Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

'A Map of Absence': new anthology about the Nakba explores 70 years of Palestinian writing

Atef Alshaer, editor of ‘A Map of Absence’, tells us why the project reduced him to tears

Atef Alshaer brings together the work of 50 authors in her new book. Courtesy Atef Alshaer
Atef Alshaer brings together the work of 50 authors in her new book. Courtesy Atef Alshaer

“I ask nothing more / Than to die in my country.” These words are taken from Fadwa Tuqan’s haunting 1954 poem, Call of the Land, in which the Palestinian poet, who died in 2003, imagines a refugee’s desperate attempts to return home. “All I ask / Is to remain in the bosom of my country.” Such a simple aspiration, yet one still denied to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, forced to leave their homeland in 1948 during what is referred to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”.

The Nakba remains the single most devastating moment in Palestinian history, and it has inspired much of the writing to have come out of the region in the past 70 years. A Map of Absence: An Anthology of Palestinian Writing on the Nakba, published today to coincide with Nakba Day, is a remarkable collection of some of the finest examples of this literature. It features 50 authors, including literary heavyweights such as Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury, as well as exciting new voices, some published here for the first time, including Toufic Haddad and Amira Sakalla.

“There were a lot of ­considerations that I took in order to get a representative collection out there,” says Atef Alshaer, who edited A Map of Absence. “These pieces represent different generations, places and themes of the Nakba … I believe it’s a substantial work that raises awareness and keeps the Nakba in people’s minds.”

Chronically history

A Map of Absence is loosely split up into three parts. The first spans the 1930s-1950s; the second covers the 1960s to the early 1990s; and the third extends from 1993 to the present day. “While the fate of Palestine remains the constant concern for its writers, each of these periods has its own ­defining characteristics,” writes Alshaer, a lecturer in Arabic Studies at London’s University of Westminster, in the introduction to the collection.

“The first unfolds under Zionist attacks and the mass displacement of Palestinian refugees. The second covers the time when Palestinians formed a national movement and resisted the colonisation of their land. The third sees Palestinians debating the possibility, or impossibility, of peaceful resolution with Israel, following the Oslo Accords of 1993.”

While the fate of Palestine remains the constant concern for its writers, each of these periods has its own ­defining characteristics.

tef Alshaer

The scope of A Map of ­Absence is certainly ambitious, then, but the plight of the ­Palestinian people never feels skated over. It is the details hidden in each piece of writing – occasionally hopeful, often heartbreaking – that lend this collection its personality. It is less a broad sweep of recent Palestinian history, more a poignant examination of the individuals affected by that history.

“No doubt my parents thought they were sparing us pain by keeping our departure secret from us until the very last moment,” writes Ghada Karmi in her memoir, In Search of Fatima, an excerpt of which is included in A Map of Absence. “They also believed we would be away for a short while only and so making a fuss of leaving Jerusalem was unnecessary. But in the event, they turned out to be woefully wrong. We never set eyes on Fatima or our dog or the city we had known ever again.”

'People are resilient'

Pain permeates every page and Alshaer, who lived in Gaza until the age of 17, admits that editing this collection was an emotional, difficult ­experience. “It was moving to be reminded of the depth of the Palestinian voice,” he says. “This voice has not been silenced. These writers have managed to break through and affect not only literature in Palestine, but in the Arab world. It’s very powerful because it’s the voice of justice against injustice. At times I was reduced to tears.”

A Map of Absence: an Anthology of Palestinian Writing on the Nakba
A Map of Absence: an Anthology of Palestinian Writing on the Nakba

It is, however, also a source of deep despair that this voice should remain undimmed. It shouldn’t be needed at all. More than half a century separates some of the writers in this collection and yet their concerns are largely unchanged. “The reality of Palestine remains the same,” says Alshaer. “There are very harsh realities that have to be reflected in writing in one form or another literature is always about the conditions of human beings living particular lives in a particular context.”

Does Alshaer believe there is any reason for hope? “People are resilient; they continue to resist, which is quite ­incredible considering the extreme hardships they live under,” he says. “It’s a long-term struggle.”

Literature will continue to play a vital role in this struggle. It is no coincidence that Amira Sakalla, one of the youngest writers featured in A Map of Absence, is given the final word: “We weren’t supposed to grow communities, but we did,” she writes. “We weren’t supposed to return but WE ARE.”

A Map of Absence: An Anthology of Palestinian Writing on the Nakba is out now, published by Saqi Books

Updated: May 14, 2019 07:35 PM

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