By Karen Dabrowska
Writer Selma Dabbagh, poet Mustafa Abu Sneineh and singer Reem Kelani discussed the effect of the Nakba on their work at a panel discussion held during MFest, a three day London festival of culture dedicated to Muslim communities
The discussion was introduced by Dina Matar a senior lecturer in political communication and the Arab media at London University. Matar gave some back ground information on the Nakba (catastrophe) which occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes, during the 1948 Palestine war.
Selma Dabbagh, author of Out of It, a novel set between London, Gaza and the Gulf, has lived in eight different countries including Kuwait which expelled 300,00 – 400,000 Palestinians in 1990 – 1991. During her presentation she drew attention to the fact that it is generally presumed that Palestinians, because of this catastrophic heritage, are going to write politically.
“This is the reverse presumption of a Western novel, which is that it will not deal with politics. There is an expectation that Palestinian writers will address people with a message which is going to deal with the situation around them. That is quite a difficult agenda to have as a writer because readers do not like being told what to think and to believe,” Dabbagh said.
She went on to point out that the stereotypical portrayal of Palestinians as fighters with a Kalashnikov did not work well in the novels of the 1950s. However, the writings of Ghassan Kanafani, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were an exception, she noted. “What you have with Kanafani is a combination of beautiful, sensitive, evocative, emotive writing with a clear political awareness that is not shoved too hard at the reader. And you also have a man who was prepared to devote his life to the struggle and died in 1973 in a booby trapped car with his niece in Beirut. This is still being held up as an ideal.”
“What is it about being Palestinian that is relevant to a wider audience? Dabbagh asked. The experience the Palestinians went through is the experience that more and more nationalities are now going through in terms of being walled in, closed off and treated as “the other”. This a particular type of pressure that I wanted to deal with in my novel Out of It when I was looking at Gaza. I examined how one engages with the situation if there are pressures to give up your life for a struggle. In the novel the girl wants to politically engage while the boy just wants to get out, and neither can do what they want to.”
Meanwhile, singer Reem Kelani described herself as a diaspora Palestinian. She was born in Manchester, England but spent her early years in Kuwait, where her father worked as a doctor. “We are now in Palestine in this room,” she said. “The fact that here we are allowed to say we exist and that we have a narrative, that is existence. The main problem that we have is not establishing the victimhood of Palestinians, it is establishing the existence of Palestinians. So today we are in Palestine.”
Kelani believes that when it comes to music Palestinians have to remember that their culture is pre 1948. “As a creative person I was drawn to songs from pre 1948. My mother is from Nazareth my father is from the West Bank. I sat in Nazareth with my aunts who were cooking amazing food, praying and singing. I believe that a Palestinian song from the 19th century is a lot more subversive than wearing a T-shirt.”
Kelani sings songs from Ottoman times. She has spent much of her life researching and collating traditional Palestinian songs sung by women in Nazareth, in refugee camps and in the diaspora. Her research culminated in the production of the album Sprinting Gazelle.
Mustafa Abu Sneineh, who was educated in East Jerusalem began his presentation by stating that he was never taught about the Nakba at school. “There was a systematic removal of the important moment that all Palestinians share.” Sneineh’s first poetry collection A Black Cloud at the End of the Line was published in Arabic in 2016. For him, as a poet, the Nakba is an ongoing traumatic experience which, he believes, the Palestinians carry with them daily.” It is like being in a prison, you can’t just walk out of it. And out of this comes poetry and literature. As the Palestinian occupation is happening on a daily basis: it abuses you emotionally. You always have anger and hate, you are always on the edge. Because I live in an on going trauma, I am trying to reflect. I am not trying to remove the anger or anything that causes pain to the soul. I try to keep the pain and the anger and I celebrate it in my poetry.”
In response to a question at the end of the presentations about the role of artists in providing a solution to the legacy of the Nakba, Dabbagh said:” Writers can project a more positive future. I don’t think it is all pain. Some of the better writing that comes out of Palestine reflects humour, courage and audacity and an ability to make the best out of the worst situations. Writing can provide solace in the sharing of specific experiences.”