It’s not difficult for non-Arabic-reading audiences to get a taste of the variety and power of Palestinian literature.
Translations of big names such as Mahmoud Darwish, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Emile Habibi have long been available, and in the last decade these have been joined by the likes of Mourid Barghouti, Adania Shibli, Ghassan Zaqtan and Samih al-Qasim.
The short stories collected in Gaza Writes Back (Just World Books) are not necessarily the work of future greats such as these — although it’s far from impossible.
What this selection offers is something rather different: the fresh voices of young (teenage and twenty-something), non-professional writers from Gaza, a group which is under-represented in Palestinian literature in translation.
These are the kind of voices we are more accustomed to finding in blogs, podcasts or videos, far from the literary establishment and speaking of the challenges facing Palestinians in very different ways.
But while many of these tales are filled with the kind of events and traumas we read of all-too-often in blogs and news articles about Gaza, they are genuine short stories. They have plots, suspense, characterization, psychological complexity and, most of all, the deep sense of feeling that comes from the meeting of experience and artistic sensibility.
Among the the stand-out examples from Gaza Writes Back it is worth mentioning Noura Al-Sousi’s “Canary,” in which the author moves between time periods and writes from different viewpoints in order to create a tale of interweaving emotions, motivations and perspectives. Memory, love, pain and a sense of what-ifs culminate in a genuine tension and a shocking and ambiguous ending.
The stories also reveal the complex layers of Palestinian society in Gaza which are often brushed over in politically-oriented news. Sameeha Elwan’s “Toothache in Gaza” and Elham Hilles’ “Lost at Once” both tackle the issue of class divisions.
Elwan exposes the indignities faced by those who can only afford to get their medical treatment from the under-resourced clinics of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees. “[My father] said he had to go to the clinic an hour before me so that he could get me a place before it got jam-packed. How could a place get crowded at seven in the morning, I wondered.”
Hilles, meanwhile, presents a love story between an upper-class girl, and boy from Nuseirat refugee camp. Intertwining romance, pride, stubbornness and snobbery, their tale leads Eman (the protagonist) to a greater understanding of her society, even if its boundaries are destined to confine her hopes and desires.
It is noteworthy that a significant majority of the contributors to this book are female. As editor Refaat Alareer points out, “This shows how important young Palestinian women have become in recent years … this young wave of female short story writers comes to continue the struggle and at the same time to revolutionize it.”
Also noteworthy is the fact that almost all of the 23 stories in Gaza Writes Back were written in English. While on one level this is a sad reflection of the fact that Palestinians might feel that they have to abandon Arabic if they want to succeed in literature or to find an audience for their message, Alareer frames the issue differently, as an opportunity to present youth narratives “without the mediation or influences of translation or of non-Palestinian voices.”
And, as the quality of the material here shows, geographical and political isolation need not be a bar to creativity in other languages.
This isn’t to say that Gaza Writes Back is perfect. Firstly, the title and introduction pitch this very much as a political project, setting it in the context of a “much-needed Palestinian youth narrative” that “records and commemorates, in fiction, the fifth anniversary of the full-scale military offensive … the so-called Operation Cast Lead.”
Significant new generation
Of course, it is true that such “recording and commemorating” are vital tasks. But to confine this collection to such a task does the stories, and their young writers, a disservice.
It positions these talented young people as, first and foremost, witnesses to military violence. In fact they should be seen as a significant new generation of writers who, yes, have seen and experienced horrific brutality, but whose work is valuable as a valid literary expression that goes well beyond its political environment.
Secondly, like any multi-author collection of short stories (or poetry, or any other artistic production), the quality is variable. Some of the writers involved have demonstrably found their “voice” and, while still developing and growing, have hit a confident stride in their work.
But some stories still smack of the work of the kind of creative writing classes which, according to the introduction, gave rise to a number of the submissions. There are the hallmarks of inexperience, such as overused adjectives, writers who need to have the confidence to “show” instead of “telling” their readership what to envisage and to feel.
Other contributors didn’t quite balance their drive to create a work of literature with the desire for that work to carry a political message, leading to a few clumsy, didactic points.
But these critiques very much need to be placed in context; they are literary “sins” committed by all new writers. That this collection has been written by young people in their second language and yet shows such artistic merit as well as political interest is truly remarkable.
Read, enjoy and learn.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.