#PalestineWrites: Literature, Erasure, and Preservation

The Palestine Writes Festival is going on now, and you can sign up and join events at palestinewrites.vfairs.com. Yesterday’s opening events included a panel on “Literature in the Time of Erasure”:

By Mohga Hassib

Ibrahim Nasrallah, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, and Mahmoud Shukair

The “Palestine Writes” literature festival is not just a representation of Palestinian writers but also a testament to the power of literature in preserving culture, identity, and memory. The festival debuted yesterday after facing many obstacles, and the opening remarks by author-organizer Susan Abulhawa highlighted the festival’s value in preserving collective ancestral memory. The festival celebrates the collaboration and expansion of the Palestinian footprint and impact around the world despite the “shrinkage of physical land beneath them.” 

One of the fist panel events was titled “Literature in the Time of Erasure,” and it featured panelists Ibrahim Nasrallah and Mahmoud Shukair, along with poet-moderator Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. All of them have been displaced since childhood, and while Tuffaha has visited Palestine, she has never lived there.

The panelists began by addressing how writing had helped them through the journey of displacement, in Nasrallah’s case as a refugee. Shukair mentioned that the fear of loss lingers and never goes away, as he fears for his loved ones, for his home and his land. The idea of erasing a land and a city leads to the erasure of the identity of a region. 

Yet literature combats this process of erasure by keeping memories alive, as a reference for future generations. Nasrallah added that literature has a role in achieving the final goal of peace, love, and security, saying that Palestinians nowadays are lucky to have access to texts, novels, and a plethora of diverse artists and art forms that commemorate their history and culture, unlike in the days when Nasrallah and Shukair were growing up. Then, these texts were censored, and they were blocked from accessing many forms of literature. Nasrallah said he felt the novel was a vital instrument in keeping the soul of Palestine alive, making literature “a collective mode of resistance.”

Both writers mentioned that they use the process of writing as a way of coping with the traumas of displacement from the Nakba, which Shukair tackled through his novels. Despite his imprisonment and fear for his family, he said, he used writing as a tool to assure himself that he was still on his land. Even if he was physically removed from it, the land continued to stay alive within him.

‘Make your reader fall in love with it’

In discussing the writer’s creative process of recreating his home and land through the novel, the writers said it was important to make their readers fall in love with it. 

Nasrallah noted that Palestine is a beautiful country with a diverse landscape and a rich culture that touches all of humanity and not just Palestinians: “If every person meditates for a while, they will find a piece of their heart in Palestine.” Nasrallah said that, the more he wrote about Palestine, the better he began to know it, and he depicted his new discoveries through his writing. When a writer presents new segments of a city and the reader realizes he didn’t know it that well, this “element of surprise” generates a sense of love for the land, Nasrallah said. It shakes the readers’ emotions and moves their feelings, making them want to do more for it. 

 For her part, Tuffaha said that the older generation of Palestinian writers allowed her to visit her homeland through their poetry and novels. Literature has brought a displaced nation together, she said, and given them the strength and necessary support to keep them united.

Lost histories

The writers also discussed the power of the literary narrative in reconstructing lost historic incidents. In this way, it is valuable for future generations, who will not know what their grandparents went through, and one role for literature, Nasrallah said, is creating a timeless documentation of the author’s vision of Palestine.

For Nasrallah, reading the literature of his ancestors re-shaped his life decisions and made him want to live as close as possible to the land. Shukair stressed the important role Arab educational institutions play in keeping Palestinian literature alive. He mentioned that, although there is some presence for the literature in some universities, many young people are now graduating without much knowledge and exposure to Palestinian literature. He further stressed the importance of emphasizing Palestinian literary texts for students in schools and universities alike. 

When asked about how the new Palestinian generation can write about a land they’ve neither seen nor visited, Nasrallah and Shukair encouraged them to use their ancestral influences, and assured them that it is not an anomaly, as many renowned writers before them had written about the land before visiting it. As long as they have awareness and imagination, they can start their journey somewhere.

Mohga Hassib did her graduate work in English and Comparative Literature at American University in Cairo and taught academic writing at Misr International University. She has also been president and vice president of the AUC’s literature club.