5 Writers: A Brief Look at Palestinian Literature in French

Post-1948 Palestinian literature is of necessity multilingual:

There are Palestinians who write in Spanish (among them award-winning writers Lina Meruane, Andrés Sabella, and Diamela Eltit); Palestinians who write in Dutch (including the former Dutch poet-laureate Ramsey Nasr); in Hebrew; in Danish (Yahya Hassan); and in Italian (Rula Jebreal). There are Palestinian authors who write in German (among them Wadi Soudah, Ghazi Abdel-Qadir, Salim Alafenisch), dozens of acclaimed Palestinian authors who write in English. And there is also a Palestinian literature in French.

The French language first put down roots in Palestine through its religious schools. In “Catholic Missionary Education in Early Mandate Syria and Lebanon,” Idir Ouahes quotes then French foreign minister Alexandre Millerand as noting the “activity of 84 French schools, whether secular or religious, official or private, hosting 40,000 students in 1913 in Syria proper with another estimated 12,000 in Cilicia and Palestine.”

But it was really from 1948, as Carlos Alvarado-Larroucau notes in Ecritures palestiniennes francophones – Quête d’identité en espace néocolonial (2009), that there became a Palestinian Francophone literature, written by those forced from their homes who ended up in Lebanon, France, or Quebec. Alvarado-Larroucau calls it an urgent and resistance literature, a “testimonial” form that aims to show “the other side of official history.”

There is certainly more to Palestinian Francophone literature than testimonial; this short list is drawn off recommendations that came in through Twitter, particularly from Claire Launchbury, Olivia Snaije, Karim Kharboush, Saleem Haddad, and the Ma3azef account.

Olivia Elias

Olivia Elias was born in Haifa, then lived as a refugee in Beirut, where her family moved after being forced into exile. She attended university in Canada before moving to France in the early 1980s. Although Elias has been a writer for some time, it was only recently she decided to publish.

She is author of the following collections: Je suis de cette bande de sable (May 2013, out of print), L’espoir pour seule protection (introduction by Philippe Tancelin, éditions alfabarre, February 2015), Ton nom de Palestine (éditions al Manar, January 2017) and Chaos, Traversée (La feuille de thé éditeur, 2019). Translated into several languages, her poems appeared in many journals, including: Apulée, Alaraby UK, Inochi no Kago, The Barcelona Review, The Adirondack Review, Poetry London, Recours au poème, and Terre à Ciel.

Your Name, Palestine is forthcoming in English in Sarah Riggs’ & Jérémy Victor Robert’s co-translation. Chaos, Crossing, & Other Poems, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, will also be published in 2022 by World Poetry Books.

An excerpt of Ton nom de Palestine, in Sarah Riggs’ & Jérémy Victor Robert’s co-translation, is available on ArabLit.


Karim Kattan

Karim Kattan is a writer and scholar who holds a doctoral degree in comparative literature from Paris Nanterre University and writes in both English and French. In French, his books include a collection of short stories, Préliminaires pour un verger futur (2017), and a novel, Le Palais des deux collines (2021), which were both published by the Tunis-based Éditions Elyzad.

In a review of the novel on Un Dernier Livre, the reviewer writes, roughly, that: The Palestine Karim Kattan depicts is a country that’s disappearing, that’s emptying itself, a country Faysal [the protagonist] almost hates for failing to resist, for allowing itself to be devoured. The narrator is held prisoner by his rage against the absurdity and the madness of annexation, against the country and himself, against his family and the settlers, against this feeling of being helpless in the face of this heralded disappearance of Palestine, to the point of almost shouting his desire that this disappearance be finally confirmed, that there is nothing, nothing at all, so he is finally freed from this heritage of being Palestinian.

Kattan was one of the co-founders and directors of el-Atlal, an arts and writing residency in Jericho, and he is the host of Midnight Ocean, a show on Radio alHara that airs live at midnight every Friday.

Links to his writing, in both French and in English, can be found on his website.


Layla Nabulsi

Palestinian-Belgian author Layla Nabulsi is author of both the novel Terrain Vague and theater works, including Debout les morts! (1994), Le Peuple sans nom (2004), and Deux valises pour le Canada (2019). According to scholar Claire Launchbury, Debout les morts! is a “Beckettian, devastating” play that involves talking hats.

According to Launchbury, Debout les morts! is “a bleak, timeless play centred on the two principal characters Marie and Madeleine, two elderly woman who meet in the ruins of their homes for tea every day.” Palestine is not foregrounded in the play, Launchbury writes, but rather hidden.

You can watch an interview about Deux valises pour le Canada on YouTube.


Elias Sanbar

Elias Sanbar, born in Haifa in 1947, is a Palestinian historian, poet, and essayist who has written widely about Palestine and also translated Palestinian literature from Arabic to French, including poetry by Mahmoud Darwish.

Sanbar was fifteen months old when his family was forced to flee Haifa for Lebanon. He studied and taught in Paris, then later in Lebanon and the US. He was one of the founding editors of the Revue d’études palestiniennes, and is currently the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO.

His books include Le bien des absents (2001) Palestiniens : la photographie d’une terre et de son peuple de 1839 à nos jours (2004), Figures du Palestinien : identité des origines, identité de devenir (2004), Dictionnaire amoureux de la Palestine, and La Palestine expliquée à tout le monde (2013).

Sanbar’s The Palestinians: Photographs of a Land and its People from 1839 to the Present Day, published in English in 2015, was a winner of the 2015 Palestine Book Award.


Ibrahim Souss

Ibrahim Souss, born in Jerusalem in 1945, is a writer and politician.

Although he holds a doctorate in political science, he has — in addition to his political career — produced work as a pianist-composer, as a poet and novelist, and as an essayist.

He has published a number of books, including Les Fleurs de l’olivier (1985), Les Rameaux de Jéricho (1994), and Loin de Jérusalem (1998).

Souss also has poetry in a few collections by Imad Saleh: Entre mon rêve et Jérusalem, published by L’Harmattan in 1999 and Terre promise, Terre maudite also published by L’Harmattan, in 2003.

Souss’s Letter to a Jewish Friend was translated by John Howard

For further reading:

Carlos Alvarado-Larroucau (2009) ÉCRITURES PALESTINIENNES FRANCOPHONES : Quête d’identité en espace néocolonial, Paris: L’Harmattan.

Thanks in particular to Claire Launchbury.