Deconstructing and Reconstructing Stereotypes in American and Palestinian Fiction

Saddik Gohar

United Arab Emirates University, UAE

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF



For decades, the drastic ramifications of the conflict in Palestine not only trigger hostilities but also undermine the possibility of initiating mutual dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This paper aims to navigate the literary representation of the Jews and Palestinians in political Palestinian and American fiction in order to illuminate controversial issues integral to the tragic history of the two peoples. The paper argues that whereas the Palestinian writer, G. Kanafani, deconstructs hostile Jewish stereotypes in his famous novel,  Returning to Haifa, the American novelist, Philip Roth, in The Counterlife, de-centralizes the Palestinians and the Oriental Jews by conflating them with a status of cultural inferiority and barbarism. By introducing counter-narratives about the history of the Palestinian / Israeli conflict, Kanafani aims to proliferate sympathetic literary images of the Jews by incorporating the Jewish history of Diaspora and genocide. Kanafani not only engages Palestinian displacement but also explores the holocaust motif disseminating issues of common interest for the two sides of the conflict.  In an attempt to build bridges between the Israelis and Palestinians, Kanafani demolishes negative Jewish constructs entrenched in ideologically oriented Arabic literature foreshadowing its political agenda. Nevertheless, Roth’s tendency to offer a neutral view of the Middle East conflict, in The Counterlife, is thwarted by a hegemonic master-narrative originating in Orientalism and Western imperialism which marginalizes the role of the Palestinians in the fictional text.

Key Words: Stereotypes; Jews; Zionism; War; Memory; holocaust; Palestinians; Israelis; Resistance; Reconciliation; Orientalism; Conflict; Master-narrative.


The Myth of Arab Anti-Semitism

In the Arab world, the aphorism “the Jews are our cousins” used to be a recurring motif in Arabic folklore and cinema prior to the rise of the nationalist movement after the 1967 war and the emergence of political Islam in the 1980’s.  The above-cited aphorism is still used in Arabic discourse, although it gains punning and ironic connotations shaped by the radical developments and political complexities in the ongoing Middle East conflict.  The notion of the so-called blood ties between the Arabs and the Jews is deeply integral to Arab popular culture and local religious traditions, particularly in countries where Jewish communities resided such as Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine.  According to Islamic tradition and popular culture narratives, both Arabs and Jews descended from the same Semitic roots, therefore they are originally cousins and relatives. Regardless of these anthropological narratives, which may contradict their counterparts in Western theology, the Oriental Jews, like other Middle Eastern minorities such as the Christians, the Kurds and the Druze, were able to live in a state of coexistence with the mainstream Arab-Muslim population.

The history of Arab-Jewish conflict since 1948 needs no summary here. Suffice it to say that many of the fictional works incorporating Jews and Zionists are extensions of political polemics. Most of these works aim to express the anger of the writers and incite the Arab masses against the Zionists in Israel. However, as Trevor Le Gassik argues, “few works in Arabic of recent years involve a major character who is Jewish and the portrayal is rarely sympathetic” (Le Gassick 1982:  251).  In this connection it is significant to argue that for centuries Arab culture has lacked any information about the historical suffering of the Jews, particularly the Holocaust. This cultural gap, in addition to other elements, contributed to what Le Gassick calls “the rare sympathy” (Le Gassick 1982: 252) toward the Jews in Arabic literature.

The Humanization of the Jews in Returning to Haifa: Palestine’s Children

In Returning to Haifa: Palestine’s Children, Ghassan Kanafani’s well-known novel, the author emphasizes that the categorization of all the Israeli Jews as hard-core Zionists is completely out of touch with the exigencies of contemporary geopolitical realities.  Unequivocally, the argument and events in the novel consider the principle behind Jewish hatred as corrupt and self-serving.With regard to the construction of Jewish images in Arabic literature in the post 1948 war era, Returning to Haifa (1969) marks a turning point and sheds light on Kanafani as an author who challenges orthodox Arab narratives about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The establishment of the state of Israel and the huge ramifications of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war did not deter the author from deploying positive images of the Jews.  Unlike Arab writers who either romanticize or demonize the Jews, Kanafani underlines human issues of common interest between the two sides of the conflict foreshadowing the political agenda of the novel. In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani introduces the Arab-Israeli conflict not only by incorporating Palestinian suffering and displacement, as in traditional Arabic literature, but also through an engagement with the Jewish history of Diaspora and genocide. The Jewish motif in the novel has precipitated the emergence of a new pattern of Jewish characters in Arabic literature associated with the nature of the cultural ‘other’ paving the way for novelists such as Elias Khouri  who viewed the Jews in a very sympathetic manner. In the post Kanafani era, the awareness  of such motif resulting from an encounter between the Palestinians and the emerged as an outburst of literary consciousness characterizing major Palestinian literature on the conflict.

Returning to Haifa is “the story of a Palestinian couple’s return to the flat from which they were forced to flee twenty years before,” (Campbell 2001:53). The main events of Kanafani’s novel cover the period that extends from the beginning of the armed clashes between fighting factions in Palestine prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 until the post 1967 war era. After the 1967 war and with permission from the state of Israel, Said S. and his wife, Safiyya, returned to their house in the Halisa area in the city of Haifa looking for their son, Khaldun, who was left behind during the occupation of the city in the 1948 war. When they entered the house, they were warmly received by a kind woman, Miriam Iphrat, who did not recognize them in the beginning of the encounter.  She was short and rather plump and was dressed in a blue dress with white polka dots. “As Said began to translate into English, the lines of her face came together questioning. She stepped aside, allowing Said and Safiyya to enter, led them into the living room (Kanafani 2000: 162).

In the house and in a flashback, Said S., the  main character in the novel remembers the bitter memories of the 1948 war when he was forced on 21 April to leave Haifa “on a British boat” and “to be cast off an hour later on the empty shore of Accra,” (Kanafani 2000: 166).  In April 29, 1948, Miriam and her husband, Iphrat Koshen, accompanied by a Haganah soldier entered “what from now on became their house, rented from the Bureau of Absentee property in Haifa,” (Kanafani 2000: 166). After escaping from the Nazi Holocaust in Poland, Iphrat Koshen’s family “reached Haifa via Milan in the month of March under the auspices of the Jewish Agency” (Kanafani 2000: 166). In the beginning, Miriam’s family had to live in a small room at Hadar, the Jewish quarter in Haifa. Then the woman told her visitors that in 1948 she settled in their house, which she rented from the Israeli authorities.

During the meeting, Miriam told Said and his wife that she lost her family in the Nazi Holocaust and immigrated to Israel. Throughout the carnage perpetrated against the Jews in Europe, she escaped and hid in a neighbor’s house. After her arrival from Europe,  Miriam came to Palestine and  settled in the house of Said, which was given to her by the Jewish Agency. When Miriam and Iphrat entered the empty house they found the abandoned Palestinian child -Said’s baby son, Khaldun- who was in a terrible condition.  The childless couple rescued him from starvation and adopted him as their own son giving him a Jewish name-Dov.

Recalling her own suffering in Nazi Germany and in Poland where she escaped from persecution, Miriam felt sympathetic toward the plight of the Palestinians. Moreover, this emigrant woman, a Holocaust survivor, told her Arab guests that she witnessed a massacre in which Palestinians, not Jews, were slaughtered by an Israeli militia. She saw two Haganah fighters throwing the dead body of a Palestinian boy in a truck. The incident reminded her of the murder of her brother at the hands of German soldiers during the Holocaust. To her, the Haganah violence against the Palestinian refugees is reminiscent of the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany and Poland.

After the initial confrontation between Said S. together with his wife Safiyya and Miriam, it seems that the Jewish woman has anticipated the visit of the Palestinian family: “I have been expecting you for a long time”, says the woman. “The truth is, ever since the war ended many people have come here, looking at the houses and going into them. Every day I said surely you would come,” (Kanafani  2000: 163). When Said and Safiyya returned to Haifa, their former house was only inhabited by Miriam and Khaldun/Dov, their son, after the death of Iphrat.  During the visit of the Palestinian couple to their house and in a conversation with Miriam, she told them that Dov has become an officer in the Israeli army, and is due to come back home within few hours.

The narrative geared toward its unexpected climax after the arrival of Dov, and the final chapters witnessed the heated confrontation between Dov and his family. Castigating Said and Saffiya for abandoning him, Dov denounces his Palestinian origin, affirming his identity as a Jew and an officer in the Israeli army. He told them that he did not know that Miriam and Iphrat were not his parents until about three or four years ago. He added that since his childhood, he was aware only of his Jewish identity: “I went to Jewish school, I studied Hebrew, I go to Temple, I eat kosher food. When they told me I wasn’t their own child, it didn’t change anything. Even when they told me – later on – that my original parents were Arabs, it didn’t change anything. No, nothing changed, that’s certain. After all, in the final analysis, man is a cause,” (Kanafani, 2000:181).

The young man continues his address to Said, his biological father who was responsible for the loss of Dov. Symbolically, Said is transformed into a prototype representing all Palestinian refugees who abandoned their homeland in 1948 resulting into the loss of Palestine: “You should not have left Haifa. Twenty years have passed, sir! Twenty years! What did you do during that time to reclaim your son?” Further, Dov accuses his father, an epitome of the Palestinian refugees, of weakness and backwardness: “You’re all weak! Weak! You’re bound by heavy chains of back­wardness”. Finally, Dov told Said and Safiyya that their tears will not regain their lost son and figuratively their lost homeland: “Tears won’t work miracles! All the tears in the world won’t carry a small boat holding two parents searching for their lost child. So you spent twenty years crying. That’s what you tell me now? Is this your dull, worn-out weapon?” (Kanafani 2000:185).

By the end of the meeting, Dov expressed his gratitude to his Jewish foster parents, and decided to remain in Haifa as an Israeli citizen. Before the return of Dov, Said told his wife the story of Faris al-Labda, another Palestinian refugee and a friend of Said.  When Faris came back to his flat in Haifa he found it occupied by another Palestinian family who did not abandon the city during the 1948 war. The family convinced Faris to join the Palestinian resistance forces. In the aftermath of the climactic meeting between Dov and his biological parents, the resistance motif is focalized again in the narrative. As Said and Safiyya drove back to Ramallah, Said thought  seriously of allowing his elder son, Khalid, to join the Palestinian guerrilla fighters. In the beginning of the novel, Said prevented Khalid from joining the resistance movement in Palestine, but his meeting with Dov changes his attitude regardless of his fear of a potential confrontation between Khalid and Dov in the battlefield…Full Text PDF

Cities of Struggle and Resistance: The Image of the Palestinian City in Modern Arabic Poetry

Saddik M.Gohar, UAE University, UAE

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This paper aesthetically articulates the representation of the Palestinian city in modern Arabic poetry in order to argue that while Arab -and non-Arab poets-incorporate  variety of attitudes toward the city ,  the presentation of the Palestinian city reveals a radical difference from the rest of Arabic and non-Arabic poetry  due to the peculiar history of struggle, resistance and victimization characterizing life in the Palestinian metropolis.  To the Palestinian poets, in particular, the city is part of a homeland they have lost or a refugee camp that has been resisting the invaders for decades.  Contrary to western cities  inhabited by alien residents such as Eliot’s Prufrock, or Arab cities populated by strangers, outsiders, whores, outcasts and political prisoners  as in the literary  cities of Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab  and Ahmed Abdul-Muti  Hejazi , the Palestinian city is inhabited by heroes and martyrs.  These heroes who appear in contemporary Palestinian poetry and take different shapes personify the struggle and resistance of a nation that has frequently refused to surrender at times of crisis.  Representing the spirit of the Palestinian people confronting  a world replete with  treachery and hypocrisy,  the Palestinian city and its nameless heroes , in contemporary Arabic  poetry, is an embodiment of  an eternal and unlimited Palestinian dream , the dream of return, rebirth and liberation.  In this context, the paper affirms that unlike Arab cities which are associated with decadence, corruption, exploitation and moral bankruptcy, the Palestinian city,  due to the Palestinian history of exile, resistance, victimization and pain, is viewed in Arabic/Palestinian poetry as a location of heroism,  struggle, defiance and martyrdom.

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