Book review: Rich definition of “What it Means to be Palestinian”

“This is what it means to be Palestinian, to care, because if you stop caring, then you let go. We cannot let go” (p. 110) explains Jerusalemite Samia Nasser Khoury in Dina Matar’s landmark new book, What it Means to be Palestinian. Matar is a lecturer in Arab media at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In researching the book, Matar conducted countless interviews across the Arab world with fellow Palestinians, recording their experiences.

Matar grounds this fascinating collection in a series of brilliant historical summaries that open each chapter. From the Great Arab Revolt against the British occupation of the late 1930s until the first Palestinian intifada, this is a rich narrative woven together by expert hands. In all the historical phases presented here, the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine — what Palestinians call the 1948 Nakba — looms large: “Most of those I interviewed wanted to tell of personal experiences … not as past events, but as events that remain current because, to them, what happened in 1948 is not over” (p. 130).

Above all, the book aims to “ascribe agency to the Palestinians, not as helpless victims of forces beyond their control, as they have often been portrayed, but as actors at the center of critical phases of their modern history” (p. xii, emphasis in original). Indeed, Matar succeeds brilliantly in this aim. What comes through more than anything, are the many insights readers gain from the Palestinian narrators themselves.

Behind the success of this book are three main strengths: the well-balanced spectrum of Palestinian interviewees, Matar’s solid grasp of Palestinian history and the lively and interesting stories of the interviewees themselves. The footwork that went into Matar’s research is obvious, and has reaped great rewards. Matar traveled to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine to interview Palestinians in refugee camps, villages, towns and cities.

Matar’s history is supremely well-written, and helps the reader to understand the significance of the interviews in their correct context. They tease out many interesting and sometimes forgotten moments in the history of the Palestinian struggle. For example, Na’ila Zayyad (wife of Tawfiq Zayyad, the famous poet and one-time communist mayor of Nazareth) explains that “We [the Palestinian citizens of Israel] were the first to throw stones at the occupation forces in 1958” (p. 141).

The Palestinians here are not patronized as tokens of suffering to be pitied, as in far too much work on Palestine in English (even by sympathetic authors). These are fascinating, rounded, fully human characters, with their own historical dynamism — not poor, helpless refugees awaiting handouts.

Emblematic of this is Khaled Ziadeh, one the “children of the stones” who led the first intifada in Gaza, who says that “For me, like others of the intifada generation, there will always be a moment in our lives that will stay with us forever and that … changed our lives for good. That was the intifada … it was the beginning of a new generation of Palestinians that did not accept defeat” (pp. 170, 172).

Importantly, at this time of fracture in the Palestinian body politic, Matar has made an effort to present a cross-section of the varied reality of Palestinian life. Perhaps partly because of her family’s Nazareth origins, the book is particularly strong on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Of course, the 1948 Palestinians were also victims of the Nakba, and furthermore, had to live under formal military rule until 1966. As Galilee children’s author Mohammed Ali Taha explains, “In the immediate aftermath of the Nakba, we just struggled to survive” (p. 79).

This emphasis works well, and in fact it’s vital; the 1948 Palestinians are underrepresented (even within Western solidarity movements). That said, other sections of Palestinian society (refugees, West Bank, Gaza) are by no means neglected in this book. There is very little here on the diaspora: Palestinians in the Americas, Europe and the rest of the world, which is a shame, but I imagine that topic would fill a second volume.

There are other downsides. In places, Matar only references entire books in the footnotes, even for quite specific points of analysis. For example, none of the footnotes to chapter one include specific page numbers. There is also a serious problem on page 192 where Matar implies that the Arabic word for “martyr” is synonymous with “suicide bomber.” She states that “A new Palestinian hero, the shahid (‘martyr’) or suicide bomber, became the latest cultural symbol …” But actually — as the martyrs of the Tunisian uprising demonstrate — in popular Palestinian and Arab parlance this word is used for anyone who dies in the course of struggle (whether armed or unarmed) against oppression. While Matar may take this point as a given, there is far too much confusion among Western audiences to do so — due in large part to Zionist propaganda in the press and policy circles.

But overall, Matar does an excellent job balancing the many notable and renowned political figures, freedom fighters, poets, writers and activists with lesser-known Palestinians. While the stories of figures like Leila Khaled, former Nablus mayor Bassam al-Shak’a (his legs blown off by an Israeli car bomb) and Palestine Liberation Organization founding member Shafiq al-Hout may already be familiar to many Palestinians and Arabs, they are less so to Western audiences.

These stories demand to be read by a wider English audience. This is a book the reader will dip into over and over again. It is to be hoped that more Western publishers will follow I.B. Taurus in allowing Palestinian voices to speak for themselves such a powerful manner.

Asa Winstanley is an independent journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book will be out on Pluto Press later in 2011. His website is www.winstanleys.org).

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