Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘Palestinian Literature and Film’

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Prof. Joseph Farag, author of Palestinian Literature in Exile: Gender, Aesthetics and Resistance in the Short Story and faculty at the University of Minnesota.

Farag spoke particularly about his course “Palestinian Literature and Film.” For want of space, this will include only a syllabus overview at the bottom, although more details about the readings will appear in the collected series of discussions: Conversations on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation.

You begin (it seems) by simultaneously situating the discussion in history & questioning how histories are made, particularly histories in settler colonies. What spaces of wonder do you want to open up before the literary and film works are introduced? What groundwork do you think needs to be laid before throwing everyone into the texts and films themselves? What tools or vocabulary do you want them to have access to?

Joseph R. Farag: I don’t — indeed can’t — assume any background knowledge of Palestinian history, politics, and the Palestinians’ current situation among my students, so a foundation of basic knowledge needs to be laid down before students can understand why, for instance, the three men in the sun have left their homes and are being smuggled into Kuwait in the first place, to take just one example. At the same time, I feel incredibly ambivalent about foregrounding Palestinian history and politics in this way. There’s a risk that Palestinian literary and cinematic production be seen merely as a sociological artifact, important only for what it tells us about the “more important” matters of history and politics, and therefore subordinate to them.

Teaching Palestinian literature in the American academy, I think it’s imperative to draw connections to processes of settler-colonialism in order to compel students to reflect on the fact of American settler-colonialism and the parallels between Palestinians and Native Americans. It can be too easy for students to recognize processes of colonial expansion, domination, and dispossession in distant locales while remaining largely oblivious to them in their own backyards, so normalized are they. This is all the more important at an institution like the University of Minnesota, at which I teach and which is a “Land Grant” university — begging the question of whose land it was that was granted, by whom, to whom, and at the expense of whom?

What are some of the missteps — or choices that might lead students down non-fruitful paths — that you think could be made when teaching with Palestinian literature? If we imagine this as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” exercise, what sorts of options would you think might end with the students simply solidifying the opinions they brought into the class, bricking themselves further into these views?

JRF: Teaching Arabophone literatures in general, and Palestinian literature in particular, in the Western academy is a veritable minefield for both students and instructors alike. As I said, I think reducing Palestinian literary production to a political manifesto at the expense of the appreciation of literary artistry is one of the main stumbling blocks that I caution students against. When studying “western” literatures, students are encouraged to examine and appreciate its formal aspects and artistry, often to the exclusion of its political context. How often do instructors situate Shakespeare within his political moment when teaching Richard III for instance (this is not a rhetorical question, I would be genuinely interested to know). I try to counter this tendency by focusing on literary aesthetics, innovations, and transitions in Palestinian literature. To go back to the example of Men in the Sun, what is the significance of Kanafani’s use of abrupt spatial and temporal shifts and nonlinear narrative, both to the text and the political and historical circumstances it depicts as well as to the broader history of Arabic literary aesthetics? Students are often surprised to learn that Palestinian authors have consistently been at the forefront of Arabic literary aesthetic and formal experimentation, not so much because they thought otherwise, but because they haven’t necessarily considered the issue in the first place. In Trials of Arab Modernity Tarek el-Ariss quotes Marilyn Booth lamenting that “Arabic literature isn’t allowed to have aesthetics.” This is something I try to get students to think about.

There is also a risk, by no means particular to Palestinian literature but rather generalizable to literatures of the Global South more broadly, of students treating the literature as a sort of vicarious experience of abjection. It must be said that demographically the majority of students enrolled at the University of Minnesota and in my Palestinian Literature and Film course are white and middle class. Encountering these literatures could therefore be treated as a sort of “misery tourism” wherein students feel like they “really know what it’s like to be Palestinian” because they’ve read a dozen or so texts by Palestinian authors. It’s popular to think that literature gives us a “window into the lives of others” and other similar cliches, but marginalized, stigmatized subjectivities such as the Palestinians’ aren’t a costume that we can try on and take off at our whim by opening and closing a book. The desire to better understand diverse Palestinian experiences through their literature is noble, the claim to authoritatively know Palestinians through it isn’t.

Another issue that has become more prominent recently, ironically because of the greater recognition of Palestinian narratives, is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is viewed merely a tragic “clash of narratives.” This view is particularly prominent among some progressive/liberal circles. While the recognition of Palestinian narratives and their history and experiences, in which literature has played no small part, is to be celebrated, a view that unproblematically situates them alongside Zionist-Israeli narratives without appreciation for the vast chasm of disparity of power that separates the two elides the Palestinians’ relative lack of agency vis-a-vis the Israeli state and its gargantuan military-security-hasbara/propaganda apparatus. When I previously taught in the UK, I taught a year-long version of this course which covered both Palestinian and Israeli literatures, and I feared that students might be lulled into just such a perspective. To their credit, my students were very keen in picking up on the glaring disparities of power separating Palestinian and Israeli narratives, and how Israeli texts themselves are blinded to these power dynamics (think, for instance, Amos Oz). I genuinely don’t know if that would be the case in the United States where the Zionist-Israeli narrative remains far more prevalent (though its hegemony is steadily eroding) and where students might be a bit more receptive to feel-good platitudes.

In this course, the literary door seems to open with Kanafani. What happens if you start with Kanafani? What do his stories open up?

JRF: I freely confess to engaging in shameless sentimentalism in my opening with Kanafani’s short story, “The Land of Sad Oranges.” The fact is, that was the first piece of Palestinian literature I ever encountered, and I found it so deeply moving, poignant, and beautiful, despite its bleak subject-matter, that I’ve resolved to make it the first story my students encounter as well. I was an undergraduate Political Science major at the time, and Kanafani’s individuation and humanization of Palestinians in that story – not least through the use of the second-person which, depending how you read it, situates the reader in the story – could not have been more at odds with Political Science’s abstractions and focus on elite actors, institutions, and structures. Similarly, many of my students come from policy-driven, positivist social sciences and I think the bleak, open-ended non-ending of that story, lacking a definitive resolution or denouement, compels them to rethink what it means to “solve” the “Palestinian issue.” How does one “solve” successive generations’ dispossession, displacement, and trauma with some policy prescription?

Sentimentality aside, the story also centers land, something students often comment that they take for granted, something colonized people don’t have the luxury of doing. This again speaks to the settler-colonial dynamics of both Palestine and the United States, and it compels students to reflect upon more local settler-colonial dynamics.

I’m not familiar with the anthology you use, A Land of Stone and Thyme. What are its strengths as an anthology? Do you use other stories from it?

JRF: I’m always a little bit ambivalent about anthologies in general. On the one hand, they’re fantastic for bringing together a bunch of authors and texts (particularly the much-neglected short story genre, about which I’ve written elsewhere) that may otherwise not have found a venue for translation, publication, and presentation to a non-Arabic speaking audience. Where would the study of Palestinian literature in the western academy be today without Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s seminal and pioneering Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature? On the other hand, there is a risk of anthologies acting as a kind of whirlwind traipse through a highly diverse and differentiated corpus of literature, superficially skimming the surface but giving the impression of exhaustiveness. I think Nur and Abdelwahab ElMessiri navigate these pitfalls very well in A Land of Stone and Thyme. In the introduction to the anthology they acknowledge that “the short stories of this anthology combine to form a myth and are each a facet of a meta-narrative or framework which has been imposed upon them.”

There is therefore a ready acknowledgement of the ways in which the editors’ selection and curation of texts comprising the anthology essentially begets a new text altogether, separate from the original sources from which the texts were taken. Similarly, the editors include a section on the politics of translation in their introduction, explicitly articulating their guiding philosophy for translating the texts they include in the anthology. In it, they make a case for erring on the side of literalness, even, perhaps even especially, if it produces a jarring, un-smooth translation. The editors state “by erring on the side of literality when translating an Arabic text into English, the translator places the reader in the uncomfortable but also enabling position of being continually reminded that the literature he or she is reading belongs to another linguistic system and hence to another cultural formation.” This is something important for students to bear in mind, particularly against the potential for “misery tourism” noted earlier.

Nonetheless, anthologies have their inherent and inevitable shortcomings. A Land of Stone and Thyme contains numerous short stories by Ghassan Kanafani – more than any other author represented in the anthology I think – taken from across his extensive body of works without indication of the stories’ original publication dates. They are ultimately disembodied from the collections in which the stories originally appeared, the internal logic that guided these short story collections, and the shifts and transformations of Kanafani’s writing from one collection to the next. There’s a risk of dilettantism here. I ultimately find it much more satisfying to read a short story collection than an anthology put together by editors, however sensitive they may be to the various pitfalls and shortcomings of assembling an anthology.

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The Ship (1973), trans. Adnan Haydar (1985) is a strong, under-appreciated novel.  How did you come to this book, and what settled you on the idea of including it here?

JRF: It’s interesting that you describe The Ship as under-appreciated. I think among Palestinian literary scholars it’s considered a central, canonical text, though one that often elicits heated debates about its merits. Many view it, and Jabra’s writings more broadly, as rather too rarefied and elitist, while Bashir Abu Manneh makes an impassioned argument for Jabra’s role as a literary realist and rebel intellectual. I’m not sure where I stand on the issue personally – it seems like I go back and forth every time I read the novel. For students, however, the setting of the novel, aboard a ship laboriously making its way around the Mediterranean, briefly docking at ports here and there, but remaining ever itinerant, productively evokes the dilemma of exile and Palestinian displacement and itinerancy. The sea forms a stark juxtaposition to the absent land, which is passionately pined-for, particularly by the novel’s Palestinian character, Wadi’, whose eloquence in describing his longing to return to Palestine is perhaps unmatched by any character in Palestinian literature. Unless a student has happened to experience that dispossession, forced displacement, and the instability of a life of exile, it can be difficult for her or him to adequately appreciate the toll that takes on a person’s psyche, but this novel articulates that sense of loss and trauma, as well as resilience in their aftermath, better than most.

At the same time, the same frustrations and criticisms that Palestinian literary scholars have toward the novel surface among students as well. They are often surprised by how urbane and well-versed in European literature and philosophy the characters (and, by extension, Jabra) are, but see the lengthy debates about, for instance, Aquinas, to be too much of a tangential distraction from the main action of the plot. I take their point here, but I try to explain the vanguard role that Jabra saw the author as playing in the reform — or perhaps, revolution — of Arab cultures, and the role of the novel in that process.

Raja Shehadeh makes the argument in Where the Line is Drawn (2017, I think) that he as a young man in the 1980s was troubled that Palestinians had not formed a national identity as the Israelis did, because of fragmentation. (Growing up in Ramallah, he knew he was not Jordanian, but wasn’t quite sure what he was.) I see Darwish’s “Identity Card” and Remi Kanazi depicting a clear Palestinian identity, but do you talk about the art of identity…dissenters?

JRF: I don’t know if we look at “dissenters” per se, but throughout the course we look at the multiplicity of Palestinian identies, subverting any notion of a single, monolithic Palestinian subject. At the outset of the course I explicitly highlight the fact that Palestinians lack a territorial base, a state, a centralized bureaucracy, and all the traditional apparatuses for shaping and policing identity formation – a unified school system and curriculum, a state broadcaster, official state museums, state archives, etc. This ultimately places an enormous burden on Palestinian cultural production, and Palestinian literature (and, more recently, film) in particular for performing the sorts of functions that in other contexts operate almost invisibly to form and police national identity (one need only look at the controversy surrounding American football players refusing to stand during the national anthem to get a sense of the ways in which such identity formation-policing dynamics permeate every facet of society in the American context). This is a burden that I think almost all Palestinian authors alternatingly embrace and resent.

In an interview with Adam Shatz in 2001, Mahmoud Darwish acknowledged that burden, lamenting that “Sometimes I feel as if I am read before I write. My readers expect something from me, but I write as a poet, and in my poetry a woman is a woman, a mother is a mother, and the sea is the sea. But many readers have made this link, as if everything I write is symbolic. So when I write love poetry, they think it’s about Palestine. That’s nice, but it’s just one aspect of my work.” I think in many ways all Palestinian literature is a literature of dissent. In my book on the Palestinian short story, I write: “It is truly remarkable, when one pauses to consider it, that a beleaguered, stateless, diasporic nation, so heavily dependent upon cultural production to maintain its identity and cohesion should be so willing, through that self-same cultural production, to engage in such sustained, and oftentimes harsh, introspection and self-critique.” Palestinian literature ultimately undermines any facile notion of pan-Arab fraternity in its searing indictments of corrupt and feckless Arab regimes, excoriates the patriarchal national movement by highlighting the hypocrisies of its calls for liberation while subordinating women, and disavows deference to the paternalism of older generations who claim to know what’s best all the while presiding over the destruction of Palestinian societies in an ongoing Nakba.

There really are no sacred cows in Palestinian literature, even Palestine itself. Think of the refrain that surfaces numerous times throughout Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns: “Sink into the mud, oh Palestine.” The fact that Palestinian literature can be so irreverent, even to its own putative “national cause” comes as a big surprise to students, especially when set against the ways in which patriotism is policed and imposed in America. They expect Palestinian literature to be doctrinaire, but it’s anything but.

What brought you to Liana Badr’s Eye of the Mirror? What lines of interest, art, inquiry have students found in it?

JRF: One of the things that raises students’ eyebrows about this text is the fact that the siege and eventual massacre of Palestinian at Tal Ezza’tar, around which the novel revolves, is perpetrated by Christian, Lebanese, fascist militia. I think this surprises them for a number of reasons:

1) Students subject to the sorts of flattening, undifferentiating discourses about Arabs that are so hegemonic come to see Arabs as a monolithic, homogeneous entity. This is compounded by the prevailing but ultimately cynical and unfounded official Arab state discourses of Arab unity, fraternity, etc. which students take at face value. They are therefore shocked – shocked! – to learn that Palestinians have suffered in no small measure at the hands of their putative Arab allies and brethren (I use highly gendered terminology with tongue firmly in cheek here).

2) Students simply aren’t aware of the existence of armed Christian militia in the Arab world (admittedly in the past moreso than in present), and they are all the more surprised that these militia espoused an explicitly fascist ideology and named themselves – the Phalangists – after Spanish fascists. This disconcertingly jars students’ preconceptions of Arab Christian communities as the eternal victims of so-called “Islamists.” This again speaks to the homogenizing discourses about the Arab world and the over-emphasis they place on sectarianism as the defining fissures in “Arab Society.” What this story demonstrates is that there is no singular “Arab Society,” and that the position of religious minorities in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon vary to a wide degree.

3) Following from #2, although these sectarian elements are prominent in the text, they are ultimately subordinated to issues of class and nation. The Palestinian residents of Tal Ezza’tar are despised by the Phalangists in the novel not, primarily, because they are Muslim, but because they are Palestinian and poor. Conflicts in the Arab world, and between Israel and the Palestinians are more often than not reduced to sectarian and religious cleavages. What this novel highlights are the largely secular national and class underpinnings of those conflicts that so often masquerade as “millennia old religious conflicts.”

The novel is also useful for illustrating the ways in which the power dynamics of gender are dynamic, fluid, and ever-shifting, especially in conditions of conflict. The patriarch of the family at the outset of the novel is reduced to a sorry shadow of himself by the end, while the meek and timid women in his family, and in the camp as a whole, emerge as strong – though it would be a stretch to say “empowered” given their situation – subjects by the end, without whose tireless labor – so often rendered invisible by the overarching narratives of Palestinian armed resistance – the camp would have collapsed much sooner. The novel makes visible that labor and the community of women that grows out of it, and almost completely sidelines the role of masculinized armed resistance.

The novel is ultimately unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality visited upon the Palestinian residents of Tal Ezza’tar, with visceral portrayals of death throughout. At the end of the novel, one of the main female protagonists is captured by the Phalangists and the reader is led to understand in no uncertain terms that she is subsequently raped. Although not directly portrayed in the text, it does nothing to diminish its horror. This course is rarely jovial or uplifting, but the week we spend on this novel is always particularly somber and emotionally challenging.

Great that you have a short story by Samira Azzam. I am surprised there is no collection of her work in English. Why did you choose this particular story?

JRF: I should first say that I am a great admirer of Azzam and her work, and, as I’ve lamented elsewhere and on multiple occasions, her relative obscurity today is a grave injustice. She was a pioneering and seminal figure in post-1948 Palestinian literature who has yet to receive her due, particularly when juxtaposed with the notoriety of her younger contemporary, Ghassan Kanafani. I would love for her entire corpus to be translated, particularly given that what little has been so far is highly unrepresentative of her overall body of literature.

Having said all of that, I include Bread of Sacrifice on the syllabus as an exemplar of the gendered, masculinist discourses of Palestinian identity and national liberation that later Palestinian feminist authors such as Sahar Khalifeh and Liana Badr would subsequently rebel against. The fact that Azzam was herself a woman does not exclude her from adopting, producing, and ultimately reinforcing these kinds of masculinist discourses, which are amply demonstrated in the following passage from Bread of Sacrifice:

“That spring, Ramiz learned about two things – love and war – and the first gave meaning to the second. War was not simply an enemy to kill voraciously. Rather, it was an assertion of the life of the land he loved and the woman he loved. Palestine was not only a sea with fishing boats, and oranges shining like gold, and not just olives and olive oil filling the big oil jars. It was Su’ad’s black eyes as well. In Su’ad’s eyes he saw all of Palestine’s goodness. He saw the image of a happy home for him, and a wife who would bear him young heroes and make her love the meaning of his existence.”

It’s a relatively brief passage, but it’s saturated with the sort of masculinist, gendered language and images that would become the bane of Palestinian feminists. It’s important that students understand how these sorts of gendered discourses function and its a thread that we trace throughout the course.

For extra credit, your students could read Sahar Khalifeh’s Asl w Fasl, which is in English as Of Noble Origins….

JRF: I used to have Khalifeh’s The Inheritance on a previous version of the syllabus, but I removed it. It does a good job of portraying the post-Oslo malaise, but ultimately I was unconvinced by its literary merits, and having started out this interview lamenting the tendency to subordinate literature to politics, it would be hypocritical to keep a text on the syllabus for its political content while being unconvinced of its literary merits.

I would love for someone to translate Khalifeh’s لم نعد جواري لكم/lam na’ud jawaari lakum/We Are No Longer Your Slaves, which I far prefer, or Liana Badr’s مذكرات إمرأة غير واقعية/mudhakaraat imra’a ghayr waqi’iyya/Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman. Both of these novels, among each respective author’s earliest works, are also among their best, and are watersheds in Palestinian feminist writing, yet they remain untranslated for reasons I can only speculate at, but nonetheless can’t fully comprehend. Khalifeh’s باب الساحة/baab al-saaha/Courtyard Gate is also an excellent portrayal of gender and sexual politics in the context of the first Palestinian Intifada, yet also, inexplicably, remains untranslated, to my great chagrin. It would be an excellent text for a syllabus on Palestinian literature. I must confess to not having read أصل وفصل/asl wa-fasl/Noble Origins, but will definitely have to do so.

When I saw “Theatre of the Absurd” my mind went to theatre. Have you ever included playtexts, like 603 by Imad Farajin?

JRF: I don’t – this is another glaring omission in my syllabus, as is, it must be said, poetry, which, with the exception of the Darwish and Kenazi you referenced earlier, is conspicuously absent from the syllabus as a whole. As you may know, the field of literary studies is further subdivided into prose, poetry, and drama, between which rigid distinctions are often erected. Each subfield is a world all its own, with their own particular vocabularies, methodologies, approaches, etc. As a prose specialist, I hesitate to “dabble” in areas where I don’t feel I can do the material justice. This is the case with drama and poetry. Having said that, Minneapolis has a thriving theater scene and I have started to become involved in a couple of theatre initiatives, pertaining to Palestine and Arab-Americans, so as my own familiarity with that world grows I can see myself incorporating plays into the syllabus as well. I wouldn’t want to do so tokenistically however, simply for the sake of having a play on the syllabus. The text would have fit into and contribute to the overall logic and aims of the syllabus (which are constantly evolving).

Glad there’s a humor break! By the time we’d reached Arabesques, I was hoping we’d get something like Sayed Kashua or Suad Amiry. And there are indeed two weeks of humor, Pessoptimist and Dancing Arabs. Why that book, among Kashua’s works?

JRF: I’m not sure that students always find Pessoptimist as laugh-out-loud funny as I do, but they certainly pick up on the humor in it and, as you say, by that point in the syllabus, having witnessed so much tragedy, it’s badly needed. But, moreover, it’s also instructive for understanding the subversive potential of humor. The novel isn’t simply light, comic relief for its own sake but rather registers a searing indictment of the Israeli state, its paradoxes, and hypocrisies, in a way that arguably only humor can. These students are of the Daily Show, Key and Peele, and John Oliver generation – they don’t need any convincing of the subversive potential of humor. But I think they are surprised that it finds manifestation in Palestinian writing. This is against the prevailing popular portrayals of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular as perpetually stern-faced, angry, and humorless – which can’t be further from the ingenious and innovative ways in which humor plays a central and indispensable role in Arab daily and political life (recall the various hilarious chants and placards that marked the “Arab Spring” for instance).

As for Dancing Arabs, I chose it for its portrayal of the fraught dynamics of the subjectivity of Palestinian citizens of Israel, which I think it does more explicitly than Let It Be Morning. I admit I have yet to read Second Person Singular (so many novels, so little time!) so I can’t speak to that one. The deep shame and self-loathing at being Palestinian demonstrated by the unnamed narrator of Dancing Arabs – indeed, the very fact that he remains unnamed, i.e. identity-less – throughout the novel speaks eloquently to the stigmatization of Palestinian identity in Israeli society, where Palestinians are euphemistically referred to as “Arab Citizens of Israel,” thereby erasing their Palestinian-ness. The more the narrator attempts to “pass” for Israeli, the more he is rewarded in society, the more of himself he loses, until he’s ultimately a craven, empty shell, despised by his wife and nonetheless rejected by mainstream Israeli society. It’s a no-win situation for him.

Why land on Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Prairies of Fever (1985/1993)? For the ways it rhymes with Men in the Sun, building on Kanafani’s work?

JRF: Throughout the syllabus we examine the existential precariousness of Palestinians. We begin by addressing the various ways in which Palestinians are denied to even have existed — from Golda Meier’s famous pronouncement that “There was no such thing as Palestinians,” to the infamous “Joan Peters Affair,” (in which an author by the name of Joan Peters, through a tendentious reading of archives and documents, claims in a book titled From Time Immemorial that there has never been a permanently settled community of Palestinians in the territory of historic Palestine), to more recent pronouncements such as Newt Gingrich’s assertion in 2011, while the forerunner in the Republican primaries, that the Palestinians are an “invented people,” – I could go on.

It is against this eliminationist logic that seeks to deny the Palestinians something as basic and fundamental as their existence, that Palestinians have struggled to put forward their own narratives of not merely existing, but thriving prior to their dispossession, and, indeed, even since it. It is this dilemma and acute anxiety that Kanafani addresses in Men in the Sun, allegorized by the title characters suffocating silently to death in the sweltering hold of an empty water tank in the no-man’s land between the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders. And although it becomes increasingly implausible to deny Palestinians’ existence over the course of post-1948 history (though this doesn’t stop many), and though Palestinian identity itself continues to transform over this time (from abject refugees to confident freedom-fighters, for instance), the fact that so many decades after the publication of Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Nasrallah should strike such an existentially uncertain note in Prairies goes to the heart of the continued precariousness of the Palestinian subject given Palestinian statelessness and exiled dispersal. This brilliantly manifests in the novel through the absurdity of the protagonist’s insistence that he isn’t dead, against the seemingly damning but paradoxical evidence that he paid for his own burial.

But there’s so much more to the text than that – I think that glib summary actually does a lot of violence to the text. It’s also an example of the formal and aesthetic experimentation that, by the final week in the course, students should have a strong appreciation for. It’s a highly abstract, nonlinear, nightmarish, and ultimately very difficult novel that can only come at the very end of a journey like the one we take in this course. By way of making students pause to reflect on their own progress and development of their critical faculties, I always ask them “what if I’d assigned this novel at the beginning of the course?” and I get everything from knowing chuckles to statements like “I would have dropped the course.” It’s also so indeterminate in its ending, much like the Palestinian situation today (not to resort to glib one-to-one “literature as reflection of reality” analogies). At first this tendency found throughout Palestinian literature frustrates students, who I think are trained from childhood to expect stories and films to have nice, neatly-packaged endings. Palestinian literature consistently refuses to provide that satisfaction, nor should it. By the end of the class, students appreciate why that’s the case, and can’t imagine it being otherwise.

It’s always faintly ridiculous to ask why something’s not on a syllabus (why haven’t you included every one of my favorite books!). But what about writing from Gaza?

JRF: On a purely technical level, the syllabus is organized thematically, rather than geographically. Even in the case of literature of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the theme is more about how characters in texts navigate the paradox of being citizens of a state that denies their existence, rather than the geographical territory of Israel. So having texts from Gaza for the sake of having texts from Gaza doesn’t “fit” into the logic of the syllabus. But this isn’t necessarily an excuse, and the absence of Gazan authors is another unfortunate and conspicuous omission that I would be keen to address in future iterations of the syllabus.

Joseph R. Farag is the author of Politics and Palestinian Literature in Exile: Gender, Aesthetics, and Resistance in the Short Story. He is currently Assistant Professor of Modern Arab Studies at the University of Minnesota where his teaching includes courses in the areas of gender and sexuality in modern Arabic literature, Palestinian literature and film, Orientalism, and Arab American cultural production.  He holds a PhD from Queen Mary University of London where he was also Lecturer in Middle Eastern Literary Studies.  Farag has also held a EUME post-doctoral fellowship at the Forum Transregionale Studien in affiliation with the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies, Freie Universität Berlin.  His research examines the intersection of history, politics, and cultural production in the modern Arab World with particular emphasis on the Palestinian context.

From the course schedule:

Week 1 (Sept. 6, 8) – Historical Setting and Background

Week 2 (Sept. 13, 15): The Palestinian Nakba of 1948: History and Historiography, Memory and Testimony

Week 3 (Sept. 20, 22): Home, Land, and the Nakba: The Palestinians’ Catastrophe in Literature and Film

Week 4 (Sept. 27, 29) – On Exile and Diaspora: Theorizations and Reflections

Week 5 (Oct. 4, 6) – Exile and its Discontents: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s “The Ship”

Week 6 (Oct. 11, 13) – Reading the Nation

Week 7 (Oct. 18, 20) – Literature, Nation, and Palestinian Identity

Week 8 (Oct 25, 27) – National Trauma and Male Subjectivity: Ghassan Kanafani

Week 9 (Nov. 1, 3) – Burdens of Symbolism: Woman-as-Nation in Palestinian Literature and Film

Week 10 (Nov 8, 10) – The Forgotten Palestinians – Israel’s “Arab Citizens”

Week 11 (Nov. 15, 17) – Theater of the Absurd: On Being Palestinian and Israeli

Week 12 (Nov. 22) – Liminal Identity – Israel’s “Arabs”

Week 13 (Nov. 29, Dec. 1) – The Naksa/”Setback”: The Defeat of 1967 and the Re-emergence of the Palestinians

Week 14 (Dec. 6, 8) – Shaking off Occupation: The First Intifada in Film

Week 15 (Dec 13, 15) The Question of Palestinians – Existence and Existentialism

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