Palestinian Literature and Anti-Colonial Identity

A photograph with trees in the foreground and dirt paths leading towards buildings along the horizon

Lesson Plan Production Details

Developers: Mohammad Sakhnini Contact, Sarah Copsey Alsader Contact, Lenora Hanson Contact

Lesson Plan Cluster Developer: Ryan D. Fong Contact

Lesson Plan Guide: Cherrie Kwok Contact

Webpage Developer: Ava K. Bindas

Cluster Title: Palestine in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Publication Date: 2023

Palestinian Literature and Anti-Colonial Identity

In this essay, I approach the challenge of thinking Palestinian literature prior to the Nakba of 1948 through conversations with Palestinian scholars and teachers. I have removed names and institutional affiliations in order to anonymize and protect the identities of those whom I spoke to. Instead, I use alphabetical letters to distinguish them from one another. All the interview transcripts have only been lightly copy-edited in order to preserve as much of the original voice as possible.

Palestine as a place and Palestinians as a people in the long nineteenth-century cannot be understood through the lens of European nation-states. That is, Palestinian identity at that time did not refer to an ethnically homogeneous identity, but rather to a generally shared way of life that was rooted in the region of Palestine, particularly in the practices of Arabic fellahin and Bedouins, without borders.

Contrary to twentieth-century Zionist claims that Palestine was absent of any indigenous culture and that Arabs were a relatively recent ethnic presence there, “people stayed in place for millenia [sic] particularly in the small villages in Palestine and greater Syria” (Ra'ad 7). Understanding such continuity requires deconstructing the universalization of the European nation-state in favor of the spatial sensibilities that Nabil Matar and AlMadah AlRawadieh have described as an “Arabic geographical tradition [which] focused on the urban/ ḥaḍarī factor, which is why it used synecdoche: naming whole territories after a principal city” (4).

During the late eighteenth century, Arabic writers in Islamic countries as well as those in Britain continued to record Filasṭīn and Palestine in their writings and maps. Even under Islamic rule, and later under Ottoman rule, the territory of Palestine was a religiously and culturally diverse place, particularly in urban and religiously significant cities.

In the period directly before the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Palestine was largely populated by rural Arabic and Bedouin inhabitants with urban populations centralized in the cities of Nablus, Jerusalem, and Jaffa. Palestine as a territory and indigenous Palestinian people were thus known and documented by travelers and competing empires, throughout what Eurocentrically-trained scholars call the Romantic and Victorian periods.

On their own terms, though, Arabic peoples in Palestine clearly understood themselves to have deep and collective roots, as attested to by practices of land inheritance and use as well as by social histories. As F said in a conversation that I conducted with him in East Jerusalem, “literally every family knows . . . Going back to two, three hundred years . . . Most of the time the families here in Palestine, they can draw the family trees at least 200 years back” (F, Personal conversation).

There is no question, then, that Palestinians lived, worked, had families, cultivated land, sang songs, and had indigenous ways of living that had been developed over centuries before the nationalist movement launched in the early twentieth century. The outstanding question is how we might do anti-colonial work with Palestinian teachers and academics in the present, against the ongoing settler colonialism there that has drawn much of its nationalist ideology and racializing tactics from the periods that we study.

The main question I wanted to ask teachers and academics when I first made plans to visit Palestine had to do with the Palestinian culture and poetry that coincided with the primarily British culture and literature that the readers of Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom teach and study. How might one negotiate the indigenous life of Palestinians absent the framework of nationalism that would begin to emerge in the early twentieth century, in the face of British colonialism and the Zionist movement? This is the question that I left with more questions about than answers to, and a deeper sense than I had arrived with, about the anti-colonial work that remains to be done on the incredible repression of pre-twentieth century Palestinian life.

Reconciling Palestinian and British Literature

My queries about the literature of historical Palestine and British colonialism sparked the most curious and kinetic discussions with people there. The primary difficulty facing us in such a project is a deeply European and nineteenth-century one – that is, the obfuscation of histories and peoples whose lives and ideologies were organized around fundamentally different coordinates, practices, and ideologies than those of the European nation-state, including its imposition of borders, private property, and ethnocentrism. The teachers and scholars that I conversed with had mixed responses to such a comparative project.

For some, it is not possible to speak of Palestinian literature much before the Nakba, when a distinctively Palestinian Arab identity was forced into being in response to British colonialism and Zionism.

Other teachings and scholars see immense and exciting possibilities for approaching Romantic and Victorian literature alongside contemporary Palestinian literature, which is characterized by deeply resonant themes of dispossession, gender, religion and secularism, memory, trauma, and national belonging. This latter orientation speaks to what Nur Masalha has described as “the millenia of history of learning in Palestine [that has] nothing whatsoever to do with the Palestinian-Zionist conflict” and which emerges instead from the “territorially based consciousness of Muslim-majority Palestine as a distinct Arab region/country” (12).

Approaching Palestinian literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seems not to have been raised in academic spaces in Palestine, which can be explained in large part by the incredible importance that the literature of resistance plays in people's actual survival in Palestine. The significance of this historical division, which cannot be overstated, means that for many Palestinian scholars, it is impossible to categorize literature prior to 1948 as properly Palestinian literature.

Crucially, this is not to say that Palestinian culture or Palestinians did not exist prior to 1948. Rather, the process of solidifying an identity in terms that are recognizable within a European framework of ethnic homogeneity, borders, and private property, were forced onto Palestinians because of British colonialism and the Nakba. As G told me:

You cannot talk about Palestinian literature in the 19th century because Palestine was under the Ottoman rule. And because Arabic studies were confined to the study of religion and the traditional Arabic. Also sciences at traditional religious schools.(G, Personal conversation)

For G, the arrival of Romanticism in Palestine was a European importation that happened through the translation of primarily French and Russian novels. Poetry was produced in nineteenth-century Palestine, but it was contrived and unoriginal, and focused on “complementing the prophets or visiting the shrine” (G, Personal conversation).

G and others expressed that it was only with the early twentieth century and the turn towards print culture that a nascent Arabic and Palestinian nationalism was constructed, leading to the production of new and distinctly modern literature that predominantly took a realist form. As a category of literature unto itself and expressing a uniquely Palestinian consciousness, it is to what is popularly known as the literature of resistance that one must turn from this perspective.

A, however, offered a slightly different perspective:

We have these divisions, like, for example, Palestine was part of the Levant area. So, it wasn't, like, one independent country. So, we have to think about it this way. These borders change. (A, Personal conversation)

D responded more affirmatively as well, telling me in response to my interest in better understanding Palestinian culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that “[i]t's a good idea and a big idea. You will face a lot of problems also” (D, Personal conversation). He then showed me a twelve-book anthology of Arabic poetry from the West Bank and Gaza Strip that was published by Al Qassemi University as an indication of how much work could be done on this question. Significantly, Al-Qassemi is an Arabic university located only 3.5 kilometers from the village of Nazlet Isa in Palestine, but it is separated by the border wall that makes each inaccessible to the other. It is in the Haifa district of present-day Israel – a region that was one of the most fiercely attacked by the Zionist militia the Haganah in 1948, when roughly 60,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes and exiled. This encyclopedic collection of Arabic poetry from across the centuries has been published in Arabic and by an Israeli university, but there is no translation of it into English.

D went on to frame Palestine literature as follows:

We can divide this literature in two or three sides. We can say, first of all, after 1948, before 1948. Then, the West Bank, inside, the Gaza Strip, outside. You know, and we, we, now we study these three kinds of literature. Yeah. The same subjects, politically, refugee camps, camps, suffering, children, women. (D, Personal conversation)

For D, as for many of the faculty whom I spoke to, one can only speak of Palestinian literature in the context of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, once what he called “the problem of the soldier” became clear. Prior to that, Arabic and Jewish people lived alongside one another and “it was a very different identity from one place to another.” After 1948, “everything is changed, upside down” (D, Personal conversation).

Once the “problem of the soldier,” by which D meant the Israeli soldier, becomes the paradigmatic experience of Palestinian life, literature largely gives way to the project of having to defend Palestinian existence and the right to return to lands on which families had lived for millennia. What it meant to be Palestinian in this context necessarily changed and given the extent to which their historical existence has been erased by Israel, it is understandable that earlier constructions of identity would not feel as pressing to retrieve and study as those that more immediately serve as evidence for, and memories of, twentieth-century life.

Further, it is understandable that Palestinian academics would be, as H put it to me, “skeptical about the intentions of scholars because maybe they want to prove there were no Palestinians” in the past (H, Personal conversation). Such skepticism towards research on pre-1948 Palestinian existence is warranted in response to the widespread erasure and manufacturing of history by Zionists, who claim that “Palestinians [are] migrant 'Arabs' from the surrounding 'countries' or from the Arabian Desert, to which they now return” (Ra'ad 7).

D also spoke to this problem, but in a different way. He described how the incredible cultural and intellectual enclosures produced by the occupation have caused a near-complete isolation of Palestinian academics from an international community. This impacts the Palestinian students and faculty's capacities to challenge not only the occupation, but also the systemic social dynamics internal to Palestinian communities that cannot be understood without it. As he described it, “we are in a prison. In the Arab worlds we are in a big prison. You just have to get married, eat, work, just these things” (D, Personal conversation).

D discussed the resources at universities outside of Palestine from which they are constantly cut off, only further enclosing a contemporary patriarchy and orthodoxy, or what he called a “leader's mentality” (D, Personal conversation). As he said, “[being] educated does not mean changing. You have to be cultural, not educated. Most of the people here are educated and have a degree. But on the ground [there are] no changes” (D, Personal conversation).

D's perspective speaks to the anti-colonial work that stands to be done in bridging historical and present-day Palestine, particularly through the recovery of actual Palestinian history that would attest, as previous ethnographic work has, to the dynamism and struggles around matters of religious orthodoxy and gender in Palestinian villages prior to 1948.

Towards Palestinian Methods and Archives

The status of Palestine and the lives of Palestinians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century has real anti-colonial potential given the differences that emerge between the borderless but rooted communities of predominantly (but not exclusively) Muslim Arabs in Palestine then, and the later literatures that bear witness to occupation and preserve the more recent history of mass dispossession and murder.

As mentioned previously, the historical territory of Palestine was not a designator of a unified or homogeneous ethnicity. This introduces a complexity that we tend to disengage with in British literature, which is the dynamic of indigeneity as understood outside of a romanticized sensibility. This is an inescapable complexity when it comes to approaching Palestinian culture prior to 1948, and it has necessarily anti-colonial implications that stand to undo many of our presuppositions about space, identity, and culture.

Scholars like Illan Pappe have argued in the contemporary context that an indigenous notion of Palestinian culture might best be understood as an explicitly political and as “stem[ming] from a more complex and dialectic process in which the native people respond to their role or place within the settler-colonial narrative and policies” (Pappe, 161). Such a dynamic and dialectical approach to indigeneity stands in contrast to an antiquarian and pre-modern as well as presumably completist understanding of the term indigenous, in favor of contextualization by the struggle against settler-colonial erasure of culture as a “theater of life” (Pappe 159) from which the past cannot be extricated.

While certain communities such as the Bedouin of the Negev fit more properly within a historicist paradigm of indigeneity, it is worth considering how Pappe's politically constructivist approach to indigeneity – which he understands as applicable also to Native American communities–might be usefully repurposed to reflect back on those who lived in Palestine in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, particularly on those Arabic Muslims and Christians who were later dispossessed, murdered, arrested, and relocated in both 1948 and after.

Perhaps one thing we have to learn in conversation with Palestinian teachers and academics is how to study, and think about, difference without ever forgetting the contemporary settler colonial context that makes such a recovery project so difficult. As F told me:

You know, yesterday, I was talking to an American archaeologist who told the story, that in the 1880s, the barley of Gaza, and Beersheba District, which the Bedouin themselves cultivated, were exported through Gaza, to France, and from France, to Algeria. And that's a Bedouin population that they call the nomadic, that roam the desert. They didn't know they were not nomadic and that people cultivated this land in the 1880s. And they produced barley and wheat and exported it from Gaza, all the way to France, and Scotland, for the beer industry, which basically, the settler colonial project, and the imperial project, used the native economy that was there. Through the archaeological lenses now we can understand the 17th and 18th century history of Palestine. And I think this is, I think the most interesting research that we have to do these days on the link between archival records and archaeological records and orality. Those are three different angles that could tell the full story of Palestine. (F, Personal conversation)

There are many scholars with whom I discussed the question of Palestinian culture contemporaneous with Romantic and Victorian periods that pointed towards such possibilities in conversation. Teachers in Ramallah and Jenin responded enthusiastically to the possibilities of studying oral, folkloric, economic, and familial culture alongside more constrained definitions of literature proper. Indeed, as A reminded me,

[Culture] can be connected to everything. I was reading Terry Eagleton and his book on the idea of culture. And he started with definitions of culture and how the origin of the word was agriculture. When a person was cultivated, that had to do with agriculture. And then it changed to be connected more to the city. The very origin of the world has to do that. Because agriculture was a sign of civilization in societies in the past. If you're civilized, you will have your own harvest. And then the meaning of the word was changed. It became associated with cities more than the countryside. (A, Personal conversation)

A shifts the historical away from narratives of modernity that underwrite the singularity of literature, reminding us that agrarian modes of production are themselves sites of cultural production. This is also a reminder of the relative provinciality of concerning ourselves not only with the written word, but with the written word defined by originality and print circulation. Both are categories that not only tend to cut culture off from traditions of religion, but also from indigenous ways of living, social reproduction, and the mystical religious traditions that the poet Adonis identifies as the real modernity of Arabic poetry that began in the eighth century.

A continues:

Not only in the eighth century but even until the nineteenth century, we still have [mysticism] as an important thing. My grandfather was a mystic. At the end of his life he chose to be isolated somewhere and meditate. And he became religious on his own terms. So, mysticism was very important in the Arab world now. Now, I don't see a lot, but we still have it in some very small settings.

I believe it's political. Because this is my belief, I don't know if it's right or wrong but actually there is this, you know, mystical part in Islam. But then politicians focused on the other side, which is the side that has to do, you know, the ritual side, and the part that has to do with Jihad and violence. And women, women were dealing with these things because it was all about power, it was all about Sunni and Shia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, you know, these powers. So, after the Iranian Revolution, and, of course, the American interference in the area, it was all changed. And then Islam had, you know, a different version, which is a version that we see now. (A, Personal conversation)

We are familiar with the aestheticization of culture in a European context, through which the education of Man was separated from the supposedly savage sensibilities of material conditions, sensation, and non-capitalist rhythms of pleasure and desire. Such a separation is no less meaningful as an explanation for why the pre-nationalist cultures of the predominantly Arab population in Palestine in the eighteenth and nineteenth century have not been considered at all in British literary studies, despite the intensity of contact and circulation between these spaces by the mid-eighteenth century.

Given the resilience of agrarian and non-urban forms of life in Palestine in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, especially as it relates to work in Irish studies and Caribbean studies, an intensive collaboration with Palestinian teachers and scholars about indigenous cultures rooted in the root of culture that A reminds us of above would be a site of important experimentation with the category of literature and its anti-colonial potentiality, not only in the Palestinian context, but also in our own.

C identified children's literature as a largely neglected, but crucial area of research in beginning to approach pre-twentieth century Palestinian literature. His own research was focused on a Victorian-era children's writer, and a narratological and ideological analysis of fairy tales. Similar work in the Arabic and Palestinian context is difficult, however, because “we don't have children's literature as a main genre for students, schools and universities” (C, Personal conversation).

C's deep investments in teaching as well as the routine disruptions of, and violence against, Palestinian's lives, mean that he has been unable to pursue a sustained research project on Palestinian and Arabic children's literature. But he expressed the immense potential of such a research topic, particularly in the contemporary Palestinian context and what he called the importance of cultivating character in students.

Other faculty at Hebron University pointed me to Speak, Bird, Speak (1989), a major collection of Palestinian folklore and popular culture that goes back centuries. Consulting such texts as sources of knowledge will require no less than what Ra'ad has called the “total revision in historical thinking” (2) demanded by the case of Palestine, given that colonial temporalities of literary periods, nationalism, and regimes of documentation still dominate our understanding of past and present.

Both perspectives open up radical potential for revisioning historic Palestine as part of struggle in the present, not least of which because, as Masalha and others have shown, the project of erasing Palestinian culture, education, and literacy has been so central to the Israeli settler colonial project.

Whereas Masalha documents centuries of literacy and textual production within significant universities and colleges in Palestine from the third century up to 1948, what has yet to be discussed in either British or Palestine studies is how we might engage with the fluid, dynamic, and regularly renovated culture he describes in Palestine, outside of elite education and written texts. Such work will have to follow the caveat that Palestinian culture is produced outside of a nationalist identity, while simultaneously attending to the fact that it cannot be understood outside of the destruction of both the religious diversity of monotheistic centers, and the more closed agrarian structure of Palestinian fellahin that began unfolding in 1917, intensified in 1948, and continues into today.

Engaging with Palestinian culture and literature must be a historically-informed pursuit, sensitive to the difficulty of reconstructing ways of living in Palestine due to the colonial construction of the category of literature as well as the colonial and settler colonial projects of disqualifying Arabic existence in Palestine. As Sarah Copsey Alsader has argued, those projects began as early as 1917 precisely because the cultural and religious heterogeneity that existed in major Palestinian cities was unrecognizable as a form of life to colonial desires. This point remains necessary to maintain, as Ra'ad has suggested, in order to question “the bias that sees national 'consciousness' as somehow a positive thing” (8). For him, such a perspective is a Zionist importation of “a European nationalist ideology [...] adapted it to the colonization of Palestine” that “entails aggression towards others and has to prove itself through constant reinvention of structures of exclusiveness” (8).

In contrast, the long history of co-existence in historical Palestine offers a different, anti-colonial model of “a latent, less self conscious, more nuanced identity that is comfortable with itself [and] requires no such perpetual self-justification” (Ra'ad 8), providing a basis for notions of indigeneity and the right to return that does not require ethnic purity or national borders. After all, as Ra'ad also writes, it does not disqualify the fact that “people in villages and towns mostly stayed in place over the millennia, particularly in the small villages in Palestine and greater Syria” to also say that “when there were no borders, nothing prevented someone living in what is now Jordan from moving to live in Palestine” (7).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think there are competing perspectives on when Palestinian literature began? Did these perspectives make you think about the relationship between categories of literature and the establishment of nation-states?
  2. Can you think of examples in British or American literature that were produced prior to national sovereignty, but have been retroactively made into a part of a national canon?
  3. How does the complexity of Palestinian cultural identity help us to reflect on the constructedness of national canons?
  4. How does the millennia-long history of Palestine as a place and people living there complicate or nuance your understanding of identity and / or indigeneity?
  5. Using statements by the teachers quoted in this essay, consider how Palestinian identity and history informs your understanding of anti-colonialism. What versions of culture, space, history, and more do Palestinian educators offer as alternatives to colonial ones?
  6. How might these conversations affect your own approach as a reader and scholar?

Works Cited

A. Personal conversation. July 2022.

Alrawadieh, Almahdi, and Nabil Matar. “Filasṭīn/Palestine and Filasṭīniyyīn/Palestinians in Early Modern Arabic Sources.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 62, no. 2, Summer 2023, pp. 195–212.

Alsader, Sarah Copsey. “The British in Arabia: The Genesis of a Romantic Discourse and the Colonial (de)Construction of Palestine.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 62, no. 2, Summer 2023, pp. 213–28.

D. Personal conversation. July 2022.

Eaglton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Wiley-Blackwell, 2000.

F. Personal conversation. July 2022.

G. Personal conversation. July 2022.

H. Personal conversation. July 2022.

I. Personal conversation. July 2022.

Masalha, Nur. Palestine Across Millenia: A History of Literacy, Learning and Educational Revolutions. I.B. Tauris, 2022.

Muhawi, Ibrahim, and Sharif Kanaana. Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales. University of California Press, 2021.

Nasasra, Mansour. The Naqab Bedouins: A Century of Politics and Resistance. Columbia University Press, 2017.

Pappe, Illan. “Indigeneity as Cultural Resistance: Notes on the Palestinian Struggle within Twenty-First-Century Israel.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 117, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 157–78.

Ra'ad, Basam L. Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. Pluto Press, 2010.

Abufarha, Nasser. “Histories and Historicities in Palestine.” The Making of a Human Bomb An Ethnography of Palestine, Duke University Press, 2009, pp. 25–61.

Adonis. An Introduction to Arab Poetics. 2nd edition, Saqi Books, 2003.

Allenby, Jeni. Re-Inventing Cultural Heritage: Palestinian Traditional Costume and Embroidery since 1948. 2002.

Barakat, Rana. “Writing/Righting Palestine Studies: Settler Colonialism, Indigenous Sovereignty and Resisting the Ghost(s) of History.” Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2018.

Grehan, James. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Hamish Hamilton, 2012.

Mohammad, Sumaia Haj. “Ghassan Kanafani's Returning to Haifa: Tracing Memory Beyond the Rubble.” Race & Class, vol. 61, no. 3, Nov. 2019, pp. 65–77.

Moten, Fred. “Here, There, and Everywhere.” Stolen Life, Duke University Press, 2018, pp. 213–26.

Othman, Enaya. “Diasporic Fashion: The Palestinian Dress as a Form of Gendered Activism.” Forms of Migration: Global Perspectives on Im/Migrant Art and Literature, edited by Stefan Maneval and Jennifer Reimer, Falschrum Books, 2022, pp. 44–53.

Yuval, Ben-Bassat. “Proto-Zionist-Arab Encounters in Late Nineteenth Century Palestine.” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, Winter 2009, pp. 42–63.

Developer Biographies

Mohammad Sakhnini is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Khalifa University of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi. He works in the fields of eighteenth-century British literature and culture and travel writing. His book, British Encounters with Syrian-Mesopotamian Overland Routes to India: Rethinking Enlightenment Improvement (1751-1795), has recently been published with Anthem Press (March 2023).

Lenora Hanson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at New York University. Their research focuses on dispossession and enclosure beginning in the Romantic period and as it continues into the present, with particular attention to the way that rhetorical language registers the destruction of non-capitalist forms of life. They recently edited a special issue of Studies in Romanticism entitled "Palestine: Romanticisms Contemporary" and published The Romantic Rhetoric of Accumulation (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Sarah Copsey Alsader is completing her PhD at the University of Kent on Discourses of Islam in British Romantic Poetry. She has research interests across literature, philosophy, religion and psychology, subjects which are pulled together through questions about metaphysical structures of feeling. She is especially concerned with how such structures of feeling shape and interpellate individuals, are written into and elided in narrative, and construct the world in which we live.

Tile/Header Image Caption

Frith, Francis. Sinai and Palestine. 1860s, The Met. Public domain.

Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)

Lenora Hanson, Sarah Copsey Alsader, Mohammad Sakhnini, dev. “Palestinian Literature and Anti-Colonial Identity.” Ryan D. Fong , les. plan clust. dev.; Cherrie Kwok, les. plan guide. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2023, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/situation_pedagogy_2.html.