For as long as the Palestinians have endured occupation and oppression—first under the British in the 1920-30s, then by the Israeli state after 1948—they have produced writers and poets who have articulated not only humiliation and despair, but also resistance and the hope of liberation.
Israel’s most famous military commander of the 20th century, the notorious Moshe Dayan, once said of the great Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan that one of her poems was enough to create ten Palestinian resistance fighters.
The dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has written, “What political activists did not dare express, poets sang out with force.” The form traditionally used by Palestinian poets, the qasida, meant that the poems were relatively easy to memorise and could be recited at feasts, political rallies and strikes.
Under British occupation poets such as Ibrahim Tuqan (Fadwa’s brother) and ‘Abd al-Raheem Mahmoud wrote for a mass audience and bitterly expressed their opposition to British occupation.
In a prophetic warning of the ethnic cleansing which would befall the Palestinians after the creation of Israel, Ibrahim Tuqan wrote:
You people, your Foes are not such as to be gentle and merciful.
You people, before you is nothing but exile, so get ready.
In Mahmoud’s poem The Martyr he captures the mindset of those on the other end of the whip of colonialism and imperialism:
I want no life if we’re not respected in our land;
if our response is not feared
if our words are not heard
echoing in the world!
Fast forward to 2005, and this sense of humiliation and rage could equally apply to those still under foreign occupation in Palestine and, now, Iraq. In his 1935 poem, The Aqsa Mosque, written to mark the visit of a Saudi prince to Palestine, Mahmoud also articulates the feeling of betrayal at the unwillingness of the Arab ruling class to offer real solidarity to the Palestinians:
Before you stands a poet
whose heart harbours bitter complaint.
Have you come to visit the Aqsa mosque
or to bid it farewell before its loss?
The partition of Palestine in 1948, and the psychological trauma of the forced dispersal of the Palestinians, initially created a sense of pessimism within Palestinian writing. However, as the Palestinian movement began to regroup its writers once again began to “sing out with force”.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the publication of two of the finest Palestinian novels ever written, Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, and Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun. Habiby was a leading member of the Israeli Communist Party and his novel broke new ground in Palestinian literature with its mixing of the surreal and the tragi-comic.
The book’s political message expressed the sense of isolation of those Palestinian Arabs who had remained in Israel after 1948. It was also politically significant due to its focus on the Arab working class as the agents of change.
One of the characters in the novel asks, “Who, after all, erected the tall buildings of this country, cut and paved its broad streets, dug the trenches, and fortified the shelters? Who planted, plucked and ginned the cotton, then wove it into clothes for the lords Raghdan and Basman, palaces in Amman, to wear so proudly?”
Kanafani was for a time a spokesman for the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) before being killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1972.
Men in the Sun traces the misfortune of a group of Palestinian refugees who stow themselves away in an empty oil tanker in a bid to enter Kuwait.
They are looking to earn money to send back to their families living in occupied Palestine. In the scorching heat of the desert the men suffocate to death inside the tanker and, with twisted irony, their dead bodies are dumped in Kuwait by the driver.
Among other things, the themes which Kanafani grapples with in Men in the Sun raise the question as to whether the Palestinians are ultimately aiming for just a state of their own, or whether their revolt can become part of a wider rebellion across the Middle East against imperialism and Zionism.
The 1970s also saw the emergence of probably Palestine’s greatest poet, Mahmoud Darwish.
His poem Identity Card is one of the most powerful Palestinian anti-oppression poems ever written, ending with the furious words:
I hate nobody
And I don’t steal.
But if I’m made hungry
I’ll eat the flesh of my oppressor.
Beware of my hunger and anger!
I have only had space to mention a small selection of Palestine’s many great writers and poets. Most of the works mentioned are available in good English translations. For a comprehensive collection, see the Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi. Contact Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848.