Best books for newcomers to Palestine and its literature

A tree made of razor wire and decorated with tear gas canisters in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, December 2013.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler ActiveStills

Is there someone on your holiday gift list who could use a little education on the subject of Palestine? Or for the avid reader who might not yet be introduced to the rich literature of Arabic writing translated into English?

Here are some titles for those new to the issue of Palestine and Palestinian literature that would make great presents any time of year.

The fat, satisfying novel

… or, as my mother-in-law calls them, in mockery of old-fashioned cover blurbs, “sweeping family sagas spanning three generations.”

There’s a bitter irony to recommending the wonderful Woman from Tantoura at this moment, with the death of author Radwa Ashour sadly announced last week. But what better tribute to this major Middle Eastern writer — who was also the wife of Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti and mother of poet and scholar Tamim Barghouti — than to see her fiction on more shelves?

In my review of this novel earlier this year, I wrote that it was “rich, challenging and indisputably important; imperfect, but complex in its imperfections; a female counterpart, perhaps, to Elias Khoury’s monumental Gate of the Sun.”

History with a side-order of travel

It’s hard to know which title to recommend from Ramallah-based author and human rights campaigner Raja Shehadeh’s eminently readable backlist, but my enduring favorite is A Rift in Time.

By telling the story of his Ottoman-era great-uncle, Najib Nassar, Shehadeh introduces modern readers to a major figure in the Palestinian national discourse of the early twentieth century and illustrates the tense relationships between the declining Ottoman Empire, British colonialism and Palestinian self-determination.

If that sounds too much like something you’d read for school, take comfort in the fact that Shehadeh frames it all as a combination of a detective story, a travelogue of the modern Middle East, and a search through family history.

Humor and satire

This is going back a bit, but for some bitterly dark but extremely funny portraits of the complete insanity of the Israeli occupation, nothing beats Suad Amiry’s Sharon and my Mother-in-Law. The story of the puppy with the Jerusalem identity card and its visit to the vet — via an Israeli checkpoint — is laugh-out-loud hilarious, though also a biting exposé of the breathtaking stupidity of the day-to-day military presence in Palestine.


There’s so much great Palestinian poetry available in translation nowadays that it’s hard to know what to pick, so I’m cheating and selecting two volumes. For the connoisseur of Palestinian verse — the person who already has collections by Mahmoud Darwish or Samih al-Qasim and who owns Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s monumental Modern Palestinian Literature — go for Najwan Darwish’s Nothing More to Lose, a recent anthology of sparse, clever verse, beautifully translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

But for someone who hasn’t already delved into the range that Palestinian poetry has to offer, there is the aforementioned Jayyusi compendium — but it’s a fairly intimidating prospect. Less comprehensive but also less reminiscent of a door-stop is Victims of A Map, which gives the reader Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim and the Syrian poet Adonis in one slim anthology.

Scandalous memoirs

There’s an expanding range of fascinating memoirs and biographies from or about Palestinian figures available now in English – ranging from Anbara Salam Khalidi’s Diary of an Early Arab Feminist to Shafiq al-Hout’s My Life in the PLO, a look behind the scenes of Palestinian politics in the 1970s and ’80s.

But for a combination of eye-opening historical fact and sheer fun, go for The Storyteller of Jerusalem, the autobiography of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, a musician who witnessed the momentous changes in Palestine in the late Ottoman period and under the British Mandate.

Jerusalem aristocrats and their mistresses, international singing stars and the ordinary Muslims, Christians and Jews of the Holy City — all of life’s rich tapestry is here.




I think there is no better book than Ghada Karmi's In Search of Fatima to really understand what 1948 meant to ordinary Palestinians and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.


I highly recommend Born in Jerusalem, Born Palestinian by Jacob Nammar. Jacob's Christian family had lived in Jerusalem for generations, sharing a wonderful life with their Christian, Jewish and Muslim neighbors. But in 1948 Jacob and his family were forced to leave their home by Zionist militias. They have never been allowed to return, and that ancestral home in Jerusalem is now on sale for several million dollars. Jacob's story is not only one man's biography. Many identify with it as "A National Narrative" since it is the story of most Palestinians.


Can I suggest a charming and beautifully illustrated children's book called The Story of Hurry. Published last month. The writer is Emma Williams, illustrated by Ibrahim Quraishi. It recounts the (true) story of the donkey in the zoo in Gaza, under siege, that was painted to look a donkey. And it gently depicts the harshness of life for Gazans, also with a useful 5 pages of (excellent) historical notes to put the story in context. I have never seen a book that brings the Palestinian story to children like this. Well worth getting, giving, and reading.

Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.