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Identity and the Palestinians

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 20.02.2009:

By Sammy Kirreh


Recently, there has been an increasing interest in questions concerning identity. Sociology and political science departments in universities have dedicated much research to the study of identity. Within political science, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory, identity plays a central role involving issues related to race, gender, sexuality, ethnic conflict, nationality, and culture. Due to the influence of Michel Foucault and the debate on multiculturalism, the question of identity has become a major theme in social history, literature, and cultural studies.

Nevertheless, it is not easy to define the meaning of identity. Thinkers such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Paul Ricoeur, Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, and others, have defined identity by emphasising its various aspects in relation to its historical, cultural, psychological, and linguistic contexts.

Palestinian identity

Talking about Palestinian identity in postmodern times is a challenging task because one cannot ignore the past and the diverse historical phases it went through, which affected its development and construct. In an article titled “Modern Palestinian Identity,” published in Kanaan electronic bulletin (July 2003), Ahmad Ashqar levels caustic criticism at Palestinian critics, accusing them of lacking “historical profundity … abandoning the historical identity of the Palestinian people for analysis by Zionist and Jewish Torah scholars,” who deny the existence of the Palestinian people in the land of Palestine. Ashqar cites Rashid Khalidi’s book Palestinian Identity (1997) to underscore the rootedness of Palestinian identity in history.

In general, most of the studies done on Palestinian identity focus on Palestinian national identity as it emerged and evolved throughout history, identity in relation to time and place, or land, because the Palestinian people have been uprooted and dispelled from their homeland and are now living in refugee camps and the diaspora. Thus for Palestinian scholars the identity of their people is historically determined, encompassing all forms of struggle and resistance in order to return to their homeland and establish a sovereign independent state. National identity for them is a substantial reality that undergoes change and growth, and it is full of resolvable contradictions. It is tantamount to existence. Rajab Mohammad Rajab writes in his article “The Reconstruction of Palestinian Identity” (Palestine Today, September 2007) that the Palestinian identity “is the identity of the original natives of the land of Palestine. It is the natural and ethical antithesis to the Zionist identity.”

A significant key to an understanding of Palestinian identity is to see how Palestinian writers use the term in describing the Palestinian people as a nation evolving in colonial and war circumstances. According to Jay Rothman in his book Resolving Identity-Based Conflict (1997), although it is difficult to define the meaning and nature of identity as a concept, “identity, individual and collective, is defined by the way our lives are narrated by ourselves and others.” This article offers a concise study of the portrayal of identity in Palestinian narratives.

Identity in Palestinian literature

Palestinian writers represent the voice of their people, and, to use the words of William Wordsworth, they “speak and feel in the spirit of the passions” of all Palestinians. They are politically aware, and their writings can be regarded as documents of Palestinian political and social life. The novels and short stories of Ghassan Kanafani, for example, can be read as tragedies of the lives of Palestinian characters whose identity is framed by the conditions of the various and dissimilar environments in which they live. Kanafani’s novels, especially Men in the Sun (1963) and Return to Haifa (1970), represent a conscious search for the meaning of identity, fate, and belonging. The final and dramatic encounter that takes place at the end of Return to Haifa between the old father, who does not forfeit his identity as a Palestinian, and his son, who becomes a Jew by upbringing and education, is a reconstruction of Palestinian identity. For Kanafani, Palestinian identity is dynamic; it is constantly shaped and reshaped by environmental influences, and it can easily be assimilated into other cultures.

In order to preserve Palestinian identity and perpetuate it, Palestinian writers link identity with the land. Mohammad Shehadeh writes in The Culture of Confrontation (1995): “The relationship between land and man is so strong in Palestinian poetry. Land is the other face of the Palestinian individual; it is his alter ego.” Palestinian critic Hussein Barghouti points out that the poet Ali Khalili is preoccupied with the unity of the land. Barghouti adds, “Khalili is part of the land. His belief in the land and his nation is the token of his prophecy.”

In “To Be,” a poem about the dialectic of the unity of land and the Palestinian individual, Mohammad Shehadeh lays emphasis on his permanent relation with the land, “We stay here/On our land/Talking to trees and singing songs about rain and wind./We stay here/To embrace sunrise/And plant roses.” Similarly, Fadwa Tuqan, in “It Suffices Me to Abide in Her Lap,” manifests the desire that when she dies, she be buried in the soil of her homeland, “It suffices me to die on its soil/And under its dust melt and decay/And on its soil shoot up turf/And burst forth a flower.” Unity with the land is a source of immortality for “this land is a woman” constantly giving birth to children. And in a poem titled “Here We Stay,” Tawfiq Zayyad addresses the Israeli occupiers and draws upon geographical locations to highlight the relation between Palestinians, their land, and steadfastness: “In Lod, Ramla and the Galilee,/We stay like a wall on your chest,/And in your throats like glass and cactus,/And in your eyes like a tempest of fire.” Thus land and the Palestinian identity are inseparable, and one nourishes the other.

Palestinian writers also define national identity in relation to its broader Arab regional context. In the following lines from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Identity Card,” Palestinian identity is seen in a larger and more comprehensive Arab context, “Record, I am an Arab/And my ID number is fifty-thousand;/My children are eight/And the ninth will be born in summer.” In another poem, Darwish integrates Palestinian identity with collective universal identity while retaining its peculiar and distinctive traits. He says, “All nations married my mother, and the mother was merely my mother.” In this line Darwish is obviously admitting the multicultural origins of identity and the openness of Palestinian identity to global cultures.

Identity and gender

The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed the emergence of Palestinian women writers who took an active role in the Palestinian struggle for liberation and called for social equality with men and gender equity. In her novels, Wild Thorns (1999), The Sunflower (1980), and Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman (1986), Sahar Khalifeh expresses her faith that the consciousness of Palestinian women is deeply embedded in their political consciousness. For her the struggle of the Palestinian woman for social liberation is part of the general Palestinian struggle for national and political freedom and independence.

Palestinian women continue to struggle to achieve a gender identity of their own in a patriarchal society in which their identity is determined by kinship relations and family connections. Speaking about the identity and roles of Palestinian women in the Women’s NGOs Annual Meeting in 1997, Saida Nusseibeh, a member of the board of directors for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), declared, “The perception of women changed from frail creatures to saviors and active members of society. The [national] struggle gave women a new self confidence and strength … but did not achieve for them great gains in their struggle for social freedom and equality.”

In her autobiographical novel, A Mountainous Journey (1990), Fadwa Tuqan offers a detailed description of women as actors in the Palestinian national struggle seen from a feminist perspective. The Palestinian struggle for liberation can be read as a metaphor for the Palestinian women’s struggle against male oppression and a realisation of their female identity. Since her childhood, the narrator, speaking in the voice of the author herself, is ambivalent about her own identity, “In my silent contemplation, I would repeat: Who am I? Who am I? I would repeat my name over and over in my thoughts, but my name would seem foreign and meaningless to me.” The novel is a statement against the alienation and isolation of women; it draws attention to the fact that women are individuals and creative voices in national struggle and the building of their society.

Identity vis-à-vis the other

Rashid Khalidi argues that Palestinians have never achieved any form of national independence in their homeland. Since 1948 and before, the Palestinian people have been forced to live in neighbouring Arab countries and in the diaspora as ethnic minorities. They were not allowed to assert and declare their identity legally or representatively through their own civil institutions. Moreover, they were denied political expression of their cause. For this reason it is perhaps inaccurate to talk about a pure Palestinian national identity. In fact, the identity of the Palestinians is seen vis-à-vis other Arab identities or nationalities. According to Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), “The construction of identity involves the construction of opposites and ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their difference from us.”

Zuheir Mohsein, former member of the PLO Supreme Council, is quoted in Trouw, a Dutch newspaper, on 31 March 1977: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity, because it is in the interest of the Arabs to encourage a separate Palestinian identity in contrast to Zionism.” And Joseph Farah, an Arab-American editor and journalist, debunks Arab mythology in “Myths of the Middle East” (October 2000) and states, “Palestine has never existed – before or since – as an autonomous entity… There is no language known as Palestinian. There is no distinct Palestinian culture. There has never been a land known as Palestine governed by Palestinians. Palestinians are Arabs, indistinguishable from Jordanians (another recent invention), Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, etc.”

Indeed, as Khalidi points out, it is still unclear for many when, why, how, and in what ways Palestine became a nation in the minds of people who call themselves Palestinians.

Identity and Religion

The role of religion in the production of Palestinian identity is crucial. In general terms, religious identity refers to people’s relating to religion, including whether they choose to belong to a religious community, how strongly they feel about their beliefs, and how they choose to demonstrate those beliefs in their daily lives.

Palestinians define themselves as Christian or Muslim. Christians live as a minority in a predominantly Islamic society. Even though Christians have played a considerable part in the national struggle for liberation during the twentieth century, their political role has greatly diminished particularly following the powerful resurgence of Islam in the Middle East, in general, and in Palestine, in particular. Christians and Muslims exist together in spite of the inherent misconceptions that they harbour about each other. Religious and doctrinal precepts put aside, Palestinian Christians and Muslims are united in their national struggle.

Religious texts constitute grand narratives containing overarching stories that define our lives and construct the reality we live in. From an Islamic (and fundamental Christian perspective), religion and the holy books do not simply construct reality, but they also become contextual reality itself and, as such, dictate and control human behaviour. For example, as Islam became more dominant, the injunctions of the Holy Qur’an concerning jihad, resistance, and liberation have been taken literally and have become behavioural patterns. As a matter of fact, the Hamas movement is stirred by a genuine desire to achieve national liberation, and it derives its philosophy for national struggle from the Holy Qur’an. Its resistance to military occupation is a holy war. The following verse has become axiomatic for those who wish to sacrifice their lives for national liberation, “Do not think that those who were killed in the way of Allah are dead, but alive and well in the Lord.”

Ibn Khaldun, the well-known North African “father” of social science wrote, “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and [the obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” For Hamas, national struggle is a religious duty. By redefining resistance against occupation, Hamas is also reconstructing Palestinian national identity and culture based on political Islam.


Palestinians identify themselves in relation to their homeland. Two factors have influenced the development of Palestinian identity: their refugee status and life in the diaspora. Palestinians also define themselves vis-à-vis other Arabs. Palestinian identity is as complex and multi-dimensional as the successive political phases of the Palestinian national struggle for liberation.

Sammy Kirreh is a teacher of literature and translator. He taught for some years at Bethlehem University. Now Sammy works for the EUPOL COPPS. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

February 2009

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