Ahmed Harb, author and university lecturer
Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 18.05.2006:
Ahmed Harb is a professor in English Language and Literature at Birzeit University as well as a literary writer. He received in November 1997 the Palestine Prize in the genre of the novel.
I was born in 1951 in a small village south of Hebron, Dahariyeh. My witnessing of the continuous Israeli aggression in the village as well as my simple but rich life as a shepherd boy had a great influence on my later writing. From the very beginning I didn’t try any other genre than the story. It captured my attention after my studies and kept me creative. In 1981, during a writing workshop with writers from different countries, there was a discussion about an Israeli novel, called “Ants,” by Orpes, in which the ants represented the Palestinians and presumably their ability to survive. I responded to that narrative phantasy with my own first novel. From that time on the textual response became a tradition in my writing.
My third novel, “The Other Side of the Promised Land,” for which I receive the Palestine Prize, was in part a textual response to a novel by the African novelist Arma, titled “Why are we so blessed.” There was something common to our experiences. Arma’s novel described his disillusionment with the Algerian revolution. In the first years he admired that revolution and saw it as an example for the African continent. However, after independence the rulers became the new face of colonialism. The revolution desintegrated by corruption and other social ills which it had tried to fight before and for which many people had lost their lives. That novel was for me like a prophetic dream. In my novelistic response I saw correspondences between the Algerian revolution and the Palestinian revolution.
How should we look at the Palestinian revolution? All the time Palestinians think that they are among the elite of the Arabs, that they are the most educated. But if this is so, why do we have to suffer and face defeat so many times, not being able to reflect on what happened, not learning from our failures? The direct subject of my novel was the Intifada, but the experience of the Intifada brings the protagonist to think about the whole history of Palestine, back to the twenties and before. He disagrees with the evaluation that the Intifada would liberate the country, telling the people: Please, don’t exaggerate, learn from history, go back to your history, don’t follow the inflammatory slogans. These take you away from understanding and communicating your real situation, and as a result you’re not able to plan your future.
Are narratives helpful here?
Yes, narratives include history. If we would have been able to narrate our history, to make our points clear and to convey our narratives to the world, I think we would have been in better shape today. There has been a tragic failure on our part to convey our version of the historical narrative to others.
Narrative is power. When you’re able to tell your narrative, you achieve power. The Israelis surpassed us, whether their version was correct or not. They are good story-tellers. They succeeded in getting their narratives across. This situation is now really hard to reverse. We have to work very hard, not to reverse it, but at least to show our version. If you narrate in an artistic form what really happened in Palestine, that will be dramatic enough. It is not only the subject which is important, but also how you tell the story. We should tell the story of what happened in Deir Yassin, Duwaayme and other places during 1948, for instance, and put such story in an understandable, humane and literary form. If you tell about the life of the people, how they lost their land and were killed, you need to show the human depth, and especially the details of the story.
I don’t want to fully endorse what some Orientalists say, that we don’t look at the details but only at the larger concepts. But unfortunately, to a certain extent it is true. If the Israeli soldiers carry out something near the university campus, and you ask the students to tell you what happened, they will relay the story in general terms, they don’t go into specific details. But the specifics make the narrative. The Israelis do the opposite. See when something happens against the Israelis, an act carried out by Palestinians, and see how the Israelis tell the narratives about the incident. The Israelis go into the life of the individuals who died, and their narratives are effective.
In our literature and history, our narrators tend to be very impressionistic, like in poetry, talking usually in the collective sense. Actually, poetry was part of our literary consciousness, not the story. Revolutionary poetry was perceived as an additional weapon to liberate the land. Perhaps because of the limitations of the genre, Palestinian poetry for a long time capitalized on the larger concepts of Palestinian suffering, the hardships, the struggle, without being able to penetrate the essence of the human experience. It was only in the sixties that Ghassan Kanafani started to write his stories. These turned out to be the most important literary Palestinian narratives; his work was translated into several languages.
Nowadays I think there is an improvement, but not as it should be. One of the reasons may be the Oslo agreement. The Oslo agreement came suddenly, the general public did not expect it to happen. It confused them. It also confused the narrative situation. Psychologically, the Oslo Agreement disconnected the original Palestinian narrative. Our thinking, our narratives, have become characterized by fragmentation. We are a fragmented people, we have a fragmented land, we are fragmented in every sense of fragmentation. This is a setback for literature. Before Oslo, all our literary aesthetics was based on our original story of the land of Palestine. The land was always the spring of our narratives, of our artistic efforts. Presently it is as if you give up a large part of the narrative by giving up a large part of the land. The sense of bitterness which accompanies the loss of the land cannot be redressed.
Should there be a new national narrative or a re-shaping of the old?
This is a dilemma. In my last novel, “Remnants,” the protagonist has the mission to bring all what remains, all the fragments of the national identity together into a meaningful whole. Maybe something new comes up from all these remnants. Remnants are the memories of the lost land, what still remains of the land, and what we have achieved after all what happened. Who is the Palestinian now? How can I define myself? The easiest way is to evade the question, just to say: “I am a Palestinian by birth.” But in the world of politics we presently have a very tiny area for self-rule, maybe two percent of the West Bank. More than half of the people live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and so on. You have Palestinians who are de facto Israelis. What kind of narrative unifies us? As a writer, a story-teller, there is no other way than to go back into history, to what is common, and try to capitalize on what you see as the brilliant spots of this history that have meaning to every Palestinian.
Are there still national stories in a time of globalization?
It is true that our children are often more exposed to foreign narratives, such as American TV stories, rather than to Palestinian narratives. In many cases you even don’t find that narrative. Our story has also been appropriated by others. From time to time a foreigner becomes interested in the subject, makes a diary, visits the area for a few months and so on, and reflects on his or her experiences. Then the Palestinian narrative appears as part of his own narrative. I don’t think it is good for Palestinian youth when the Palestinian version is seen and reflected through other stories.
It is hard to say, but I have a pessimistic feeling. I feel I have to be truthful in spite of the fact that truth is bitter. If I would see something different in the long run, I would be more optimistic. It is not just what the other, the Israelis, are doing to us, it is also what we are doing to ourselves. After the experience of the last two or three years I am disappointed in the Palestinians. Although the other is responsible, it is not wise to make the other responsible all the time. What have we done, and what did we do to face the other? Were our reactions appropriate to the actions of the other? Despite the political weaknesses and the injustices inherited in the Oslo Agreement, I had expectations, a margin of hope, and that margin depended on us, Palestinians. After the experience of the last few years I feel we missed it as well.
Interview 31/10/97, The Jerusalem Times
Toine van Teeffelen