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The Palestinian Short Story

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The Palestinian Short Story
Exile, Sorrow, and Black Humor

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Any assessment of the Palestinian short story will encounter several difficulties, some of which have to do with the flexible nature of this literary genre while others involve the tragic Palestinian situation, a product of occupation and exile. As a literary tool, the short story can refer to a passing thought, an anecdote or else what has been called the “very short story” practiced with great success by, for instance, Mahmud Shuqair. But it can equally refer to large-scale narratives as is the case with Ghassan Kanafani and his story Men in the Sun, which some critics have termed a “long short story.” 

The flexibility of the short story is arguably the reason that led Palestinian story writers to adopt differing approaches. Kanafani, for instance, practiced this literary form before his move to the novel. He wrote two collections of short stories, Death of Bed no.12 (1961) and Land of the Sorrowful Orange (1963) in a style that eschewed melodrama and probed reality in a poetic and richly allusive prose style.

In contrast, although Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, with his seven novels, appears to be a “professional” novelist, he nevertheless began his literary career by writing short stories, publishing his collection, Sweat, in Beirut in 1956. His short stories written in Jerusalem as well as in exile have been described by critics as avant-garde and philosophical in their implications. Indeed, his wonderful autobiography, The First Well, would be inconceivable had he not first mastered the art of the short story. Emile Habiby also began his literary career as a short story writer: Before he wrote the Pessoptimist he had written a famous short story called “The Mandelbaum Gate,” while his other work, The Sextet of Six Days (which followed the defeat of June 1967), was based on a collection of short stories, unitary in subject and replete with black humor.

If the fact that Palestinian literary writers are, to varying degrees, novelists and short story writers, makes it somewhat difficult to assess their short story genre, a more extensive difficulty is due to the unremitting exile of the Palestinian people. This exile drove them into faraway regions or into neighboring Arab countries. Such for instance is the case of Hasan Hamid, who lives in Damascus; of Mahmud Rimawi and Faruq Wadi who are “Jordanians”; and others who died far from Palestine like Najati Sidqi, the old socialist story teller who spent his old age between Beirut and Greece.

If this dispersal of literary writers into distant places of exile is cause for sorrow, a certain sorrow combined with black humor can be detected in the short stories written inside Palestine itself. Here a researcher will need to cross the “Green Line” to reach those once called the “Arabs of Israel,” and must pass by the Gaza Strip, before coming to a halt with short story writers in pre-1967 Jerusalem.

Despite the dislocation and state of siege imposed on the “Gaza Strip,” Gaza has produced a number of short story writers, like Abdullah Tayih, Zaki al-Aylih, Gharib al-Asqalani, and Subhi Hamdan, who have managed to secure recognition on both the Arab and Palestinian literary scenes. In the period between 1967 and 2009, Gaza could count 37 male and female short story writers and although quantity is not necessarily an indicator of literary merit, it nevertheless denotes a certain literary ambience. These writers adopted the “siege” as a broad metaphor which gave them common ground with the writers within the Green Line, who had long made the military rule period (1948-66)  a major theme of their fiction. Prominent literary names among Palestinians in Israel include Muhammad Ali Taha, who wrote That the Sun May Rise, Peace and Greetings, and (his best work) Bridge on a Sorrowful River. Salman al-Natur (1949-2016), a gifted intellectual whose work veered toward satire and the short story, wrote Beyond Words (1972), We Have not Forgotten (1983) and The Town’s Wine Shop (1987), the latter two collections documenting the catastrophe of 1948. The talented story writer Tawfiq Fayyad had treated aspects of the occupation in his work The Yellow Street (1968) before settling temporarily in Beirut, where he published his excellent collection The Clown in which the inhumanity of the occupation is intermingled with popular Palestinian characters.

In the course of defending both their homeland and their right to write, Palestinian literary writers issued a magazine in Jerusalem called al-Ufuq al-Jadid (New Dawn; 1961-66). They banked on a surging national will, a modern literary culture, and a desire for experimentation and novelty. Among the contributors were Mahmud Shuqair, Mahmud Ibrahim Ghannam, and Majid Abu Sharar. Their colleagues within the Green Line had for some time “taken shelter” under the wing of the Israeli Communist Party represented essentially by their magazine al-Jadid (The New) and their daily newspaper al-Ittihad (Unity). Here, they were supported by Emile Habiby, the historian Emil Tuma, the poet Tawfiq Zayyad, and others who aspired to a “national literary” politics.

The preceding overview reveals three dimensions common to Palestinian short story production: the absence of a single place where literary activity is mutually enriching, the absence of an institutional framework to support and coordinate this activity, and the lack of opportunities for dialogue among Palestinian story writers except intermittently. What one might term the “national identity of literature” is not clearly seen except in the works of the early pioneers and among storytellers who carried on their aspirations among the pre-Nakba generation.

In historical perspective, Khalil Baidas (1874-1949) is widely considered to be the founder of the Palestinian short story. He had learned Russian in his native Nazareth, read and translated Russian works, and became aware of new literary genres, including the short story. He drew close to the short story form in a famous work called Scenes of the Imagination, which combined reflection with incitement, and in The Beautiful Woman in Disguise (1911). He set an example for other writers, most notably Mahmud Saif al-Din al-Irani, who began his literary career with a story called The Start of the Race (1937), as well as Najati Sidqi, Arif al-Ghazzuni, and Iskandar Khouri. Short story writers after the Nakba include Lutfi Malhas in the diaspora and in Palestine, Hanna Ibrahim, author of Ten Years Later (1957) and Wild Flowers (1972).

Within the limits of a national consciousness which merged literature with politics, three Palestinian writers contributed substantially to the development of both the Palestinian and the Arab short story. Ghassan Kanafani introduced into the short story symbolism, free association, and folktales, transforming this mélange into a broad and innovative creativity grounded in tragedy and resistance. Samira Azzam (1927-1967), author or Little Things (1954) and The Large Shadow (1956), read the tragedy of the Palestinian as the tragedy of a vanquished human being, resorting to “thick” symbolism and artfully combined narrative with a dialogue open to the life around it. Azzam has not yet received the accolade she deserves. Mahmud Shuqair, who paid special attention to language ever since his first work The Bread of Others, moved from a simple to a complex story form and from prose to a polished style characterized by its economy and its poetic traits, as in My Maternal Cousin Condoleeza.

The Palestinian national cause has been and continues to be a theme of Palestinian short stories. This has narrowed the scope of the topics dealt with in short stories. If, by definition, the short story covers a defined  aspect of everyday life, one would have to conclude that Palestinians have lived very similar lives. This might explain why Samira Azzam in her early writing career was not familiar with a social field as broad as the one experienced by the Syrian Zakariyya Tamer and why Mahmud Shuqair could not know the diversified writing space in which Muhammad al-Makhzinji, the Egyptian creative writer, has moved. The Palestinian situation has not given the creative writer Ziyad Khaddash the space for creative experimentation in ways afforded to the Jordanian Hisham Bustani.       

Since the mid-1990s, Palestinian short-story writers have attempted to expand their range through diverse aesthetic instruments-- giving attention to prose, meditating on a daily life devoid of illusions, and penetrating inside a human world replete with images and possibilities. This is reflected in the adoption of an illusion-free writing outlook by Ziyad Khaddash, Ziyad Barakat, and Nabeel ‘Abdul-Karim, whose writing styles might be described as neo-realism.  

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Selected Bibliography

Abbasi, Mahmud. Tatawwur al-riwaya wal-qissa al-qasira fi-l-adab al-‘arabi fi Isra’il. Haifa: Kull Shay’ Bookshop/ Shafa ‘Amr: Dar al-Mashriq, 1988.

Elmessiri, Nur and  Abdelwahab M. Elmessiri, ed. A Land of Stone and Thyme: An Anthology of Palestinian Short Stories. London: Quartet, 1996.

Fa‘ur, Yasin. al-Qissah al-qasirah al-Filastiniya: miladuha wa-tatawwuruha, 19241990. Damascus: Union of Arab Writers, 2001.

Glanville, Jo. Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women. London: Saqi Books, 2006.

Shuqair, Mahmud. Mukhtarat min al-qissa al-qasira al-Filastiniyya. Amman: Governorate of Amman, 2002.