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Literature and art

Poet Mahmud Darwish (Photo by KHALIL MAZRAAWI / AFP FILES / AFP)

Language has always been at the centre of Arab culture. Expressive Arab poetry is well-represented, as are satire and invective. Poems were sometimes sung by itinerant professional singers. To modern Palestinian poets (and writers), the Nakba has served as an inexhaustible source of inspiration.


The most famous Palestinian poet is Mahmud Darwish (1942-2008). His poems became widely known through the musical adaptations and recitals by the talented Lebanese singer, composer, and ud (lute) player Marcel Khalifé. Darwish has been dubbed the ‘Poet of the Arab World’, and once recited his poems in front of an audience of 25,000 people in Beirut. According to the Palestinian sociologist, Samih Farsoun, Darwish’s poetry is a metaphor for the loss of earthly paradise, birth, death, and resurrection, and the fear of disinheritance, destitution, and banishment. Palestine is the earthly paradise twice lost. In his poems, Darwish also expresses sharp criticism of the Arab leaders who repressed the Palestinians or left them to fend for themselves.


Besides major poets, Palestine has also produced important literary authors and essayists, often originating from the well-to-do middle classes and including women. An important position is held by Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972) among the modern writers. He too was a refugee in 1948, and started out as a painter. He combined his politically engaged authorship with a career as a journalist. In later years, he was also spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Beirut. On 9 July 1972, he was killed by a car bomb attack in Beirut. The general opinion is that the Israeli secret police were responsible for his assassination.

Violence against artists

He is not the only Palestinian artist to have met a violent death. The famous cartoonist Naji al-Ali (1938-1987) suffered the same fate. In his cartoons, appearing in leading Arab newspapers, he frequently exposed the political vacillations of Palestinian and other Arab leaders. On 22 August 1987, he was shot at in the streets of London and was severely injured, succumbing to his wounds a week later. The perpetrator was never caught, but was presumed to belong to Arab circles.

Iconic art

Up to the 20th century, painting was dominated by iconic art. This was of course related to the presence of the Greek Orthodox and later Russian Orthodox Church in Palestine and their close ties to the mother churches in Greece and Russia. In addition to Madonna with child, and scenes from Jesus of Nazareth’s Way of the Cross, the Saint George/al-Khidr (or al-Khadr) the Dragon Slayer was also a popular theme.

Influenced by western artists who were discovering the ‘Orient’ in the second half of the 19th century, Palestinian artists started to choose new subjects and adapt their method of working (such as painting and drawing in the open instead of in a studio). Various styles arose from this development, which to a certain extent bore resemblance to western styles of painting but nonetheless had a specific local character.

The Nakba also strongly influenced the art of painting. In this light, it is noteworthy that Palestinian artists in Israel, Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries predominantly produced figurative work depicting this and other dramatic events, whereas their colleagues elsewhere in the world mainly produced abstract works on the subject.

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