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Giving Voice to Stones

Giving Voice to Stones
Place and Identity in Palestinian Literature

Barbara McKean Parmenter explores the roots of Western and Zionist images of Palestine, then draws upon the work of Palestinian writers to trace how they have represented their experience of home and exile since the First World War.

January 1994
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127 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 1 map |

"A struggle between two memories" is how Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish describes the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Within this struggle, the meanings of land and home have been challenged and questioned, so that even heaps of stones become points of contention. Are they proof of ancient Hebrew settlement, or rubble from a bulldozed Palestinian village? The memory of these stones, and of the land itself, is nurtured and maintained in Palestinian writing and other modes of expression, which are used to confront and counter Israeli images and rhetoric. This struggle provides a rich vein of thought about the nature of human experience of place and the political uses to which these experiences are put.

In this book, Barbara McKean Parmenter explores the roots of Western and Zionist images of Palestine, then draws upon the work of Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, and other writers to trace how Palestinians have represented their experience of home and exile since the First World War. This unique blending of cultural geography and literary analysis opens an unusual window on the struggle between these two peoples over a land that both divides them and brings them together.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • One. The Meaning of Stones
  • Two. Reading the Landscape: Images of Palestine in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
  • Three. The Literature of Struggle and Loss, 1920-1960
  • Four. Landscapes of Exile
  • Five. Landscapes of Home
  • Six. Encountering Israel
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish reflected on the meaning of home in a book of essays published in the early 1970s, shortly after he left Israel for a life in exile. In one passage, he addressed the following words to Israelis:

The true homeland is not that which is known or proved. The land which emerges as if from a chemical equation or an institute of theory is not a homeland. Your insistent need to demonstrate the history of stones and your ability to invent proofs does not give you prior membership over him who knows the time of the rain from the smell of the stone. That stone for you is an intellectual effort. For its owner it is a roof and walls.

For Darwish, the encounter between Palestinian and Israeli perceptions of homeland cuts to the core of what he calls "a struggle between two memories." The significance of stones weaves through this struggle. For Zionists, the history of the Land of Israel was written in its stones, and archaeology became not just a national passion but a means to construct a link between contemporary Jews and an ancient tribal territory, in order to rebuild Jewish identity as Israeli identity. For Darwish, stones encompass the very substance of Palestinian life, the roof and walls which form an unspoken, existential bond between people and place. The Israelis reduced the roof and walls of Darwish's childhood home to rubble and refused to let its inhabitants return to their former lands. Visiting the site as an adult, Darwish encounters a young Jewish shepherd, an immigrant from Yemen, who hails him. "Are you from Yemen?" the boy asks. When Darwish tells slim that he was born where they are standing, the boy is astounded. "He thought the mounds of rubble were the ruins of a Roman village," Darwish says.

Beginning in December 1987, the "children of the stones," the younger generation of Palestinians raised under occupation, brought the struggle to a new level in the Intifada, the uprising. The very stones so steeped in history for Israelis were carefully gathered and cached as weapons of resistance. The Intifada turned the encounter between David and Goliath, part of Israel's national mythology of a small community pitted against giants, on its head. At the same time it shattered the symbol-laden rhetoric of the older generation of Palestinians which had evolved through decades of encounter with Israelis.

The struggle over stones is part of a wider rhetorical battle about the meaning of land, home, and place. This book examines the evolution of a Palestinian "land rhetoric" as expressed in Palestinian literature since the First World War until the advent of the Intifada. I take the term land rhetoric from Raja Shehadeh's very enlightening discussion of how Israel has changed the way he perceives his surroundings, in his book, The Third Way.

As a geographer, I began this study out of an intense interest in the meaning and experience of place. What defines a place as opposed to undefined space? What sets places apart from each other and why are they so important for people? Clearly these questions involve a complex spectrum of factors ranging from aspects of the biophysical environment to social and power relationships between individuals and communities. Just as clearly, these questions are not unique to the experiences of Israelis and Palestinians.

In our popular culture, we express a remarkable desire to see the Middle East as a region of irrational and chronic tribal feuding, a land where conflict uniquely inheres in the nature of people and environment. In this view, the struggle between Arabs and Israelis plays out ancient rivalries between natural enemies. There is, however, little unique about conflict in the Middle East, or about power struggles over territory and identity. As I write these words, I survey a landscape of fences and yards occupying land once inhabited by people I know little about—Tonkawas, Comanches, and others whose voices were silenced over a century ago. Every day brings news of social and ethnic upheavals in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the streets of America. Although technology has surpassed all the necessary requirements for the development of a "global village," what we see and experience at the end of the twentieth century is a resurgence of local, place-bound tribalism as we and others jockey for position in an era of shifting power relationships.

What is perhaps unique about the encounter between Israelis and Palestinians is the degree of articulation about the significance of place. Both sides have long engaged in intensive propaganda campaigns to delineate and justify claims to territory. But beyond the propaganda lies a rich vein of thought exploring the links between people and place. Beginning without territory, the Zionist vision of place could only express itself in the realm of words as a means of empowerment and persuasion. As the success of Zionism dispossessed Palestinians of land and of hope for independence, so the Palestinians' vision of place came also to be expressed in writing, recorded for their own people and presented to the world. The struggle between these two ways of speaking has in turn transformed their meanings. Palestinians and Jews both bear the distinguishing mark of refugees, Darwish observes, and "now, each contributes to giving form to the other.... What brings us together is at the same time a point of conflict between us." In exploring this tension we find insights about both the human experience of place and the political uses to which this experience is put.

The Geography of Place

Because this study grew out of an interest in the study of place, a brief introduction to this field of inquiry is in order. Place is defined as a segment of space which an individual or group imbues with special meaning, value, and intentions. As such, it is a key concept in humanistic studies in geography, planning, and architecture. Many writers have explored the experience of place in industrialized Western societies, focusing especially on the individual's growing alienation from his or her "place" in the world. Architect Christopher Alexander and colleagues have attempted to define the essential qualities of places which make meaningful and positive experience possible. Others have also explored what they believe to be the essential experiences of place, often couching their discussions in terms of paired oppositions. Anne Buttimer suggests that "we think of place in the context of two reciprocal movements: [the need for] home and horizons of reach outward from that home." Kevin Lynch, whose 1960 book, The Image of the City, became a focal point for debate among urban designers, argues that satisfying places must be both legible and diverse." Jay Appleton takes the perspective of animal behavior and speaks of the concomitant need for both refuge (home) and prospect (the ability to survey and take advantage of one's surroundings). And Edward Relph writes that to experience place as home provides "a point of departure from which we orient ourselves and take possession of the world." These paired oppositions are frequently seen as essential in human nature expressed in the human body. Relph and others, for example, argue that the essence of place lies in the "experience of an 'inside' that is distinct from an 'outside.'"

Yi-Fu Tuan, a geographer who has investigated cross-cultural notions of place, admits of universally held oppositions like left and right or up and down, but goes on to distinguish between two ways of experiencing place—"rootedness" and "sense of place." Rootedness is unselfconscious and implies "an incuriosity toward the world at large and an insensitivity toward the flow of time." It is being at home without having to think about it. To have a sense of place, on the other hand, is to self-consciously construct an attachment to and appreciation of the local environment. The latter requires a certain distance between self and place, together with an acute awareness of the outside world and the flow of time. Tuan remarks on the use of historical events to construct a sense of place but stops short of analyzing the dynamics of this process. The implication is that place, or at least a sense of place, is a social construct as well as an existential experience.

This distinction appears frequently in discussions of Martin Heidegger's writing on how humans dwell in the world. For Heidegger, the vernacular farmhouse architecture of the Black Forest manifests an authentic way of dwelling because its form embodies the lived experience of its inhabitants.

Social critics of Heidegger's ideas note how the Nazis employed similar visions of authentic human living for purely political and ultimately horrific ends. For critics, there can be no universal, essential ways of experiencing place. Any attempt to claim that there are serves to obfuscate social realities and buttress an ideological agenda by portraying it as natural. Australian architect Kim Dovey argues that a dialogue between essentialists and relativists about our understanding of place could offer insights too often overlooked by proponents of one approach or the other.

A study of literature aids in understanding both the terms of this discussion and the substantive meanings of place. Literature articulates the human experiences of daily life that are normally left implicit and unarticulated. Like science, literature is a means of ordering the world, but it does so in a way that retains what philosopher Maurice Natanson calls "thick experience, the world of our errors and confusions as well as of our victories and insights." This contrasts with the "clean reality" found in the scientific ordering of the world.

Perceptive Palestinian and Israeli observers articulate the thick experience of place. While others try to deny a confusing reality that does not fit with authoritative viewpoints, these writers recognize the existence of two interweaving and opposing places within the area controlled by Israel. Israeli journalist Uri Avneri remarks that in his conversations with Palestinians, a map of the land emerges which is entirely different from his own:

In every meeting a map is drawn—not the map of today, but the map from the Mandate period—when Shlomi was Basa, and Kiryat Shemona was Khalsa, and Ashdod was Asdud.. . . After three generations, nothing has been erased; on the contrary, it has been sharpened.... It will never be easy to solve the problem of a man who dreams about his house and the trees of [his village], even if he has never seen them.

Palestinian poet Layla 'Allush, in "The Path of Affection," reflects on the features of her Palestine which still survive within the newly imposed landscape of Israel:

Along the amazing road drawn from the throat of recent dates ...
Along the amazing road drawn from my old Jerusalem,
And despite the hybrid signs, shops, and cemeteries,
My fragmented self drew together to meet the kin of New Haifa....
The earth remained unchanged as of old,
With all its mortgaged trees dotting the hills,
And all the green clouds and the plants
Fertilized with fresh fertilizers,
And efficient sprinklers....
In the earth there was an apology for my father's wounds,
And all along the bridges was my Arab countenance,
In the tall poplars,
In the trains and windows,
In the smoke rings.
Everything is Arab despite the change of tongue,
Despite the trucks, the cars, and the car lights....
All the poplars and my ancestor's solemn orchards
Were, I swear, smiling at me with Arab affection.
Despite all that had been eliminated and coordinated and the "modern" sounds ...
Despite the seas of light and technology....
O my grandparents, the rich soil was bright with Arab reserve,
And it sang out, believe me, with affection.

Allush finds in the current landscape remnant features whose meanings remain sufficiently strong to sing out over the noise of the new, technologically coordinated landscape of Israel. These are the meanings which enable the Palestinians about whom Avneri writes to still speak of their homes as acutely present, even in their absence. In these words we begin to discern the geography of an existential Palestine.



“This study provides a useful survey of contemporary Palestinian culture through a reading of the relationship between literature and land. Drawing on the methods of both geography and literary criticism, it traces the evolution of what Raja Shehadeh has called a ‘Palestinian "land rhetoric"’ from the late 19th century through the Intifada conflict.”