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Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing…

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home (2013)

by Penny Johnson (Editor), Raja Shehadeh (Editor)

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One of the most powerful books I have read, this is another one of those non-fiction books that almost reads like a novel. I found it emotionally evocative as well as educational.

There are three sections of essays. The first section tells what it is like to be an exile living outside of your home country, while the second part talks about being an exile within your occupied home country. The last section brings things together and talks about the future. Different perspectives are presented as these authors make themselves vulnerable by exposing their truths.

Here are a couple of excerpts that I found interesting:

From Sharif F. Elmusa "Portable Absence" , talking about the Palestinian style of mixing poetry and prose which was new to me and very intriguing:

"Perhaps poetry is a form of exile or the two interact, like two medications, and amplify each other's actions. Perhaps a poem is the silence in which the stranger wraps himself to preserve memory, to resist the gravity of the new abode."

"Writing in English brought me into a more intimate relationship with American culture and, at the same time, heightened my sense of exile."

"Britain sends expats to other lands. India immigrants, and Palestine exiles."
and this heartbreaking insight from Raja Shehadeh "Diary of an Internal Exile"

"We had lost the confidence to rely on ourselves rather than waste our energy by blaming our troubles on others and expecting them to do what we could do ourselves."

This collection certainly brings up many questions about belief systems such as that of private property, government, solidarity, types of power and power dynamics, state, self-defense and on and on. Never mind the idea of how you define home. I have never lived in a place where my family lived for generations and have not felt this attachment to a place, although if someone told me to get off mine, I'm sure I'd understand quickly. I do get the attachment to the ideas and symbols and people. These issues are all explored as the authors investigate these things for themselves and wrestle with their own identity issues. Clearly the group culture of other countries compared to the more individualist U.S., a country of immigrants who kept moving west as soon as they got settled are big influences from my perspective. This book brought me a lot of clarification. And made me think a lot about comparisons with U.S. govt. versus Native Americans, Irish versus English, English versus Maori, and too many stories about ethnic cleansing. I highly recommend this book - 5 stars ( )
3 vote mkboylan | Jun 8, 2013 |
15. Seeking Palestine : New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home edited by Penny Johnson & Raja Shehadeh (2013, 210 pages, read Mar 21-29)

Not that I’ve had time to review lately, but I’ve stalled on this partially because I don’t want to figure out my own contradictions. Not that I can’t, although maybe it’s true I can’t, it’s that I don’t want to go there. I developed such a deep affection for Israel during my visit there last summer. I’m not ready to pick up those emotions and look at what ugly things might be underneath them, I’m not ready to challenge them with any reality.

A book such as this does not allow me to get out of all that so easily. This is a collection of personal memoirs by Palestinians about Palestine. The collection is superb, and some of these authors are simply spectacular, at least they certainly are here, in this form. Every entry is strong. Either Johnson and Shehadeh had a great wealth of material to work with or they really mined the material well. Or both could be true.

What to take form all this? Surely we are all aware on some level of the costs of Israel’s existence to the Palestinians. Israel marks for them the end of a long continuous history in large parts of one-time Palestine, tearing at cultural foundations and leaving a large Palestinian diaspora. And while we debate where to point the finger, or simply cringe at the stiff necked simplifiers with fingers in their ears who stand my their weapons and declare themselves right, we don’t have much a chance see the humanity in the consequences. That is, I think, what this book offers. An artistic exploration of the humanity within the Palestinian loss.

I took notes as read this, then passed the book on, leaving me with only my notes to review from. Hopefully there will be some value in the rest of this review. My favorites get an asterisk.

*Susan Abulhawa : Memories of an un-Palestinian story, in a can of tuna - I wish I could capture this. Susan lived for brief periods of time with each of her parents and various other relatives, and various orphanages, moving back and forth between the US and the Middle East. She touches on most of her childhood and its many horrors and varieties of abuse, while recounting a brief stay at an orphanage for Palestinians in Palestine, called Dar al-Tifl...a tough place she can only capture with an affectionate wistfulness.

Beshara Doumani : A Song from Haifa - Writes about his father in Palestine between WWII and Israel (1945-8) through a Palestinian bar song from the era about beautiful Jewish woman.

*Sharif S. Elmusa : Portable Absence: My Camp Re-membered - Bitter as Elmusa is, his writing, a mixture of poetry and prose, is beautiful. He discusses taking his children to the now-destroyed refugee camp that he grew up in. But this essay goes many places, and includes thoughts on his decision to write in English, references to the Odyssey and Ibn Battuta, comparisons between Palestinians and Native Americans, an interesting look at Cairo, and a frustration with America’s one-sided support of Israel over Palestine. He writes, “It is a politicized oxymoron, even if a privilege, to be from a tiny, colonized country struggling to rid itself of Israeli domination and, at the same time, to be a citizen of an empire that is the principal keeper of Israel.

Lili Abu-Lughod : Pushing at the Door: My father’s Political Education, and Mine - A memoir about Lili’s father, a leading Palestinian intellectual, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. The memoir includes, prominently, his story about his mother, Lili’s grandmother, and her lost world of pre-Israel Jaffa.

*Adania Shibli : Of Place, Time and Language - Shibli is a master of sorts at subtly. In these three pieces she says everything through what she doesn’t say. It’s very clever and striking. In the second piece, Out of Time, she begins by discussing a Palestinian short story she read in school, permitted by the Israeli authorities who were generally very thorough censors. What caught her attention with the story (The Time of Man by Samira Azzam) was not the writers intent, but the regular day-to-day life he describes. She asks, “Was there ever once a normal life in Palestine?” Later in the story, as she carries on about a watch that stopped while traveling, leading to an Airport interrogation in Israel, where she causally mentions, “Everything proceeded as normal in such situations

Suad Amiry : An Obsession begins with a poem whose attributions I was confused on, but was either hers with quotes from Mahmoud Darwish, or entirely from Mahmoud Darwish. But then she goes to discuss three questions she hates: Are you married? Do you have children? and Where do you come from? In the later she tells us that when she doesn't want to talk, she answers that she is from Amman, Jordan. ”Sorry, Jordan, much as I am indebted to you and love you, somehow you do not inspire interesting conversations.” - I find that line such a wonderful commentary on the crazy story that is Israel and Palestine.

Raja Shehadeh : Diary of an Internal Exile: Three Entries - Shehadeh probably can be more highly regarded for his frustrated observations than his limited prose. Still he marks an interesting history of Palestine through the history of a building that was originally built the British military, but later had many lives, including serving as the bombed out headquarters of Yassar Afafat. Reflecting on Arafat he writes “I could see how failed armed struggle had completely dominated our leadership’s vision, taking precedence over the nonviolent resistance waged in the streets as well as in the courts by challenging Israeli legal maneuvers.

*Mourid Barghouti : The Driver Mahmoud - This was a wonderful fictional story about taxi van full of passengers who together form a cross-section of Palestinian society, driven my a young man trying to avoid suddenly-appearing Israeli checkpoints through heroic maneuvers and the use of what I can only call a divine crane.

Rema Hammami : Home and exile in East Jerusalem Hammami, an anthropologist studying Gaza, chronicles the sad history of her Palestinian neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, from roughly 1989 when she confronts an Israeli soldier arresting a nine-year-old girl by asking him if he has children, and he responds, “Yes, I have a little girl but she doesn’t throw stones,” through to 2002 where she finds herself surrounded by checkpoints.

Rana Barakat : The right to wait: exile, home and return - My notes begin to fail about here. For this essay about Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said, the nature of exile, and a curious comparison of an intellectual with an exile, my notes include the comment, “intelligent but big-words…flawed writing, IMO”...but don’t over-inflate my flippant notes while reading, this was interesting.

Fady Joudah : Palestine that never was: five poems and an introduction Lois/avaland quoted one or two of these elsewhere, nothing to add here

Jean Said Makdisi : Becoming Palestinian - An interesting essay by the sister of Edward Said, unfortunately I don’t have any notes.

Mischa Hiller : Onions and diamonds - no notes...and I forgot what this was about...

Karma Nabulsi : Exiled from revolution - ditto, sigh... ( )
6 vote dchaikin | May 14, 2013 |
This book is a collection of fifteen pieces of memoir or "creative nonfiction" (including poetry) by Palestinians, who reflect—as noted in the subtitle—on home or exile. I saw this collection in Interlink's catalog, and was drawn to it for a number of reasons, one of which is that I recognized several of the contributors. The reason I bought the book was because of a real desire to hear the voices of Palestinians beyond the news media or even novels, and the question asked of these novelists, poets, critics and essayists for this book seemed a good way to do so. I was not disappointed for, although it took me quite a while to read through all the essays (through no fault of the book), it gave me the feeling I was an invisible guest at a family dinner of some sort, caught in a conversation.

The book, with its amazing variety of pieces, has an overall pervasive sense of rootlessness, a feeling of "unrequited homesickness." While I could tell you about each piece, it's better for you to read them yourself, but let me tell you about a few of my favorites. Bear in mind that my one line author bios don't do justice to the varied and extensive careers of these contributors, so I've linked their names to more proper biographical synopses.

Rema Hammami " 'Home and Exile' in East Jerusalem". Hammami is a professor of anthropology at Birzeit University and in her fascinating essay she chronicles the changes in her East Jerusalem neighborhood from her arrival in 1989 to present. She describes the neighborhood—the buildings, the people, the sounds and smells—and tells us stories of some of the things that happened during that time, such as when her neighbor came to her in a panic when his yard filled with soldiers and policemen.

Susan Abulhawa. "Memories of an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna"
Abulhawa is the author of [Mornings in Jenin], which was a book featured in Belletrista. Abulhawa's riveting essay begins with her as a child stealing a can of tuna while at an orphanage in East Jerusalem, and trying to open that can without a proper can-opener (and making a mess of it), before being called into the headmistress's office on something unrelated. As the essay continues we are amazed to learn that she is not an orphan at all, and the backstory behind her residency there is equally riveting.

Lila Abu-Lughod "Pushing the Door: My Father's Political Education and Mine" Abu-Lughod is an anthropolgist and author of [Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society], a book I read seemingly ages ago. I also have her first work, thanks to a fellow LTer, but have not read it yet. Abu-Lugod writes about her father Ibrahim, who was 19 in 1948 and became one of the many Palestinian refugees from that time. Her father was "was a Palestinian (later American) academic, characterised by Edward Said as 'Palestine's foremost academic and intellectual.'(wikipedia). His daughter talks about his life as part of a movement, and his return to Palestine. She also talks about what she has inherited from him as his daughter, and this reminded me a little of Nadine Gordimer's [Burger's Daughter].

Adania Shibli "Of Place, Time and Language." Shibli is the author of several novels, two of which have recently been translated into English, Touch and [We Are All Equally Far From Love]. Her contribution is, as her title suggests, three vignettes, each taking a thing or incident as a launch into memory. The first tells the story of going to the Jenin refugee camp for a reading and how she was affected by a group of feisty little girls who, outside the door of the theater, demanded to attend but, because of their age, were not allowed. The second is about her watch and a trip in and out of Palestine with its various checkpoints and challenges: "My little watch is the first to sense the change, going into and out of Palestine." The third talks about the acute sense of exile she felt upon looking at a familiar painting on the wall of her Seoul apartment.

Mourid Barghouti in "The Driver Mahmoud" writes, in a piece that flows like a novel, about a ride in a very crowded yellow taxi from Ramallah to Jericho, agiving us a fascinating portrait of the clever driver on the way. Barghouti is a poet and author living in Egypt. He is married to the author Radwa Ashour.

Finally, I offer a short poem, one of several poems in the book by Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American physician and poet. Note: the second line should be indented.


My daughter
wouldn't hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
She waited
Until it left on its own accord.

If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn't a place to call home
And you'd get to go biking

She said that's how others
Become refugees isn't it?


I can't believe I am the only LT member with this book! ( )
10 vote avaland | Mar 5, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Johnson, PennyEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Shehadeh, RajaEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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