During the recent clash in Gaza, The New York Times’s book blog, Paper Cuts, posted a reading list of books about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. While there is much to be learned from political and policy-minded books such as Dreams and Shadows and The Missing Peace (get it?), I was troubled to find no works of literature on the list. My degree in is in comparative literature (Arabic and Hebrew), and so I’ve always been of the opinion that literature is the best way to understand other cultures. The books below are a small sampling of two deep and inexorably intertwined literary traditions, with four from the Palestinians, four from the Israelis, and one in between.
Memory for Forgetfulness, Mahmoud Darwish
Before he died last year, Darwish was almost universally acknowledged as the national poet of the Palestinians. Memory for Forgetfulness is a book length prose poem about life in Beirut during a particularly intense period of Israeli bombing. It’s a difficult book (in both form and content) but very rewarding.
See Under: Love, David Grossman
Grossman has been for many years one of Israel’s leading men of letters, a fixture on talk shows and the opinion pages. One of his more fantastical and ambitious novels, See Under: Love centers around the childhood and adult writings of Momik, a second generation Holocaust survivor who believes he is channeling Bruno Schulz.
Palestine’s Children, Ghassan Kanafani
Born in Acre in 1936, Kanafani was a master short story writer, journalist, and PFLP activist. Men in the Sun, his book about Palestinian laborers in the Persian Gulf is widely taught in college. But Palestine’s Children, a series of portraits of life in the Galilee before and immediately after the creation of the state of Israel, is his most accomplished and moving work.
The Nimrod Flipout, Etgar Keret
Foremost among the younger generation of Israeli writers, Keret’s stories tap into the profound existential absurdity of waking up every morning in a tiny, battle-torn Jewish state, going to work, eating sunflower seeds, and watching TV, all the while wondering, When will I be blown up? In the process of excavating this particularly Israeli truth, he also reveals the profound existential absurdity of life in the early 21st century, of being alive at all.
Wild Thorns, Sahar Khalifeh
Khalifeh is one of the foremost living Palestinian writers and a widely respected feminist activist. (Plus, she has a PhD in American literature from the University of Iowa.) A beautifully rendered novel, Wild Thorns explores deteriorating Palestinian social structures and the effect of the first Intifada on daily life in Nablus.
In the Land of Israel, Amos Oz
Known in the United States primarily for his novels, Israeli writer Amos Oz is also a journalist and political writer of some regard. In the Land of Israel records a series of conversations Oz had in the 1980s with settlers, activists, military judges, and more. What might be a stock piece of journalism is transformed, in his hands, to a work of art.
Orientalism, Edward Said
A literary critic and classical pianist, Said was probably not the most likely candidate to be the Palestinian’s “most powerful political voice.” And yet, he was. A brilliant thinker and tireless advocate for the Palestinian cause, Said was and continues to be reviled by the right. Orientalism, his critique of Western depictions of the “orient,” is one of the more influential books of the last fifty years.
Flowers of Perhaps, Rachel Bluwstein
The Poetess Rachel (as she is known in Israel) is like a cross between Whitman, Frost, and Dickinson. Her lyric, idyllic poems about the joys of agricultural life on the Sea of Gallile are a mandatory part of the Israeli curriculum. Compared to the rest of the selections on this list, these poems may seem a bit cheesy, but they give a good sense of the idealistic determination of the early Zionists.
Arabesques, Anton Shammas
Shammas is the author in between. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, Shammas grew up in a small village near Haifa and like the million or so other “Arab Israelis” he spoke Arabic at home, but learned Hebrew at schools. A fantastical, multi-generational chronicle of the Shammas family, Arabesques was written in Hebrew and remains one of the few novels in Modern Hebrew written by a non-Jew.