3 Books on Pre-1948 Palestine, Its Invention, Un-Invention, and Re-Invention

A view from the sea at Jaffa looking east onto the city, 1898-1914. (Matson Collection) From Electronic Intifada.

When then-US presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich referred to “an invented Palestinian people,” surely he meant to un-invent them: Who? Whah? Home? Dignity?

Rebuttals were various. But, although Gingrich invoked it derisively, invention is often a positive thing for a culture and community. And literature is part of the great invention, and re-invention, of peoples.

Palestine has long been in people’s stories. But, to stay alive, it must keep talking about itself, keep re-inventing. Historical narratives are an important part of this, and three recent books cast us back to Palestine before ’48. All must have involved some level of research — Rift in Time is non-fiction — but all are also inventing, imagining.

As Though She Were Sleeping, Elias Khoury (2007), trans. Marilyn Booth (Archipelago, 2012) and Humphrey Davies (Quercus, 2011).

This beautiful novel is set in Beirut, Jaffa, and Nazareth, and begins and ends in December 1947. The main character, Milia, is giving birth (to a new nation? well…). The action takes us to times throughout the early 1900s. There are lovely descriptions of particular changes: in political consciousness, in dress, in birthing customs.

Milia talks about two types of stories: those that have merely ended, but can be revived and endlessly retold, and those that have died. But if the story of pre-1948 Palestine has died, Khoury is here trying to bring it back to life.

Here, Milia (Booth’s translation):

She went to Jaffa to attend the brother’s funeral and there she saw the country called Palestine. In Beirut she had not sensed herself as part of a country despite living through the headiness of independence from the French Mandate. She had remained mostly oblivious. She had not heard about Faisal I and the story of the kingdom he had founded in Damascus, which was to extend all the way to Beirut, until her husband told her about it in the Hotel Massabki, when he called her to stand beneath the image of a man with distracted eyes who was said to be king of the Syrian lands.

The (Lebanese) Milia to her (Palestinian) husband:

Tomorrow, my love – well, after something like fifty years when this soil, our soil, gives birth to a great poet, you all – you Palestinians – will know that struggle yields victory only through the word, for it is stronger than weapons.

Mansour responds:

We have to fight with the poetry we know how to compose now, and with that poetry we’ll win the fight.

A Rift in Time: Travels with My Ottoman Uncle, Raja Shehadeh (Profile Books, 2010)

This takes us yet earlier, to the turn of the previous century, and Shehadeh’s great-great uncle, Najib Nassar, who foretold the clash between the Palestinians and the new settlers, and — as an outspoken newspaperman — found himself in conflict with the Ottoman rulers on the eve of the First World War.

Here, at the end of the book, Shehadeh talks about another invention, and a simultaneous un-invention:

The fall of Palestine proved detrimental not only to its Arab inhabitants but also to the land itself. The new Jewish state that emerged proceeded to rapidly eradicate as much evidence as possible of the Arab presence on the land and to accommodate millions of new Jewish immigrants from different parts of the world, including survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Very quickly the entire country was reinvented. 

Italics mine.

Time of White Horses, Ibrahim Nasrallah (2007), trans. Nancy Roberts (AUC Press, 2012)

Nasrallah’s attempt to chronicle early 20th century Palestine is both an of acknowledgement and of creative invention. To write this novel, and others in the series, Nasrallah took down oral histories of those Palestinians who had lived through Ottoman rule.

Nasrallah thus mixes the “fictional” with the “real”: Indeed, he refers, in passing, to Raja Shehadeh’s great-great (Ottoman) uncle Najib Nassar, and Nassar’s role as editor-in-chief of the Carmel newspaper in the early 1900s.

A Time of White Horses also takes us to Jaffa in the mid-1940s, giving us a much different view of the place from the one in As Though She Were Sleeping. The two projects are very different — Horses is a three-generation epic while Sleeping takes place over three days — but they both speak to the same landscapes.

Hajj Salem: “We’ve fought the Turks, we’ve fought the British, we’ve fought the Jewish colonists, we’ve fought hunger, we’ve fought poverty. And now it’s time for us to fight this unjust verdict.”