Moving away from the emphasis placed by the mainstream upon narrative when discussing Palestinian and Israeli literature, Anna Bernard’s academic treatise, “Rhetorics of belonging: nation, narration and Israel/Palestine” (Liverpool University Press, 2013) provides rigorous insights into often overlooked experiences of nation and narration.
Identity construction of Palestinians and Israelis has been shaped externally by hegemonic interpretation that simplifies history within illusory categories that are not indicative of memory, affinity and experience. Drawing upon the works of authors whose works are available in English translation such as Edward Said, Mourid Barghouti, Amos Oz, Orly Castel-Bloom, Sahar Khalifeh and Anton Shammas, Bernard juxtaposes the authors’ diverse works and backgrounds in a manner which reverses the manipulative exposure urged by imperialism; also the distancing from reading and comprehending these texts within a post-colonial context.
The ramifications of visibility are discerned immediately and expounded upon by Bernard, who argues that the privilege granted to Israeli literature aided the visualisation of belonging to Israel, at the expense of alienating readers from the insurmountable problems faced by Palestinians since the establishment of the settler-colonial state. Diminished opportunities with regard to the Palestinian reclamation of memory created a tangible literary gap in comparison to Israeli literature which is ingrained within prestige and privilege, owing to the historical and current political trends promoting the “Jewish nation”.
Palestinians have experienced a conflict through persecution, where survival as an imminent necessity lessened the written articulation of experience. As Said states with reference to the 1982 invasion of Beirut, quoted by Bernard, “I recall during the siege of Beirut obsessively telling friends and family there, over the phone, that they ought to record, write down their experiences… Naturally they were all far too busy surviving.”
Refutations and assertions of colonialism are evident, especially within the manipulation of language. All authors, regardless of their diverse backgrounds, embody defensive allegories in their writings. Yet, Bernard distinguishes the foundations behind the incorporated defence. In doing so, the narrations are also discussed within the context of political platforms, allowing the Palestinian literature to emerge as a distinct form of anti-imperialist affirmation.
The translated works discussed in the book demonstrate the facilitation of imagining a “political future”, drawing readers into the expansion of nationhood and belonging. As Israel constantly manipulates narratives in order to diminish the Palestinian experience and render it less worthy, or incomplete, literature can also be perceived as another means of examining the implications of citizenship which, for Palestinians, remains defined by self-determination, in contrast to the exclusionary model advocated by Israel.
The prominence of works by Palestinian writers Said and Barghouti tend to conjure convictions of what defines the Palestinian experience. Invoking displacement and exile, Said’s linking to collective memory and history is not experienced personally and does not represent the Palestinian experience of the Nakba. For Said, the various interpretations of exile portray the people as victims of colonisation. Rather than imagining an alternative, Said emphasises the “irresolution” within his writing, a factor that resonates in his interpretations of freedom and exile.
Bernard shows how Barghouti’s writing portrays the displacement as continuous, in danger of becoming an abstract in the absence of rethinking processes. Oppression is rendered as a visible process that has also created perceptions confined to memory within generations, as Barghouti states: “The Occupation has created generations of us that have to adore an unknown beloved: distant, difficult, surrounded by guards, by walls, by nuclear missiles, by sheer terror.” Narratives, according to Bernard, must be countered by the reality of Palestine in order to allow the processes that struggle against abstraction.
The complexities incorporated by Said and Barghouti stand in sharp contrast to the space occupied by Israeli writer Amos Oz, whose writings tend to project an illusion of understanding that quickly wanes to expose support for colonialism and imperialism. Expulsion is defined as a necessary moral wrong divested of colonial expansion. Oz has no qualms about projecting blame onto Palestinians, thus manipulating history in a manner which absolves Israel of its accountability. Acknowledgement of the Nakba, therefore, is only a prelude to supporting the settler-colonial state which is portrayed as an alternative with characteristics equivalent to the idea of Israel cherished in the West.
The contrasting of literary works by Castel-Bloom and Khalifeh portrays the shared issue of gender liberation which, however, is not transformed into a shared perception of national liberation. Gender takes precedence and becomes a defining aspect within Western discourse that manages to separate the writers from their political contexts. Both authors represent the realities of the settler-colonial state, which Castel-Bloom evokes in her literature through the collective aspect. Khalifeh, on the other hand, evokes human rights discourse in a way which transforms the helplessness of victimisation into a necessary strategy for Palestinian liberation.
Shammas, a Palestinian-Israeli, seeks to articulate turmoil through “losses and catastrophes of the past”, thus avoiding the detachment between the present and the history as a precedent of the current turmoil. By placing Palestinian-Israelis at the centre of discussion, inclusion becomes central to Shammas’s literature, albeit within complex frameworks challenging the core of Israel’s perception of political identity.
Bernard demonstrates rigour in her analysis of the chosen texts, making the book a compelling articulation of the complexities that continue to define and aid in rethinking the concept of nationhood. However, prior knowledge of the subject would be beneficial in order to glean additional insight into a realm that, besides constructing identity from within, also has the capacity to challenge the misconceptions and stagnant ideas that imperialism promulgates within the undiscerning.