Since the Nakba of 1948, the Palestinian novel has been at the forefront of articulating the experience of national dispossession as well as emancipatory horizons in the Arab world. It has charted the changing relations between literary form and collective action, between aesthetics and politics.
It was in 1948 that Palestinians lost their homeland and became refugees scattered in Arab countries and beyond. The Nakba thus marks a process of historical dispossession and defeat in which a settler colonial movement pushed out a people, expropriated their land, and replaced them with settler labor. It took Palestinians over a decade to reorganize and rearticulate their political movements: first under Arab nationalism (often neglected as a period of study) and then, after 1967, within a new Palestinian nationalism.
The period of 1967 to 1982 constitutes the rise and fall of post-’48 Palestinian nationalism, both of Arab-wide popular revolutionary possibility and secular, armed guerrilla struggle. After the defeat of Beirut by Israel in 1982, a generalized political decline set in. This was ruptured by the first intifada in 1987 — the last significant act of mass popular mobilization — which was in turn liquidated by Israel and exploited by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Oslo.
Since 1993, there has been no mass organized revolt to speak of (though important small pockets remain). Whatever does exist has been distorted by religious movements like Hamas, which are steeped in Islamic nationalist categories (like jihad) that restrict the universal potentiality of the Palestinian story.
What defines the long conjuncture since 1993 is the failure of the national project, the rise of the collaborationist Palestinian Authority (comanagers of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank), and its countering by a popular fundamentalist movement. This period is also marked by war against the occupied, the politicide of the Palestinian people, and the endless expansion of the settler colonial project in the occupied Palestinian territories of 1967.
In the global context of the ongoing “war on terror,” Palestinians are no longer seen as a decolonizing people with national rights but as a group of terrorists and ticking bombs — as represented by the Israeli Netflix series Fauda. Alternatively, they are perceived as a group of individual victims to be pitied, but all too rarely as a people whose rights have been violated by Israel for generations. This history is linked to the Palestinian novel in crucial ways.
A materialist analysis of the Palestinian novel can help us to elucidate this dynamic of colonialism, resistance, and literature. Such an analysis helps to articulate the relationship between social, political, and aesthetic forms. How can political mobilization constitute, constrain, and shape culture? How does literature embody historical possibility? What explains the changes that occur in novelistic form?
Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa was published in 1969 at the height of Palestinian and Arab revolt, resistance, and revolutionary possibility. The novella stages a confrontation between refugees returning to their house in Haifa in the aftermath of the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its new inhabitant — a Holocaust survivor who has brought up the Palestinian child accidentally left behind in the harrowing expulsions of the Nakba.
Returning to Haifa stages a human encounter between Israelis and Palestinians; it complexly narrates the various injuries that led to the interlocking of histories after 1948. The following is the most significant exchange in the novel between the protagonist refugee father and his now Israelized son, left behind in ’48. The father states:
When are you going to stop considering that the weakness and the mistakes of others are endorsed over the account of your own prerogatives? . . . You must come to understand things as they should be understood. I know that one day you’ll realize these things, and that you’ll realize that the greatest crime any human being can commit, whoever he may be, is to believe even for one moment that the weakness and mistakes of others give him the right to exist at their expense and justify his own mistakes and crimes.
Thematically, much rests on the this “one day you’ll realize.” What form of politics could prompt such a realization? What strategy? Kanafani doesn’t provide the answer but stresses the question: “Man, in the final analysis, is a cause. That’s what you said. And it’s true. But what cause? That’s the question.” What is certain is that homeland is a future premised on principles of universal equality. That’s the humanist register of the whole novel and the future it anticipates.
Jewish persecution and Palestinian dispossession can only be resolved in that universalist register: not through narrow nationalisms and possessive expropriation, but through categories that all humans can share in and understand. No human being should be forcibly evicted from their home, and no human being has a right to force another into a life of exile and want. If only everyone upheld these standards.
Returning to Haifa is realist in form. All the historicizing and democratizing components of classical realism are here, including the ethical commitment to giving voice to the powerless as part of history. Individual acts are meaningful as parts of collective agency. For Kanafani, the present is knowable and transformable, and the future will require organized struggle and self-transformation.
The End of Agency
To gauge the significance of Returning to Haifa and the distinct historical moment of its publication, one need only compare it with Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The Other Rooms, published in Baghdad in 1986. Jabra is Palestine’s preeminent novelist and cultural figure. With seven novels and tens of critical studies and translations into Arabic to his name, he represents the voice of the poor Palestinian refugee turned Arab intellectual in the era of decolonization.
But in this short, late novel, none of the elements that Kanafani mobilized appear. The narrative is hard to understand, the protagonist is confused, alienated, and in a state of existential decline, unable to figure out basic things about himself and his surroundings — neither his name, nor location, nor his job. Movement is endless but without any sense of direction, and so the novel evades any sense of coherence. The only thing that is certain is that the nightmare will never end. Resistance is not only futile in The Other Rooms, but altogether absent; it is not even an option to be contemplated and rejected. The spiral of failure and defeat never ends.
In Jabra’s earlier novels, an individual’s actions were attributed a more meaningful role in the attempt to change the world. In The Other Rooms, by contrast, agency has been crushed by a repressive state and lost in delirium. There’s a clear link between the end of collective revolutionary agency and the sense of incoherence and hopelessness that characterizes The Other Rooms.
A final point of comparison with regard to the Palestinian novel is Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, published in 2016. Shibli belongs to a new generation of post-Oslo writers, and her earlier two novellas were stylized narratives difficult to situate. Her latest novel is gripping and speaks powerfully to the contemporary moment of political closure, Palestinian erasure, and war. It also registers the pull of the past and the return to the Nakba as a central prism of understanding, told via the incident of a rape of a Bedouin girl — the so-called “minor detail” of the title.
Since the Oslo Accords, the Nakba has returned to Palestinian political consciousness, marking not only the political abandonment of refugees but a return to the most existential questions of Palestinian identity: expulsion and dispensability. Minor Detail, however, differs from earlier accounts of loss and defeat.
In one sense, the novel continues the account of the loss of connection and the endless search for meaning that Palestinian modernism has perfected. There’s an incident to be investigated, knowledge to be had, and a search for truth and coherence.
But Shibli’s documentary register takes us away from existential weightiness. The investigation doesn’t disclose anything we didn’t already know. The novel is thus circular in structure, and the ending returns the Palestinian narrator to a similar situation to that of the ’48 Bedouin girl — surrounded by soldiers and under threat. Not much has changed. History is not development but repetition with slight variation of minor details. The occupied woman is haunted by a past that becomes her present. She too is just another minor detail of history.
To some extent, Shibli’s aesthetic choices are successful in showing how colonization is not just an event but an ongoing process. But it is an aesthetic that comes at a cost, which is a loss of historical detail. There is no real distinction in Minor Detail between historical periods, and there is almost an equation of suffering between a present-day, middle-class investigator from the West Bank and a poor Bedouin girl raped and killed by Israeli soldiers in 1948. Those distinctions are crucial and should be maintained.
In Minor Detail, the raped girl is given neither a voice nor a name. She is depicted as smelly, babbling, and drooling, and her story is told by others (either the Israeli perpetrator or the middle-class Palestinian, who are both psychologically unstable). It is the newspaper report about the incident that motivates the West Banker to journey to Israel. Do we really need a novel to reproduce the silences of both journalism and history?
These are troubling choices that risk replicating the erasure the novel seeks to criticize. Indeed, the inclusion of the Bedouin girl in the narrative seems to be little more than a device. A realist novel would have represented her differently, and the present as transformable. A modernist novel would have both registered and lamented the loss of the emancipatory horizon. But Minor Detail is different.
Shibli’s aesthetic choices are a particular response to the logic of intensifying colonial war and erasure — one in which dehumanization actually means the elimination of humans, or at least a particular section of humans. A repeated phrase in the novel resists this logic, however: “Man, not the tank, shall prevail.”
Nonetheless, reading Shibli’s novel, the sense is that it is the tank rather than man that prevails; the oft-repeated phrase is in Hebrew, and it silences the Palestinian victim. Unlike Kanafani’s phrase — “man is a cause” — Shibli’s is a device of mockery rather than humanist commitment. What does it mean for colonial victors to speak of universal man? It’s a hollow and stale irony.
As in earlier Palestinian modernism, collective resistance is absent from Minor Detail. But there’s a new register here. The novel’s form doesn’t resist, doesn’t struggle against the story it is telling. It doesn’t protect itself from the harsh reality. The future is conceived as a repetition of past injury. This sounds like a commitment to a particular aesthetic regardless of its ethical implications.
Yet a strategy of rehumanization has always been a strong tendency within Palestinian literature. It is exemplified by contemporary Gazan writers like Atef Abu-Seif and Nayrouz Qarmout, whose perspectives echo a sentiment succinctly articulated by the anti-war moral philosopher Jonathan Glover: “Respect for dignity is one of the great barriers against atrocity and cruelty. To acknowledge our shared moral status makes it harder for us to torture or kill each other.”
Kanafani would have approved.