Dispossession, Soil, and Identity in Palestinian and Native American Literature
The parallels between the historical experiences of dispossession and colonization of the Palestinian and Native American peoples, and the similarities in the discourses of land and belonging of the two peoples, proved strong enough to once move Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to write the poem “Speech of the Red Indian.” Darwish, assuming the voice of a Native American faced with the brutal reality of violent conquest, yokes the Native Americans and Palestinians together, with the poem’s narrator urging a Columbus-type figure, “Then go back, stranger/Search for India once more!”1 The plea is a plaintive and hopeless desire for the return of an irrecoverable past, indicative of much of the post-dispossession literature of both Palestinians and Native Americans. Darwish’s eloquent rendition of the Native American voice, as a comparison to the Palestinian narrative, is just one example of contemporary Palestinian literature reaching for an understanding of the exile’s relationship with the land through metaphor or analogy.
There is relatively little critical material contrasting the relevant texts of these two communities, despite there being fascinating comparisons to be made between contemporary Palestinian and Native American literary efforts to articulate and grapple with the collective trauma experienced by their peoples. Evaluating two peoples in different cultural contexts who share a passion for the land and comparable experiences of dispossession, offers fresh insights as to what “moves” are required to transform displacement and exile into literature, and how these “moves” differ between cultures. By observing the points of convergence and divergence in Native American and Palestinian literature, as they express both a relationship to the land and the experience of dispossession, one can then see how self-conceptualization and the relationship between self and the community affects the way land and exile are represented in literature.
Relationship with the Land — Material versus Spiritual
Ghassan Kanafani’s short story, Men in the Sun, explores the plight of the displaced Palestinian through the central metaphor of the desert — a place loaded with practical and symbolic significance for the Palestinian refugee. The beginning of the story introduces the reader to one of the protagonists, Abu Qais, and he is immediately represented as intimately connected with the earth:
Abu Qais rested on the damp ground, and the earth began to throb under him with tired heartbeats, which trembled through the grains of sand and penetrated the cells of his body.2
As the earth and his body throb in unison, Abu Qais seems to become one with the earth, his very being an extension of the land. That the heartbeats are “tired” introduces a note of melancholy into the depiction, while “trembled” and “penetrated” are words of delicacy that also carry sexual connotations. This representation of the soil as an extension of the body bears strong similarities with the Native American idea of the land–human relationship, though some Native Americans take the idea of the human body as a continuous part of the land even further: “The mountains and hills, that you see, are your backbone and the gullies and the creeks, which are between the hills and mountains, are your heart veins.”3
The spiritual dimension of the articulation of the relationship with the land marks the key difference between the Native Americans and Palestinians, ideas of the soil also shaped by the fact that the Native Americans see their ancestors as having “returned” to the land. By contrast, in Kanafani’s story, we find that for the Palestinian, the relationship with the soil, while special, is not primarily spiritual but sensual and material. Lying on the ground, Abu Qais’ mind recalls the time when he was still on his own land, and made a similar comment to his neighbor “with whom he shared the field in the land he left ten years ago.” Here it seems that the land is significant because of its integral role in Palestinian society, a parochialism expressed in a Mourid Barghouti poem: “I, the one leaping through the ages toward particulars/the address of a house, a roof, a guest, a neighbor to be visited,/a stroll in streets which my footsteps long for,/a friend’s knock at the door, not the night police.”4 The society of the Palestinians, divided broadly speaking between rural farming and town, lends their understanding of the land a more domesticated and quotidian tone, where the economic life of the community is intertwined with a husbandry of the land.
Personalizing the Political
The differences in the responses to dispossession between Native Americans and Palestinians most clearly emerge when one examines the techniques used to produce literature out of dispossession. A typical example of this is rendering the physical, or political, estrangement a personal “exile,” or alternatively, expressing the communal trauma in the terms of an individual’s internal existential conflict. Mahmoud Darwish, more than most, perhaps, has eloquently expressed the Palestinian experience of dispossession, while investing “Palestine” with its heavy metaphorical symbolism. Since Palestine as a modern nation-state is as yet unrealized, in the hands of Darwish, the name becomes a cipher for existential ruminations on the nature of both physical exile, and a more characteristically modernist personal “exile” in the world. This is part of a more general trend, in the years following on from another devastating Israeli military victory in 1967, to personalize the political, and clothe it in metaphor. Strong affinities emerge between the fragmented individual typical of the Palestinian diaspora, and literary modernism, an aesthetic that, as a result, often becomes the preferred form for Palestinian writing about land and belonging.
In one of his later poems, ‘Who Am I, without Exile?’ it is as if Darwish has had a moment to stand back and look at his work and life, and realizes the intensity of the tie between his own identity and his status as an exile. From initially being a practical circumstance, the question of his exile from Palestine has become inseparable with the question of his personal identity: he is first and foremost, a “stranger.”5 With his cartographic and historical imagination, Darwish audaciously appropriates the exilic lexicon of the Scriptures for the Palestinian diaspora, highlighting the curious mirror image of the once-exile becoming the instrument of another people’s dispossession. Darwish seems gripped by a despair and hopelessness that leads him to repeat “Nothing” like a mantra:
Nothing brings me back from this distance to the oasis: neither war nor peace. Nothing grants me entry into the gospels. Nothing.
Darwish can never now “undo” the distance created. This is because the exile is now a state of mind, and even in the event of a “peace” emerging, the separation between the poet and his homeland over the years has created an unbridgeable gap. The nostalgia expressed in late twentieth-century Palestinian literature is all the more terrible for its being not only spatial, but temporal — there is no going back to a pre-Nakba Palestine. In a thoughtful essay reflecting on exile, Edward Said writes: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.”6
Different Responses to Dispossession
Cultural differences between the Native Americans and Palestinians inform and shape the literary responses to the tragedies these communities experience. Most notably, the two peoples’ differing understanding of the relationship between self-conceptualization and community has a defining influence on the possibility for personal regeneration, as in the case of the hero of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony. In Ceremony, the community’s struggles are compressed into the tribulations of a particular individual, an allegorical approach that helps facilitate the exploration of larger issues in a less nakedly polemical or instructive mode of personal narrative. This move can also make the text accessible to a wider audience, who initially engage with the literature on the level of the protagonist’s narrative, and are then open to the more social or political dimensions of the story. For Tayo, struggling to come to terms both with his time spent in Japanese captivity during World War II and his role in U.S. society, the connection between individual and the wider Native American community, enforced by spirituality and ritual, is fundamental to his own recovery. The Palestinians’ collective awareness has been irrevocably molded by the experience of dispossession and dispersal, while for the Native Americans similar practical circumstances have shaped a collective identity that maintains an organic, spiritual character as its crucial resource for resistance, a character that existed long before the arrival of the settlers.
Many Native Americans are still physically on their ancestral lands, and therefore, coupled with their spiritual relationship with the earth, are still in a position whereby they can harness the physical soil in a process of personal restoration or regeneration, and the associated literature. The Palestinian in exile, however, is not on the land anymore, and therefore this particular avenue of personal regeneration is closed. This means s/he is compelled to seek an internalization of the exile and a merging of the personal and the political, a subjectivity that comes across in the poetry of Darwish and his peers. The Palestinian diaspora’s self-consciousness has evolved differently to the Native American sense of collective identity, with the former generally more fragmented, while the latter harks back to a lost spiritual wholeness. The Native American self-conceptualization tends to have a more organic and spiritual character, while at the same time, a trend amongst many Native American novelists, is to convey a communal identity through a subjective personal story of self-discovery.
In contrast to the solidity afforded the Native American by this group identity, exile has given the Palestinian Darwish a profound sense of insubstantial existence, left with “butterflies of dream,” and “dust, nor fire” able to provide a sense of reality. So far-reaching in its effects, this transience has meant that they [the exiles] “have become weightless,/as light as our dwellings in distant winds.” Darwish describes their plight thus: “We have both been freed from the gravity of the land of identity.”7 While a Western postmodern critical sensibility would pick up a positive intonation in such a line, for a Palestinian, to be “freed” from that kind of relationship with the land is equivalent to unmooring a ship, or perhaps more pertinently, cutting off a tree at the roots. The logical culmination of this all-consuming embrace of exile is expressed in the final stanza of Darwish’s poem: “Nothing is left of me except you./Nothing is left of you except me.” It is a bleak vision, and stands apart from the conclusions of Native American novels such as Ceremony, where individual regeneration, but not collective restoration, has been facilitated by the spiritual and communal characteristics of the remaining population.
Palestinian and Native American literatures stand apart form other post-colonial literature engaging with questions of identity and exile, as they do not fit comfortably into contemporary definitions of the postcolonial canon. This is because neither group has enjoyed a decolonization process in their homeland, and therefore exists in a unique space in which to examine the dynamic between literature and collective tragedy. In the face of such physical and political obstacles to individual and communal well-being and identity, why do the Native Americans and Palestinians turn to literature? Firstly, it is something that can be possessed by the dispossessed. Land can be taken, but the mind’s defenses remain unbreached. Secondly, literature offers the chance to explore issues of identity and self-regeneration, a luxury not afforded by the harsh realities of the particular sociopolitical circumstances. Linked through their common love and identification with the soil of their land, the Native Americans and Palestinians have also had this relationship violently ruptured, provoking collective and individual crises explored in the literature considered in ways that bring these issues to a wider audience.
1. Darwish, The Adam of Two Edens, p.132.
2. Ghassan Kanafani, “Men in the Sun,” in Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories (Covent Garden, 1999) pp.21-74 (p.21).
3. Angie Debo, A History of the Indians in the United States (London, 2003) p.2.
4. Mourid Barghouti, translated by Lena Jayyusi and W. S. Merwin, “I Run toward You…I Run with You,” in Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi (New York, 1992) p.130.
5. Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, p.113.
6. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays (London, 2000) pp.173-186 (p.173).
7. Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, p.114.