Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Palestinian Literature: From Memoirs of a Hen to Contemporary Voices

The resilience and dynamism of Palestinian literature are deep-rooted in its connection to the Palestinian cause, and its ongoing relevance in the face of political turmoil and societal change. Despite the challenges, Palestinian literature continues to evolve, offering a powerful medium for expressing the Palestinian narrative and struggle.

Palestinian Literature
A photo taken on July 10, 2023 in Gaza city where Palestinian experts restore the historical manuscripts and ancient books to preserve the cultural heritage and offer the artifacts to researchers and students. Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Djûke Poppinga

In 1943, the Palestinian intellectual community witnessed the publication of a remarkable novel, Memoirs of a Hen, by Ishaq Musa al-Husseini. The novel, written in 1940, was not published until 1943 after it had been refused by a number of Palestinian and Lebanese publishers as it was said to convey an undesirable political message. It was printed, not in Palestine but in Cairo, when the leading Egyptian intellectual, Taha Hussein, supported the publication and even agreed to write an introduction to the book.

Memoirs of a Hen is the story of a chicken who tries to live a decent life with the other members of her ‘household.’ One day, a group of ‘foreign’ intruders attacks the coop, causing friction in the community. The chicken’s nonviolent attempts to reduce tensions and connect with the strangers are doomed to fail.

Opinions on the novella were divided from the start, resulting from some critics’ political interpretations. They linked the book to the conflict between Jews and Arabs after the arrival of Zionist migrants and criticised the defeatist attitude of the chicken, who, in their eyes, refused to resist the invaders and stood idly by as they took over her household.

Others, including the aforementioned Taha Hussein, saw the main character as a “wise Palestinian chicken, who loves good and hates evil and strives to live in peace with her neighbours (i.e. the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine),” as paraphrased by Issa J. Boullata in a review of the book.

A third group emphasised the universal character of the book and called it a “literary utopia,” a reconstruction of the ideal society, in which individuals try to live according to noble principles in a just and peaceful environment.

The importance of this undeniably political novel lies in the fact that it can be considered ahead of its time. Although Palestinian literature created a tradition of social involvement in the first half of this century, and authors were influenced by political developments, one cannot speak of a literature of resistance or even political literature in this period. Only after the 1950s would mainstream Palestinian literature be characterised by political engagement.

The Beginnings (1900-1948)

Traditionally, the Arabic and certainly the Palestinian literary field has been dominated by poetry, although the character of this poetry changed profoundly in the first half of the 20th century. The strict rules of meter and rhyme, to which poetry had been subject until then, were increasingly loosened under the influence of modern social, cultural and literary developments. Social and political commitment became more important than form.

The famous poet Ibrahim Tuqan (1905-1941), “who felt responsible for awakening his countrymen to their predicament,” as Salma Jayyusi states in her standard work, Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, was one of the pioneers.

In this early period, literary fiction was still in its experimental stages. The novel’s genre was relatively new in the Arab world and became known through translations from English, French and Russian. The first attempts at writing Arabic fiction were not very successful.

Most Arab writers were inclined to imitate European styles and did not shy away from making adaptations of European works. They were, as Jayyusi puts it, “still unable to translate the realities of contemporary Arab life into a narrative of real esthetic values.”

These early attempts were characterised by a didactic, moralistic tendency, with an emphasis on social issues. Political awareness was not yet a prerequisite for writing fiction. The leading novelist of the time was Khalil Baydas, to whom we owe, according to many, the first full-fledged Palestinian novel, entitled The Heir (1920).

In this novel, political issues are not explicitly discussed, and the problem of large-scale Zionist immigration is only touched upon indirectly.

After the Nakba

The Nakba, the displacement and dispossession of Palestinians by the Zionists (1947-1949), had major political, social and economic consequences for all Palestinians.

In contrast with other Arabic countries, as a result of these particular circumstances, Palestinian literature emerged from within a refugee population without a geographic territory. One should, therefore, be aware that Palestinian literature is not just the literature produced by Palestinians living in Palestine.

In fact, half of the Palestinian people are refugees and exiles scattered around the world, while the other half live under occupation. This complicates the question of who is Palestinian and, by extension, who writes Palestinian literature.

I will treat the exile literature and the literature from the occupied territories and Gaza evenly. A multitude of similarities justify this approach, the main criteria being that most authors write in (Palestinian) Arabic and, if they write in another language, they identify as Palestinians rather than citizens of their host country.

The use of literature as a means of expression for political protest emerged in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, at approximately the same time as the beginning of the Palestinian armed resistance movement. Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), considered the founding father of Palestinian prose literature written after the 1948 foundation of the state of Israel, embodied this simultaneous development.

Apart from being a writer and journalist, Kanafani also played an important political role as spokesperson for the PFLP, a secular Palestinian revolutionary socialist organisation founded in 1967. In 1972, he was murdered by the Israeli secret service, and ever since, his name has remained inextricably linked to the Palestinian resistance, both politically and culturally.

With his first novel, Men in the Sun (1963), about three Palestinian men of varied age and background who are smuggled into Kuwait, he earned serious recognition among critics, both inside and outside Palestine. To this day, the novel has not lost any of its relevance.

Other authors who have had a significant influence on the development of modern Arab Palestinian fiction are Kanafani’s contemporaries Samira Azam (1927-1967), Fadwa Tuqan (1917- 2003) and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919-1994).

In the field of poetry, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), born in a village near Acre, is an iconic name. He is considered the pioneer of modern Arab resistance poetry and one of the most prominent Palestinian – and even Arab – poets of the twentieth century. His diverse poetry is characterised by rich symbolism and profound political and social commitment.

Besides being a poet, he was the editor of several cultural magazines. He lived in exile since 1973, and his poem, ‘Identity Card,’ became known around the world.

The 1967 War and Thereafter

Palestinian Literature
Picture taken at Dar al-Fan gallery in Beirut in 1971 shows from L to R: Lebanese novelist Emily Nasrallah, Beirut’s Pen Club president, writer and researcher Jamil Jabre, novelist Halim Barakat, the late Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani and Lebanese novelist Yussef Habshi al-Ashqar. AFP

After the traumatic war of 1967 between Israel and a coalition of Arab states (Egypt, Syria and Jordan), in the aftermath of which Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, we see a revival of fiction by Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. One of the foremost representatives was Emile Habibi (1922-1996), who achieved international fame with his satirical novel, The Secret Life of Sa’eed the Pessoptimist (1974). Serving as a member of the Knesset for the communist party, he combined his literary ambitions with politics.

The new literary impulse was fueled by several factors, including the intensification of colonisation policies, life in the refugee camps, military occupation and labour exploitation, which reached dramatic proportions in the 1970s and beyond. Despite restrictions on freedom of expression, the art of the short story attained great popularity during this period.

Common themes were the political and cultural consequences of the colonial condition, racism, dehumanisation, the loss of identity, uprootedness from land and heritage, and the concepts of exile and return.

Land ownership has played a crucial role in the origins of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the foundation and subsequent expansion of the State of Israel. That is why the connection between homeland and identity was and has remained essential for Palestinians.

Two names should be mentioned in this context. The first is Sahar Khalifeh (b. 1941), who lives and works in the West Bank. In her novels, she examines human relations in a society under occupation, specifically the role of women in the resistance and the influence of Israeli oppression on Palestinian labour. Her first novel, Wild Thorns (1976), portrays the lives of Palestinians in the town of Nablus in 1972 by closely following a group of young men who entertain different attitudes towards their situation.

Khalifa was both praised and criticised for this daring book. The aforementioned Emile Habibi accused her of blaming the victim and whitewashing the occupiers by not emphasising the horrible working conditions of Palestinians in Israel.

Many mistrusted her feminist position. By drawing attention to the subordinate position of women, she risked, at least according to her male colleagues, to distract attention from the essence of the Palestinian struggle. Her activism paved the way for a new generation of women writers, as we will show later.

The second name is Ibrahim Nasralla (b. 1954), who represents a voice from the refugee camps. An important theme in his work is the situation of Palestinian workers in the Gulf States. In Prairies of Fever (1993), the main character, a schoolteacher named Muhammad, is transferred to an outpost in the Gulf.

In his new hostile hometown, Muhammad is haunted by nightmares and hallucinations. Reality and imagination intertwine, giving the reader an impression of the traumatic impact of the occupation on ordinary Palestinians, even those who are forced to live in the diaspora.

Other names to remember are Tawfiq Fayyad (b. 1939), Mahmoud Shukair (b. 1941) and Liana Badr (b. 1950)

The Beginnings of a New Era: 1993 to the Present

The 21st century is marked by the upsurge of a new generation of Palestinian writers and poets who are equally, yet in different ways, preoccupied with the cause and idea of Palestine when compared to canonical authors such as Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Mourid al-Barghouti, Emile Habibi and Ghassan Kanafani.

Post-millennial Palestine takes as its starting point the Oslo Accords of 1993, which initially generated a naive optimism among Palestinian intellectuals but soon turned into a complete loss of hope in the realisation of an independent Palestinian state and a total disillusionment with political leadership.

The regular military attacks on Palestinians, the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the construction of a wall on Palestinian land have nearly eliminated any chance of achieving a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

Furthermore, several events have had a crucial influence on the emergence of a new generation of Palestinian writers and poets: the Second Intifada (2000-2005) that was brutally suppressed by Israeli military forces; 9/11; the severe attacks on Gaza in Operation Cast Lead (2008) and Operation Pillar of Defense (2012); and the aggression against the so-called Great March of Return demonstrations of 2018-2019.

Three aspects stand out in this new literature compared with former generations: disappointment, anger and a shift from the public to the private. Moreover, with modern communication tools, the younger generation seems more open to the outside world than their predecessors.

In the following section, I will discuss four writers from the diaspora as well as from the West Bank and Gaza.

The Diaspora: Ghayath Almadhoun and Susan Abulhawa

Ghayath Almadhoun (1979) is a poet of Palestinian-Syrian descent who lived in Stockholm and recently moved to Berlin. According to some critics, he is following in Darwish’s footsteps. Although he shows the same tenacity and stubbornness as Darwish, his language is rawer, and his poems are angrier and more desperate.

Whereas Darwish focused on the relationship between Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers, Almadhoun blames the entire world for the tragedy taking place in the Middle East.

Another example of an angry writer in the post-millennial period is the Anglophone American-Palestinian writer and activist Susan Abulhawa (b. 1970).

Since the publication of her much-acclaimed novel, Mornings in Jenin in 2010, she regularly arouses controversy with her provocative statements, for instance by comparing the Israeli settlement policy with Apartheid, accusing the Ukrainian president Zelenski of Zionist practices and defending the Hamas-attacks on Israel of October 2023. Her novels express a deep concern with the Middle East conflict and the situation of Palestinian exiles in the United States.

The West Bank

In 2017, the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli (b. 1974) published her third novel, A Minor Detail. Shibli started her career as a researcher and journalist, first in Ramallah and later in London. She currently commutes between her home in Jerusalem and Berlin.

A Minor Detail was her breakthrough as a literary writer, not only in the Arab world but also in Europe and America. The novel is about an actual ‘incident’ during the Nakba of 1948 in the Negev desert, in which a Bedouin girl is raped and murdered by an Israeli army squad. The second part occurs sixty years later when a young journalist travels to the crime scene to discover what happened. In 2023, Shibli was awarded the prestigious German LiBeraturpreis, which would be presented during the Frankfurter Buchmesse.

However, in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, the director of the fair decided to postpone the event to an unspecified date.

In the book, Israel was, as some critics argued, presented as a killing machine, and the fact that the Israeli characters remained anonymous would indicate latent antisemitism. Opponents of the decision denied any form of antisemitism and mainly emphasised freedom of expression.


Palestinian Literature
A photo taken in Ramallah city in the occupied West Bank on December 11, 2023, of a Palestinian woman lifting a placard bearing a verse by Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer, who was killed by Israel in Gaza on December 7, 2023. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Since the rise of social media, a growing group of promising young writers from Gaza has been able to publish their work online, thereby avoiding the severe publication restrictions imposed by Israel. Most of these young writers write poetry and short stories.

Whereas the generation of the 1970s and 1980s reflected the reality of the camps, writers of the current generation, like Atef Abu Saif (b. 1973) and Talal Abu Shawish, paint a more troubled world, blending the search for a lost past with a harsh reality in which there is no room for heroism and in which mobility is nearly impossible.

Quite significantly, women have entered the world of literature among this new generation of Gazan authors. One of them is Nayruz Qarmut (b. 1984), a young writer and social activist, whose realistic work particularly focusses on the perspectives of women.

The recent events in Gaza have created a new situation, the outcome of which is unpredictable. Hopefully, a new generation of Palestinians will emerge, who will make themselves heard through poetry and fiction.


Atef Abu Saif, The book of Gaza: a city of short fiction. [London], 2014

Issa J. Boullata, ‘Ishaq Musa al-Husayni. Memoirs of a Hen: A Present-Day Palestinian Fable.’ In: International fiction review, 2000, Vol. 27, No. 1-2

Maurice Ebileeni, “Breaking the script: The generational conjuncture in the anglophone Palestinian novel”. In: Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2019, Vol. 55, No. 5

Salma Khadra Jayyusi (ed.), Anthology of modern Palestinian Literature. New York, 1992

Salam Mir, “Palestinian literature: occupation and exile”. In : Arab Studies Quarterly, 2013, Vol. 35, No. 2

Sharif al-Shafi’i, “Al-Filastiniyya Nayruz Qarmut tatahadda al-hisar bi-hikaya al-nisa”. In: Independent ‘Arabiyya, January 2024

Dima M.T. Tahboub, “The cutting edge between nationalistic commitment (iltizam) and literary compulsion (ilzam) in Palestinian literature”. In Arab Studies Quarterly, 2022, 45.2

‘Abd al-Latif al-Warari, “Tafsil Thanawi li-Adaniyya Shibli: bahth al-djuzur wa-l-kashf ‘an tarikh al-dahaya fi filastin al-muhtalla”. In: Al-Quds, October 2023

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