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The Eternal Strangers

Palestinian Literature from within the Green Line

By Ala Hlehe

Translated by Hind Husseini

Anyone who tracks the development of Palestinian literature within the Green Line will be able to identify the three specific historical phases that numerous academics and researchers have referred to. The first spans the period prior to the Nakba, the second covers the period following the Nakba up until the early 1970s, and the third covers the current period, which began after the second Intifada and the failure of the Oslo Accords. Regardless of how much effort has been expended to classify and date these works, there are consistent features that distinguish them, particularly after the Nakba in 1948.

Contrary to the majority of Palestinian literary productions, which focus on Palestinian refugees and those living under the Israeli occupation, Palestinian authors within the Green Line write and have written about displacement in their works. Internally displaced persons are those who have been forced to flee their towns but continue to live within the historical borders of Palestine and thus became refugees in their homeland. This displacement impacted the approaches used by Palestinian authors within the Green Line and the contents of their works, as evident in their writings about the ruins of their villages, which they pass through on a daily or weekly basis, or in their daily life with Jews. Their writings include content and narratives that seem to me, through my studies, closer to the truth than others in this context.

Until the 1970s (i.e., after the 1967 Palestinian Naksa), the vast majority of the Palestinian literary narrative content within the Green Line focused on the duality of land-homeland, according to late Professor Mahmoud Ghanayem, a well-known researcher. He mentions prominent figures that were active during that period of time, including Hanna Ibrahim, Mahmoud Abbasi, Zaki Darwish, Mustafa Murrar, and Muhammad Nafaa. Furthermore, he clearly indicates that this duality also included the question of Palestinian refugees, the tragedy of their displacement, and the special situation of those who remained. These dualities were embodied in the theme of diasporic alienation and alienation inside the homeland, and in the relations between Jews and Arabs in all its manifestations. Literature during that period also addressed other political and social issues that, in his opinion, reflected the characteristics of material and spiritual life, such as generational conflict, polygyny/divorce, younger generations’ preference for city living, and village life connection to religion and religiosity.

There is a recurring theme that has persisted for long decades (and not just in the 1970s): There were two streams of writing within the Green Line; some writers avoid discussing the political reality out of concern that they will clash with the Israeli authorities while others choose to engage in open conflict with the latter. Samih Al-Qasem and Mahmoud Darwish, together with other authors such as Muhammad Ali Taha, Naji Daher, and Salim Khoury, are among the writers who are recognized and identified today as having chosen the second stream. They also had tremendous fame in the Arab world.

Emile Habibi’s novel The Pessoptimist is rightly regarded as a turning point in the development of modernist literature within the Green Line. Prior to that, Palestinian literature was predominately ideological, indoctrinating, and entertaining. Ghanayem says that the seeds of The Pessoptimist were sown in the collection The Hexagram of the Six Days, and grew in the next generation of the likes of Riad Beidas mainly through his two novels Night Walk and The Marginal. In the novel Night Walk, Beidas invokes Scheherazade to illustrate the conflict of Palestinians within the Green Line who strive for noble values such as primacy, purity, and peace despite the tumultuous, conflicting, and draining reality they live in. Ghanayem and other academics attribute the shifts in Palestinian literature (both prose and poetry) within the Green Line since the 1970s to Israel’s relative freedom of expression and openness to the Arab world. This encouraged authors to articulate political and national issues using contemporary and innovative approaches.

Samih Al-Qasem

Salma Al-Khadra Al-Jayousi, a notable poet and researcher, highlighted the distinctions between Palestinian and modern Arabic literature. Despite her assertion that Palestinian literature was and still is a vital and significant part of Arab literature, these contrasts included the time and place, the tone of discourse, and the focus on current local political issues. She says: “Palestinian writers’ greatest struggle and greatest victory is their refusal to be helpless victims of humanity in the second half of the twentieth century. Although they never stop feeling their people’s suffering, they exhibit endurance that transcends tragedy and necessity. This is what defined the direction and tone of contemporary Palestinian literature.” This statement, in my opinion, relates mainly and decisively to the Palestinian writers within the Green Line because they are the ones who most immediately experience the Israeli-Palestinian. In addition, they have exhibited resilience and a relatively swift approach as they unleashed their creativity and writing skills. For example, the first Palestinian play written within the Green Line following the Nakba was in 1951. That’s only two years after the catastrophe!

According to Al-Jayousi, the Nakba is a source of both sacrifice and heroism for Palestinians. This duality has been and continues to be reflected in literary works produced within the Green Line. In her opinion, the first Intifada was a momentous point because it effectively transformed tragedy into heroism. This specific concept inspired a generation of Palestinian writers and poets within the Green Line, particularly in terms of promoting and revitalizing the theme of resistance literature and the so-called “correctness of contents.” Every stone flung in Jenin’s alleys or Al-Amari Camp sparked the imaginations of poets and writers in Nazareth, Haifa, and Jaffa.

Mahmoud Darwish

One of the major ironies that influenced Palestinian writing and reading within the Green Line was their openness to the Arab world, which coincided with Israeli occupation and initiatives! Prior to 1967 and Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians living within the Green Line were separated from those residing in those two territories. Following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, borders were opened, and the wall separating the West Bank and Gaza from the territories within the Green Line fell down (for a while). During the Camp David Agreement, Cairo made its books available to book importers, and after the invasion of Lebanon, Beirut’s books were made accessible for reading within the Green Line.

Al-Jayousi mentioned that Fadwa Touqan traveled to Israel when the border restrictions were lifted. There, she met Palestinian poets and afterwards wrote them a heated poem in which optimism and sorrow were intertwined. Later on, before leaving his homeland to live in the Arab world, Mahmoud Darwish wrote one of his most beautiful poems, “Diary of a Palestinian Wound” which he addressed to Fadwa Touqan, and which begins as follows:


We do not need to be reminded.

Mount Carmel is in us,

and on our eyelashes the grass of Galilee.

Do not say: If we could run to her like a river,

Do not say it!

We and our country are one flesh and bone.

Before June we were not fledgling doves.

so our love did not wither in bondage.

Sister, these twenty years

Our work was not to write poems

but to be fighting.

Emile Habibi

It may be too soon to define distinct features of contemporary Palestinian literary works within the Green Line over the last 20 years, particularly in the aftermath of the second Intifada. A number of early features, however, can be mentioned: Most poets of the twenty-first century, whether male or female, create personal poems. These poems are self-reflective and self-visionary, avoiding occasionalism and sloganeering in favor of free verse or poetry to make connections between the personal and the public, as well as between politics and power and how they interact. With this sentence: Among the most prominent of these poets are Nimr Saadi, Samer Khair, Ayman Kamel Ighbariya, Ali Qadiri, Asmaa Aziza, and Ali Mawasi, as well as well as a new generation that seeks to write nontraditional narrative prose (novels, tales, theater, etc.), whether in terms of creative storytelling or content.

Despite these new creative and content tendencies, the new generation of Palestinian writers within the Green Line is still writing in broad Palestinian time (past and present), despite differences in place and geography.

Salma Al-Khadra Al-Jayousi

What Jayousi mentioned regarding Palestinian writers in general, in my opinion, still holds true for the new generations of Palestinians within the Green Line, just as it did for previous generations. She says, “Palestinian writers are unable to flee the events of today’s history, which engulf them even before they are born. They can’t change their memories, rearrange their relations that go beyond random events, or choose what they liked about their past. They have become permanent exiles: eternal strangers who encounter challenges of all sizes and shapes.”

The historical narrative for this article is based on the following two research sources (in Arabic):

Mahmoud Ghanayem, “New Directions and Changes in Arab Narrative Literature in Israel,” The New East No. 35, 1993; and Salma Al-Khadra Al-Jayousi, Introduction to the Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, New York, Columbia University Press, 1992.

Weaving and Cracks by Fouad Agbaria. Courtesy of Zawyeh Gallery

  • Born in 1974, Ala Hlehel is a Palestinian writer and editor based in Akko. With degrees from the University of Haifa and the Screen Writing School in Tel Aviv, he has worked in print and broadcast media since 1995. Ala has written stage plays and scripts for films and presented his work at prestigious theaters such as the Royal Court Theatre, London, and the Schaubühne, Berlin. His novels and short stories in the humorously realistic tradition of Palestinian literature have appeared in venues such as Banipal and World Literature Today.

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