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Palestinian Literature's Many Faces

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LOVE for their own national literature, along with close family ties and strong memories of home, have helped the Palestinians survive long years of exile. Their poetry, fiction, and personal testimonials encode both a spirit of defiance and a plea for others to know them better. It is long overdue, therefore, that Americans gain access to the best the Palestinians have written.

The landmark publication of the "Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature," edited and introduced by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, quite generously fulfills this need.

This is Jayyusi's fifth major anthology of Arabic literature in translation. It is perhaps the closest to her heart, as she is a leading Palestinian poet and mentor to her nation's younger writers. Jayyusi has almost an alchemist's knack for transmuting Arabic into English, as shown in the fine effort she has coaxed from such able co-translators (and fine poets in their own right) as W. S. Merwin and Naomi Shihab Nye.

The broad range of poems selected here testifies to the adaptability, both territorial and linguistic, of the Palestinian voice. Nye is Palestinian-American, and her own family-centered poems are collected in a section of original writing in English. Here, too, is the bluntly declarative verse of Hanan Mikha'il `Ashrawi, her delegation's spokeswoman at the peace talks, whose vivid poem "Night Patrol" is narrated by an Israeli soldier who tries to stare down a group of child protesters and instead sees hi mself in their young faces.

It is interesting to compare the private lyricism of the Israeli Palestinian Anton Shammas, who often writes in Hebrew, and the highly charged politics of the PLO's unofficial poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish, one of whose metaphors once nearly caused former Israeli President Shamir to suspend the peace process. Darwish's passion burns most keenly here in his patriotic epic "Poem of the Land" and his essay on Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Jayyusi's introduction provides a helpful literary history and recalls an all-important geographical factor. Just as Jerusalem's Wailing Wall was sealed off from Israeli Jews until 1967, so too, Israeli Palestinians were sealed off from their compatriots on the West Bank and in exile. This nearly complete separation, with each side having different audiences, influences, and aims, resulted in a bifurcated literature lasting more than a generation.


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