Mahmud Ghanayim: The Quest for a Lost Identity: Palestinian Fiction in Israel.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Makhoul, Manar H.
Pub Date: 01/01/2009
Publication: Name: Acta Orientalia Publisher: Hermes Academic Publishing Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Hermes Academic Publishing ISSN: 0001-6438
Issue: Date: Annual, 2009 Source Volume: 70
Topic: NamedWork: The Quest for a Lost Identity: Palestinian Fiction in Israel (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Ghanayim, Mahmud
Accession Number: 300652485
Full Text: Mahmud Ghanayim: The Quest for a Lost Identity: Palestinian Fiction in Israel. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag: 2008. xi+164 pp. ISBN 978-3-447-05768-4.

The quest for understanding the Palestinian identity has long been at the centre of academic debate. In recent years this quest has begun to include the issue of Palestinian identity in Israel. The Palestinian minority in Israel is a very special case study, since its members were given Israeli identification cards soon after the establishment of Israel in 1948. With time, and especially after the lifting of the military rule under which they were governed until 1966, Palestinian citizens of Israel started to get more involved in Israeli society, economic markets and politics. They were educated in Israeli schools following an Israeli-designed curriculum, and had increasing social interaction with the Israeli society and culture. However, these processes were nevertheless limited. The Palestinians in Israel enjoyed limited integration into Israeli society and market: their say in affecting the public good in Israel was, and still is, minimal. The Israeli national interest is designed by and for the Jewish majority, with little, if any, consideration for the Palestinian minority within it. The Palestinians are not considered as a national minority in Israel; in fact, the official government line was, from the beginning, to de-Palestinise them and deny their national identity. As a result they are considered as 'Israeli-Arabs'. These two opposing forces of attraction and rejection, integration and exclusion, affect the Palestinian life and experience in Israel in different and conflicting ways. The Palestinian citizens of Israel feel that they are neither Palestinians nor Israelis. Today, perhaps more than ever before, the outcome of these forces after six decades is at the centre of interest of many scholars from many disciplines.

There has been an increasing interest in Palestinian literature as an indicator or thermometer of Palestinian identity in Israel in the last decade. Literature, in the view of many--most notably Edward Said can tell us about aspects of national identity and aspirations that are more difficult to reach through other methods or research approaches.

Mahmud Ghanayim's book at hand in this review is an excellent example of this approach. Ghanayim has extensive experience in researching Palestinian literary works and their relation to political reality. The work is the seventh volume of a series entitled "Studies in Arabic Language and Literature," edited by Sasson Somekh and Alexander Borg.

The book covers the prose literature (short stories and novels) that was written in Israel between 1948 and 2000. Ghanayim divides this period into two, before and after the 1967 War. While this is an acceptable division, some scholars would opt for three divisions: 1948-1967, 1967-1987 (or 1993), and 1987-present. In the first chapter, "The rebirth of Palestinian literature," Ghanayim draws in wide strokes the historical developments that took place in the Palestinian political and literary arenas in Israel after 1948. He gives an informative and detailed survey of the newspapers and journals that accommodated most of the literary output of the different periods. He makes a clear link to the Communist Party's role as a political movement and as a tool to set the tone of writing within the party's guidelines.

Nevertheless, and despite the title of the book, Ghanayim is more interested in the way politics affected literature and less concerned with issues of identity:

He repeated this view later:

Ghanayim continues with this approach of contrasting the relationship between politics and literature for the entire book, but this discussion tells us very little about issues of Palestinian identity. Moreover, although he later admits that "literature reflects day-to-day reality" (p. 14), some commentators would disagree with his assumptions regarding the relationship between politics and literature. Many literatures around the world were written during, and certainly inspired by, politically heated periods and locations. Literature as a form of art on the one hand and a political reality on the other are not necessarily in opposition to one another, nor need they be distinct, as implied in the quotations above.

In the second chapter, "Politics in the mirror of fiction," Ghanayim discusses the short story during the military rule years (1948-1966), and uses it as a platform to stage some important theoretical questions and considerations regarding Palestinian literature. The first issue was "the task of fiction," and whether it is a tool for change. This is a crucial point that should be considered carefully, especially in the Palestinian case during these years of limitations on expression and political activities, but Ghanayim's answer to this question was somewhat brief and vague:

The first point in this quote is interesting and is related to other factors in the literary process, like publishing and printing and so forth, but Ghanayim did not elaborate on what he meant nor explain what difference it makes as to whether the short stories appeared in the form of a book or in weekly newspapers or journals. One might assume, contrary to Ghanayim, that in the latter option there is access to wider readership. The second point echoes an issue raised above: how reflective or 'real' literature is, which, in my view, is the central issue of Palestinian literature as a whole. Ghanayim did not clarify or exemplify how the plots differed from reality during this period, an issue that we shall address further below.

The second issue was "The aspirations of literature," which raises the question "does this literature really constitute an objective historical record of the period?" (p. 20). Without delving into the long philosophical debate on what is 'objective', one might question the need for literature to be so. Art and literature are about the way the artist or author experiences life and the world surrounding them. One would find it bizarre to ask whether baroque art was an 'objective' representation of life in seventeenth century Italy. Ghanayim tried to suggest that Palestinian literature was not 'objective' or 'real', as he said in earlier chapters (see quotes cited above), but he did not bring examples to support this proposition. On the contrary, later in the chapter he brings an example that undermines it:

The third theoretical issue that Ghanayim deals with in this chapter is "the philosophy professed by that literature"--the school to which it belonged. In order to address this, Ghanayim divides Palestinian authors into three groups. The first is Marxists and socialist realists--a line which was led by members and activists of the Communist Party thorough their newspaper Al-Ittihad and later Al-Jadid. "Writers who were too frank in what they wrote in the Communist Party press against the official line of the Israeli government faced imprisonment or house arrest, and stood in danger of losing their jobs if they worked for a governmental or semi-governmental agency" (p. 21).

The second group comprises second generation Marxist writers who differ from the first generation by adding another dimension to their writing--offering a solution to the class struggle.

"The third group experienced the period of military rule but did not write about it, preferring instead to deal with social issues completely detached from politics" (p. 27).

Ghanayim goes on to summarise this chapter: "Palestinian literature in Israel thus reflected actuality by providing a written record of what happened, though it is worth noting here that the historicity of this record is partly mythical" (p. 30).

However, in all the examples that Ghanayim presented earlier in this chapter, he proved the contrary. He did not present any examples of literary myths concerning life under the military rule. Moreover, the "Marxist and Socialist Realist" authors, be they politically or ideologically committed as they might, did write about their living experience in Israel and the political and military aspects of this experience. In other words, those who wrote did so even though they faced legal measures from the authorities.

In chapter 3, entitled "The emergence of a realist school," and chapter 4, "Lone rebel," Ghanayim deals comprehensively with Atallah Mansour's wa-Baqiyat Samira and Tawfiq Fayyad's alMushawwahun, respectively. The discussion of these two novels is very rich and highly informed, especially with regard to style and literary theory. This presentation is especially interesting to anyone who is interested in the way these novels were perceived by literary critics, politicians, and society in general.

I agree with Ghanayim and praise Tawfiq Fayyad's alMushawwahun as a novel of exceptional importance and beauty. I would like to note a minor disagreement with Ghanayim regarding his translation of the title of al-Mushawwahun to The Perverted. Perversion has a strong sexual connotation that does not fit the plot of the novel. The novel certainly deals with sex and sexuality, but it is not perverted in any way. Sex was neither portrayed negatively or positively in the novel. I would suggest The Distorted as a more suitable translation of the title, since it fits the plot of the novel. As a matter of fact Ghanayim's translation of one paragraph from the novel that relates to the title supports my argument:

Moreover, the Palestinian novel was until 1967 concerned with social issues: the family, the relations between fathers and sons, adolescence, and sexuality. What marks these themes is their binary representation: old-new; tradition-modernity, etc. These questions usually arise in a society that lives in a binary reality: a reality of defeat and poverty in contact with a "winning" and "free" society. These are the major issues that concerned the Palestinians during the first two decades of adjustment. The contact with the Other (the Jewish Israeli) was, and still is, the driving force behind Palestinian writing--this also dictates the themes of many novels. As this contact develops and evolves so do the themes relating to this contact. The first two decades of contact between the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews were probably the most intense. The encounter with a different culture led to a natural reaction of comparison and self-reflection.

For example, the teenage characters in al-Mushawwahun live a distorted life, which reflects the strong social distortion that occurred within Palestinian society in Israel as a result of the encounter with Jewish society. Although the encounter with the Other is completely absent from the plot, this theme (dealing with the encounter with Jewish Israelis) is not unique to this novel and actually is common to most of the novels that were written during the years of military rule. The encounter between Samira and Hadasah, in Atallah Mansour's wa-Baqiyat Samira, is probably the best literary representation of this contact zone approach. Samira, the Palestinian peasant from a Galilean village that was occupied by the Jewish forces in 1948, has to work in the fields in order to sustain herself and her family after her husband ran away to Lebanon during the evacuation of Haifa. During her work in the kibutz, Samira meets Hadasah, a Jewish Israeli girl, and the contrast between their lives is the cause of a great eagerness to know and learn, leading to long debates between the two. These conversations (about relationships, marriage and personal freedoms) reflect some of the issues that the entire Palestinian community in Israel had to deal with during this period.

In chapter 5, "The Palestinian and the Other," Ghanayim addresses this issue more specifically. As the interaction with the Other intensified due to the lifting of the military rule and travel restrictions, so too did the Palestinian experience in Israel and the identity crisis. Ghanayim correctly concludes that "[...] the identity crisis as reflected by Palestinian literature written in Israel has deepened, and its expressive strategies have become more varied over the past half century" (p. 76). In chapter 6, "Towards a modernist trend", he proposes to apply a model by Abd al-Muhsin Taha Badr on Palestinian literature. According to this model, constructed based on the Egyptian novel in 1870-1938, there are three classifications of novels: didactic, entertaining, and artistic (pp. 95-96). This is an interesting categorisation-and Ghanayim's application of these on the Palestinian literature in Israel is well done. Later he even provides detailed examples of Palestinian novels which do not fit into this categorisation, actually exposing a Palestinian particularity and uniqueness in literature.

The last chapter, "Palestinian fiction and the Arab world", deals with the canonisation of literature in the Arab world. Ghanayim surveys some techniques that Palestinian authors used to get access to the Arab world, like explanatory remarks and footnotes. He then proposes that Palestinian authors' consideration of the literary canon in the Arab world brought about a shift in the portrayal of Jewish characters in Palestinian literature, rendering their depictions more negative:

This may be indeed a consideration that writers take, but generalising this to all, or most, literary production throughout decades completely deprives Palestinian writers of any creative capacity. Moreover, to say that Palestinian literature is politicised just because it is expected to be so by the canon is equivalent to saying that Palestinian literature was only produced with external (or foreign) considerations, without internal gaze towards a Palestinian consciousness that is independent. Couldn't there be any other explanation for this phenomenon?

Clearly, the best way to examine this is to see whether noncanonical literature encompasses the same characteristics or not. This examination, unfortunately, was not done by Ghanayim. It is also clear that Palestinian literature evolved through a time and space that was also evolving and changing. Accordingly, Palestinian identity evolved and so did Palestinian worldview (and literature). The fact that Palestinian literature became more 'critical' of the Jews after 1967 is due to the fact that Palestinians in Israel were ready then to criticise the Jewish community, culture, and authority. During the military rule period (1948-1966) the Palestinians, as it is reflected in their novels, wanted to belong to the winning side of the equation: they wanted to become Israelis.

As a student of Palestinian literature, this book is of great importance. The historical and literary backgrounds that it offers are very valuable indeed. On the other hand, one of the things a reader would notice throughout the book is the inconsistent terminology used to refer to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Ghanayim would call them 'Israeli Arabs,' 'Arab minority/society in Israel,' and only a few times, especially towards the end of the book, 'Palestinians in Israel,' but he almost always referred to their literature as 'Palestinian literature in Israel.' Terminology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a matter of high importance, and this confused usage of terms ironically reflects the identity crisis of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Moreover, although the title of the book 'promised' to deal with the issue of Palestinian identity, the book itself fails to do so. Instead it focuses on the relation between literature and politics.

Another, more critical, 'confusion' finds its way to the analytical conclusions. It starts with the notion that Palestinian literature is not realistic or historically 'objective', and goes on to determine that in later stages Palestinian literature was affected by external and foreign considerations, rendering it unrealistic once again. I tend to disagree with these conclusions, especially when they are put so strongly. Ghanayim raises very important points to consider while analysing Palestinian literature, but his analysis was restricted by theoretical paradigms and a lack of synchronic historical, political and sociological survey that is crucial to the understanding of literary currents and their evolution in Palestinian literature.

Manar H. Makhoul

Cambridge University
The centrality of political issues in this state of affairs
   inevitably rendered political themes a very important constituent
   of Palestinian fiction written in Israel. The present book will
   examine the dynamics of this fiction, keeping in mind that the
   authors' ultimate aim throughout the period under study was to
   produce literature rather than political commentary (p. x).


Furthermore, given the fact that Palestinian writers of fiction
   working in Israel endeavoured to portray themselves as
   practitioners of a genuine art form drawing its inspiration
   essentially from the world of literature rather than politics or
   any other non-literary source [...] (p. 1).


The task assumed by Palestinian literature in the period under
   consideration is difficult to define, especially in light of the
   fact that most of the texts dealt with here appeared in book form
   only after military rule was abolished. It may thus be more to the
   point to ask what change, if any, this literature wrought after the
   end of the military rule, and what its effects was on the reading
   public then, since the latter did not share experiences analogous
   to the narrated ones affecting the characters in the stories (p.
   20).


Income tax, the police, the forest ranger, the military governor,
   and the kibutz, all represent the authorities, and all conspire to
   make the life of the Arab citizens unbearable, as becomes clear in
   the story (p. 23).


And the truth of our lives is perverted [distorted]. We are all
   perverted [distorted]. Life's events have done to our souls what
   the aftermath of atomic radiation has done to those born on the
   shores of Japan. They were distorted in the womb. We are all
   responsible for this disfigurement (p. 62).


Portraying Jewish characters negatively, dealing with them from a
   political perspective and perceiving them as masters and overlords
   rather than co-citizens--these characteristics are consistent with
   the constraints imposed by the Palestinian literature in the
   treatment of the Jewish presence in Israel, which mostly surfaces
   in a superficial manner in accordance with certain common
   preconceived notions (p. 147).
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