Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature Edited
by Salma Khadra Jayyusi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. 744 pages.
Salma Jayyusi’s Modern Palestinian Literature brings together works by more than 70 writers and is unquestionably the most extensive anthology of 20th century Palestinian writing available in English. Like Jayyusi’s other major compilations, Modern Arabic Poetry (1987) and The Literature of Modern Arabia (1988), the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA) directed the preparation of this anthology. Its vast sampling of Palestinian literature makes it especially suitable for libraries, and the bibliographical information of the authors will be useful to students looking for other works by particular authors.
Many of the 232 poems, 25 short stories and 14 excerpts from novels and autobiographies present narratives of occupation, exile, imprisonment and resistance which go beyond official national discourse. Some foreground Arab culture, Third World solidarity, feminism, Marxism or Islam. Ghareeb ‘Asqalani, Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habiby, Akram Haniyyeh, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Sahar Khalifeh, Hisham Sharabi, Fadwa Tuqan and Ghassan Zaqtan are only a few writers who connect Palestinian concerns with broader movements and struggles against homogenization and marginalization. The individual texts, taken together, illustrate the pluralism in Palestinian culture and oppose a narrow patriotism. Modern Palestinian Literature appears to provide a format in which diverse Palestinian cultural identities are molded into a collective national shape. However, it is not evident that the canonizing method of a “definitive” national anthology offers a wedge against further fragmentation, censorship and repression.
The anthology’s claim to comprehensiveness may be fatal for the work of Palestinian writers not included. Most of those anthologized live outside the occupied territories and Israel, and were born before 1948. It is not enough for Jayyusi to state that “the balance [of good writing?] still tilts decidedly in favor of Palestinian literature written in exile” (pg. 7). Nor can she gloss over the limited selection of women authors and writers under 40 years old. By its very nature, an anthology excludes works and subverts differences in order to advance a constructed unity. The editor’s introduction should address the political implications of what seem to be merely practical decisions.
Jayyusi argues that after 1948 one can trace the contours of a modern Palestinian literary tradition distinct from other Arabic literatures. The overarching nationalist perspective, the detailed political chronology at the beginning, excerpts from personal accounts in the final section and explanatory footnotes tie modern Palestinian literature to regional political developments. Yet Jayyusi expresses an ambivalence regarding this relationship:
Because of their immediacy, political factors often tend to interfere in the artistic process, sometimes diverting it from its natural course in favor of a certain commitment or ideology. However, the history of modern Arabic literature, particularly poetry, and especially in the decades since the Palestine disaster of 1948, shows that art has its own way of reasserting its natural course of development and growth. (1-2)
Jayyusi’s notion of a pristine art undercuts the anthology’s political force. She seeks to identify avant garde aesthetics and a nascent “modernism” as markers of a specific Palestinian literary tradition in order to situate the writings within the “acceptable” rubric of a national culture as opposed to international politics. Yet, by her own admission, while “all Arabic literature nowadays is involved in the social and political struggle of the Arab people, politics nevertheless imposes a greater strain on the Palestinian writer” (2). Jayyusi uses the introduction to set up an awkward opposition between art and politics characteristic of conservative cultural attitudes that require the minimization of political references to legitimize the artistic value of literature.
Anthologizing is one of the principal publishing strategies for presenting Arabic literatures in English translation. It cannot, however, replace the need to translate and publish entire works by individual Arab authors. Unlike PROT A’s daring publication of novels, short story collections and poetry by various Arab authors, this broad national anthology speaks more to the requirements of US publishers and certain segments of the academic community than to the need for a challenging presentation of Arab culture and politics. The publication of Modern Palestinian Literature satisfies a demand for English translations of Palestinian literature; unlike many of the pieces included, it does not take up the urgent need to question the hegemonic effects of the nationalist project.