A Reading List of Palestinian Prose
Marcello Di Cintio, author of ‘Pay No Heed to the Rockets,’ recommends novels and memoirs by Palestinian writers
The only story most outsiders ever hear about Palestine is one related to enduring conflict. The character of the Palestinian is either a furious young man with a keffiyeh wrapped around his head slinging stones at Israeli soldiers, or a woman in hijab wailing in front of her destroyed home. The Palestinian as militant or victim. Over the course of many trips to the region, I’ve long wanted to write a different story about Palestinians — something outside the narrative of anger and loss.
I figured that if I wanted to hear new stories about Palestine, I should ask the storytellers themselves. So for my book Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine I sought out the poets and authors of Palestine. I figured these writers would have different stories to tell. My discussions with Palestine’s writers inevitably led to politics, but at least I could begin from a different starting point. Instead of asking a woman about the Israeli checkpoints, I could ask about the first poem she wrote. Instead of asking a man about his grandfather’s lost olive groves, I could ask about his grandfather’s library. These coffeehouse conversations revealed the regular lives of Palestinians. These are the stories I share in my book.
In Palestine, as elsewhere in the Middle East, poetry reigns as the most exalted literary genre. As a prose writer, though, I was drawn more to the narrative works — both fiction and memoir. Here are 10 of my favorite books of Palestinian prose, many by authors I had the honor of meeting and writing about in my book.
In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish
Any list of Palestinian literature must begin with Darwish. The beloved poet was a rock star in the Arabic literary world. His book readings filled soccer stadiums. While rightly adored for his poetry, Darwish also wrote fascinating prose. My favorite is In the Presence of Absence, a strange and beautiful self-elegy in which the aging author addresses his younger self and tells him the story of his life to come.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Palestinian American Hala Alyan’s debut novel follows the lives of a displaced Palestinian family over three generations. Alyan’s skills as a poet — she has published four poetry collections — are evident on every page. Salt Houses is one of the most gorgeous books I’ve ever read. Alyan writes sentences that literally made me catch my breath.
Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories by Ghassan Kanafani
Israeli agents assassinated author and political activist Ghassan Kanafani in 1972 with a car bomb. “Ghassan was very dangerous,” his widow told me. “He didn’t carry a gun, but he carried a pen.” That pen wrote some of the Arab world’s best short fiction of the 1960s and early 70s. Returning to Haifa may be the most famous. The story follows a Palestinian couple as they return to the home they fled during the 1948 war. They discover the child they were forced to leave behind has been raised by a Jewish couple and is now an Israeli soldier.
The Drone Eats With Me: A Gaza Diary by Atef Abu Seif
Atef Abu Seif’s memoir recounts his experience of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. “I am not reporting on the war,” Seif told me when we spoke in 2015. “I am writing from the perspective of a family. A family that is being besieged and being attacked…. Things happen out of their control and they want to being order to their little world.” The Drone Eats With Me is intimate, humane, and intensely personal.
The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction edited by Atef Abu Seif
Seif is also the deft hand behind this collection of short stories by Gazan writers, many of whom are young women. The stories are diverse and often surprising, like Ghareeb Asqalani’s “A White Flower for David” which relates the affection between an Israeli and Palestinian family, or the startlingly erotic piece by Najlaa Ataallah titled “The Whore of Gaza.” Each story opens a tiny window on life in contemporary Gaza — a place, these stories would suggest, is hated and loved in equal measure by those trapped behind its walls.
Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh
Raja Shehadeh has kept a diary daily for much of his adult life (and when I met him in Ramallah he scolded me for not doing the same.) His personal observations of a lifetime under siege inform most of his books, including the rightly-celebrated Palestinian Walks. The book describes decades of Shehadeh’s hikes through the hills of Palestine, revealing both the beauty of the land itself, and all that continues to be lost under the occupation’s bulldozers.
I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti
Mourid Barghouti brings his poet’s eye to this memoir of returning to Palestine after a 30 year separation. The book spins back and forward through time and memory, bringing readers to Barghouti’s childhood village, his Egyptian exile, and to the wooden bridge that leads him back to Palestine as a grown man, husband and father. I Saw Ramallah shows what it means when the homeland transforms from an idealized memory to a reachable, physical space.
Haifa Fragments by khulud khamis
I spent six hours in khamis’s Haifa apartment listening to her complicated life story. She was born in Czechoslovakia to a Palestinian father and a Slovakian mother, raised in an Arab neighborhood in Haifa, and now lives among Israeli Jews. Her fractured identity fuels much of her poetry and fiction, especially her appropriately-titled debut novel Haifa Fragments. Her main characters all identify as Palestinian, but are not sure where — and with whom — they belong.
Hantoush by Salha Hamdeen
Salha Hamdeen was 16 when she wrote this fairy tale about a Bedouin girl — also name Salha — and her magical flying sheep, Hantoush. Salha rides Hantoush to flee Israeli landmines and gunfire and flies to Barcelona where she meets famed soccer player Lionel Messi. The story provides a sad and whimsical look into a child’s life in Palestine, and reveals what passes for fantasy under occupation.
About the Author
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of four books, including Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense and the critically acclaimed Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, winner of the 2013 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. Di Cintio’s essays have been published in The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, and Afar. He lives in Calgary, Canada.