How can we tackle the Israeli narrative about Palestine’s past and present, when the Palestinian people continue to struggle against Israel’s colonial occupation which bases its existence on a false narrative about Palestinian history? It is that narrative, after all, which is used to define the prevalent ideology in many areas of the world, mainly the West. How can we refute the Israeli narrative which is dominant in the media and propaganda, and make sure that false history won’t reproduce itself?
Ramzy Baroud, a media advisor and author of “The Last Land: A Palestinian Story”, responded to such questions in his keynote speech at the 2018 Palestine Book Awards ceremony in London last month. The competition has been organised in Britain by the Middle East Monitor since 2011 with the aim of honouring the year’s best new English-language books on the topic of Palestine and the Palestinians.
The panel of judges, five experts in their respective fields, received 44 books on Palestine published this year in various categories — academic, fiction, art, memoirs and biography — as well as a book on Palestinian cooking and a children’s book. While prizes are usually awarded to those which fall within specific categories, the door is left open for good books to prove themselves even if they fall beyond the fields in question. The judges noticed that, unlike previous years, there was a large percentage of books translated from Arabic to English, which is significant, especially given that relatively few books are translated from any language to English. This encouraged the judges to consider adding another award dedicated to translated work.
Having the pick of so many books on a topic about which millions of dollars are spent by pro-Israel media and propaganda organisations active on campuses and research centres is a cause for optimism. Anyone who tries to support the Palestinian cause through research, writing or simply defending basic human rights is all too often accused of anti-Semitism. It is refreshing to note that the authors were not discouraged by this.
Another important point is that the authors of the books up for awards every year are not necessarily Palestinians, but rather Westerners — this year they came from Britain, America, France and Italy — which underlines the fact that the Palestinian cause is in essence an international struggle for justice. This is a fact which Israel is trying very hard to deny.
The first prize for 2018 in the academic achievement category was awarded jointly to both Dr Maha Nassar for her book “Brothers Apart”, and Colin Anderson for “Balfour in the Dock”. Nassar, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, addressed the way that Palestinian intellectuals in Palestine communicate with the Palestinians in exile as well as other Arabs, and their attempts to break their own isolation under occupation. Brothers Apart is the result of years of research in archival documents and texts, as well as interviews with intellectuals who have lived through this experience since the 1948 Nakba.
“Balfour in the Dock” was chosen from several books on the issue of the Balfour Declaration. The book describes decades of treachery and deception against the Palestinian people, specifically by the British government, starting with Arthur Balfour and his 1917 letter to the leader of the British Zionists. This is done through a biography of the journalist J M Jefferies, who revealed this treachery through interviews and research in the 1920s and 1930s, and published the details in his book “Palestine: The Reality”. He reveals in a meticulous documentary style how Zionists persuaded British politicians and successive governments to help them transform Palestine, which had an Arab majority, into a self-declared Jewish state.
Dr Reja-e Busailah received the Award for Best Memoir for his book “In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood”, covering the period prior to the Nakba.
The editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly and professor of sociology at Birzeit University, Dr Salim Tamari, was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contribution to social history in Palestine. “I focus my studies on the modernity of Palestine and social transformations,” he explained, “especially the emergence of Palestinian identity at the end of the Ottoman period, the nature of this period and the social relations that prevailed at the time and the relationship of Palestine with the Levant and the Ottoman Empire.”
Tamari’s book “The Memoirs of Jawhariyyeh”, a two-part volume edited by Essam Nassar, actually won the Best Memoir Award in 2014. His work is characterised by a focus on the careers of politically obscure people. Jawhariyyeh, for example, was a musician who wrote and published popular music extensively in Palestine and recorded his observations at the beginning of the twentieth century. Attention to the details of the lives of ordinary people allows us to reveal part of the Arab social and cultural fabric which we do not read about in official history, Tamari pointed out. This is the essence of social history.,
In his speech, Baroud called for the same thing in order to restore the Palestinian narrative and refute the Zionist version. “The narrative must now fully focus on the lives and perspectives of ordinary people: the refugees, the poor and the Palestinian working class.” This is not the responsibility and duty of Palestinians alone, but of anyone who wishes to provide a real understanding of this historic struggle.
The celebration of English-language books on Palestine at the Palestine Book Awards ceremony for the seventh consecutive year is a practical step to honour writers and researchers outside the normal pro-Palestine paradigm. The competition encourages authors and publishers to produce more books about Palestine; books that are based on thorough research into the prevailing narrative in the media which is used to justify Israel’s occupation and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people. It also encourages the production of books that document the Palestinians’ presence in their land, and details of daily life through diaries, memoirs, literary writings, poetry, storytelling and fiction. This is a journey that the Award organisers and sponsors are keen to continue despite all of the difficulties faced in doing so.
Translated from Al Quds Al Arabi, 3 December 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.