Narratives in Conflict: The Rise of the Palestinian Literary Narrative

Palestine 1

         Without a doubt, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the most irresolvable conflicts of our time. It has been the subject of the world’s top conflict resolution convoys, committees and UN-backed peace talks. As yet, it seems to only get worse with time. And the reason why this is the case is because this conflict is not only a dispute over territorial land. It is first and foremost a conflict of ideologies and narratives. As any conflict of ideologies, power dynamics intervene to champion only the most dominant narrative. Therefore, the recent rise of the Palestinian literary narrative could really disrupt this power dynamic and ensures that the margin’s narrative is voiced, heard and considered.

Since the classical era, conflict has been a poignant force on literature. Literature, in a sense, has chronicled all the struggles and conflicts of Man throughout the civilizations. Concurrently, it is essential to ask the question: why the history of Man is characterized by conflicts? Put simply,   the reason why there is a clash and why there is a conflict is because there are Meta-narratives that have encapsulated humanity ideologically. Terminologically speaking, this term was coined first by the French Literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition (1979). In this book, Lyotard suggests that the reason why there is a war is because of a narrative. People believe in certain beliefs and words and they behave according to them. Not only do they not question their credibility and other possible interpretations, but they blindly act as if they are the only valid beliefs out there. Their sole belief becomes the official discourse or the official story. It also becomes a people’s only version of truth.  In her famous Ted Talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns about the “danger of a single story.” The danger in this case is the totalitarianism of the meta-narratives. Furthermore, these meta-narratives often present themselves in the form of “isms.” People devote their life to one of the “isms” and they start to perceive things and behave only within its boundaries. A case in point, Marxism, as an ideological enterprise, attempts deliberately to impose its own utopian vision on the world. Its utopia tries to shape visions according to its patterns and structures. Equally significant, when these “isms” are reinforced by power, they become totalitarianisms. A relevant example to the question at hand is Zionism or the Zionist meta-narrative. This narrative asserts that its divine-based claim is the only and the most rightful claim. That is why those who behave according to Zionism claim that among all the people on earth, it is God’s chosen people, the Jewish people per se, who have the greatest claim to the Holy Land. Thus, the Zionist vis-à-vis the Israeli narrative blatantly refuses the Palestinian narrative even though it is supported by a greater historical claim not to mention the equally important religious claim. Therefore, meta-narratives are exclusionary and discriminatory as they exclude the powerfully inferior other despite the rightfulness of its claims. Interestingly enough, in opposition to the meta-narrative there is another form of narrative which can be furthered by literature. This literary narrative is not totalitarian like the meta-narrative which does not ask its adherents to examine things nor accept the different “Other.” Literature offers a free space where there is no such thing as boundaries on this different other; it sets forth an environment where opposites could be reconciled and where meta-narratives could be subverted. Hence, the rise of the Palestinian literary narrative presents a second story of the conflict. This story is narrated from the perspective of the oppressed and not the oppressor.

With a genuinely interesting analogy, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti describes in his 1997 Memoir I Saw Ramallah how meta-narratives work and how they manage to create a single perspective of history. He states:

It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story with “Secondly.” Start your story with “Secondly” and the world will be turned upside-down. Start your story with “Secondly,” and the arrows of the Red Indians become the original criminals and the guns of the white men are entirely the victims. It is enough to start with “Secondly,” for the anger of the black man against the white to be barbarous. Start with “Secondly,” and Gandhi becomes responsible for the tragedies of the British. ( Barghouti 215)

Taking this analogy into consideration, there is no wonder why Israel has always been depicted as the victim of the conflict whereas defenseless Palestinians as the aggressors. Indeed, pro-Israel media narratives have managed to shape a singular image of the Palestinians by telling their story starting with secondly. Instead of telling the story of Israeli drone strikes that kill tens of civilians in Gaza each year, and instead of telling the story of the IDF shooting of unarmed children in the legs to paralyze them, and instead of telling the story of the daily annexed Palestinian territories, it is essential first to label the Hamas resistance troops as the “terrorists” who are disturbing peace in the region. Not only this, but the pro-Israeli narrative goes as far as to legitimize Israel’s heinous war crimes in Gaza by blaming them all on Hamas and the Palestinians. In fact, when confronted with evidence of crimes committed by the IDF, it is enough to state that these killings are mere collateral damage that should be blamed on Hamas that utilizes citizens as human shields. This narrative actually overshadows occupation by blaming the victims. It is almost as a naively as saying that unarmed Palestinians kids are joyfully throwing themselves into Israeli bullets. Meanwhile, there is no mention of occupation, genocide and annexation of Palestinian territories which is the primary reason of these people’s revolt.

It is widely recognized how modernism in the Western world was a product of the two World Wars. In a similar fashion, the defeat of the Arab world in 1948 to Israel has influenced modernist literary, philosophical and artistic visions. The historic year of 1948 will forever be engraved in the Arab world’s history as the year of the Nakba, or the Catastrophe. This historical defeat resulted in the occupation of Palestine, a brutal form of modern colonialism that is still functioning. Consequently, the Arab intellectual experienced a sense of disillusionment, dispossession, defeat and fragmentation from his identity, history and land and even from his internal self. As the esteemed Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said explains in his After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), “the Nakba is the singular defining event of modern Palestinian history, one that has caused both the fragmentation, dispersal and destruction of Palestinian society and the formation of a new, exilic national identity: “every Palestinian”, he states, “knows perfectly well that what has happened to us over the last three decades is a direct consequence of Israel’s destruction of our society in 1948”. “Palestine”, he continues, “is exile, dispossession, the inaccurate memories of one place slipping into vague memories of another.” Exiled not only from place and history, but also from the possibility of telling that history, Palestinian life is thus “scattered, discontinuous, marked by the artificial and imposed arrangements of interrupted or confined space, by the dislocations and unsynchronized rhythms of disturbed time.” Having been jostled from the map, “the experience of dispossession and loss” has paradoxically become “the essence of Palestinian identity”, and the “truest reality” of the Palestinian “is expressed in the way [he crosses] from one place to another.” “This”, Said concludes, “is the deepest continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move.”

For this reason, Palestinian modernist poets and writers have sought to voice their voiceless people who are considered as mere fanatic terrorists and not as victims of occupation. Thus, Palestinian literature and the literature that reflects the question of Palestine in specific is has become a resentful force to these meta-narratives of the West that dehumanize Palestinians. This literature has successfully put the Palestinian question at the heart of the world’s intellectual debates. In the present climate, lots of people around the world know about Palestine because of the works of these intellectuals who indeed unveiled the recurrent injustice and spoke truth to power. These intellectuals have humanized the Arabic character and introduced it to the world as a normal human being who happens to resist and “fight” to restore what has been left of his taken motherland, Palestine. The work of Edward Said and the influential American intellectual Noam Chomsky, however, has introduced Palestine to the West. This, moreover, in the light of what the media propagates about the Middle East and Palestine, would have never been possible without the power of the word that resists the hegemony of the Western sword. Like so, Palestinian literary narratives are finding their way out of the exclusions of the Western meta-narrative as Palestinian life-writing has emerged as a major force in the battle over self-representation.

At the present moment, literature of exile, disposition, diaspora and representation is a flourishing outside the bordered margin. Undoubtedly, texts like Edward Said’s memoir Out of Place: A Memoir (1999) has introduced Palestinian diaspora and sense of exile to a broader audience. In this memoir and other similar texts, there is always a sense of displacement and feeling of non-belonging. The narrator is neither accepted by the West nor is he reintegrated with his occupied native land; he is a person shattered between borders and identities. Maybe the best illustrations of this are Mourid Barghouti’s two famous memoirs I Was Born There, I Was Born Here (2009) in which tells the story of Mourid trying to connect his son Tamim with his Palestinian roots, and I Saw Ramallah (1997) that has emerged as one of the most prominent literary representations of contemporary Palestinian experience to Anglo-American culture.         I saw Ramallah, in particular, is loosely structured around the trajectory of Barghouti’s 1996 return to his native village of Deir Ghassanah, just north of Ramallah, after an exile that lasted nearly 30 years. In the afterward of this memoir, Edward Said asserted that it “is one of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we presently have.” For this reason, Palestinian accounts are insightful readings that are tainted with trajectory bitterness of Palestinians’ right of return. This theme is recurrent in many following memoirs and literary narratives that have made it sure to bring the other side of the story to the surface. Therefore, the rise of a Palestinian literary narrative is a bet that can restore balance of power to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mohamed El Metmari is a freelance writer, artist and a pro-Palestinian activist based in Larache, Morocco. He is an Open Hands Initiative’s Conflict Resolution alumnus. Currently, he is a graduate student at the University of Abdelmalek Essaadi, Martil, Morocco conducting an MA thesis centered on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.




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