OCTOBER 26, 2020
“ARAB AMERICAN LITERATURE” is by now a minor but established category in literary studies. From within that category, a newer formation has emerged: “Palestinian American literature.” Like its cognate, the formation is vague and unruly, but it generally refers to Anglophone writing of the Palestinian diaspora.
Although I played a role in the formalization of “Arab American literature,” I’ve come to dislike the category, and ethnic/cultural taxonomies of art in general. They’re useful for bookstores and course catalogs, but for readers and writers they can narrow the imagination or even the fun of reading — a comment I can make now that I’m no longer a professional literary critic. But I see value in grouping certain texts around common themes or geographies. It strikes me as important, then, that in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of novels in some way focused on Palestine or on what it means to be Palestinian in the East and West.
In the last decade, writers of Palestinian origin — Sahar Mustafah, Randa Jarrar, Susan Muaddi Darraj, Saleem Haddad, Hala Alyan — have published heralded novels and short story collections covering a wide range of social, historical, and political themes. Their emergence corresponds with the greater legibility of Palestine’s national movement in the United States.
Susan Abulhawa is a pioneer of what we might hesitantly call diasporic Palestinian fiction. Her third and latest novel, Against the Loveless World, illustrates both the importance and difficulty of the category. The novel is oriented in Palestine, filled with thematic sensibilities familiar to anyone with a Palestinian parent or grandparent, but it faces an English-speaking audience far from Palestine and will in turn be judged by standards foreign to its setting.
Abulhawa is aware of this paradox and writes it into her story, which is an Arabic-language text translated into English — that is to say, a series of events readers are meant to understand as rendered into English by the author on behalf of the narrator. Abulhawa announces the tricky use of language with a 12-page glossary of transliterated Arabic terms. The glossary foregrounds the quandary of this linguistic trick. “There is no equivalence to this word in the English language,” she explains of the concept tarab (a kind of communion with music). The glossary invites readers to imagine the language of the novel in an accent, like English-language films set in a foreign location.
The complexity of implicit translation isn’t new, of course. It has been a subject of authorial and critical discussion for at least two centuries. The specific idioms of Palestinian politics and culture are mostly new to the American literary landscape, though, and their emergence tracks with a newfound understanding of Palestine as an important, maybe even an indispensable, geography in the United States.
Despite its unmistakable investment in (and affinity for) Palestine, Against the Loveless World isn’t what I would call a political novel. It’s a meditation on love and alienation in a setting that is by nature political, or imbued in multilingual politics, facing the West in audacious vulnerability. Its poetics can be harsh and its heartbreaks can be soothing. Such is the burden and blessing of the Palestinian novelist.
Immediately Abulhawa establishes defiance as a primary rhetorical characteristic. The book will not be about mythologized landscapes or fantasies of coexistence. It will be about exploitation and the rigorous task of survival. “They all want my pussy’s story,” the first-person narrator, Nahr, flatly explains.
In time, she reveals a succession of abusive relationships: Westerner and Arab; woman and man; journalist and subject; prisoner and jailor; sex worker and consumer; native and occupying soldier. It wouldn’t be exactly correct to say that Nahr survives her various oppressions. She absorbs and then processes them through a rhetoric of insolence.
Against the Loveless World is a tense but readable novel. The language alternates between exhilarating and contemplative. It relies almost completely on the strength of its narrator, but she is up to the challenge, guiding readers through histories fraught with tragedy and dispossession. I don’t view it strictly as a novel about Palestine; it’s more like a Palestinian statement of purpose.
The story begins with a Jewish American journalist (or human rights worker, maybe a novelist) interviewing Nahr in her cell in an Israeli prison, the Cube. The journalist brings an Arabic translator, even though Nahr’s English is decent — she doesn’t want to be accommodating. Not even halfway through their conversation Nahr is reminiscing about her childhood in Kuwait, which at the time contained a sizable Palestinian population (the Kuwaiti government would expel Palestinians after the first Gulf War in retaliation for the PLO’s support of Saddam Hussein). She refuses to entertain the visitor’s curiosity, focusing instead on the translator’s body language.
They have a connection, the co-nationals on opposite sides of the cell door, based not only on shared ethnicity or history, but a mutual dislike of the interviewer, who eventually accuses Nahr of being a terrorist. The accusation defines Nahr’s adult life, above and beyond (but not distinct from) the years of loss and abuse she has suffered.
Readers come to understand that the tragedies of Nahr’s life aren’t random, that in fact personal tragedy cannot be separated from certain social and political conditions. The translator and in fact all Palestinians, consciously or not, are affected by the trajectory of Nahr’s story. The translator confers that burden to a universal reader. We are given the opportunity to read Nahr’s life in a language foreign to American mythologies of progress and civilization. The entire book is a glossary.
As in the United States and South Africa, prison figures prominently in Palestinian literature of all languages. Prisons are a material expression of inequality and symbols of confinement. Nahr’s cell within the Cube simultaneously acts as an individual and societal metaphor. It is her space, subject to the rules and mores she assigns to it. Those rules and mores correspond to a vision of defiance and resistance she narrates from her tiny enclosure, the command center of a boundless nation.
Abulhawa, through Nahr’s canny sense of animus, repeatedly litigates this question of terrorism. That Nahr has engaged in violent activity isn’t in question, much of it rendered in fantastical imagery. She expresses no regret for the behavior that landed her in prison, only that she was caught and is now subject to the jurisdiction of her captors. The novel plays with a dialectic between normative and illicit violence. Nahr’s violence is of the illicit variety, the kind that threatens the state’s monopoly, which she in turn views as necessary to her existence. I advise readers queasy about the right to decolonize through violence to take a pass. Reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth before picking up Against a Loveless World will help. Abulhawa provides a dynamic and challenging exploration of political violence, one that spans multiple geographies and periods of time.
A notable feature of the novel is Nahr’s experience of prostitution, part of a broader history with sex work — in many ways, a class of labor. It is a subject little discussed in Anglophone novels about the Arab World. In Nahr’s universe, prostitution is a form of mutual exploitation. Her madam, Um Buraq, extorts drunken clients of their banking information. Nahr, also victim to Um Buraq’s machinations, is subject to arrest and disgrace. It is a dangerous underground world tethered to the wars, economies, and pieties of the mainstream. We have to fool ourselves in order to function in this world. “You think prostitution has to do with sexuality?” Nahr asks the American interlocutor in the Cube with a tone of disdain. The interviewer is receptive to this point but loses her patience when Nahr delinks armed resistance from terrorism.
Rejecting that view is to dispose of Palestine itself. For Nahr’s mother, “everything came down to being Palestinian, and the whole world was out to get us.” Young Nahr isn’t moved by the complaint, but as an adult explains that “[i]t wasn’t until I had survived time, war, and prison that I understood why.”
This evolution is the heart of the novel’s philosophy and its major element of change. Rather than pushing her away from the familiar cadences of her background, as is common with victims of trauma, Nahr’s hardships bring her closer to the identity she inherited. It can feel like a kind of atavism, a totem of security in a hostile world, but in reality Nahr is taking up a politics of steadfastness long known to Palestinians. She is abused and unloved, loath to confuse pleasure with affection, but aims to create a world that can undercut the sources of her torment.
Abulhawa delivers these cadences in prose that at first seems too beautiful for what it describes. In time, though, the reader comes to understand that the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering is essential to the novel’s geography — both the tiny cell from which Nahr narrates her life and the occupied country surrounding it. In the end, beauty prevails. We’re pushed to understand that the same fate awaits Palestine, which is, after all, the novel’s greatest affirmation of love.
Steven Salaita lives in Northern Virginia and writes at www.stevesalaita.com.