News & Reports

Palestinian Diaspora Literature Resurges from Obscurity

Literature of the Palestinian diaspora is flourishing again after a long hiatus as publishers take new interest in poetry and fiction by young Palestinian authors whose works reflect the physical and psychological experiences of living in exile.

Last year, a number of new books in this genre were published, including a novel titled Heaven and Seven Seas, by the Palestinian writer Naji Al-Naji, which was recently included in the graduate studies curriculum at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Education, in Cairo. Two poetry collections were also published by Zeinat Abu Shaweesh, a Palestinian poet and academic based in Egypt, titled The Lote Tree of Love and A Sleepless Wound, in which she discusses topics of asylum, alienation, and the Palestinian identity. Another poet, Ibtissam Abu Sada, also published a new volume, titled A Tribe of Fatigue (A Caananite Secret).

“Diaspora literature does not pertain only to those who are displaced from their lands, but rather it refers to the human being, with all its epistemological manifestations and interior dimensions,” said Abu Shaweesh. Writing, she added, is “one of life’s dictionaries through which you can decipher our human experiences and probe them through the texts.”

‘The Dream and the Homeland’

Al-Naji’s novel, published by Ibn Roshd, in Cairo, reflects the author’s personal experience. He was born to a Palestinian militant father, in the Yarmouk camp in Syria, before moving to a number of other countries after Syria descended into civil war. (See a related article, “Twice Displaced, Palestinian-Syrians in Egypt Need Help.”)

“The recurrence of the Palestinian asylum experience for the second time in recent years brought back the concerns of the diaspora again,” he said, “so that the Palestinian issue became, for me and other Arab youths, part of the private life of the refugee whose hobby is to remind them of his case.”

Abu Shaweesh believes that writing about Palestine is part of writing about oneself. “It is a case of self-narrated human testimony that crosses time and space, in which you write about an important part of your human identity and your collective vision of the dream and the homeland,” she said.

Naji Al-Naji’s new novel, Heaven and Seven Seas, was published in Egypt last year (Photo: Twitter).
Naji Al-Naji’s new novel, Heaven and Seven Seas, was published in Egypt last year (Photo: Twitter).

Palestine is not absent from Abu Shaweesh’s academic work. She completed a number of scholarly studies during her work as a professor in several universities, discussing issues of asylum, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Palestinian song and identity.

Nevertheless, Abu Shaweesh does not prefer her works to be classified as asylum or diaspora literature. She believes that “the writer or creator is essentially a cosmopolitan being, so it is difficult to limit his creativity to a specific issue, besides the fact that Palestine is not only an issue of asylum, but an issue of humanity and human rights in all of their manifestations.”

[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]

Abu Sada, who was born to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother and now lives in Egypt, tries to create new ways of communicating with her faraway homeland, its events and issues in her literary works as a kind of “compensation for that physical absence.” Her sense of alienation from her homeland is compounded by her inability to visit it, due to Israeli controls on who may enter or leave the occupied territories. “I try, through poetry, to search for my lost homeland, using my father’s words, which he has always repeated (‘we will return to our country’),” she said.

Getting Published Amid a Crisis

When asked what accounts for this renewed interest in issues of Palestinian exile and displacement, publishers and authors mention both news events and literary merit.

“The Syrian diaspora brought the literature of asylum and migration, including the Palestinian displacement and exile, again to the interests of publishing houses as well as the Arab reader,” Mohammed el-Baaly, head of Sefsafa Publishing House, said in a telephone interview. “The Syrian tragedy reminded us of the tragedies of refugees and their journeys into exile.”

“The Syrian tragedy reminded us of the tragedies of refugees and their journeys into exile.”

Mohammed el-Baaly  
Head of Sefsafa Publishing House

El-Baaly notes that this resurgence of interest diaspora literature is playing out against the backdrop of a general crisis in Arab publishing that affects all kinds of books. Arab publishing houses suffer from great challenges, most notably the high cost of printing, distribution, piracy and official censorship, and Covid-19 forced the suspension of most book fairs in the region during the past year, reducing sales. (See two related articles, “A Moroccan Publisher Reflects on the Struggles Independent Presses Face” and “Arab Publishers Take a Hit From the Covid-19 Crisis.”)

Al-Naji, however, believes that there are more than one donor and publishing house who have enlightening projects that are working to help good literature to see the light of day, including, of course, texts by refugees, displaced persons and new immigrants.

Abu Shaweesh agrees that good work is self-evident. “Personally, I did not find it difficult to deal with publishing houses in terms of publishing my work,” she said. “I think everything depends on the style of raising the issues and not the nature of the issues themselves.”

El-Baaly says independent publishing houses cannot ignore the consideration of profitability, but there are other factors that play a role in choosing the works to be published.

“Last year, we chose to focus on publishing and translating more than one book on asylum and diaspora,” he said. “It got great popularity because in the end it is ‘good literature,’ which is the most important criterion for us.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button