frequent curfews during a period of ’emergency military rule’ over Palestinian areas by Israel’s military forces meant exile and enclosure haunted the poet. Exiled to Russia, then Beirut, Darwish found himself in another Palestinian tragedy, having settled in Lebanon’s capital short years before the wars of the camps, and the Lebanese Civil War.
Shut up in his sea-view apartment, this book catalogues and reflects a life under siege, the pain of memory, and a question: what does a victor’s history mean to the defeated? What is the role of poetry in resistance?
A poet by trade, this is Darwish’s longest work of prose and is in fact a short memoir of a few days spend in the Lebanese capital of Beirut during its civil war years at the end of the 1980s. Known as “Palestine’s national poet,” Darwish is renowned for his literary skill, which shines through even in translation. Though focused on only a short series of events, the story captures the realities of “strangeness” or exile, of being in a land that is not the land of one’s birth. Darwish makes real the smell of cardamom coffee as he stirs the pot under shellfire, and conjures forth memories of a mother’s cooking as he recalls the bitter sweetness of nostalgia. In remembering his mother, you remember your own, and the strings that link growing up with the painful process of exile are firmly knotted, embedding both experiences in the tender flesh of human experience.
The work is a premier example of what your writing teacher always told you: write what you know. Darwish’s analysis and portrayal of siege, of curfew, of limitation are so crisp you would will it to continue in order to gain another day’s worth of reflection on the human condition in war, in life, in exile.
Wild Thorns –Sahar Khalifeh
A view of Nablus, from the period immediately after the West Bank was occupied by Israel following the defeat of Arab armies during the six-day-war of June 1967, Wild Thorns tells the story of two cousins from a single prominent Nablus family. Staunch supporters of the Ottoman empire back in the day, the notables of Nablus once had huge sway over life in the city, but with the rapid changes of politics and the social landscape, the former ruling elite played little more than a symbolic role.
The story follows as two cousins try to lead their community in different directions; one to demand workers rights for the Palestinian labourers who now filled Israeli construction sites and factories, and the other working to prevent a trend he saw as normalisation, and to stir the tired labourers to an uprising.
What one saw as the slow destruction of society the other saw as the inevitable process of occupation, and the violent methods preferred by the second with the view of total liberation, the first laments as murderous and a danger to the community that they grew up amidst.
A clear view into two sides of the Palestinian struggle, Wild Thorns represents two men with clear and determined political views that are well fleshed out in the work. Also a mesmerising picture of a difficult period in the life of Nablus, the book is at once a historical fiction, a political allegory, and a work of careful fiction that challenges accepted norms about how one chooses a political stance.
Said the ill-fated Pesspotimist – Imil Habibi
Danger, dark dark satire ahead!
Based loosely on the frame of Voltaire’s Candide, the Pessoptimist follows its antihero Said, a Palestinian who found himself a citizen of Israel one morning after the war of 1948 and the UN recognition of the nascent state. A naïve soul, Said attempts to make friends with everyone, and gets trapped in the middle; he is accused of being a collaborator for Israel by his Palestinian friends and is imprisoned as a terrorist by the new Israeli state. In trying to do everything right he does it all wrong.
The simple approach lets you get deep into the story, and the tragedy of the politics bites swiftly as you find yourself laughing at the darkest of humor. Masterfully written, subtle but sharp, Said quotes Shakespeare and admonishes his neighbors for selling donkey meat at the local shwarma shop, he is Hamlet’s fool, as insightful as he is strange, and the layer of missed Utopia superimposed with the reference to Voltaire makes the work all the more hopeful, and its bitter end more tragic.
Lady from Tel Aviv – Rabai al-Madhoun
[From the publisher]
In the economy class of a plane, the lives of two passengers intersect: Walid, a Palestinian writer, is returning to Gaza for the first time in thirty-eight years; Dana, an Israeli actress, is 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. Walid soon discovers that Gaza has changed beyond all recognition. Yet through the haze of checkpoints and lives lived across borders, he finds a message from Dana that will change the course of his life. The Lady from Tel Aviv is a powerful and poetic story of love, loss and the desire to belong.
The Honey – Zeina Ghandour
A haunting reflection on life in the West Bank, Ghandour’s The Honey uses myth, the voice of a child, the self after death, a well-meaning reporter, to explore the gap between life and what is portrayed in English media.
The short novel is nearly impossible to put down, its velvety prose pulling in readers to a world that goes on forever, long after the pages have run out.
An anthropologist, this is Ghandour’s first and so far only novel, written in an English prose that echoes Arabic rhythms, themes, and ideas; translating more effectively than any work brought from Arabic into English the logics it is essential to question if one is to ever make sense of the problems with media coverage of Palestine. Ghandour tells what a newspaper can never capture, even if its news writers are–like the reader–understand the mystical and magical of history and myth-making that exist alongside the world of poor ‘facts.’
Lake Beyond the Wind – Yahya Yakhlif
Set in the final days of the British Mandate Tiberias, a small city bordering the Sea of Galilee, Yakhlif tells a rare story of life before the Nakba in the Palestinian north.
The depiction of life and its pastoral rhythms paint a rarely-seen canvas of the complex interactions between fellah (peasant) and landowner, drawing on the memories and family history of Yakhlif himself. The mutual reliance of all community members amid the tightly knit social fabric that brought the people of the city and its surrounding villages together is certainly romanticized. However, the story that results is touching and detailed, and reveals the basic mechanisms of life at work in a Palestinian fishing economy.
Intricately interweaving history, politics, and the details of everyday life in Tiberias, Lake Beyond the Wind takes its readers to the shores of a village life that no longer exist, but detail such a rich account of a family and their community that –for a little while–the city comes to life again a it once was.
Inside the Night – Ibrahim Nasrallah
Put away the mirrors, because this book will have you wondering where you stop and where your inner double begins.
Centered on two (or is it one?) protagonists who land together (alone?) at an unnamed airport in an unnamed city somewhere in the Gulf, for a conference that seems not to be happening after all.
With nobody answering the phones (or are the phones just out of service?), the protagonist and his double struggle to find their bearings at the un-featured and ubiquitous airport and in the featureless hotel. Split between the war-torn Lebanon they seem to have fled, and the anonymous Gulf (gulf) they are swallowed into without leaving any trace.
Questions of woman and gender and sex and masculinity enacted at anonymous hotels and amid veiled women confuse the protagonists as much as the readers, displacing sex as an identifying marker. Mixed with flashbacks to violence and destruction amid Lebanon’s War of the Camps, and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, the novel questions all of the flags of identity and wonders about the internal processes of reconciling violence (of nation, of gender, of displacement), and of the possibility of retaining a singular vision of the self.
Published in 1991 and in 2014 added retrospectively to his famous Palestine Comedies series, Inside the Night is an example of Nasrallah’s early mastery of experimental writing. It demands that its readers put aside established logics and give way to the slips and loops of its parallel narratives.
The Book of Gaza – Atef Abu Saif [Ed]
An edited collection of short stories curated by the ever-talented Atef Abu Saif (whose autobiography of the 2014 war on Gaza is also available in English), The Book of Gaza includes a fantastic array of fiction, telling the stories of the city from its many inhabitants.
Some of the stand-out stories of the collection are “The Whore of Gaza” by new-to-the-scene Najlaa Ataallah, which breaks all sorts of gender taboos to rip into national claims to the woman’s body, and imaginings of the nation as a mother for all. The story’s protagonist “decides, in all her anger, that she will be whatever Gaza wants her to be, and how it wants her to be.” It is a story of acceptance and rebellion that is as scintillating as it is damning.
Talal Abu Shawish gives a masterful rendition of the short story, evoking in the space of a taxi ride, the generosity and misery encountered in the day-to-day.
Nayrouz Qarmout’s “The cloak of the sea” defies expectation and turns a cliche into another scathing social critique, at the same time as she paints a crystal clear image of a day by Gaza City’s sea side.
Every story offers a different view of Gaza, along with Abu Saif’s own reflections on time, home, and the question of return.
Sharon and my Mother-in-Law – Suad Amry
Set amid the siege of Ramallah in 2002, Amry’s 2006 novel focuses on the experiences of one newlywed during the Second Palestinian Intifada in the de facto capital of the West Bank. The city is besieged by the Israeli army and a curfew is imposed; rather than the political, the work centers on the personal and social experiences of the protagonist as she struggles to cope with life cooped up in an apartment, with the most terrible of enemies… her mother in law.
The personal account of siege from inside a home is funny, well-paced and gives an insider account of what its like to live in a place when its front-page in the papers. Written in English and shortly thereafter translated into Arabic, the book was a quick hit and continues to be go-to reading for spouses who move to live with their partner’s Palestinian family.
Homesick – Tony Hanania
Ever thought about how alike internecine warfare is to the terrors of a British boarding school? Wondered what it might have been like to smoke pot through heavy shelling?
The first in a trilogy published in the late 90s and early millenium, Homesick is the best of the three and catalogues the Hanania’s childhood at private schools in the UK. Born in Lebanon to a Palestinian mother and Lebanese father, his summers are spent watching the Lebanese Civil War unfold. The work bridges worlds, literally as its author jumps between two, and connects the tyranny of private school hazing with the changes of leadership and authority in Lebanon during its civil war, a country within which he is –as half Palestinian–forever an outsider.
With a deep connection to both places, Hanania makes worlds collide not only by portraying them in considered and rich detail, but by bringing them into another sphere so the wars of other places all of a sudden seem to hit home.