Introduction, by Abdel Razzaq Takriti
Arabic is the fourth most widely spoken language on earth. It is also one of the oldest living tongues, boasting an exceptionally rich and uninterrupted historical and literary tradition. The first systematic philosophy of history, The Prolegomenon of Ibn Khaldun, was written in Arabic. As for epic fiction, perhaps the greatest story that was ever told is that of the Arabian Nights. Yet, whereas such classical works are well known in the English speaking world, modern works have received far less exposure. More than twenty years ago, Edward Said lamented that fact, melancholically stating that ‘what impresses one is the will to ignore and reduce the Arabs that still exists in many departments of Western culture…‘ 1
Propitiously, authors from formerly ignored parts of the world, including Latin America and India, are beginning to receive significant attention in Britain. Nevertheless, most Arab writers – aside from a few exceptions such as Naguib Mahfouz – are still relatively underappreciated. This is particularly the case when it comes to historical fiction, which is perhaps the most prescient genre for appreciating the contemporary Arab experience. For all the talk of overcoming simplistic notions such as the “clash of civilisations” and engaging the Arab world, little effort has been expended on savouring the voices of its literary figures.
One of the most distinct and influential of these voices is that of Ibrahim Nasrallah. A Palestinian novelist born in the Wihdat refugee camp in Jordan in 1954, he is the author of 14 poetry collections and 14 novels. Despite being quintessentially understated and impeccably gentle in demeanour, he is renowned for his literary courage and has suffered from immense censorship and official harassment. Many of his writings are existentialist in tone and boldly modernist in form. Others belong to the genre of the historical novel, underlined by painstaking archival, oral history, and folkloric research. The first of these historical novels to appear in English is Time of White Horses a remarkable journey into the world of late-Ottoman and Mandate-era Palestine narrated from the lens of Palestinian horse mythology. This novel received critical acclaim and was recently shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize. We were fortunate at the University of Sheffield’s History Department to host Ibrahim Nasrallah on the occasion of its publication in English. He gave a fascinating presentation to a lecture hall packed with academics, students, and Sheffield residents. The text of his talk, which I translated, is reproduced below.
Writing Palestinian Historical Fiction, by Ibrahim Nasrallah
[Talk delivered at the University of Sheffield, Department of History, November 16, 2012, translated by Abdel Razzaq Takriti]
In October 2011, I was invited along with a number of Palestinian artists and writers to an event in Norway celebrating the arts and literature of Palestine. How strange it was to be reminded that some of us had been writing for thirty years without having ever met their Palestinian creative colleagues. We all lived apart; divided by distance and unable to connect. As for those we had met previously, we were separated from them for many years. I was genuinely surprised to see there a musician that I had long liked. Twenty three years had passed since our last encounter!
Each one of us held a different nationality. There were Jordanians, Britons, and Americans. Others carried half a passport or a laissez-passer document. Some had arrived via four border crossings and airports, while others only managed to make it to Oslo after smuggling themselves through the Gaza tunnels. Each one of us carried a different tale. Yet, these many intersecting and parallel narratives merged to become one: the story of Palestine.
One of the participants told us of her first experience in a delegation, many years ago as a young girl. The delegation was travelling to the United States to participate in a children’s conference, and she described her entry to the country as follows:
Several of the participating delegations arrived at the same time. The Immigration Officer asked the first group: Where are you from?
– Please come in. And you?
– From Kenya.
– Welcome… What about you?
– We are Australians.
– Go ahead. Which country do you guys come from?
We laughed at his question, and said “no we are from Palestine.” After some explanation, he eventually allowed us to enter.
We continued to giggle for a while, but when I arrived to the hotel and retired to my solitude, I began to cry. No one knew who we were!
When I was a five year old boy, schools had not yet been built in the refugee camps. There was nothing other than tents and, of course, the classroom was a tent. There were no chairs, and, needless to say, we had to sit on the floor. Naturally, it used to rain, and the ground we sat on became muddy. There were hardly any books and- as you would expect- each five or six students had to share one book.
In those distant days I dreamt of having a book, one for me alone. Alas, I had to wait long before acquiring this book. Years later, I discovered a new kind of book that I loved. I bought cheap paperback versions of novels like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Misérables, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Great Expectations, and The Sorrows of Young Werther. All of these novels drenched me with tears. They made me believe that the entire world was living a tragedy akin to ours. They made me think that the world was sad like us and that this condition is shared by humanity as a whole. I empathised with the characters of these books. Had any of the heroes or heroines been living nearby, I would have launched a battle on their behalf!
As I grew up I began to discover that the world was not exactly like that. Wherever the oppressed exist, oppressors are to be found, and whenever hunger persists, gluttony thrives. Likewise, if there is an occupied country then there must be an occupier, and if someone is forcibly displaced then they must have a homeland behind them. I turned back to search for that homeland, so I began to write.
My eyes were not only opened by the books I read, but by the very reality that I lived. In the 1950s, we (I, my family, and my people) were living at point zero. We were dispossessed of all that had once been ours: the house, the field, the tree, the street, the river and the sea. We were stripped of all of those good things that are sometimes called “the homeland.” Gazing back at my past today, I realise that I was born six years after my mother and father were forcibly evicted from their country. At the tender age of two, the Kufr Qassem massacre took place along with the 1956 war. When I was thirteen, the June 1967 war led to the occupation of all that had remained from the land of Palestine. By the time I was sixteen, Black September 1970 came; our home was destroyed and I almost joined the ranks of the dead. After all that, I lived through seven wars and scores of massacres!
One day, I told an Italian audience: I wish that I could write the history of my life with reference to the stories of the women that I have loved instead of the wars that have been launched against us at an average rate of one every six years. These wars take our children to death, denying us from accompanying them happily to their first year at school.
As a young man, I journeyed to the desert in the Arabian Peninsula so as to work and support my family. I saw the miserable existence that people led in those far away villages where there was no water, electricity, or roads. Nothing was there other than classrooms made of straw, students sitting on the floor, and malaria and tuberculosis unfettered, harvesting the souls of my students and colleagues! What kind of an earth was this?
I had to turn back and step up the search for that homeland, so I began to write my first novel Prairies of Fever. The subject was not Palestine, but the lives of those wretched of the earth. I became more conscious of the suffering of other people so I began to understand mine better. I returned to the refugee camp once again to confront and fight my alienation.
In writing, the world expanded, and it multiplied in reading. However, the great values that humans fought for were there so that you can fight for them once again. Step by step, you began to realise that you will give your country nothing unless you gave the world a piece of beauty: a beautiful novel, poem, or musical composition. You came to understand that you will stand by your homeland more deeply by being constant to every just cause wherever it existed in this world. Thus, you arrived to a conclusion that plainly stated: “we stand by Palestine, not because we are Palestinian, but because Palestine is a daily test for the conscience of the world.” You would be a defender of this cause, even if it was to exist in the farthest spot on earth, and even if you were not Palestinian. It became clear that our nationality is not determined by passports, but by the causes that we adopt and defend. The most impoverished of identities is that which we inherit by birth.
My father was a farmer and he was intimately connected to the land, dealing with everything it nurtured as a living being. When I was a child, I saw him grafting an olive tree. Weeks later, I saw the olive buds growing on the tiny branch, so I happily told him: “the branch has “shined” (it is budding)…we shall pick olives from it this year!” He responded: “No. We shall not be picking olives.” I asked him why and he said: “this branch is dreaming!” I wondered aloud about how a branch could dream, so my father told me: “it thinks that it has not been cut. It believes that it is still part of its mother, the great olive tree. That is why it blossoms.”
It is difficult to speak of one aspect of a particular literary experience and to ignore another. That is why I cannot separate poetry from the novel in describing my own trajectory. If I were to do so, then I would be coming to you with only one half of my soul intact. I have published 14 poetry collections and 14 novels. I am therefore principally a poet and a novelist. I practice other arts, but I do so out of a desire to inhabit them from within so as to inform my prose and poetry. Accordingly, the influence of cinema, painting, and photography has manifested itself clearly in my literary experience. This influence has contributed to my writing and became an organic part of it. In particular, I consider the sum of my cinematic criticism to be a cultural autobiography of sorts. That output reflects- on both the intellectual and aesthetic discursive levels- my ideas and my observations of the world through film. I am not one of those who consider the poet to reside solely within poetry. On the contrary, I see the poem and the novel as flourishing through other forms, and truly believe that openness to diverse aesthetic and cultural worlds can give us much.
I have long subscribed to the following conviction: he who is unable to offer new contributions on the aesthetic level cannot innovate within the literary sphere, for beauty is substance as well. I also do not consider that there are great and small, serious and unserious, issues in literature. Rather, there is great literature and literature that is not great. I write about those issues that touch my heart and provoke my mind. I write about subjects that inhabit me, matters that haunt me. I could therefore say that I have never shied away from writing about any subject that should be written about, and that no form of censorship has ever succeeded in preventing me from crafting a certain poem or creating a particular novel. As a result, I have been subject to a six year travel ban and four of my books were outlawed. I was also the first author in Jordan to be tried in court for his creative prose.
As for the commandments that inhabit me, they are: write with all your heart so that the reader could read with all their heart; write with as much aesthetic aspiration as you could muster, for the reader has a right to enjoy what you write. And when an international reader comes and buys a translated work of mine, I would like them to purchase it not only because they are sympathetic to my cause, but because the work they are paying for deserves reading just as much as the other works neighbouring it in the library to which it has moved.
Four books of mine have appeared in English translation: Prairies of Fever, Solely 2 Only (which was published under the title Inside the Night), my poetic collection Rain Inside, and- most recently- my novel Time of White Horses. I shall only speak of the latest translated work, and perhaps there will be further scope for discussing the others if I am asked about them after the talk.
One day, I read a quote by the Zionist leader David Ben Gurion in which he spoke of the Palestinians in the following terms: “the old will die and the young will forget.” I considered that saying to be the worst form of vituperation directed at the Palestinian people, equal in its debasing intent to that other Zionist sentence “had the Palestinians been a people then they would have had a literature.”
Since the mid-eighties I started working on a novel that could say something in that regard. I met a large number of elders, and I recorded approximately seventy hours of testimonies. The outcome was more than two thousand pages of transcripts and notes. Apart from the interviews, I relied on dozens of historical reference works, scores of memoirs, and numerous studies addressing the minute details of Palestinian popular life, folklore, and beliefs.
In terms of preparation and research, Time of White Horses was the outcome of 22 years of work. It was supposed to be the first and last volume of the project The Palestinian Comedy which included seven other novels covering 250 years of the modern history of Palestine. This novel could definitely have been written by one of the authors who had lived in Palestine before 1948. I am referring here specifically to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Emile Habeebi, and Ghassan Kanafani. Unfortunately though, a work that expresses what happened to the Palestinians was yet to be written and long overdue. I accordingly authored this novel primarily because of my need for it as a reader. However, when I began to prepare the text, I felt that it should also satisfy my artistic aspiration as an author. Part of my aesthetic ambition was to surprise the reader that knew Palestine and lived in it with the fact that they did not know it as well as they had thought.
The novel is split into three parts: the Book of Wind, the Book of Earth, and the Book of Humanity. These names derive from the old Arab saying: “God created horse from wind and man from earth.” I allowed myself to add “And homes from humans”! On the whole, the novel is a journey in the world of Palestinian horse mythology and the march for the defence of Palestine during that period. The first section is set under Turkish rule, and the second addresses the decade of the 1930s which was set ablaze by the 1936-39 revolt. As for the third section, it revolves around the events of the 1940s culminating in 1948, the year of the Nakba (the catastrophe).
When you work on a novel for that long, you completely become part of its world. I could therefore safely say that after completion, I felt that I had lived “there” for seventy five years, the temporal duration of the novel. I went “there” to know how Palestine was lost, to live that loss. That is why I felt, whenever I progressed further with the writing, that Palestine shall be lost! And this is something terrifying: to know the end beforehand and to be beset by fear with every step you take towards the conclusion.
The hero of Time of White Horses says: “I do not fight to win; I fight so that my right is not lost.”
I wrote and I still write for the human; for writing and the art of writing; for my cause and my children, our children. Today, a Palestinian child could travel somewhere and face much difficulty in the airport after the Immigration Officer asks them “where are you from?” and they answer “I am from Palestine.” However, the officer will probably not repeat his question again with utter bewilderment. For, we have given much: poems, novels, music, and tragically lost lives. We have suffered from all forms of exile so that we could have a single homeland; so that neither we, nor the world, shall forget that beautiful name: Palestine.
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- Edward Saïd, Independent on Sunday, 12 August 1990. ↩