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Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home

By Sally Bland - Feb 17,2013 - Last updated at Feb 17,2013

Edited by Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh
US: Olive Branch Press/Interlink Publishing
Pp. 202

It is significant that this book is entitled “Seeking Palestine”, not “Remembering Palestine”, for there is little nostalgia here. Instead, fourteen talented Palestinian writers explore the meaning of exile, belonging and identity, focusing on the present.

As Penny Johnson explains, the book aims to address questions such as: “How do Palestinians live, imagine and think about home and exile six decades after the dismemberment of historic Palestine? What happens when the ‘idea of Palestine’ that animated so many around the globe becomes an ‘Authority’ and Palestine a patchwork of divided territory?” (p. ix) As the essays show, rather than loosening the second generation’s ties to Palestine, this deteriorating situation has spurred much creative, substantive rethinking.

Rana Barakat writes that “all Palestinians experience exile for Palestine itself was exiled.” (p. 143) This applies not only to individuals like herself, who grew up in the US, and consciously sought to make her parents’ homeland her own, but to others, like Rema Hammami, who has lived in Jerusalem for over twenty years, and graphically depicts the new exiles and separations imposed in the post-Oslo period. It also applies to Sharif S. Elmusa, who after his family was exiled from Al Abbasiyya, grew up in Al Nuwayma camp where life was “a state of enduring expectation”. (p. 27)

After immigrating to the US, poetry became his means of exploring estrangement, while taking his American born children to visit Al Nuwayma was a means of squaring the past with the present. In a similar vein, Fady Joudah describes being Palestinian as “a seemingly endless state of suspension” as a preface to five beautifully haunting poems. (p. 152)

For all the contributors, seeking Palestine means seeking not only their roots, but also redress for the vast injustice done to their people. Many, such as Jean Makdisi and Mischa Hiller, explicitly eschew narrow nationalism and sectarianism. According to Makdisi, “To embrace Palestine means to embrace all other places suffering injustice, and to proclaim one’s faith in the eventual restitution of right.” (p. 161)

Hiller goes even farther, relishing the universalism into which Palestinians have been thrust. Imagining a Palestine with equal rights for all, regardless of ethnicity or religion, Hiller posits that this ideal is “what binds us all together. It is the golden thread that not just ties us to Palestine but pulls us forward to a new one”. (p. 184)

The personal consequences of exile are horrifically magnified in Susan Abulhawa’s story of how the occupation of Palestine severed her family and hurled her into multiple exiles, shunted about (and abused) between different relatives and foster homes from the Gulf to the US. Aware of how central family usually is for Palestinians, she writes: “Mine has been an un-Palestinian life. Yet I have come to understand that it represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian — dispossessed, disinherited and exiled; and what it ultimately means to resist.” (p. 15)

Each contributor writes from a different angle. Beshara Doumani, who was born a refugee in Lebanon, turns his mysterious memory of a sailors’ ditty from pre-1948 Haifa into a key for understanding his father and his own urge to write. Lila Abu-Lughod also focuses on her father to relate how she became a passionate advocate for Palestine, though she could have led a more ordinary American life. Adania Shibli recalls a story she read in school which passed Israeli censorship, but nonetheless “contributed to shaping [her] consciousness regarding Palestine as no other text… has done”. (p. 66)

Suad Amiry employs her unbeatable tongue-in-cheek humor in poetry and prose, to expose the burdensome paradoxes into which Palestinians are born. Also Mourid Barghouti strikes a humorous chord, describing a hazardous trip to the bridge with an ingenious, unflappable taxi driver who seems to symbolise all the Palestinians who remain undaunted by Israeli attempts to strangle their lives.

Several of the essays discuss changes over time as the Palestinian cause remains unresolved. Raja Shehadeh takes the Tegart Building in Ramallah, where he defended so many Palestinians in the Israeli military court, as a metaphor for Palestine’s devolution from British Mandate to today’s “self-rule under colonial occupation”. (p. 96)

Feeling totally at odds with this outcome after years of struggle to end the occupation, he considers himself an internal exile. Karma Nabulsi also finds herself in a time warp: Palestinians remain trapped in a situation that demands liberation and revolution while these phrases have gone out of fashion in the contemporary world. She does, however, see hope in the collective organising and popular unity of the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Though much of its subject matter elicits sorrow and outrage, “Seeking Palestine” is a pleasure to read since all the contributors are talented writers who are engaged in meaningful professional and activist work. The clarity and courage with which they write provides new, encouraging evidence of Palestinians’ ability to shape a better world, if only they were given the chance.

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