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Article about why Palestinian community stories are terribly important

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 23.06.2006:

(Ex)communicating Palestine: From Bestselling Terrorist Fiction to Real-Life Personal Accounts

Toine van Teeffelen

Studies of the Novel, Vol 36, number 3 (Fall 2004)

(unedited text)

[This text is relevant for PFN in so far it analyzes the need for developing stories about Palestinian daily life, including diaries, for the purpose of “communicating Palestine” effectively]


Our thinking and experience as individuals or as part of a collective identity are to a large extent shaped by fictional and non-fictional stories, both those which we ourselves make as well as the stories which others make about us, and which may radically differ from our own. Divergent stories about our identity always have a deep impact upon our thinking and feelings; they might engender a productive tension but, if the divergence is too great, a schizophrenic sensation. With regard to national identities, there are presently few people who experience this conflict between identities as defined by themselves and by others as acutely, and with such serious consequences, as the Palestinians. Edward Said, the outstanding Palestinian intellectual who recently passed away, once wrote that the West denies the Palestinians “permission to narrate.” In fact, Palestinians presently struggle as much for the physical survival in their land as for keeping their national story alive in a power-ridden arena of Western-dominated international communications.

In focusing on the Western-Palestinian communicative relation in this article, I am going to address and compare stories and representations of Palestine and Palestinians as they come forword in various influential, primarily narrative genres: on the one hand, semi-fictional Western bestsellers, largely stereotypical but with some significant exceptions, and on the other hand cases of “writing back” genres, one more activist – Internet blogs of internationals living in Palestine – and another more pedagogical, diary writing projects by Palestinians. My analysis will be guided by a narratively-oriented hermeneutics. I will use insights of major hermeneutic traditions about the conditions required for an authentic understanding of others, and will look especially at the moral role attributed to daily life. In doing so, I will focus on whether narrative representations elicit a dialogical or a reductively causal understanding (Bakhtin in Holquist 1981, Bruner 1990, Harre 1991), and whether they evoke in their representations of identity a journey of moral development or rather a repetitive and mechanically enacted script lacking a sense of value-directed agency. In the final part of the article I will link this approach to a few critical-pedagogical questions relevant to the Palestinian educational context in which I presently work: How can the development of particular narrative genres create discursive space for Palestinians who up until now lack the opportunity to speak out? Where to find narrative options that encourage the expression of Palestinian identity (identities) in a liberating rather than a defensive or homogenizing manner?


A discussion of specifically Western bestsellers is chosen because they have an effective and popular influence, while methodologically they yield rather well-delineated and recognizable narrative representations about Palestine and its relation with the West. Here I present the main conclusions of research about bestsellers between 1960 and 1986 that was conducted by myself some ten years ago but which I now reformulate within a hermeneutical approach (1). Unsurprisingly, most Western bestsellers that (at least in part) deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are about terrorism. As characteristic for most popular literature in general, the terrorism bestsellers amplify and fictionally test uncertainties, anxieties, and dilemmas that are felt, or thought to be felt, among western reader constituencies at the time of publication. One well-known thriller formula is the (technological) disaster novel (Sutherland 1981) which addresses, in the tradition of Gothic or science fiction disaster formulas, the concern of a technology going out of control and turning against its creators as well as against the world at large. A most dramatic instance of such an anxiety concerns nuclear proliferation; literally throusands of more or less popular novels used to focus during especially the 1960s and 1970s on the (pending) outbreak of a nuclear war indicated to take place in the wake of an escalation between East and West (Brians 1987). Some bestsellers address the potential or actual possession of the atom bomb or other “weapons of mass destruction” by what are suggested to be untrustworthy dictatorships, including Arab governments who are described to use the weapon in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict (Year of the Golden Ape, The Fifth Horseman, Snap Shot, Triple, The Odessa File, Code Ezra). A variation on the disaster theme is the “political conspiracy” novel: many contemporary novels, mostly those with a strong espionage element, narrate the near breakdown of the Western political system due to a conspiracy coming from the former east bloc or the Third World, or alternatively from inside Western ranks.

Political kidnappings by Palestinian militants test Western morale (Thirty Four East, Year of the Golden Ape, The Fifth Horseman, By the Rivers of Babylon, Caprifoil and Rosebud). In addition, the technological and political disaster novels sometimes have a component characteristic of what has been called the “professional caper” (Denning 1987). The typical hero of the professional caper is the hireling often just killing for the money or for the job’s own sake.

Some thrillers narrate Western professional agents, sometimes with their own particular brunt against the West, who pursue the terrorist caper themselves or lead or accompany Palestinian operatives (The Glory Boys, Year of the Golden Ape, Black Sunday).

A different and more “literary” class of thrillers is the psychological spy story (Denning 1987), a story in the tradition of Greene or Le Carre which employs the plot of a thriller in order to narrate the existential crisis of an Israeli or Western spy or expatriot who lives in an alienating world (The Levanter, The Tower of Bable, The Little Drummer Girl, Saladin! and Code Ezra) and displays an understanding for the other side of the conflict (The Little Drummer Girl, Saladin! and Code Ezra). Furthermore, almost all plots contain elements of the heterosexual romance as a main or subsidiary motif (elaborated especially in The Pirate, Eagle in the Sky and Triple).

If we then move more in particular to the representation of the Palestinian so-called terrorist characters in these bestsellers, we observe as a first pervasive characteristic: the narrative dominance of the terrorist character within his or her national Palestinian group. For instance, when alternative, more ambiguous conflict frames appear such as non-violent struggle or diplomacy, such forms of struggle are typically narratively invalidated by an act of terrorism. At the end terrorism stands as the major source of the continuation and extension of the conflict and as the narratively decisive action on the Palestinian side. Most importantly, the thrillers do not show major Palestinian characters other than the terrorist. Secondly, with few exceptions, the terrorist character stands opposed to, or has an unnatural relation with, home and daily life. He or she does not experience a sense of daily life in the context of personal or family development but rather violently targets persons in daily life roles (attack against civilians); suspends the daily life of others for political purposes (kidnapping); or uses daily life roles as a cover (during the preparation or aftermath of the violent action).

The terrorist characters do not have an organic relation with a broader homely community of identification nor do they have a connection with the land in which they live or used to live. The characters are unrelated to wider networks out of which situated interdependent roles, moral connections and developing narrative lines can be imagined. If the novel evokes any sense of Palestinian identity and society, the descriptions do not contain specific time/space parameters of a lively present and developing community. This in particular applies to the family who is almost always absent (or narratively pushed to the background, perhaps briefly mentioned as a psychological source of trauma). From the viewpoint of the main storyline it does in fact not much matter where the terrorist character lives or comes from. There is very little about what concretely happened in the past – refugeeship and occupation are barely mentioned – that provides a narrative explanation of motives and loyalties.

The fact that the terrorists are unsituated and freefloating in more than one sense adds to the suspense; after all, nothing looks as dangerous as an elusive enemy without stable identity or home.

In the context of the terrorist character’s actions, time is not evolving but just focused upon the immediate future of the threat. The terrorist is not shown to make choices except for the very narrow technical requirements of implementing the mission. He or she predictably executes familiar terrorist motifs, like undergoing training, establishing support networks, hiding, or going for the kill. In other words, the terrorist’s time, scripted in advance, does not allow for agency and the opening of narrative potential in a journey of development. Interestingly, the basic decision for the terrorist act that energizes the story – we talk about books from the 1960s up the 1980s – is typically not made by a Palestinian but by an external conspirator such as an Islamist or Marxist dictator with a larger ideological reference group who uses the terrorist as a tool. Similarly, Western helpers in the operation manipulate the Palestinian characters for their own ends. These narrative constructions have the effect of on the one hand diminishing the element of freedom in the psychological make-up of the terrorist character and on the other hand further isolating him or her from the perceived influence of a community or ideological reference group, however negatively perceived that reference group by itself may be.

In taking notice of an amplified terrorist threat, readers are obviously provoked to think about its underlying causes. Acts that target daily life radically defy our normal understanding, which is after all rooted in daily life. Explanatory hints or “standard stories” (Schank 1990) that address the provoked cognitive tension often appear in sideline passages. The terrorist acts are primarily brought into connection with the absence of a societal context of guiding norms and values, an arrested psychological development of the terrorist character, and powerlessness and despair. In addition to such social-psychological causes the bestsellers indicate external conditions that enable terrorist actions, including the manipulative role of conspirators, indoctrination by a fanatic version of “Islam,” and a tribal culture of pride and revenge. Taken at a more abstract level, the explanatory frames combine elements of behaviorism (influence of external factors like the conspirators’ role or cultural-environmental influences attributed to Islam or tribal culture) and popular psychological, often psycho-analytical reasoning (explaining the internal drives) (Grixti 1989). In thus giving the terrorist an image of being completely dominated by internal or external drives, that is, uninfluenced by reflective thoughts and values, the bestsellers lend a mechanistic, unstoppable character to the attack. By doing so they put deeply dehumanizing images of Palestinians, Islam and the Arab world at the service of enhancing a narrative threat. This is not to say that the books’ perspectives are always unambiguously hostile towards the Arab-Islamic world; they sometimes hint at a veiled voyeuristic fascination with how a terroristic act can be professionally delivered, or evoke a certain understanding, colored by pity, for persons with a traumatized background, especially since the terrorist executioners are usually not the ones who set up the narrative conspiracy.

The actions are further placed in familiar broader schemas or stories that steer the moral reasoning about the nature of the larger conflict. In line with the previously mentioned narrative devices, the conflict schemas, with few exceptions, do not address issues of Palestinians being oppressed in their situated daily life in the present or past as a result of occupation or refugeeship (and if so, rather in its causal consequences, as a source of emotional trauma that explains the terrorist drive). The conflict suggests itself to be based on the very general threats of primitivism, revenge and envy against the civilized world; anti-Semitism; the possession by Arab countries or terrorists of nuclear weapons; the erosion of cohesion among or within the Western powers; and a pending breakdown of the world system.

The Palestinian life world is shown not only to be detached from human stories and roles other than that of the terrorist but also from any dialogical, “flowing” voice that morally reflects upon and tests one’s identity and actions and that is typical for a community rooted in the values of daily life. Instead of carrying a claim to authentic truth the Palestinian characters’ voices are presented in such a way that they should be understood in a reductive, causal manner; that is, the voices’ representation brings the readers not to “listen” to the contents of what is said but rather to interpret what is said in the context of the causes and consequences of the narrative danger.

Typical speech acts attributed to Palestinian characters include orders, the utterance of threats, propagandistic speeches or texts, failed persuasive attempts and what can be described as self-absorbed emotional talk. The main books’ viewpoints or perspectives reinforce a causal interpretation. In describing the terrorist’s actions, the narrator’s viewpoint is dominant, self-assured and barely ambiguous, and sometimes allied to the viewpoint of spies or of professional helpers of the terrorist character. All these narrative devices clearly invalidate the possibility and actuality of meaningful communication between the West and the Palestinian (Arab, Islamic) world.

In sum: the terrorist images have a powerful impact by on the one hand evoking a profound sense of defamiliarization created by the total uncertainty and inhumanity coming from an extra-ordinary source not guided by but targeting daily life. As daily life is the basic condition of living together with loved ones, and an ultimate source of moral familiarity, comfort and support, a frontal, unexpected and thus unnegotiable attack against daily life is obviously extremely unsettling. On the other hand, various narrative devices familiarize or cognitively “tame” the danger by giving explanations based on common sense and lay psychological notions, and by framing voices and perspectives in such a way that a rigid causal-reductive understanding is evoked.

In the real world, understandable as the concern about terrorism by itself is, by emphasizing and generalizing terrorism and in doing so eclipsing the sensuous, material and grounded daily life existence of Palestinians – their social identity and society who have their own pragmatic and moral demands and commitments of a lived life – it becomes possible to deny their voice legitimacy and credibility and to avoid considering Palestinian persons in their situated identities and moral networks with their own stories of oppression. Ultimately the bestsellers help to clear the way for raising support for policies that aim at the symbolic or material, real removal of Palestinians from their daily life contexts, as nowadays happens in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Israeli heroes

These conclusions gain in perspective when we realize that the bestsellers of the second half of the 20th century often privilege the everyday and provide authenticity, credibility and popular experiential authority to common people who show themselves to be or become heroes in exceptional circumstances by challenging sources of evil and by making risky moral choices with which readers can identify.

In the context of bestselling fiction on the Middle East conflict, this popular authenticity and authority are realized by Israeli agents and in some cases by Western agents. Such agents show effectiveness in spotting, eliminating or momentarily halting the terrorist threat in an all-or-nothing mission and display the rough non-conformism characteristic of the popular hero. Their action role, if not explicitly grounded in the daily life of a small family or work community (you sometimes have the genre-specific role of the loner hero) remains in a moral dialogue with daily life, in two ways. Firstly, in many cases an evolving journey of the hero is made possible that goes from a leaving of the home into dangerous adventure space and time followed by a homecoming to a renewed context of daily life (whether the “home” is conceived in a geographical, social or symbolical sense). Here the roles belonging to the action world connect with the roles of settled daily life, for instance when the successful completion of a mission turns out to be the condition for a successful return to personal life. Secondly, and more importantly, is the critical interrogation of the violent action sphere from a context of daily life. This interrogation is often framed by a romantic heterosexual (sub-)plot that opens up a moral and dialogical exchange between the male hero – usually the heroes are male – and his partner.

Typically, the male hero’s morality is challenged by a female character that is often rather more Western than Israeli and thus an easy point of identification for the reader. Moreover, the women’s voices reflect the “soft” values of daily life rooted in moral connectedness and care, a moral sphere that provides an additional zone of familiar contact for the reader. (Interestingly, the female character is usually herself targeted or abused by a terrorist character. This puts the world that the terrorist character represents even further away as an alternative zone of identification for the reader). The moral challenge sharpens the dilemma for the hero and thus also enlarges the narrative potential in terms of possible actions that may be taken.

The narrative negotiation about this moral challenge coming from the sphere of daily life can go in different directions. It may allow for a limited causal understanding of the hero’s problems, as when a psychological trauma is narrated that temporarily dominates the hero’s mind and actions (a revengeful violent action, for instance) but which he ultimately is able, in his own journey of identity development, to overcome, perhaps with the help of the female character. Alternatively, mitigating circumstances can point to the need to cancel or suspend daily life values in the face of a violent struggle against terrorism that supposedly has its own rules. While showing ruthlessness in the sphere of the main violent action, the hero may typically keep a moral touch of sensitivity in conducting minor actions. In general we see a narrative discrediting of the challenging voice and a confirmation of the rightness of the hero in taking the violent action. But even when the challenging voice is not completely invalidated, and there still remains a lingering doubt or ambiguity about the hero’s actions, then the message remains that the hero’s action is to some extent excused by the presence of an internal moral conflict and the willingness to negotiate a dilemmatic choice. This message of accountability also occurs at the intra-psychic level when the hero is shown to do internal soul searching. In other words, there is an articulation of a sharpened dialogic morality through the representation and amplification of the moral dilemmas shown in represented dialogue or thought. So it is not just the general validating context of acting against a large terrorist threat but also the representation of a morally charged daily life world that makes a moral and narratively expansive understanding of Israel’s case and/or the Western case in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict possible. At the most general level, this amplification and testing of moral dilemmas further validates the Israeli narrative world as one open to situated, contextualized choices, and one in which characters are ready to meet the moral challenges of freedom rather than being dominated by closed, quasi-causal scripts such as the terrorists’. In this way, the bestsellers emphasize and validate the communicative relationship between the West and Israel as one of a lively dialogue rooted in daily life morality – once again at the expense of the possibility of a living communicative relationship between the West and the Palestinian (or Arab, Islamic) world.

The Little Drummer Girl

Where this Israeli or Western-Israeli dialogue is most testing, and spills over into some form of critique of Israeli violence against Palestinians, we arrive at subgenres or formulas that evoke a measure of suspense by trespassing symbolic or actual borders between the West or Israel and Arab or Palestinian groups. Questioning the Western ingroup, although not fundamentally, is a feature of the so-called British “imperialist spy thriller” tradition (Denning 1987) in which the psychological identity of spies or agents is affected by an alienating living or work environment. This tradition reached its peak in the works of Ambler, Greene and Le Carre.

Undoubtedly, the most interesting thriller on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is The Little Drummer Girl of Le Carre, published in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion into Lebanon and the subsequent massacres of Sabra and Shatila. I go into some detail precisely because this book raises questions about the extent to which Palestinian reality is communicable to a Western audience through the channel of popular literature. In the foreword, Le Carre wrote that during his preparatory visit to Lebanon he was opened to the “Palestinian heart.” In fact, more than any other bestseller on the subject, The Little Drummer Girl provides a measure of space for descriptions of an oppressive Palestinian reality, from which I will quote at some length below.

The novel details a Mossad operation against a Palestinian group set out to kill Jewish persons living in European countries. The Mossad operative Joseph trains the sympathetic but immature-looking British actress Charlie who falls in love with him. She is asked to infiltrate the Palestinian group that has its base in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Joseph and Charlie rehearse in Europe a nonexistent love affair between Charlie and Michel, the brother of the head of the Palestinian group who is captured by the Mossad. The story of the affair is used to provide Charlie with an entry into the Palestinian group.

Charlie’s successful infiltration into the group finally helps the Mossad to spot and kill the Palestinian leader.

The book is in Le Carre’s style of showing the multi-levelled complex motives of agents and spies. As Charlie is suggested to be sympathetic to the Palestinian plight while at the same time spying for Israel, her perspective is thoroughly ambiguous. The book thus makes an interesting case about the extent to which some kind of an open Palestinian-Western dialogue can be constructed in narrative fiction.

So let us look more closely at the way in which the book displays the process of making sense of Palestinian reality through Charlie’s eyes. The relevant two chapters, about Charlie’s visits to the refugee camps in Lebanon (chapter 21 and the larger part of chapter 23), describe her taking in a multitude of fresh impressions. These impressions typically juxtapose opposing scenes, especially scenes of war and destruction on the one hand and normal daily life on the other. The resulting effect is one of shock, meaninglessness and irony rather than understanding. I here give a list of some of the more suggestive passages:

A street is “part battlefield, part building site.” (397)

“The nights were eternal, yet no two minutes were the same. The very sounds were at war with one another, first lying off at a safe distance, then advancing, then grouping, then falling upon each other in a skirmish of conflicting dins–a burst of music, the scream of car tyres and sirens–followed by the deep silence of a forest.” (399)

“Posters showed children waving machine guns or bunches of flowers.” (400)

When Charlie joins her guards in a fast car drive, “[t]he blue see opened to their right, and once more the landscape became ridiculous. It was as if civil war had broken out along the English seaside. Wrecks of cars and bullet-spattered villas lined the road; in a playing field, two children kicked a football to each other across a shell crater.” (408).

When Charlie visits a prison inhabited by refugees she observes “… a maze of ancient passages open to the sky but hung with plastic-covered slogans, which she at first mistook for washing.” (410)

“Charlie smelt coffee, open drains and wash-day.” (411)

“Rock and patriotic music mingled with the timeless murmur of old men.” (418)

At one point Charlie helps to prepare for a political demonstration of youth in the camp: “The great demonstration took place three days later, starting on the playing field in the middle of the morning heat and progressing slowly round the camp, through streets overflowing with crowds and emblazoned with hand-embroidered banners that would have been the pride of any English Women’s Institute.” (420)

During her training, guarding boys “… threatened to shoot her for her known attachment to Zionism and the British Queen. But when she still refused to confess to these sins, they seemed to lose interest, and told her instead proud stories about their home villages, which they had never seen, and how they had the most beautiful women, and the best olive oil and the best wine in the world.” (443)

Other descriptions show scenes of powerlessness, poverty and family tragedy juxtaposed to rhetorical exclamations of revolutionary vigour, or a show of sudden interest in the Western women’s love life. (410)

By themselves each of such descriptions can make various points depending upon context. However, when consistently coming back they suggest that the reality in which Palestinians (and Lebanese) live, and their psychological state of mind, are fundamentally incongruent: construction next to destruction, childish behaviour next to threats, pride next to suffering, energy of daily life next to political paralysis, beauty next to ugliness, as well as images of divergent sounds and smells. The impression of incongruency is further sustained because the chapters do not provide any explanation of the social and political context in Lebanon or the relation between Lebanese and Palestinians.

This all suggests the absence of meaningful community life. There is no sense of individual stories that interconnect with larger historical stories or with stories of others in a spatially or temporally evolving context. Rather the individual stories simply amalgamate with the single purpose of indicating a general sense of victimization and anger. Also, the different domains of suffering and care on the one hand, and war and struggle on the other, are not shown to interrelate in a meaningful way. They do not create an understanding of moral dilemmas and choices but rather represent closures of meaning.

The problem of meaning-making is underlined by the element which potentially could help to give meaning from a Palestinian perspective; the representation of Palestinian voices. But it is fascinating to see how the voices of the Palestinians who speak with Charlie are systematically made unnatural. In the aforementioned two chapters there is a deviation from the flowing conversational dialogue characteristic for daily life: the reader encounters brief punctuated sentences, the issuing of orders and directives, speeching, ungrammatical English, sudden silences, inward speaking, rhetorical phrases, undirected shoutings, a one-sided imposition of how Charlie should respond to a question, uncommon “revolutionary” greetings, rhetorically shaped answers in which Charlie doesn’t believe but which she has to utter as a spy, and other speech acts or registers that are uncommon or unlogical, unrelated to daily life, and often unfitting the occasion or the subject of talk. In fact, there is an obsession with not so much a hostile but rather an ironic mutilation and undermining of a flowing conversational voice. The internationals with whom Charlie shares the training or whom she visits, and who would potentially provide a zone of identification for readers, also use non-conversational talk to express mutually incongruent ideologies or attitudes – including expressions of support for anti-Semitism, world peace, world revolution, Christianity, and male chauvinism. The only exception in terms of a credible and coherent voice is that of a Palestinian woman who had studied in the United States; she is said by the very fact of having a broader experience in the West to be sadly aware of how far the Palestinian dream is away from realization. In other words, real meaning-making is connected to the West. There is no indication of a Palestinian discourse and value community that would make it possible for a Western audience to understand, negotiate or bridge moral principles and reality from a Palestinian perspective. Mainly by ironizing the other, The Little Drummer Girl creates borders, exclusions and hierarchies with respect to Palestinian reality and voice. This all, it should be noted, is in contrast to the Israeli voice which is generally dialogical (no deficient English language here), suggested to be mature, and not subject to ironizing perspectives or comments.

This suggested difficulty or impossibility to make meaning from life in the Palestinian refugee camps from an internal Palestinian perspective has several effects. Firstly, the Palestinian stories of tragedy lack seriousness, or rather, they lose impact as a story and just evoke a general notion of Tragedy abstrahized from the details of what happened. Secondly, the general sense of meaninglessness of the camp is pitted against the very focused and meaningful spy mission against the terrorists, which is thus foregrounded as the more narratively important matter at hand. Thirdly, the suggested incapacity to make meaning of Palestinian life in Lebanon facilitates playing with emotionalizing, generalizing, distancing, “literary” constructions around Charlie’s feelings. The readers’ attention is brought towards a game with perspectivization and aestheticization rather than to what is perceived.

Within this perspectival game, Charlie reaches the Palestinians’ “heart” as a locus of stilled and timeless meaning through the perspective and the voice of the Israeli Joseph with whom she is in love – rather than through the Palestinians she meets:

In the unreason around her, in this unlooked-for truce for meditation, she found at last a cradle for her own irrationality. And since no paradox was too great to bear amid such chaos, she found a place in it for Joseph too. Her love for him, in this world of unexplained devotions, was in everything she heard and looked at. And when the boys, over tea and cigarettes, regaled her with brave stories of their families’ sufferings at the hand of the Zionists-just as Michel had done, and with the same romantic relish-it was her love for Joseph once more, her memory of his soft voice and rare smile, that opened her heart to their tragedy. (400)

So Charlie’s journey into Palestinian reality is one of a symbolic homecoming (cf. the expression “cradle”), but only because the “chaos” of that reality reflects her own “irrationality.” Moreover, the homecoming is made possible through the help of a morally charged Israeli world that apparently is able to encompass and effectively communicate divergent viewpoints in a meaningful and morally credible way, including that of the victims of its own actions. This reinforces an interpretation we saw before – that the Western-Israeli communicative relationship is viable, and that Israel’s violence is morally checked, despite its vastly negative consequences for daily life of the Palestinians as described in the book in some detail, too.

Why is the above-mentioned “literary” image of the camps and the places where Palestinians live so powerful? In part because it feeds upon well-known, shocking, timeless images of war and daily life, but also because it deploys the genre of tragedy as a powerful familiarizing and somehow comfortable frame for a readers’ understanding. Tragedy typically includes recognition of a variety of viewpoints and emotions related to various perspectives that are considered not open to dialogue or reconciliation. On the reader’s plane, it creates the suggestion that the reader is “literarily” mature, knows how to detect and disentangle the various meaning-making literary plays in perspectives. This is however finally at the expense of representing a real meaning-making dialogue within or towards a Palestinian world. Instead, there is only an overriding sense of powerlessness evoked by the suggested presence of an insurmountable rift between propaganda and reality on the part of the Palestinians, and between compassion and paralysis on the part of the observer/narrator/spy. There is also a radical devalidation of political discourse, and instead a displacement towards the tragic timeless and placeless, a general understanding of reality in which human beings are viewed as the victims of higher powers, and thus left without active morality and potentiality.

In conclusion: The Little Drummer Girl at least allows for a form of connecting to Palestinian reality and daily life, unlike the general corpus of terrorist thrillers on the Middle East conflict. But there is also a very problematic underlying message accomplished by literary and narrative means. Thus, there is an attribution to a Palestinian (refugee) world of a kind of inherent lack of capacity to make meaning to experience, to engage in a dialogue about reality, to apply values to reality, and to connect or bring into a living dialogue the realms of care and the home on the one hand, and that of public life and power on the other. Even though the circumstances that stand at the origin of that lack of capacity are implied to be beyond the Palestinians’ control, these circumstances have somehow become part of their narrative world, and so their suggested lack of capacity associated with these circumstances has also become an inherent part of that world. This sense of a world – as opposed to the portrayed Israeli world – which is inherently deficient in human meaning-making is caused by creating a world apart liable to reductive causal rather than moral understanding, only knowable from a distanced, hierarchic, and controlling (in the case of The Little Drummer Girl sometimes ironic and finally tragic) points of view, and sustained by very general popular theories or standard stories about victimization, suffering and the dynamics of a “tragic” conflict which resonate in the western reader’s mind.

This is highly problematic and disempowering from the viewpoint of an educational and cultural politics. The making of such a deficient narrative world is not only an issue in popular or high literature but also in other genres, like journalism (how many journalistic articles have not been written from a tragic perspective, centering and aestheticizing the external look, and ironizing and twisting self- and other-perspectives of Palestinians or other non-western persons) as well as academic writing. For instance, Bruner (whose narrative-educational approach I value and from which I considerably borrowed for this article) stated in a talk given at the Hebrew University:

And (…), there is breakdown that results from sheer impoverishment of narrative resources-in the permanent underclass of the urban ghetto, in the second and third generation of the Palestinian refugee compound, in the hunger-preoccupied villages of semipermanently drought-stricken villages in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not that there is a total loss in putting story form to experience, but that the “worst scenario” story comes so to dominate life that variation seems no longer to be possible. (Bruner 1990: 96-7)

Here too, there is on the one hand an image of a refugee camp world or a world of poverty (with its timeless associations of continuous suffering and physical separation from the normal world, further evoked by non-verbal sources like familiar visual images of refugees or hungry people), an image that is assumed to be so self-evident that it does not need explanation, and on the other hand an attribution of deficient meaning-making, reinforced by an implicit opposition of the stagnant world of the refugee or poverty-stricken camp to a viable world rich in meaning-making. This is remarkable for anyone close to the life in refugee camps or poverty areas, where there is after all enormous “variation” in stories – although brought out under very oppressive circumstances – even though there is a real problem of using such variation for the purpose of empowering people, as will be discussed later. I know the Palestinian refugee world to be rich and multilayered in its oral histories and daily life stories; there is certainly powerlessness but also an authentic sense of agency and urgency – if only about the need to get the story out.

In present-day Palestine it is the task of educators like myself (and literary-oriented persons) to open up new ways of meaning-making through stories, creating a discourse of possibility and situated moral choice rather than a sense of paralysis. This is even more so because since the Oslo years there has been a narrative crisis in meaning-making, given the fragmentary nature of Palestinian existence, and the difficulty defining the Palestinian condition at all, including the meaning of concepts of struggle, home, home building, and homecoming. Here, in searching for new ways of meaning-making in narrative forms, I move to another contemporary type of story that positively and radically challenges existing narrative worlds and representations in the context of Western-Palestinian relations and which very recently had an impact. It is significant for educators not only because it reverses images but also because it helps to rebuild relations between international audiences and Palestinians into new moral interpretative communities and alliances that test values and realities.

International Solidarity Movement

The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a group of largely Western activists who have come to Palestine, and more in particular to places less frequented by foreigners such as Gaza and Rafah, or Nablus and Tulkarem in the north of the West Bank, in order to bring out a story of oppression and non-violent resistence against the occupation. They share daily life with the Palestinians, support and protect them, and sometimes join or lead demonstrative actions. This is done in order to reject the system of Apartheid and bantustanization prevalent in the area and out of a commitment to values of non-violent resistence (in the mailings American cultural heroes such as Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Margaret Mead are quoted to that effect). Many of the experiential narratives written by ISMers, which are frequently posted through lists or accessible on websites, signal a basic humanity as expressed by the American activist Rachel Corrie who was killed while trying to stop an Israeli army bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian home in Rafah: “I am also discovering a degree of strength and of basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances – which I also haven’t seen before. I think the word is dignity.” (2)

The actions are based upon requests and needs of Palestinians as registered during daily life contacts: accompanying needy people during traveling through the ubiquitous checkpoints, escorting school kids to school, and recently protesting the building of the barrier that separates many Palestinians from family and friends as well as from their institutions and lands. The accounts typically detail events and actions on the spot and thus evoke a strong sense of the here and now, recalling the experiential authority of the witness and the participant. Fitting this action perspective is a great diversity of discourse genres employed to bring out the information and the message: letters, appeals, semi-literary essays, journalistic accounts, press statements, analyses, polemics on websites, and speeches commemorating fallen activists. As characteristic for informal emails in general, they are not perfectly written statements but provisional writings rendered in a hasty and loose style, indicating urgency.

Why are these narratives so powerful for a growing international audience interested in the Middle East? Basically, they represent a story that is also characteristic for much popular literature; namely, a focus upon morally motivated human beings who without many means of their own are willing to challenge big, impersonal and powerful forces like an army or a bureaucracy. In doing so, the stories enact not only an inversion of the old image of Israel vs. the Arab world as David vs. Goliath, but also an inversion of the popular image of the (Palestinian) terrorist. The ISMers are unarmed, often very visible (in their fluorescent outfits), protecting rather than targeting daily life. The Israeli army itself looks clearly opposed to the values of daily life, not only by its display of willed disregard for human life and properties but also by its “cold” instrumental rationality as evidenced by the use of cranes, bulldozers, watchtowers and tanks. In some cases, the accounts accuse a bureaucracy; not only that of the Israeli civil administration which completely regulates the imprisoned Palestinian life through a system of permits, but also consulates who choose not to act in support of the interests of their citizens when they non-violently confront the Israeli army.

From a personal perspective, many narratives show a dramatic moment of choice in the activists’ life story as they act out border-crossings, a journey from a Western middle-class lifestyle towards the “cutting edge of humanity” (Albert Aghazarian, personal communication), or towards a new “home” among the oppressed. This border-crossing is also dramatically exemplified by Jews (a significant percentage of ISMers are Jewish) who choose to live among Palestinians. The conscious choice of going to a risky place, losing the comfort of a Western lifestyle but living in harmony with basic human values, obviously contains popular drama and plot. This clearly comes forward in interviews and memorial accounts (for Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurdall, the activist who became comatose after being shot while protecting a Palestinian girl in Rafah).

The journey from comfort into danger partakes in a universal masterstory of saying a radical “no” to a dehumanizing world of hegemonic power. When handing out the Romero award to Yesh Gvul, an organization of those who refuse service in the Israeli army, Susan Sontag explicitly referred to the life choice of persons like Corrie and Hurndall: “At the centre of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who said “No…. I will not be complicit.” (3) It is because such persons appeal to the moral imagination that there are millions of Westerners who click on the ISM website. From an opposite viewpoint, the spokesperson of the Israeli army, reacting to the phenomenon of ISM, does not just protest the presence of the ISMers for operational reasons but rather because the ISM’s story is contrary to Israel’s preferred story. (4) The image of the ISMers the army wishes to promote is that of the naïve, gullable foreigners who are manipulated into serving the terrorists’ cause. In a new development, the army has now taken recourse to limiting the freedom of movement of all foreigners visiting Gaza, at one point even requiring a signed declaration not to participate in the actions of ISM.

The stories are important for a Palestinian pedagogy in their moral universality and border-crossing qualities, and their engagement with change. Such accounts link different but connecting perspectives oriented towards applying values to reality, and address concerns of common Palestinians within smaller and larger interpretative value communities.

Yet the accounts of ISMers and other foreigners who write from inside the occupation areas also represent a pedagogical problem. The narrative world that is evoked often puts the Palestinians living under occupation in a passive role as the ultimate victim, representing a world apart that is rejected or forgotten by the rest of the world. They somehow become an object of sympathy, admiration, protection or non-intervention – and less so a subject of agency. Even though the activists or writers themselves abhor the role of a “hero,” and strongly protest the fact that the death of an American like Rachel Corrie received many more times the publicity that the nameless Palestinian victim received, it is also for them difficult to avoid this tendency towards objectivation which is rather characteristic for the genre of solidarity writing in general. The question is suspended how the victims can help themselves, what kind of moral choices they have.


This leaves us with the question of how to promote a discourse of meaningful possibility and choice-making that reaches out from a Palestinian viewpoint towards a Western audience. The context sketched above helps in such a project. There are many skills and experiences needed in developing a border-crossing dialogical communication guided by values, such as awareness-raising about narrative images of Palestinians as created by external viewpoints, including the very broad range between friendly and hostile viewpoints. Knowledge about such images helps sharpening the specificities of an internal viewpoint while at the same time keeping stock of the horizon of expectations existing among western audiences, and keeping open the potential of communicative alliances. But in addition it is also necessary to explore new and potentially empowering genres of writing about the self in an open and liberating manner. Below I reflect upon discussions which I am grateful to share as a project advisor with Palestinian educators about the role of diaries and personal accounts in transmitting the Palestinian story/stories to the outside and especially the Western world (5).

Why are personal accounts by Palestinians so important? If we take the example of the diary, which is besides the letter or personal email perhaps the most familiar genre of writing about the self, we can note that the diary creates a narrative world in which the writing individual, at least in principle, is free to write down what he or she wants, without being constrained by the requirements of public discourse. The act of writing is a free one with the purpose of reflecting about and giving meaning to one’s own life. A diary evokes a world of contingent potential in which the self morally and practically negotiates with the context in which he or she lives. In enacting or becoming aware of a moral will a horizon of unfulfilled potentialities appears, as well as a possibility to exceed one’s boundaries and contexts, and to move beyond expectable scripts. A personal account such as a diary also shows a pure and authentic development of one’s voice in which the personal act of speaking about one’s moral concerns, with all its doubts, requires the avoidance of writing in reductive and stereotypical frames such as propagandistic discourse. At least in principle, a diary is not a fixed discourse but an ongoing and evolving dialogue with oneself in a daily life environment, from within which the writer may negotiate and shift between inner and outer perspectives and smaller and broader contexts. For Palestinians it provides an opportunity to shake off perspectives in which the Palestinian voice has been couched. As for reaching out to an audience, the diary can make use of the daily life world as a zone that establishes familiar contact with an audience outside one’s national and social borders. The zone of daily life connects people who share a need to maintain continuity of life, care for the suffering and celebrate social occasions. It makes possible the intertwining of stories from Palestine with the Western readers’ stories.

Under the present circumstances the promotion of diary writing in Palestine is not easy. Besides cultural obstacles in practicing writing (Arab culture is more orally oriented), many youths find it difficult to give meaning to their daily life because it is, in their awareness, flat or routine as a result of the prison-like conditions under which they live. They feel a deep lack of agency – being “dead” is a common metaphor. Life lacks a sense of possible negotiation between self and context, and given the material circumstances, many youths see also no evolving or expanding future in front of them; they just try to keep themselves and their family alive. The ever-present powerlessness, even more so among girls who are largely excluded from participation in public life including the Intifada, is routinely expressed in victimization stories. In discussions about the educational practice of diary writing among Palestinian youths in the Bethlehem region, it was found in particular to be challenging – and not for the youth only – to create meaning from the many disjointed elements that make up present-day Palestinian life. One can think of the endless waiting routine next to eruptions of sudden events, the familiar space of home intruded by outside violent forces, the great need for hope as opposed to a reality that does not provide hope, verbal statements of international support – both from the West and the Arab world –invalidated by a lack of practical action. Most youths feel that the narrative structure of an evolving daily life, with a long-term perspective and the possibility of outgoing exploratory journeys in life and subsequent moments of homecoming, does not fit their experience.

Often youth tend to altogether avoid the diary genre and the telling of details about their own daily life; they instead take refuge in journalistic accounts (describing for instance what they saw on TV), general stories of victimization (about the suffering of the Palestinian people in general), or polemical narratives directed against Western images of Palestinians, especially that of terrorism. Such general stories may be couched in stereotypical discourse. The pedagogical question is how youths can be encouraged to make meaning of the details of their daily life, incongruent as it presently may look, by finding ways to link the personal search for agency on the one hand and the disempowering political and social context on the other, and to communicate this search for meaning to an international audience not so knowledgeable about the basics of the situation in Palestine.

In tackling this question, project educators found it helpful to look at literary examples and genres that could support such a task, especially those from within Palestinian culture. I will relate them briefly so as to give an impression in which directions the search went. Some narrative self-representations in the theater of the absurd tradition (6) are rooted in the dry humour of Palestinian daily life. By showing the Palestinian audience a mirror in which people’s helplessness and incongruent experiences in daily life are emphasized, such theater provokes liberating moments of meaning making to humanizing effect, eliciting a self-mocking laugh of recognition and an open sense of self-criticism (rather than the ironic effect that distances and excludes as in The Little Drummer Girl). At the same time such theater foregrounds the problem how to give meaning to a reality that defies meaning making from any normal daily life perspective.

Another narrative genre found relevant from a pedagogical viewpoint is about a value-testing mission in a dangerous environment whereby the sense of personal and national home is under threat. The challenge of keeping one’s mind healthy and preserving values such as justice and self-criticism as well as the rhythm of daily life in a maddening environment – instead of falling back upon a self-righteous attitude that closes off real dialogicity – is characteristic for Raja Shehadeh’s diaries (1981, 1992, 2002).

Staying in or returning to Palestine and striking roots there, sometimes in a journey of self-discovery, is a frequent theme of such narratives (cf. Hamzeh 2000). (7) In general, literature showing a struggle grounded in daily life in search for moral strength and awareness is definitely educationally empowering, and effective in raising a moral image of Palestinians to a foreign public.

The opening up of meaning is furthermore made possible by departing from the ongoing events of daily life in different directions, either by exploring specific dilemmas or by foregrounding roles and persons from the larger social environment or history. In the first approach fundamental dilemmas or meaningful points in the journey of daily life are explored by a description of divergent value/power domains and bringing them into dialogic relation in the context of an act of choice.

Fundamental dilemmas do not only need to relate to such larger issues as whether or not to leave or stay in one’s country, or whether or not to be involved in politics, but can also relate to “little” stories that test one’s values, as for instance addressing an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. Diary writers can be encouraged to look at small moments that pose big questions. The value-charged questions can be explored in various ways, by morally imaginative thinking, by searching for generative themes (relevant traditions) or studying the root causes of a problem (Freire 1972), or thinking about how situational dillemas can be confronted by fundamental choices. Schools in the Bethlehem area have attempted to show the relevance of Biblical and Koranic stories, as well as non-canonical religious stories, in exploring daily life dilemmas in which values are fundamentally tested. In addition, dilemmas can be socially explored by setting up a family or peer discussion on the issue, and reporting such a discussion as part of a personal account.

The suggestion of a family discussion already points to the possibility of working not only vertically, thinking through dilemmas, but also horizontally by connecting with roles and persons beyond one’s immediate daily life sphere. After all, a diary is also about loved ones, friends, or positive role models. When you connect from a grounded situatedness towards relevant others in an expanding sense of space and time, a diary can evolve into what resembles a family saga or a community history in which one’s own stories relate to stories of wider social units. Connecting stories from daily life during the second Intifada with family stories from the past resulted in the book, Your Stories Are My Stories (2001), in which diary-writing students were encouraged to look at their own situation through the mirror of war stories from parents and grandparents. Furthermore, placing one’s own story in a typical Middle Eastern reality of multiple and cross-cutting identities, as the authors Naguib Mahfouz and Amin Maalouf have done to great effect, can yield a humanizing and liberating potential through the narration of border-crossing identities. The larger world is made open for explorative journeys into meaning while at the same time a sense of home is not elided. Not in the last place is it essential from an educational perspective to relate to other situations of oppression and resistance outside the Palestinian environment, and in doing so to establish border-crossing value communities. A sense of entering history is thus encouraged, as well as an appreciation of the value of upholding humanity in situations in which one struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds, always a hallmark of outstanding personal, family or community accounts. Such an approach can be realized by for instance making comparisons with other situations of (civil) war, occupation or resistance outside the Middle East.

Thus, Bethlehem female school students read and studied diaries from the American civil war, black neighborhoods in American cities, Indian girls, and, remarkably, The Diary of Anne Frank. (8)

The diary project has also been designed to create an awareness of how to address Western audiences. The writing of personal accounts, and their posting on the Internet, whether by foreigners living in Palestine or by Palestinians, is a technique that helps to open up new terrains of meaning-making out of a diversity of situated but interlinked daily life situations in Palestine. Especially the writing about different aspects of daily life encourages the making of new informal communities of identification and dialogue, such as when writing about Palestinian education potentially addresses a reference group of teachers and students abroad.

Internet diaries create hitherto unexplored new channels and crossways of communication towards large audiences, and enable new codifications of experience and new possibilities of fast action. In fact, the narrative terrain of personal writings has created an international communication area between West and East where multiple voices – from different nationalities, religions, gender, and background, even though usually with an over-representation of the middle class – fruitfully intersect to create sites of cultural production. Although often discontinuous, provisional as well as conditional, such voices create alliances across situations and locations rather than hierarchies and exclusions.

I come back to my initial point, the fashioning of identity through stories. A reflective awareness of situated dilemmas and choices will help an inner strengthening of identity in a context of freedom. But equally important, connecting stories from daily life to a range of other narrative fields or zones of contacts makes possible the de-essentializing or de-freezing of the identity of the diarist, now considered to be a range of possible selves situated in communicative relations, rather than a fixed self. The diary becomes the ground for further cultural work in discovering and constituting the self and the many time/space networks in which it is located. It is a major challenge of a critical pedagogy in Palestine to study how (young) people constitute themselves through their voices and stories, reflect upon what they can do with the stories and roles in which they take part, and how this practice of identity reconfiguration and engagement as a result of cultural projects like diary writing or the analysis of cultural products like bestsellers can open up new horizons of possibility and alliances for meaning making. A central conclusion of this paper – that made its own journey from external to internal perspectives and from discursive to pedagogical questions – is that in all pedagogical efforts in Palestine it is essential to keep daily life in focus, make efforts not to elide or immunize it from the public sphere, nor to ironize it, but to employ it as a moral source for meaningful dialogical thinking, practice and alliance-making in reflecting upon Palestinian and human life.


1. See van Teeffelen, 1992a, 1992b, 1994, 1995, 1996. The corpus is listed below. I am grateful for the financial assistance of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NOW), which made the study possible at the time, and to Teun van Dijk for his continuous support during all its stages.

2. Several articles issued by (website of ISM) contain this quote from Rachel Corrie, taken from one of her last letters to her parents.

3. Susan Sontag, quoted in 26 April, The Guardian, 2003

4. Lt.-General Moshe Yaalon on Galei Tzahal (Israeli Military Radio) on the program “Open line with the Chief of Staff,” April 16, 2003 at 08:00.

5. Since 2002, St. Joseph School in Bethlehem and youth clubs in Arroub refugee camp (north of Hebron) have been involved in a diary writing project supported by the AFSC (American Quakers), in which I am an educational advisor. Other international exchange projects in which self narratives stand central are presently conducted by the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem, together with a local network of schools who have linked up with Dutch and Belgian schools in the context of the Sharing Stories project supported by the Interchurch Peace Council (IKV) in the Netherlands.

6. For instance, Theatre Day Productions, who make youth theatre productions, the Qassabeh Theatre, as well as several works of Al-Hakawati from the 1970s and 1980s (all based in Jerusalem).

7. This literature is mirrored by another powerful genre: the alienated return to a home that is felt not to be a home anymore due to Israeli colonization, a theme prevalent in much Palestinian fiction and film during the Oslo years.

8. The Christian and Muslim school children made a comparison between the

imprisonment of Anne Frank in her family house in Amsterdam and their own imprisonment as a result of curfews and closures during the second Intifada.

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Novels Cited – ** = mentioned in the article

**Ambler, Eric. The Levanter. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

**Collins, Larry and Do

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