Seeking Palestine:New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home

According to Karma Nabulsi, although the recent breathtaking demonstrations from Jordan to Yemen- the Arab Spring uprisings were a sign of dramatic revolutionary change, in occupied Palestine things appear much the same.

A fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and tutor in politics, Nabulsi, is one of 15 contributors to a fine collection of new Palestinian writing on exile and home –Seeking Palestine, edited by Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh.

In her chapter ‘Exiled from Revolution’, Nabulsi laments ‘the fragmentation of the body politic’ where Palestinian leadership no longer involves itself in the ideas and practice of liberation but in business deals. She protests the unbridgeable chasm existing between ‘Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah, and between Palestinians inside Palestine and the millions of refugees outside of it’.

While the former representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) pens this chapter  ‘the awesome West watches mesmerised’ ‘as masses of Arabs’ ‘ create and celebrate their revolutions’. Some Palestinians believe that the revolutionary spirit died after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but everyone agrees that it was well over by 1991 and that Palestine is now ‘at a collective nadir in a long history of resistance.’ Nabulsi hopes the recent Arab uprisings will result in a return to Palestinian organizing and a revolutionary present.

Rema Hammami still lives in the shell that remains of her beloved Palestine. Born in Saudi Arabia, Hammami grew up in Jerusalem, Britain, Belgium and the US and in 1987 returned to live in Jerusalem. A professor of anthropology, she settled in Sheikh Jarrah where most of her fellow residents were ‘surviving remnants of a more genteel past’- mostly spinsters and widows from good families who had died or moved away. Rarely did she encounter a nuclear family, let alone a child. Her commute to Gaza for her fieldwork –only made bearable by her return to this strange haven in east Jerusalem. Hammami describes the Second Intifada in 2002 as bringing about the ‘annihilation of our familiar links between time, place and matter.’ The regular trip to Gaza became impossible when flying checkpoints were thrown down just below her home- all part of the settler plan for her neighbourhood that would soon include the eviction of 500 Palestinians and the building of 300 settler homes in their place.

Palestine-in exile,” says Rana Barakat, “is an idea, a love, a goal, a movement, a massacre, a march, a parade, a poem, a thesis, a novel and yes, a commodity, as well as a people scattered, displaced, dispossessed and determined.”

But it is also about the resilience of those who have ‘remained in place’, as novelist and poet Mourid Barghouti discovered when he hired a driver to take him to Jericho. The Driver Mahmoud is a story about Barghouti’s trip in a yellow taxi where to dodge Israeli tanks, circumvent closed roads and evade ubiquitous flying checkpoints, Mahmoud is forced to drive across open fields, become mired in mud, and to Barghouti’s amazement deliver his disparate passengers.

Mourid Barghouti has been living away from his fellow passengers, his countrymen and women, and finds their light approach to the plans of the ‘terrifying individual such as Sharon’ incomprehensible. When Mahmoud announces that the anticipated attack will come tonight his fellow passengers are not particularly upset. ‘Everyday they kill us retail, and once in a while they get the urge to kill us wholesale’ says one of the passengers. Barghouti says that for the inhabitants of these Palestinian cities, ‘everything has become food for jokes’.

Barghouti thinks that the young taxi driver Mahmoud  is a hero.“We are his nation: an old man and two women (one of whom doesn’t cover her hair and face, while the other wears a full veil); a man who’s short and another who’s fat; a university student; and a poet who is amazed by everything he sees.’ He asks himself if he would be able to lead such a trip. But as he says: ‘I am a writer-that is, I don’t do anything.’

It is probably quite correct to assume that most poets and novelists could not lead such a perilous expedition but then that is not their role. Rather their task is to write- whereby they teach, inform, enlighten and entertain and this applies to the work of the contributors to this fine collection of new Palestinian writing on exile and home-Seeking Palestine.

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home is published by Spinifex Press and for release in July 2012
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