A Palestinian 'Village' Whose Residents Can't Leave

This Arabic-language novel accurately portrays rural, Palestinian society in Israel as locked in a circle of self-pity and messianic anticipation of a miracle.

Kafr Qasem.
Tomer Appelbaum

“Dunya,” by Odeh Bisharat, self-published, 360 pages, 50 shekels, in Arabic

Palestinian creative artists often find themselves facing a dilemma: whether to write about Palestinian history and the ills of the occupation, or about contemporary post-Nakba Palestinian society in Israel. This quandary, which characterizes the Palestinian cultural and artistic scene as a whole, reflects the gulf between the feeling of nostalgia and the need to cling to the past for fear it will be lost, on the one hand, and a desire to address issues that are of relevance to the young generation. The root of the problem lies in the anomalous hybrid situation of being a minority and an occupied people living in its land, which is fearful of losing its identity but also longs for a “normal” life.

This conflict is particularly apparent in the contemporary Palestinian literary community – a small group consisting primarily of poets, though also a few writers of prose. The same duality exists in the plastic arts, cinema and theater, with the result that works in these realms often fall into a trap of self-pity and a feeling of helplessness. This is the same trap that wrests the humanity from Palestinian society and presents it as a monolithic entity whose troubles stem mainly from the occupation, instead of taking a hard look at itself and observing its everyday problems.

“Dunya,” the new and second novel by writer and commentator (and Haaretz columnist) Odeh Bisharat, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who was born in in Yafat an-Nasera village to a family of refugees from nearby Maalul, avoids this trap. The novel is a portrait of the rural Palestinian society that remained in its homeland after the 1948 Nakba (or “catastrophe” – the Palestinians’ term for what happened to them when Israel was founded). Many refugees from uprooted towns, cities and villages found themselves in nearby villages; the majority of Palestinian society in Israel today resides in villages. “Dunya” offers a sharp, precise description of the development of that society since 1948. It makes no attempt to prettify the picture or to present Israel’s Palestinian citizens purely as victims.

Dunya (In Arabic, the word literally means “the whole wide world”) is the name of a 23-year-old woman who lives in Zatunia, a fictional village in Galilee (which was also the setting for the author’s first novel, “The Streets of Zatunia,” published in Hebrew in 2010 by Am Oved). As the book opens, Dunya is struggling with existential depression that is aggravated when her horoscope in the newspaper forecasts three successive weeks of bad news. She is driven into deep despair and intense anxiety about the future. One day she disappears, and the whole village mobilizes to look for her. The police conduct a lengthy investigation and then arrest Naim, a swindler who makes a living as a fortune teller, whom Dunya had gone to see during her bouts of depression.

Odeh Bisharat.
Chaim Taragan

At this point, the book goes back in time to tell Naim’s story and how he came to be a fortune teller. As a result of this literary device, the novel becomes unfocused and confused, packed with subplots and loosely connected secondary characters bearing similar names. Large segments make for far from easy reading. Though the book is named for her, Dunya becomes increasingly less relevant. Her story dissipates amid the peripheral stories, which move the reader between past and present, and thrust him into a whirlpool of characters and events.

The reader meets the first generation who were young adults during the Nakba, who move to the center of the country because they’ve heard there’s more money in Tel Aviv. There is the practical and industrious fellow who goes there, makes enough to get married and return to the village, and the fool who falls in love with and marries a Jewish woman, abandons his parents and remains in Tel Aviv, but just as foolishly leaves his wife afterward.

Both the love stories and the depictions of the revolutionary spirit that swept up young people during that era are romanticized and exaggerated here. While the numerous subplots reveal something of the diversity of Palestinian society, the characters that people them are superficial and stereotypical, particularly the female characters.

Dearth of publishers

In a recent interview with Panet, an Arabic-language Israeli website, Bisharat spoke of the problems encountered by Palestinian writers in the country, among them the dearth of both local publishers and professional editors. His own novel suffers from this situation: It’s long, verbose and repetitious. Moreover, the style he employs constitutes yet another barrier to getting to know the characters in depth. Bisharat opts for the device of an omniscient narrator who tells the story and reveals the characters’ thoughts and feelings. There are a few stream-of-consciousness dialogues and monologues, but their tone of voice is no different from that of the narrator, giving rise to the reader’s sense of alienation from the characters. At the same time, however, literary authenticity and a sometimes-comedic spirit pervade the conversations between the characters, thanks to the author’s use of spoken Arabic, in its rural northern dialect (which may pose problems in translations into other languages). This helps both to dramatize vividly the language itself, and through it reveal the mentality and social fabric of the Palestinian society.

It’s clear that Bisharat is seeking here to express his strong criticism of and personal frustration with Palestinian society. He gives voice to others who, like himself, are saddened by the plight of their society, which is depicted as going nowhere. He portrays it as apocalyptic, and of having been caught since the Nakba in a loop of “messianic laziness” – waiting for a miracle or some higher power to deliver it from its troubles.

Witchcraft and fortune-telling constitute a powerful motif in the novel as refuges to which some villagers turn in the illusion or hope that they can bring release from the cycle of despair. For his part, Dunya’s father, a political activist in his youth, had found an escape from Arab “primitivism” in Russian literature and classical music, but they turned out to be a fruitless alternative to the grind of everyday life. In Dunya’s eyes, fortune-telling offers a kind of promise that one day, in the distant future, things will work out. The wait for an external power that will redeem society is illustrated trenchantly at the beginning of the story when Dunya disappears. This is an extraordinary, supernatural event that presages the advent of some sort of transformative occurrence. Indeed, her disappearance leads the village to unite and to behave like an orderly, aware society.

The novel’s apocalyptic thrust is seen in the continuous downward solid line that confines the characters to the same village from birth to death. This fixity is a metaphor for the sense of being mired that prevails in the society. Bisharat offers redemption to only two characters – who chose to leave and lead a new life elsewhere, alienated and disconnected from the suffocating Palestinian mentality that continues to wallow in its own self-pity.

Janaan Bsoul is the job and labor market correspondent of TheMarker, the Haaretz business daily and website.