Any assessment of the Palestinian short story will encounter several difficulties, some of which have to do with the flexible nature of this literary genre while others involve the tragic Palestinian situation, a product of occupation and exile. As a literary tool, the short story can refer to a passing thought, an anecdote or else what has been called the “very short story” practiced with great success by, for instance,
The flexibility of the short story is arguably the reason that led Palestinian story writers to adopt differing approaches. Kanafani, for instance, practiced this literary form before his move to the novel. He wrote two collections of short stories, Death of Bed no.12 (1961) and Land of the Sorrowful Orange (1963) in a style that eschewed melodrama and probed reality in a poetic and richly allusive prose style.
In contrast, although
If the fact that Palestinian literary writers are, to varying degrees, novelists and short story writers, makes it somewhat difficult to assess their short story genre, a more extensive difficulty is due to the unremitting exile of the Palestinian people. This exile drove them into faraway regions or into neighboring Arab countries. Such for instance is the case of
If this dispersal of literary writers into distant places of exile is cause for sorrow, a certain sorrow combined with black humor can be detected in the short stories written inside Palestine itself. Here a researcher will need to cross the “Green Line
” to reach those once called the “Arabs of Israel,” and must pass by the
Despite the dislocation and state of siege imposed on the “Gaza Strip,” Gaza has produced a number of short story writers, like
In the course of defending both their homeland and their right to write, Palestinian literary writers issued a magazine in Jerusalem called al-Ufuq al-Jadid (New Dawn; 1961-66). They banked on a surging national will, a modern literary culture, and a desire for experimentation and novelty. Among the contributors were Mahmud Shuqair, Mahmud Ibrahim Ghannam, and Majid Abu Sharar. Their colleagues within the Green Line had for some time “taken shelter” under the wing of the Israeli Communist Party represented essentially by their magazine al-Jadid (The New) and their daily newspaper al-Ittihad (Unity). Here, they were supported by Emile Habibi, the historian Emile Touma, the poet Tawfiq Zayyad, and others who aspired to a “national literary” politics.
The preceding overview reveals three dimensions common to Palestinian short story production: the absence of a single place where literary activity is mutually enriching, the absence of an institutional framework to support and coordinate this activity, and the lack of opportunities for dialogue among Palestinian story writers except intermittently. What one might term the “national identity of literature” is not clearly seen except in the works of the early pioneers and among storytellers who carried on their aspirations among the pre-Nakba generation.
In historical perspective, Khalil Baidas (1874-1949) is widely considered to be the founder of the Palestinian short story. He had learned Russian in his native Nazareth, read and translated Russian works, and became aware of new literary genres, including the short story. He drew close to the short story form in a famous work called Scenes of the Imagination, which combined reflection with incitement, and in The Beautiful Woman in Disguise (1911). He set an example for other writers, most notably Mahmud Saif al-Din al-Irani, who began his literary career with a story called The Start of the Race (1937), as well as Najati Sidqi, Arif al-Ghazzuni, and Iskandar al-Khouri. Short story writers after the Nakba include Lutfi Malhas in the diaspora and in Palestine, Hanna Ibrahim, author of Ten Years Later (1957) and Wild Flowers (1972).
Within the limits of a national consciousness which merged literature with politics, three Palestinian writers contributed substantially to the development of both the Palestinian and the Arab short story. Ghassan Kanafani introduced into the short story symbolism, free association, and folktales, transforming this mélange into a broad and innovative creativity grounded in tragedy and resistance. Samira Azzam (1927-1967), author or Little Things (1954) and The Large Shadow (1956), read the tragedy of the Palestinian as the tragedy of a vanquished human being, resorting to “thick” symbolism and artfully combined narrative with a dialogue open to the life around it. Azzam has not yet received the accolade she deserves. Mahmud Shuqair, who paid special attention to language ever since his first work The Bread of Others, moved from a simple to a complex story form and from prose to a polished style characterized by its economy and its poetic traits, as in My Maternal Cousin Condoleeza.
The Palestinian national cause has been and continues to be a theme of Palestinian short stories. This has narrowed the scope of the topics dealt with in short stories. If, by definition, the short story covers a defined aspect of everyday life, one would have to conclude that Palestinians have lived very similar lives. This might explain why Samira Azzam in her early writing career was not familiar with a social field as broad as the one experienced by the Syrian Zakariyya Tamer and why Mahmud Shuqair could not know the diversified writing space in which Muhammad al-Makhzinji, the Egyptian creative writer, has moved. The Palestinian situation has not given the creative writer Ziyad Khaddash the space for creative experimentation in ways afforded to the Jordanian Hisham Bustani.
Since the mid-1990s, Palestinian short-story writers have attempted to expand their range through diverse aesthetic instruments-- giving attention to prose, meditating on a daily life devoid of illusions, and penetrating inside a human world replete with images and possibilities. This is reflected in the adoption of an illusion-free writing outlook by Ziyad Khaddash, Ziyad Barakat, and Nabeel Abdul-Karim, whose writing styles might be described as neo-realism.
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Elmessiri, Nur and Abdelwahab M. Elmessiri, ed. A Land of Stone and Thyme: An Anthology of Palestinian Short Stories. London: Quartet, 1996.
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