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The Literary Detective

Refqa Abu-Remaileh, a professor of modern Arabic literature and film at Freie Universität, researches the fragmented and unconventional Palestinian literature.

Oct 20, 2020

Refqa Abu-Remaileh has headed the “PalREAD – Country of Words” project since 2018. The researchers in this project are working on an overview of Palestinian literature since the beginning of the 20th century.

Refqa Abu-Remaileh has headed the “PalREAD – Country of Words” project since 2018. The researchers in this project are working on an overview of Palestinian literature since the beginning of the 20th century.
Image Credit: Personal collection

“I stayed in Haifa.” Emile Habibi had that sentence engraved on his tombstone. The Palestinian author, who died in 1996, had lived in the State of Israel since its inception in 1948. The inscription is a sign of resilience: hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homeland in 1948.

The inscription can also be read as a response to Return to Haifa, a novel by Ghassan Kanafani, another important Palestinian writer. As a refugee, Kanafani could not return to Palestine again after being expelled as a child; his memories of Haifa were hazy. He was assassinated in Beirut in 1972. The fact that Kanafani made mistakes when describing the city on the Mediterranean Sea prompted Habibi to give the portrayal of Haifa a central place in his own literary work.

Habibi’s reference to Kanafani – it is unclear whether the two authors ever met – is an example of the astonishing connections in the fragmented Palestinian literature. “Sometimes you have to read between the lines and look in unusual places, such as on tombstones, to recognize the debates,” says Refqa Abu-Remaileh.

Searching for Clues All Over the World

Abu-Remaileh was recently appointed professor of modern Arabic literature and film at Freie Universität Berlin, where she has headed the PalREAD – Country of Words project since 2018. The research project is being funded for five years with a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. The aim of the project is to provide a comprehensive overview of Palestinian literature since the beginning of the 20th century. Up to now, no such overview exists.

A database was developed especially for the project. With this database, an open-access online platform is to be created that will not only present texts and podcasts, but also visualize the history of literary development with interactive maps and timelines. The project is also an experiment in digital humanities.

“The main elements of a national literature – authors, readers, publishers, and institutions – do not exist in the same place for Palestinian literature,” says Refqa Abu-Remaileh. Without a state of its own, there are no national archives, no state libraries, no funding – in short: no central institution that strives for the development and preservation of Palestinian literature in its entirety.

Abu-Remaileh collects material from many places: from archives and libraries around the world, private collections, and literary magazines in the Arab world and other countries, from Chile to Cyprus. She says she feels like a literary detective or an archaeologist tracing an ancient culture. Much has been lost, but there are always astonishing finds: for example, old film reels from films by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which had been considered destroyed since the siege of Beirut by Israel in 1982, recently turned up in a cellar in Rome and in the old Russian Embassy in Jordan.

Innovation through Cross-genre Experimentation

PalREAD aims to show how Palestinian literature challenges traditional periodizations while also illustrating its innovative strength. “Their situation forced the Palestinians to experiment with genres and come up with something new,” says Refqa Abu-Remaileh. It is this joy of experimentation that fascinates her so much about Palestinian literature.

Refqa Abu-Remaileh, who was raised in Jordan, was initially interested in science, but then studied classical English literature and film studies in Canada, before turning to modern Arabic literature in Oxford. In her dissertation she analyzed the book The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, Emile Habibi’s debut novel. In the satirical text Habibi combined modern literary techniques with medieval Arabic genres, elements of science fiction, and a now famous anti-hero as protagonist. The novel is pervaded with black humor, wordplay, and puns. “Pessoptimist” is a new word Habibi coined from pessimist and optimist, unexpected in Arabic as in English. “Habibi’s book initially came as a shock to the Arab world,” says Refqa Abu-Remaileh. “Nobody had read a novel like this before, and nobody has managed to write a comparable novel since then.”

Political themes are ubiquitous in Palestinian literature. Abu-Remaileh said that took some adjustment for her, as she was used to dealing with English literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many writers were journalists, others were politically active, often with Marxist leanings. Emile Habibi represented the Communist Party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, for almost two decades. Although the political aspects cannot be ignored, it would be wrong to reduce the literature to political readings. In their literary work, many of the political authors found the freedom to overcome the limited perspectives of daily politics.

“People usually talk about refugees as victims of humanitarian crises, but rarely as creative figures”

According to Refqa Abu-Remaileh, what makes Palestinian literature special is the central role of refugees and exile. “People usually talk about refugees as victims of humanitarian crises, but rarely as creative figures,” says the literary scholar. For the Palestinians, scattered all over the world, politically fragmented and isolated from one another for a long time, the common, tragic experience of displacement and exile is the unifying element. That makes it easier for many people to access this literature: Many Syrian refugees, for example, find inspiration today in the poetry of the famous Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish and the stories of Ghassan Kanafani, she says.

As Refqa Abu-Remaileh points out, “At a time when so many more people have lost their homes since the Second World War, Palestinian literature has universal resonances worldwide.”

This text originally appeared in German on October 4, 2020, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.

Further Information


Prof. Dr. Refqa Abu-Remaileh, Freie Universität Berlin, Seminar for Semitic and Arabic Studies, Arabic Studies, Email: r.abu-remaileh@fu-berlin.de

Seminar for Semitic and Arabic Studies: 1400 Years of Arab-speaking Culture

The focus of the Seminar for Semitic and Arabic Studies is Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), Arabic manuscript and book culture, popular literature, and Arabic intellectual history. Thanks to Refqa Abu-Remaileh, the seminar now covers the entire 14 centuries of Arabic-speaking culture from 600 of our time to the present day. Semitic studies with a focus on linguistics include expertise in Arabic dialects.

Students in the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs can choose from a wide variety of courses. The new interdisciplinary English-language degree program “Interdisciplinary Studies of the Middle East” is starting this semester. There are two related structured doctoral programs at Freie Universität, the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies and the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School. The ERC project PalREAD, supervised by Professor Refqa Abu-Remaileh, is, in addition to the ERC research project on the multilingual fable Kalila and Dimna (AnonymClassic), an indication of the high topicality of Berlin Arabic studies on an international level. The seminar is a popular destination for visiting scholars from around the world. PK