Palestinian writing imagines the nation, not as a nation-in-waiting but as a living, changing structure that joins people, place, and time into a distinct set of formations. Novel Palestine: Nation through the Works of Ibrahim Nasrallah examines these imaginative structures so that we might move beyond the idea of an incomplete or fragmented reality and speak frankly about the nation that exists and the freedom it seeks.
Engaging the writings of Ibrahim Nasrallah, Nora E. H. Parr traces a vocabulary through which Palestine can be discussed as a changing and flexible national network linking people across and within space, time, and community. Through an exploration of the Palestinian literary scene subsequent to its canonical writers, Parr makes the life and work of Nasrallah available to an English-language audience for the first time, offering an intervention in geography while bringing literary theory into conversation with politics and history.
Nora E. H. Parr is a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and at the Center for Lebanese Studies. She coedits Middle Eastern Literatures.
In this excerpt of Novel Palestine, Nora Parr explores the meaning of collective generated in Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Gaza Weddings. The passage, taken from pages 42—44 of the book, works through two examples of the power of Palestinian community to forge bonds across space and time, through grief, in life, death, and memory.
The first time such a collective is conjured is in Amina’s Weddings when Randa relates the story of two men, killed together in an Israeli air strike. Though they are two bodies, they become one victim in death, as mourners are unable to distinguish the remains of one man from the other. The description of the aftermath of the strike is gruesomely poignant but shows how, like life, common death can unite individuals into a “whole,” creating a collective that confers new and different meaning on all of the individuals involved. The incident is different from the death of the twin or the murder of Yasin, because it is generated by an experience that the two men undergo simultaneously. The experience is the context that unites them, and it is the experience and its ramifications for the identities of the men that the text is concerned with.
Family, community, and onlookers mourn the double tragedy but also seek to honor the two men separately in death. Given the religious necessity to be buried “whole,” however, the question arises as to how this might be possible. Randa works through this as she participates in the community mourning:
We spent two days scrubbing [their remains] off the walls and roofs of the houses.
When we gathered them into bags, we realized we couldn’t tell the flesh of one from
the other. We asked ourselves; why not bury them in one grave? They [the community]
refused. But tell me Aunt Amina, isn’t it better? Why should the martyrs work
to find their body parts from another grave on the day of judgement? (56)
The two men are “united” in the experience of the air strike, a reality made inescapable as the bodies become a “single flesh.” The air strike has reversed their separate beings into one metaphorical body, a reversal of the fūl bean. The men cannot forever be reduced to this one final experience, however. The prospect concerns Randa as she thinks about what will happen next for them.
Islamic practice holds that a man will not be “whole” in paradise if he is not whole in the grave. It is also the duty of a Muslim to ensure that members of the community have a proper burial. In the context of contemporary Palestine, this has come to create a collective responsibility to collect the flesh of those torn apart by military violence. What the community decided, Randa explains, is to collect the bodies of the men and separate them into two graves. As she picks up the pieces, Randa wonders if it would not be more of a violence to try to artificially separate the parts of the tragic union. The two men are one, she concludes, and not for “man” to separate. Her own reading is that the men must remain as a collective until an unknown point in the future (or indeed, in the imagination), when they can reclaim their own selves—in their case, before god. Their stories are tied, they are individuals but a whole, and harm would be done separating them. Built in, however, is the idea that, at the appropriate time, the men will resume distinct existence.
Just when or how individuals become individuals after they are brought together in a collective is explained and expanded in an extended scene that takes place almost in the background of Amina’s Weddings’ main action. In the last chapters of the book, Amina hears a news report about another man hit by an Israeli strike. The details of the victim lead her to believe—to be certain—that it is her husband, Jamal, who has been killed. She goes to the hospital to identify his body and collect it for burial. When she gets there, however, she finds the body unrecognizable. The doctor tells her there are twenty other women who claim that he belongs to them. Amina and the doctor have the following exchange:
—He’s my husband.
—Twenty women have come to see him and said he was their husband.
—Twenty women? No, Jamal has only one wife and that’s me. (90)
Funerals for the unidentified man, Randa narrates, are held across the Gaza Strip (92), with each of the twentywomen insisting that the body is that of their missing husband, brother, or son. Amina, who even after Jamal’s death continues to narrate her chapters to him, reflects, “They didn’t know if you were you or if you were someone else, some other martyr” (92). While tragic, and certainly emblematic of the wider tragedy under way in the Gaza Strip, uncertainty about the identity of the martyr forges a shared experience between the twenty-one women who claim him as a relative—as if they all join a single family, a collective, as a result. The twenty-one women, each believed to be the intimate family member of the unidentifiable man, gather as a collective each day in the graveyard where the body is buried.
The twenty-one women become one woman: the mother of the fighter, the widow, and the bereaved. They are, in a sense, Ghassan Kanafani’s paradigmatic character, the woman who crystallized the “mother of the fighter” figure, Umm Saad (a figure to whom we return in chapter 6). But, crucially, they also remain their own selves, not solely identified by their relationship with a dead Palestinian youth. This multiplicity-in-singularity becomes apparent when, one by one, the women either find the bodies of their missing husbands, their brothers return home for a brief visit before going into hiding again, or turn up injured in the hospital. Many of the women realize that the buried man is not their loved one. The numbers of mourners at the grave quickly reduces to twelve, but these remaining women continue to practice the ritualized community formed around collective loss, holding the space open that had been created by the original twenty-one. When one of the younger women, who had stopped attending the grave returns one day sobbing, feeling guilty that she had left, the remaining mourners intervene. A woman explains to Amina that her fianc. had returned,and she had cried for joy, but she then felt guilty about her happiness while there were so many women still at the grave. She promises to continue coming to the cemetery, asking the other women, “How can I go and leave you by yourselves?” (96). The other women, however, tell her, “Don’t come back” (96), and to remain with life instead of being tied to death.
While one woman’s grief had helped create a community, the community remains despite her leaving it and is not weakened by her departure. So, although the women are united by death, becoming the strong specter of the “mother of the fighter,” they are not bound to the symbol. When it is time for life, they say, the shadow must be cast off. Collectives, the examples intimate, codify relationship forged through a moment, or an event, that affects any number of people. This moment is elevated from any of the individuals within it, so that they can stop being constituted by it, and the collective remains. As the example of the women shows, an individual can participate in the event even later, “after” it has taken place. The collective created through the happening no longer needs individuals to sustain it and is not limited to a particular set. For both the slain men and the bereaved women, that moment must not imprison or delimit either the self or others. Those brought into a collective must be kept in balance with all of the other moments and collectives an individual has constituted, passed through, or remains within. These collectives form elements of the nation. They are brought into being and maintained in a delicate balance of forces.