Re-embodying Palestinian Memory

A recent flourishing of Palestinian literature reckons with complications in historical memory caused by settler colonialism.

The ethnic cleansing and ongoing colonization of Palestine are a war not only against bodies, ecosystems, and livelihoods but against memory itself. This war against memory takes many explicit forms: from the casual denial of Palestinian existence embedded into political and legal rhetoric within the ethno-supremacist states of israel and america to the ongoing censorship and destruction of Palestinian historical records within israeli archives.

Within this settler-colonial apparatus that institutionalizes, and hence suppresses, the implementation and accessing of Palestinian memory, what room, if any, is there for Palestinian voices within anglophone—and american in particular—literature? And, especially, what room is there for authors not engaging with explicitly nationalized narratives but instead reckoning with Palestinian erasure on a level of the vernacular, implicit form, and the institutionalization of language in the american nationalist project?

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that a flourishing of literary representations of Palestine that reckon with complications in historical memory has lately emerged from within Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora. In particular, Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette); Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, You Exist Too Much; and Jessica Abughattas’s poetry collection, Strip, unpack these ruptures and disembodiments of memory.

Though written in different genres and languages, these three texts trouble the binaries of lived/historical and accessible/inaccessible forms of memory. The books resist both colonial constraints on discourse—which often enforce these very binaries—and the trope of normalization: juxtaposing israel and Palestine without regard for the power dynamic between them, and thereby preventing meaningful motions toward justice and freedom for Palestinians. Taken together, these new literary representations build a political and linguistic consciousness that is restorative, essential even, to the Palestinian archive.

Through their implicit motions and minutiae, these books demonstrate that they are for Palestinians, first and foremost, but all who can dare to imagine Palestinians as human are welcome in these words and worlds.

Adania Shibli’s “Minor Detail” resists and subverts the gaze that would attempt to normalize Palestinian experience under occupation.

Adania Shibli’s most recent novel, Minor Detail, reckons with disembodied notions of Palestinian memory by telling a discontinuous, but not disjointed, narrative centered around an incident that occurred during the Nakba, where israeli soldiers rape and kill a Palestinian teenager after murdering a group of Bedouins (presumably the girl’s family). The book explores memory mainly through its fragmentations. Between the first and second halves of the novel, for example, the reader encounters a time jump from 1949 to modern day; a spatial shift from the Negev desert mid-colonization to a more modern portrait of Ramallah, the settlement labelled by the zionist project as “Nirim,” and the postcolonial landscape of wall, checkpoint, soldier, border; and, perhaps most viscerally, a shift in perspective from a distanced third-person, past-tense account of an israeli soldier to a first-person, present-tense Palestinian narrator.

On a broad tonal and stylistic level, the distinction between the two narrators in the novel is (intentionally) stark, especially in how the two voices handle narrative distance. Whereas the israeli narrative is told primarily through the narrator’s actions and reactions to day-to-day life as an ethnic cleanser of Palestinian land, the Palestinian narrator is granted an interior life—a window into a mind aware of its own anxieties, rationalizations, and perceptions of “the borders imposed between things.”

Whereas the israeli narrative is fragmented into brief vignettes, mirroring the very logic and rhetoric of rationalization for the israeli mission, the Palestinian narrative takes place over one long continuous section, wherein readers are present for every moment of this narrator’s quest to uncover the details of the Bedouin girl’s state-sanctioned murder. Throughout this journey, time dilates, and the delays imposed by the israeli state on Palestinian transit (via restricted roads, racist identification systems, and physical blockades like walls and checkpoints) are embodied in the language itself. The Palestinian narrator lives perpetually in the present tense and, thus, perpetually at the border of danger: not only in a narrative sense (via proximity to soldiers and settlers) but in a deeply linguistic sense (via the suspenseful, moment-to-moment unfolding of language, inherited from the collapsing of narrative distance with this speaker). In contrast, the israeli voice gets the implied safety, survival, and archiving of the past tense.

By telling the story through two very different narrative and linguistic lenses, Minor Detail actively resists and subverts the gaze that would attempt to normalize Palestinian experience under occupation. This normalizing gaze is a key component of american and Western institutional erasure of Palestinian memory, and it tends to operate via a juxtaposition of Palestinian and zionist narratives that fails to acknowledge or compensate for power differentials between colonized and colonizer, occupied and occupier.

At its heart, Shibli’s project is deeply interested in the complacency of language itself in the erasure of Palestinian memory, and this is most clearly seen in the attention to and unraveling of granular detail through both narrative threads of the book. Many images and motifs surrounding the zionist soldier’s murder and assault of the Bedouin girl haunt the minor aspects of the Palestinian narrator’s life. For instance, the image of a dog barking—which is present at every stage of the Bedouin girl’s story, from the initial assault of her family at a desert spring to the subsequent torture, humiliation, rape, and finally murder and burial—becomes a symbol of anxiety and fear for the Palestinian speaker in the novel’s second half. The opening image of a dog howling through a sleepless night foreshadows the animal as a “dark black mass” that instinctually “drives fear into” the speaker while he spends the night at an israeli settlement.

Additional parallel details—such as the scent of gasoline reeking both from the Bedouin girl’s hair in part 1 and the Palestinian woman’s clothes in part 2—herald the novel’s unforgettable conclusion1 while also highlighting a crucial irony about memory’s inaccessibility: that the minor details of the violence this Palestinian narrator was seeking and obsessing over, to the point of her literal death, were details she was living among this entire time. What is observable to readers is, devastatingly, unknowable to the speaker. These unknowable facts, and the mirages2 that surround this narrator—ultimately those of country, of border—drive her to her surreal yet inevitable conclusion: she journeyed through every loophole and time warp in the settler-colonial apparatus in search of a memory that was both inaccessible and living, breathing, around her.

It is through this dual embodiment—of memory and the lack of access to it—that Shibli’s work resists the normative colonial gaze and consumption, and centers and (up)holds its commitment to Palestinian life and archive. However, the landscape of this disembodied memory is not only specific to literary portrayals of Palestine itself but is also taken up by Palestinians in diaspora, as exemplified by two recent american releases that also explore gendered and queerphobic violences: Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, You Exist Too Much, and Jessica Abughattas’s debut poetry collection, Strip. Both of these projects, through narrative structure and poetic form, respectively, work at intersections of gender, sexuality, and the fragmentation that characterizes diasporic notions of Palestinian memory and archive. Through their differing genres, the books arrive at a similar resistance to institutions of memory, and work toward both the recentering and the restoration of a Palestinian archive.

Like the speaker in Minor Detail, Arafat’s speaker in You Exist Too Much tells a story that is discontinuous in both space and time, weaving together early adolescent trips to Palestine and adult life in New York City. The flashbacks serve many functions in the novel’s reckoning with memory. For instance, the book opens with a vignette of clergymen in Bethlehem yelling “haram!” at Arafat’s unnamed narrator, aged 12, for wearing shorts and exposing her legs in a holy space. The narrator and her uncle swap trousers in the bathroom, and the scene ends with a juxtaposition: the narrator finds comfort in the male clothing as her mother “first realized [she] wasn’t like her.”

Through this opening flashback, Arafat’s narrator lays several foundations for the book: the proximity of queerness and Palestinian-ness for this speaker, the duality of finding her queerness through—and critiquing queerphobia within—a Palestinian diasporic setting, and establishing tension between the main character and her mother. The relationship between the narrator and her mother—a profoundly nuanced and heart-wrenching central thread in a plot that grapples with intersections of gender, diaspora, and mental health—continues its nonlinear temporal development throughout the book. Interspersed are various flashbacks as the character checks herself into a nontraditional residential therapy program—the result of a series of meltdowns involving the end of a turbulent relationship—and a scene where the narrator’s mother angrily leaves a public dinner after meeting the narrator’s girlfriend.

Erasing context from discussions of queerness in Palestine, also known as “israeli pinkwashing,” serves to justify zionist colonial agendas.

One particularly poignant moment arrives in the book’s seventh chapter, when the narrator is doing a Healing Internal Trauma exercise and is forced to unpack her relationship with her mother. The novel flashes back to a moment when the mother wouldn’t respect her daughter’s communication boundaries and spammed her work phone all day, and another critical, lingering moment when the mother told the narrator, “[I’m] beautiful and [you’re] average.” The unraveling of this scene is nuanced in such a way that the mother, while being held accountable for the harm committed against her daughter, is also humanized (via the contextualization implicit in the scene’s treatment of memory) as a Palestinian born into a colonial apparatus that has forced paranoia, anxiety, toxic beauty and familial standards, and other intersections of gendered violence and mental health upon the diaspora.

Readers witness Arafat’s main character repeatedly falling obsessively in love with unavailable, or otherwise inaccessible, people; this, despite the character’s necessarily difficult introspection, becomes a pattern she falls into over and over again. This obsessive repetition, paired with the narrative context of a Palestinian family grappling with anxiety, PTSD, and hetero-patriarchal norms, culminates in a portrait that is uniquely queer but also uniquely Palestinian. In other words, the inaccessibility of love here is deeply intertwined with an inaccessibility of home and country. The crime of memory that erases context from discussions of queerness in Palestine—also known as “israeli pinkwashing”—happens by exploiting narratives involving queerphobia within Palestinian society, without the necessary historical background, so as to paint a picture of Arabs as closed-minded and israelis as progressive. These erasures, therefore, serve to justify zionist colonial agendas.

As a narrative with an insistence on revisiting ruptures in memory, and unpacking the trauma therein, Arafat’s novel is a direct resistance to pinkwashing and other homo-nationalistic ideologies, one that centers Palestinian memory and generously unpacks the underlying sociopolitical contexts of Palestinian society for non-Palestinian readers. This contextualization is similar to Shibli’s extensive unpacking of zone-restriction laws in the West Bank and the insistence on naming the discrepancies between israeli maps and her speaker’s Palestinian map along the journey. The emphasis on and the directing of the reader’s gaze that happens in both of these novels’ expansive moments are never that of pandering to a system that does not see Palestinians as human, but instead an explicit naming, centering, and uplifting of Palestinian experience into the archival memory of these respective projects. Shibli’s and Arafat’s novels invite a range of readers—Palestinians living in Palestine, Palestinians living in the diaspora, and others who affirm Palestinians’ humanity—into that experience without oversimplifying these important themes.


Resisting the Rhetoric of Disaster

By Daniel Behar

Jessica Abughattas’s Strip, though working at similar intersections as the aforementioned texts, takes quite a different aesthetic and formal approach to this reckoning with Palestinian memory—namely, one that resists explanation. In her essay “Against Explanation,” Tarfia Faizullah comments on the ways normative gazes put both implicit and explicit pressure on poems, especially those reckoning with gendered trauma, to justify or prove their truth; she writes, “I don’t know how to explain the electricity that passes through us when we read a poem that moves us. It is divine. I don’t know how to explain the divine.” Abughattas’s speaker in Strip evokes this precise reaction in their reckoning with memory and poetic form; these poems are devastatingly precise in their treatment of the border between said and unsaid, and in that exactness they center and prioritize their intended audiences.

Although Palestine is named several times throughout the collection and is critical to the memory-scape this project inhabits, these poems never explain or justify their Palestinian-ness. Instead, they resist the very gazes that would seek such forms of (reductive) explanation. The trauma and memory encapsulated within the Palestinian diaspora haunt these works on a level of line and syntax. Both the opening and penultimate poems (titled “Dinner Party” and “Another Dinner Party,” respectively) operate with a strict devotion to shorter sentences and mostly end-stopped lines, paired with a focus on the exterior motions of the pieces’ respective scenes:

There were three Palestinians, two Irish, the Bulgarian.

The cinematographer was Chinese American.

The AD was white and gay.

The house was so big I got lost in the powder room.

It had been a tough night on set.

The stylistic effect is an intentional, borderline uncanny, distancing—the speaker’s discomfort at the scene’s extravagance is, itself, embodied by both the form and the language itself. As a three-page, single-stanza piece, the poem relies on repetitions and inversions to direct the momentum and keep the tone maximally tense throughout: for example, the inversion of an early line, “The trauma of not being held,” as “Being held is a trauma” near the poem’s end. As the poem unravels toward its ending, Abughattas writes: “Nudity was called for. / The Palestinian was humiliated. / … / It had been a tough night,” thus clicking into place several of the poem’s threads of distance and bodily traumas: at the heart of this piece’s formal imagination is the question of agency and, implicitly, proximity to power—a reckoning that feels not just named but exposed.

Other formal reckonings with repetition throughout the collection—namely, through use of anaphora—build upon this work to expose the systems of power inherent to writing Palestinian narratives in English and, as per Shibli’s project, hold language at the center of accountability. In the title poem, “Strip,” for instance, the repetition of lines beginning with “to” links several modalities of violence with a syntactical emphasis on action, thereby exposing the proximities and intersecting effects of these actions:

To take away from, confiscate

To rob, ravage, ransack, raid, reave, rifle

To rip the sheets from a bed

To lay bare, devastate, sack

To tease

Example: prisoners, down to their underwear.

Another poem, “Semantics,” one of many stunning short-form pieces in the collection, employs anaphora to expose and implicate colonial gazes through sentences one may call unresolved in a grammatical sense:

And when the towers fell

When at the airport

When our accents were

And when we were Syrians.

A third poem, written in the voice of the speaker’s grandmother, uses the anaphoric structure of past and future lives to convey the weight and multiplicities of this speaker’s Palestinian memory: “I was widowed, my youngest was three. My eldest married under a veil of smoke, only seventeen. My first death: barbed wire kissed my scalp.” This poem’s imagination gestures and guides readers into the final poems of the collection, which uplift, dare I say resurrect, the speaker’s great-grandmother within Strip’s landscape of memory.

When I recently taught an excerpt of Strip to a class of diasporic writers, some of my students expressed feeling grateful for how these poems both demand and allow the reader to stay. Just as with the subversive anti-normalization of Shibli’s dual narrative structure, and Arafat’s difficult and generous reckoning with queer familial trauma, I emerge from Abughattas’s Strip feeling not merely seen but understood. These works never shy away from the difficult conversations occurring within our diaspora, but instead confront them head-on and implicate the institutions of language that seek to restrict, overwrite, and disembody Palestinian memory. But in that implication, we are paradoxically gifted language itself. I want to call it a new language, though it isn’t entirely unfamiliar. Perhaps at the center of it is how we grieve, or how our grief evolves, permeates through generations, and moves through us. Perhaps it’s how we remember.


This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chauicon

  1. Another detail that draws foreshadowing and ironic parallels between the two narratives is the landscape of thorn acacia and terebinth trees, which serves as the site of both the Bedouin slaughter in part 1 and the novel’s concluding moments in part 2.
  2. This rigor and attention to the permeability between known and unknowable, of said and unsayable, is present from the novel’s opening image: the mirage of “the outlines of the pale yellow ridges ” and “a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges” amidst the (countrification of) the Negev desert, which blends into the mirage of internal and external borders in the Palestinian speaker’s life.
Featured image: Ramallah Checkpoint, Ramallah, Palestine (2018). Photograph by Cole Keister / Unsplash