Column: Arab Literature

Newt Gingrich comments on the Palestinian people during a live debate on ABC News. ©
Marcia Lynx Qualey
Last updated: January 2, 2012

Required reading for those watching the U.S. presidential debates

The U.S. presidential debate-season is here, with its slew of angrier-than-thou statements about bombing Middle Eastern countries back to a pre-literate state.

These comments, now routine, hardly raise an eyebrow. But Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich got attention when he recently remarked:

“I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it’s tragic.”

During a Republican debate last Saturday, Gingrich stood by his narrative of a Palestinian people who could “go many places” but were simply refusing “for a variety of political reasons.”

A few books give more depth to Gingrich’s statement:

“I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people…”.

Certainly the Palestinian narrative — like all nation-group narratives — had to be created and thus “invented.” For reading material on the invention of group identity that particularly impacts Palestine/Palestinians, you might read Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People. Or else, for other narratives of identity formation: The Formation of Croatian National Identity or The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity.

“…who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community.”

Yes, most Palestinians were and are Arabs. But, if Gingrich wants to hark back to a time “before Palestine,” then it makes more historical sense to flip back to a time before nation-states, when Palestinians were part of the Ottoman (not Arab) Empire.  Possible reading here: A Rift in Time: Travels with My Ottoman Uncle, by award-winning Palestinian memoirist Raja Shehadeh.  

“And they had a chance to go many places…”

This interesting sentence-fragment can be spoken to in different ways by many lovely books:

Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, trans. (beautifully) Ibrahim Muhawi

Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah, trans. (also beautifully) Ahdaf Soueif

Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, trans. Humphrey Davies (and just out from Bloomsbury)

Suad Amiry’s Nothing To Lose But Your Life (written in English, and quite funny)

Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks (written in beautiful English)

“and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s,”

I haven’t included a graphic novel yet, so Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Footnotes from Gaza bear mentioning for a “variety of reasons.” As do so many other works: I’ll note just Naji al-Ali’s classic cartoon collection A Child in Palestine and Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns, trans. Paula Haydar.

“and it’s tragic.”

Too many to mention:

Emile Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed : the Pessoptimist

Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and other Palestinian Stories

Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun

A.B. Yehoshua Facing the Forests

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