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On February 14, 1948, during the 1948 War—called the War of Independence by Israelis, and the Catastrophe (Nakba) by the Palestinians—the Palestinian village Sa’sa’ was invaded by the Palmach, the elite unit of the Haganah, precursor to the Israel Defense Forces. The villagers did not resist, but thirty-five houses were destroyed and 60-80 people were killed.
Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes the incident in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, drawing on a report by the commander of the battalion responsible for the attack. Pappé—along with Benny Morris, Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, and others—is a member of the group of “new historians” who have, since the ’80s, devoted their energies to reexamining their country’s founding myths and thus enlarged the space for critical discussion within Israel about the Palestinian tragedy. According to the report, a village guard in Sa’sa’ found himself caught in a verbal crossfire. Instead of asking, “Who is there?” (min hada) when the soldiers approached, he asked, “What is this?” (iesh hada). An Israeli soldier who happened to know Arabic replied, inverting the two words, “Hada iesh.” His use of “iesh” was not the Arabic, however, but the Hebrew in which it means “fire.” Thus mixing the two languages, he replied “this is fire,” before killing the astonished Palestinian.
The deadly reply was a mirror of the question, and the ways in which the response was understood and misunderstood—a mixture of knowledge and ignorance, real bloodshed and imaginary projections—reflect the intricate interdependence of identity that comes into play in both Palestinian and Israeli literatures. In the long Palestinian-Israeli struggle over the land of Palestine—a struggle shaped almost entirely by violence and suffering—the use of the multiple meanings of two languages from a single linguistic family puts the problem of misunderstanding at the core of the portrayal of identity, of both self and other. While much of the literature from these nations perpetuates the annihilation of the other through this misunderstanding, a few extraordinary novels make very different use of it.
“Misunderstanding” has long been used as a literary device and as a means of domination. Its literary connotations are far removed from its political impact, but they are complementary. In Orientalism Edward Said convincingly describes the many ways in which Western misunderstandings, deliberate and otherwise, have constructed a picture of the East that has consistently and, in terms of colonial domination, expediently deprived civilizations of their identities. Said traces this interdependence of the political and fictional through writers of the colonial era from George Eliot to Chateaubriand. But his analysis of Flaubert’s Orientalism is particularly compelling.
The revolutionary realist writer of Madame Bovary and L’ Éducation Sentimentale traveled with Maxime Du Camp to “the Orient” in 1849. Their voyage was both a literary-Romantic’s search for exoticism and the era’s equivalent of sex tourism. Flaubert was an unabashed connoisseur of prostitution, and his notes and letters from his tour document a variegated set of sexual adventures. Of particular interest to Said was Flaubert’s encounter with the Egyptian almeh—an accomplished dancer and courtesan—Kuchuk Hanem, described in his letters to Louis Bouillet, Cinq lettres d’Egypte.
In the letters, Flaubert notes all manner of oriental exoticisms, such as an almeh’s pet sheep, painted with yellow henna and wearing a velvet muzzle, which functions in her life much as would a trusted dog. He describes the almeh’s “eyes painted with antimony, a veil passed over her head and held by her elbows.” She takes him to her house where Du Camp “entertain[s] himself alone with her,” and Flaubert “follow[s] his example.” Kuchuk Hanem then performs a dance called L’Abeille, which begins with shrill cries to suggest that a bee has found its way into her clothes and is stinging her breasts. Kuchuk continues her dance, shedding garment after garment, until she is at last completely divested of all her clothes and invites Flaubert into her bed.
The accuracy of Flaubert’s account is irrelevant. What matters is that he forged a conception of Egypt that served him later in writing L’ Éducation Sentimentale and Salammbô—a conception in which the European vision of conquest combined the imagery of a dangerous journey into an exotic world with the sexuality of Arabian Nights. Said, in particular, notes that Kuchuk Hanem, who “was surely the prototype of several of [Flaubert’s] novels’ female characters in her learned sensuality, delicacy, and (according to Flaubert) mindless coarseness,” had no voice and no real existence other than igniting Flaubert’s imagination. “Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity,” Said suggests, “Kuchuk is the prototype of Flaubert’s Salammbô and Salomé.” Kuchuk Hanem is a conventional image of the Oriental woman: sensual, obedient, silent—a paradigm for the silent, irrational Orient.
Europe has left the Arab world, and the period of colonial expedition is over. But as postcolonial theory has persuasively demonstrated, the literary and intellectual structures produced by colonial engagement still shape perceptions of the other, even if the colonialist imagery of domination has changed. Indeed, Orientalist discourse no longer reflects a mere fascination with exotic elements, but rather expresses a total negation of the other, as shown by three phenomena.
The first was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which was accompanied by, in Pappé’s words, the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine. Israel was created; Palestine disappeared. The West Bank was annexed to Jordan, and Gaza came under Egyptian military rule. The Palestinian people suffered a double tragedy: expulsion from their land and oppression under two Arab regimes. The Jewish state went on to seize all of Mandate Palestine after the 1967 War, launching a permanent occupation and its attendant bloodshed throughout the land. In both Israeli and Palestinian literature, the phrase “a land without people for a people without a land,” appropriated by Zionists and often erroneously attributed to the English writer Israel Zangwill, reflects not the old stereotypes, but an implicit negation of Palestine and Palestinians. That negation is, in turn, reflected in literature thatrepresents Palestinians as mute and as bedouins who exist basically as extensions of the geography.
Orientalist discourse no longer reflects a mere fascination with exotic elements, but rather expresses a total negation of the other.
Second, the invasion of Iraq, which was a mad response to the madness of September 11, introduced a new rhetoric that went beyond negation to demonization. A language of hatred and a crusader’s stance have dominated the official discourse of the new conservatives and new fundamentalists on both sides of the war. Hatred and xenophobia have replaced fascination, and the lunacy of religious wars has become the new face of globalization and savage capitalism.
Third, we no longer refer to immigrants as members of the working classes. Instead, we differentiate among the ethnic identities of members of our immigrant populations rather than grouping them all within the class-based category of workers. In France Kuchuk Hanem—the exotic, veiled woman of the East personifying mystery and sexuality—as well as the fascination of Arabian Nights and its exploration by Flaubert, have been supplanted by the frank and brutal scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims in the huge and mystifying success of the novelist Michel Houellebecq. Elsewhere, one need only look at the recent screed by Martin Amis with its “eruptions,” to quote Michiko Kakutani, of “anti-Islamic vituperation.”
These three elements are part of an undeclared war in the Mediterranean and the larger world—a war that nobody has asked for, yet is here nonetheless. It continually distorts the ways in which one group can read the image of the other. Nowhere is this truer than in Palestinian and Israeli literature, in which the presence of the other is so strongly felt.
In his 1963 novella Facing the Forests, the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua depicts a Palestinian servant as mute. “The Arab,” he writes, “turned out to be old and mute. His tongue was cut out during the war, by one of them or one of us? Does it matter?” The mute Arab Palestinian will not be able to relate to the Israeli the story of the destroyed Palestinian village that was buried under the forest. Similarly, Amos Oz, in his story “Nomad and Viper” (1963), creates a bedouin character who, in his relationship with a frustrated Israeli girl, is symbolically associated with the imagery of a viper. The girl has hallucinations of being raped by the Arab, but nothing happens, and she is instead killed by a bite from the viper. Thus, suggests the Israeli critic Ehud ben-Ezer, “in this story the Arab symbolizes the dark passions of the human soul [and t]he viper seems to fulfill what the Arab began . . . The Arab already exists there, where animal lust and irrationality dwell with death and the drive for self destruction.”
And so the figurative representation of the mute, sexually subversive Arab forged in the literature of colonial-era Orientalism persists in the contemporary period. But a closer examination of post-1948 literature on both sides shows that misunderstanding has been an imaginary tool of resistance as well as domination. Several Arabic novels—for example, Tawfiqal-Hakim’s Bird from the East (1938), Souhail Idriss’s The Latin Quarter (1953), and Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North (1966)—are subversive not because they challenge Orientalist imagery directly, but because they share an awareness of misunderstanding as a means of domination and appropriate the images of cultural stereotype for their own use.
In analyzing two short novels—Israeli writer S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh (1949) and Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa (1969)—I will explore how the appropriation of images of the other—using them self-consciously as projections of self-images—can provide a literary strategy for undercutting the expectations of a dominant ideology. Anton Shammas formulated the central problem in his novel Arabesques, where he describes an Israeli writer aiming to create a fictional portrait of the “typical Arab.” He presents this effort as a metaphorical struggle between the novel’s two protagonists—the Israeli writer Bar-On and the Palestinian writer Shammas—over who, in the end, will write the story. By imagining the other as a projection of the self, the representation of others transcends mere recognition and anchors itself in a kind of mirroring. Such literature, even if it cannot break entirely free of the dominant ideology, can create its own means of representation and a new imaginative space occupied by real human beings.
Khirbet Khizeh was published in 1949 alongside Yizhar’s novella The Prisoner. The works provide corresponding literary testimonies of the 1948 War. Although Khirbet Khizeh is widely viewed as a classic work of modern Hebrew literature, it was not translated into English until 2008.
The novel, whose narrator blends first-person description and contemplation, is based upon the historical experience of an Israeli platoon that occupied a Palestinian village in southern Israel. After a display of cruelty by soldiers toward villagers, the platoon in the novel demolishes parts of the village and expels the residents. Although his work is fiction, not reportage, Yizhar confirmed that he witnessed the events described. Moreover, the novel bears witness to the injustices committed against the native Palestinians long before the Israeli new historians raised the issue.
In the Arab world, debate about the book focused on the relationship between literature and historical reality. The Palestinian writer Tawfiq Fayyad, who translated the novel into Arabic, argued that the destroyed village of the novel was an actual village called Khirbet al-Khisas, and he identified Captain Yehuda Baiiry as leader of the operation. (Baiiry admitted his role in a February 1978 issue of Ma’ariv.) Fayyad argued that this small book revealed “the diabolic legitimacy based upon the negation of the other.” The Israeli poet Haim Gouri, on the other hand, claimed that the action in Khirbet Khizeh was an exception to be protested.
Although this kind of debate could prove interesting, it would be worthwhile to consider the novel in a new way, examining its method of mirroring the Palestinian villagers.
The outcome of Khirbet Khizeh—the destruction of the village—sheds light on an issue that has never been raised in studying the Palestinian in Israeli literature: the Palestinian villagers do not resist. They surrender to their destiny, and the soldiers describe them as dirty and despicable, as worms and ungainly nomads: “They don’t even have blood in their veins, these Ayrabs . . . They see Jews and wet their pants.”
These words of revulsion are part of the vocabulary of a platoon whose soldiers behave like hunters facing ghosts. The soldiers take the village in an apocalyptic scene described by the narrator: “All these blind and crippled men, women, and children looked as if they had walked straight out of the Torah.” The narrator, who is appalled by the scenes of savagery, tells the story as an eyewitness, voicing what no one else had spoken about within the Israeli discourse of the 1948 War.
The description of the villagers reaches its peak with a Palestinian woman holding her frail infant, a sickly little girl. She waves the girl in front of the soldiers and shouts, “Take her, take her and keep her!” The soldiers, the narrator says, “screwed up [their] faces in revulsion.” “They’re like animals!” one of them explains.
What would happen if we exchanged names and labels in this novel? If we replaced the Palestinians with Jews, we would have before us a typical anti-Semitic discourse, and would find ourselves dealing with all the adjectives of cowardice that were attributed to the Holocaust victims. This hypothesis is no mere intellectual exercise, but is suggested by the biblical scenes in the novel itself. Moreover, it finds its roots in the impact on Israeli literature of the Canaanite movement, which considered the Palestinian villagers as originally Jews who were obliged to convert to Islam.
This hypothetical scenario clarifies the essence of this novel. The Palestinians in this poor village have to play the role of the Jews for the Jews. They serve as a mirror, and, through this role imposed upon them, liberate the Israeli Jew from his Ghetto past and pave the way for the birth of the Israeli, the new Jew who is no longer a continuation of the Diaspora.
Literature becomes a mirror of the self, and misunderstanding the other a tool that enables us to see ourselves with greater clarity.
In this sense, Khirbet Khizeh portrays Palestinians in a new way. They are neither mutes, nor bedouins, nor young boys. They are not without a tongue as is the character in Yehoshua’s Facing the Forests, or the primitive father in David Grossman’s “The Smile of the Lamb,” (1983) or the twins in Amos Oz’s My Michael (1968), but rather victims, helpless natives facing a more powerful enemy. They are described with a racial language that comes from the Jewish memory of persecution; their behavior is similar to that of the Jews slaughtered like sheep in the Shoah.
In Yizhar’s novella The Prisoner, the author continues in the vein of Khirbet Khizeh. Here is how one Israeli soldier tells his comrades to treat a lost Palestinian shepherd:
If you want the truth, beat him! If he lies, beat him! If he tells the truth (don’t you believe it!), beat him so he won’t lie later on! Beat him in case there is more to come. Beat him because you’ve got him at your feet . . . He’s a defeatist and you can’t make wars with that sort. Have no mercy.
For Yizhar, the other is a collective mirror, and thus plays the role of a psychological liberator. In The Prisoner and Khirbet Khizeh, the Palestinian becomes a literary solution to the question of identity, a device for gaining greater self-understanding through misunderstanding and projecting a stereotyped image of the self on the Palestinian natives.
With Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Returning to Haifa, the typical image of the Israeli occupier in Palestinian literature as nothing more than a soldier shifted. For the first time, an Israeli Jewish character was presented in a humanistic way.
Kanafani, alongside the poet Mahmoud Darwish, is a literary innovator of the Palestinian post-Nakba identity. Kanafani’s novel Men in the Sun (1963) is considered to be the first novel dealing with the aftermath of 1948. The novelist, who was assassinated in the outskirts of Beirut in 1972, was also the first writer to portray the meeting of a Palestinian with an Israeli Holocaust survivor. The stream of consciousness in the novel interweaves memories of the Nakba with those of the Holocaust.
In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani relates the journey of Said S. and his wife Safia to their home in Haifa after twenty years. But the novel goes beyond nostalgia, describing the transformation in the Palestinian attitude after the defeat of 1967. This novel was the first Palestinian literary work to recognize the responsibility of the Palestinians for their two defeats and to formulate a new meaning of Palestine.
Upon his return to Haifa, Said meets Miriam, the Holocaust survivor now living in his house. She has adopted Khaldoun, the son whom Said and his wife left behind two decades before. Then an infant, he is now a young man with a Hebrew name: Dov. Said has to contend with these perception-altering facts in order to embrace the idea that “man is a cause,” that one is not only a product of the past, but an actor in creating the future.
It is by way of the mutual discovery of the other that all of the characters reformulate their senses of themselves. For Said, the encounter with his now-Israeli son and Miriam catalyzes transformation: he sees himself in them and thinks anew about the meanings of memory and kinship. He imagines his second son Khalid becoming the Palestinian mirror of Dov, inventing a new identity for himself in the struggle for Palestine.
The novel is a kind of theater in which Said faces his abandoned son, who has become an Israeli soldier. The meeting represents not a conflict between opposing sides, but a bridge that leads thePalestinian protagonist to a new self-understanding. Dov accuses the Palestinians of being cowards, and Said does not deny the charge. Said admits that he was a coward,and pushes the discussion toward the question of justification:
My wife asks if the fact that we’re cowards gives you the right to be this way. As you can see, she innocently recognizes that we were cowards. From that standpoint you are correct. But that doesn’t justify anything for you. Two wrongs do not make a right. If that were the case, then what happened to . . . Miriam in Auschwitz was right. When are you going to stop considering that the weakness and the mistakes of others are endorsed over to the account of your own prerogatives?
And when he tells Miriam, “We are not here to ask you to leave this house, because this would require a war,” he is not referring to Palestine as a memory, but rather a new project. He rejects the idea of nostalgia and replaces it with that of the fidai, the new Palestinian:
For us, for you and me, [Palestine is] only a search for something buried beneath the dust of memories. And look what we found beneath that dust. Yet more dust. We were mistaken when we thought the homeland was something of the past. For Khalid, the homeland is the future.
Kanafani’s approach was anchored in the Palestinian experience of the Nakba. He wanted to unseat the dominant pan-Arab nationalist ideology, which promisedthe Palestinians their right to return through the intercession of an Arab savior. But in order to subvert pan-Arabism and invent the image of the new Palestinian, he borrowed the image of the new Israeli. The second son of Said S. would meet his biological brother in the battlefield.
The Palestinian-Israeli novelist Emile Habibi misread Kanafani’s novella, interpreting Khaldoun/Dov as the symbol of the Palestinian minority that remained on their land in what was to become Israel. And as a reply to Returning to Haifa, Habibi wrote his masterpiece Said the Pessoptimist, which forged the image of the Israeli-Palestinian as one of the most beautiful parodies in modern literature. This interpretation did not take into consideration the concept of the other as a mirror in both Palestinian and Israeli literatures. Kanafani was, through the mirror of Dov, creating the image of the new Palestinian. Like the new Israeli, he will refuse memory and the past. He will condemn the cowardice of his fathers during the Nakba and search for a new beginning.
Yizhar portrays the other in order to bear witness to the facts of the Nakba, but his work leads us to a deeper truth: the poor Palestinian villagers become part of a biblical scene; they are a new image of Jews, or the innocent victims of Jews. With Kanafani, however, the lost-son-cum-Israeli-soldier is a counterpart to the remaining son who will not become a downtrodden victim, but a Palestinian freedom fighter.
In their two exceptionally powerful novels, literature becomes a mirror of the complex self, and misunderstanding the other a tool that enables us to see ourselves with greater clarity. This major paradox occurs in both contemporary Palestinian and Israeli literatures, offering us a new perspective from which to understand the suffering of both peoples and the opportunity to place the idea of Palestine in a more profound context, as a search for justice in an unjust world.
Note to the reader: This article is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The project explores the role of fiction in making sense of global and cultural conflicts. See also Zakes Mda’s “Justify the Enemy” in our May/June 2008 issue.
Elias Khoury is a prizewinning Lebanese novelist, playwright, and critic and editor of the literary supplement of An Nahar, a Beirut daily. His novels in English translation include Gate of the Sun, Yalo, and As Though She Were Sleeping.
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