The Palestinian Patient
Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews have fundamentally different attitudes toward the origins of the conflict that at once divides and binds them. The number of Israeli books about the early settlements and the 1948 war--histories, memoirs, novels--exceeds by far the number of those written by Palestinians. In the face of a work like Joan Peters's From Time Immemorial, which drew upon spurious demographic "data" to deny that Palestinians were ever the majority in their own land, a Palestinian is angered but not moved to action. Indeed, the rebuttal to Peters came not from a Palestinian but from Norman Finkelstein, an American Jew.
This may seem strange, but it is not. For the question of whether Palestinians did or did not exist in Palestine when the first Zionist settlers arrived is more of an American/Israeli issue than a Palestinian one, as is the question of whether Palestinians were driven from their homeland. Among Palestinians there is no debate about their roots in Palestine, or about the causes of their dispossession. They either had family living in 1948 Palestine or heard from those who had family about what life was like and the circumstances under which they were forced to flee. A Palestinian author writing in Arabic for an Arab audience is not weighed down by the burden of having to prove anything about the Nakba, "the catastrophe."
Not so for Palestinian authors writing in English for a Western audience. This may explain why much of the historical work on the Nakba by Palestinians such as Walid Khalidi and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was written originally in English--and why the Israeli "new" historians who reached the same conclusions much, much later found it easier to persuade readers in the West that the 1948 refugees had not simply left of their own accord. As Edward Said frequently observed, part of being Palestinian is being denied the right to narrate one's own experience.
The same burden of proof under which Palestinian historians have labored applies with equal force to novelists and poets, whose evocation of the Nakba is almost always approached with suspicion--the suspicion being that the objective behind the work is propagandistic rather than artistic. As a result, imaginative writing by Palestinians is often assessed by Western critics according to narrowly political rather than aesthetic criteria, something few novelists would welcome, even if the reviews were favorable. It is no wonder that the number of literary works by Palestinians that have been published and become well-known in the United States is very small indeed.
This political rather than literary reception is likely to be the fate of Elias Khoury's epic novel Gate of the Sun (Bab al-Shams), first published in Arabic in 1998 and just released in English by Archipelago Books in an excellent translation by Humphrey Davies. Khoury is a Lebanese writer who has listened very carefully to the testimony of people who have been living in refugee camps in Lebanon since they were driven out of Palestine by Zionist forces in 1948. His novel is inspired by these accounts. When Gate of the Sun was published in Hebrew in 2002, the veracity of Khoury's chronicle of the Nakba stirred controversy (although the book was praised by some Israeli critics), and this could become an issue in the United States. That would be unfortunate, since Khoury's novel is a work of literature, not oral history.
When Gate of the Sun was first published, it received high praise in the Arab world, especially among Palestinians. (It was also adapted by Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah into a four-hour film, shown at a few festivals in the States.) Palestine has produced some distinguished novelists, notably Emile Habiby and Ghassan Kanafani, both of whom explored the Palestinian condition of statelessness, exile and dispersion. Yet neither Habiby, with his absurdist vision of the experience of Palestinians who stayed behind in Israel (The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist), nor Kanafani, with his bitter tales of Palestinian laborers in the Gulf (Men in the Sun), wrote directly about the Nakba, preferring to examine its reverberations instead. Indeed, there are so few novels about the Nakba that many Palestinians were grateful to Khoury simply for giving voice to their memories of the most traumatic and defining moment in their history.