Saḥar Khalīfeh’s Resistance Literature: Toward a Palestinian Critical Realism

  • Kifah Hanna
Part of the Literatures and Cultures of the Islamic World book series (LCIW)


Sahar Khalīfeh is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential contemporary novelists of the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). She was born in 1941 into a middle-class Palestinian family from Nāblus. Her father, desperate for a boy to bear his name for posterity, was disheartened by this fifth addition to a chain of girls, eventually eight. In her teens, Khalīfeh rebelled against what, in observation of her submissive mother, she perceived to be the weakness of her sex. In turn, her mother tried to tame Khalīfeh, first by sending her to a boarding school in Jerusalem run by the Nuns of Zion, and second by yoking her in a loveless marriage. Such circumstances, which she further witnessed across her society, stirred for the author an early sense of the injustice of the gender inequalities embedded in, and reproduced by, Palestinian familial and social structures. As she matured, she began to associate the tragedies of her sex with those of the Arab world—best exemplified by the Nakba and the Naksa, the Arab world, she thought, was doomed to cultural and political defeat in much the same way as women therein were doomed to submission and worthlessness. For Khalīfeh, the feminist struggle thus became increasingly intertwined with the nationalist, and it was in simultaneous response to both that her artistic and aesthetic credo was to develop.1


Arab World Critical Realism Occupied Territory National Liberation National Narrative 
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    For more information about Khalīfeh’s biography, see Saḥar Khalīfeh, “My Life, Myself, and the World,” trans. Musa al-Halool and Katia Sakka, Al Jadid 8:39 (Spring 2002), pp. 1–2 and Peter Nazareth, “An Interview with Sahar Khalifeh,” The Iowa Review 11:1 (1981), pp. 67–70. Amal Amireh identifies three categories of Palestinian writers who are involved in “the telling of the national story,” which she considers an essential cultural complement to Palestinian political demands “for recognition and self-determination.” First, those who hold “official positions in the national movement” (e.g. Yehya Yakhlaf, Liyānah Badr), secondly those who have acted as spokespersons for it (e.g. Ghassān Kanafānī, Hanān ‘Ashrāwī), and thirdly those who “consciously [put] their artistic pens in the service of the national cause,” a category to which all Palestinian writers belong. She continues that against the tendency to reproduce “the dominant gendered [or patriarchal] national narrative” characteristic especially of the first two categories, but also widespread in the third, feminist writers such as Khalifeh have “attempted to clear fictional spaces that allow for a subversive questioning of this dominant narrative”.Google Scholar
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    ‘Abd al-Muḥsin T. Badr argues that depicting the human character in terms of the moral duality of “good” and “evil” is characteristic of the romanticism that preceded Khalīfeh and her realist influences. See ‘Abd al-Muḥsin T. Badr, Taṭawwur al-riwāyah al-’Arabīyah al-ḥadīthah fī Miṣr, 1870–1938 (The Evolution of the Modern Arabic Novel in Egypt, 1870–1938) (al-Qāhirah: Dār al-Ma’ārif, 1963), p. 196.Google Scholar
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