After Israel’s latest military attack on Palestinians cycled all too predictably into and (quickly) out of the news, we wondered, as we always do, whether there was anything Skin Deep could contribute. We don’t work fast (we’re a small, under-resourced team) so immediate responses to events like this are not possible. But in many ways, that perfectly positions us to help fill the gap that is left when other media organisations shift their gaze away.
Last year, we published PALESTINE: WAYS OF BEING, a season of stories that spent time with people, places and ideas that are often under-explored in popular narratives around Palestine. We wanted the stories to remind people of the breadth and depth of Palestinian life, history and experience. So for the same reason, a month after the attack on Jenin refugee camp, we have invited Zena Agha, who curated our latest season, to put together a list of novels, memoirs, non-fiction and poetry by Palestinian writers and centering Palestinian voices. Solidarity with Palestine can and should take the form of (among other things) signing petitions, sharing news articles, emailing MPs and donating to grassroots organisations working on the ground. But it should also involve deepening our understanding of Palestinian life – and what better way to do so, than through getting lost in the very best Palestinian writing.
Here’s Zena on what to expect from this list: “After any political upheaval there seems to be the inevitable circulation of reading lists. Often this can accompany hand-wringing and a general feeling of hopelessness before swift forgetfulness. The difference for Palestine, however, is the wealth of joy, creativity and political radicalism found in our texts; from poetry to memoir, academia to film, Palestinian writers and artists are also theorists, critics, organisers and politicians. This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive in any way (not least because many texts are still unavailable in English), but merely an invitation into the literature of a people whose experiences vary from exile to occupation, from patriarchy to economic suffocation, and for whom freedom is not just a rallying cry, but a way of existence.”
You can find further information on Palestinian liberation, including organisations and individuals to follow online, in our resource list from 2021.
Suad Amiry, Golda Slept Here (2015)
In this literary-historical tour de force, Suad Amiry traces the lives of individual members of Palestinian families and, through them, the histories of both Palestine and the émigré Palestinian community in other countries of the Middle East.
“A refreshingly funny account of the absurdities of everyday life in occupied territories” – Observer
Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (2003)
Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti returns to Ramallah after 30 years in exile. In half bemusement, half joy, he journeys through the city, keenly aware that the Ramallah he left barely resembles the present-day city scarred by the Occupation.
“One of the finest existential accounts of Palestinian displacement that we now have” – Edward Said
Edward Said, Out of Place (2000)
A fatal medical diagnosis in 1991 convinced Edward Said that he should leave a record of his early life, and so with this memoir he rediscovers the lost Arab world of his youth in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. Richly detailed, moving, often profound, Out of Place depicts a young man’s coming of age and the genesis of a great modern thinker.
“If autobiography is above all a means of explaining one’s self to oneself, then Out of Place… must be seen as a triumph.” – The Boston Globe
Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Notes on a vanishing landscape (2008)
Raja Shehadeh takes the reader on six walks in the hills around Ramallah, the Jerusalem wilderness and the ravines by the Dead Sea, each taking place at a different stage of Palestinian history since 1982, beginning in empty pristine hills and ending amongst the settlements and the wall. With each walk, Shehadeh attempts to preserve – at least in words – the Palestinian natural treasures that many Palestinians will never know.
“Towards any proper understanding of history there are many small paths. I strongly suggest you walk with him.” – John Berger
Radwa Ashour, The Woman from Tantoura (2014)
A powerful human story that follows the life of a young girl from her days in the village of al-Tantoura in Palestine up to the dawn of the new century. We participate in events as they unfold, seeing them through the uneducated but sharply intelligent mind of Ruqayya, as she tries to make sense of all that has happened to her and her family.
“A celebration of Palestinian popular culture, of unsung heroes, big and small acts of resistance, creativity and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds” – Jordan Times
Emile Habibi, The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (1974)
Combining fact and fantasy, tragedy and comedy, Emile Habibi’s story of a Palestinian who became a citizen of Israel is a contemporary classic. An informer for the Zionist state, Saeed’s stupidity, candour and cowardice make him more of a victim than a villain; but in a series of tragi-comic episodes he is gradually transformed from a disaster-prone, gullible collaborator into a Palestinian.
“Shows Palestinians in all their frailty, rather than as idealised political stereotypes” – The Guardian
Sahar Khalifeh, Wild Thorns (1976)
A young Palestinian man named Usama returns to his homeland as a resistance operative with a mission to blow up buses transporting Palestinian workers into Israel. Shocked to discover that many of his countrymen have adjusted to life under Israeli rule, Usama sets out to accomplish his objective despite his uncertainty. Wild Thorns was the first Arab novel to offer a glimpse of everyday life under Israeli occupation.
“An impressive narrative of life in the West Bank in which simple profundities are asserted powerfully and poetically” – Morning Star
Ghassan Kanafani, Return to Haifa (1969)
“Politics and the novel are an indivisible case,” said author and journalist Ghassan Kanafani, whose classic novella tells the story of a Palestinian couple returning to Haifa after the 1967 war to look for their baby, whom they were forced to leave behind in the war of 1948. You can read it in Palestine’s Children, a collection of his short stories in which children victimised by political circumstance nevertheless participate in the struggle for better futures.
Elias Khoury, The Gate of the Sun (1998)
After Palestine is torn apart in 1948, two men remain alone in a deserted makeshift hospital in the Shatila camp on the outskirts of Beirut—entering a vast world of displacement, fear, and tenuous hope. Gate of the Sun is a Palestinian Odyssey, beautifully weaving together haunting stories of survival and loss, love and devastation, memory and dream.
“There has been powerful fiction about Palestinians and by Palestinians, but few have held to the light the myths, tales and rumors of both Israel and the Arabs with such discerning compassion” – New York Times Book Review
Anton Shammas, Arabesques: A Novel (2001)
Arabesques is a luminous novel that engages with history and politics not as propaganda but as literature. That engagement begins with the language in which the book is written; Shammas, from a Palestinian Christian family and raised in Israel, wrote in Hebrew, as no Arab novelist had before. Shammas’s tour de force is a reinvention of the novel as a way of envisioning and responding to historical and cultural legacies and conflicts.
“Arabesques is one of the finest novels about the 1948 Nakba… Not only did Shammas powerfully describe these tragic events, but he did so in Hebrew instead of Arabic so that an Israeli public could finally confront this story too” – The Nation
Adania Shibli, Minor Detail (2017)
Minor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that Palestinians mourn as the Nakba and Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history.
“All novels are political and Minor Detail, like the best of them, transcends the author’s own identity and geography. Shibli’s writing is subtle and sharply observed” – Guardian
Mahmoud Darwish, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (2012)
At once an intimate autobiography and a collective memory of the Palestinian people, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? is a poetry of myth and history, of exile and suspended time, of an identity bound to his displaced people and to the rich Arabic language.
“Mahmoud Darwish is one of the greatest poets of our time. In his poetry Palestine becomes the map of the human soul” – Elias Khoury
Heba Hayek, Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies (2021)
Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies is written for those who had to leave—collected remembrances of a childhood in Gaza by a woman far from Palestine’s sun and sea. Hayek’s vignettes explore the methods of survival nurtured by Palestinian women in the face of colonial occupation and patriarchy—the power of community care, and of loving what’s not meant to be loved. (Note from Zena: this book is quite uncategorisable – we’ve put it with poetry, but it could also sit in fiction or memoir.)
Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (2001)
Archaeology in Israel is truly a national obsession, a practice through which national identity—and national rights—have long been asserted. But how and why did archaeology emerge as such a pervasive force there? How can the practices of archaeology help answer those questions? Nadia Abu El-Haj addresses these questions and specifies for the first time the relationship between national ideology, colonial settlement, and the production of historical knowledge.
Dina Matar, What it Means to be Palestinian: Stories of Palestinian Peoplehood (2010)
What It Means to be Palestinian is a narrative of narratives, a collection of personal stories, remembered feelings and reconstructed experiences by different Palestinians whose lives were changed and shaped by history. Their stories are told chronologically through particular phases of the Palestinian national struggle, providing a composite autobiography of Palestine as a landscape and as a people.
Rosemary Sayigh, Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries (1979)
Palestinians is a classic of radical history. Through extensive interviews with Palestinians in refugee camps, Sayigh provides a deeply-moving, grassroots story of how the Palestinians came to be who they are today, covering life before Zionism, the war of 1948, and life in exile in the refugee camps of Lebanon and elsewhere.
Edward Said, After the last sky: Palestinian lives (1999)
A searing portrait of Palestinian life and identity that is at once an exploration of Edward Said’s unclaimable past and a testimony to the lives of those living in exile.
“When Said shows us the Palestinian experience min al-dakhil, from the inside, he means not the inside of the place, but the inside of the mind. Palestine becomes a state of mind. And that is what makes the book so exceptional. It is an extended voyage through the mind of exile.” – The Nation
Walid Khalidi, All that remains: the Palestinian villages occupied and depopulated by Israel in 1948 (1992)
The culmination of nearly six years of research by more than thirty participants, this authoritative reference work describes in detail the more than 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed or depopulated during the 1948 war.
Fayez Sayegh, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine (1965)
Zionist Colonialism in Palestine is possibly one of the clearest and most concise descriptions of its generation to discuss the organisational set-up, strategies and ideology of the Zionist settler colonial movement. As a document of its time, it places Zionist settler colonialism in the context of European colonialism, and yet it distinguishes the Zionist project from other settler colonial movements by highlighting Zionism’s aspiration to racial self-segregation, its rejection of any form of coexistence or assimilation, its unbending drive towards territorial expansion, and the necessary violence it has to employ to achieve its goals.
Omar Jabary Salamanca, Mezna Qato, Kareem Rabie & Sobhi Samour, ‘Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine’, Settler Colonial Studies (2012)
From the opening essay of this special issue of Settler Colonial Studies journal: “The settler colonial perspective offers the possibility of a new in-gathering of movements, harnessing each other’s strengths for an active, mutual, and principled Palestinian alignment with the Arab struggle for self determination, and indigenous struggles in North America, Latin America, Oceania, and elsewhere. Such an alignment would expand the tools available to Palestinians and their solidarity movement, and reconnect the struggle to its own history of anti-colonial internationalism.”
Salman H. Abu-Sitta, Atlas of Palestine, 1917-1966 (2010)
Salman Abu Sitta, a refugee from 1948, has spent years painstakingly cataloguing the course and consequences of the nakba. His massive Atlas of Palestine compiles tables, graphs and nearly 500 pages of maps that trace the transformation of the country starting with its conquest by the British in 1917 and the Balfour declaration’s promise to create a “national home” for the Jews.
Adel Manna, Nakba and Survival: The Story of Palestinians Who Remained in Haifa and the Galilee, 1948-1956 (2022)
Nakba and Survival tells the stories of Palestinians in Haifa and the Galilee during, and in the decade after, mass dispossession. Manna uses oral histories and Palestinian and Israeli archives, diaries, and memories to meticulously reconstruct the social history of the Palestinians who remained and returned to become Israeli citizens.
Tareq Baconi, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (2018)
Hamas Contained offers the first history of Hamas on its own terms. Drawing on interviews with organisation leaders, as well as publications from the group, Tareq Baconi maps the group’s thirty-year transition from fringe military resistance towards governance. He breaks new ground in questioning the conventional understanding of Hamas and shows how the movement’s ideology ultimately threatens the Palestinian struggle and, inadvertently, its own legitimacy.
The descriptions above are taken from blurbs on publisher and bookseller websites and have been edited for length.