“I had to find a way to explain what it’s like to be a Palestinian in the West without being didactic, without being miserable about it,” says the first-time published author. “And the solution I came up with is to explore it through the eyes of a western person being introduced to a Palestinian.”
Teebi is referring to Nadia, the non-Arab character in a relationship with a Palestinian immigrant living in Toronto, in Her First Palestinian — a story that explores Palestinian identity and how it is perceived by westerners.
It made the shortlist of last year's CBC Short Story Prize and became the titular tale in Teebi’s debut collection of nine shorts, released last month.
A collection of stories with as much variation between them as there is common ground, Her First Palestinian paints moments in the lives and experiences of Palestinian immigrants and refugees in their adopted country of Canada. The tales are not linked and are entirely fictional, but the emotions felt by the characters are “100 per cent real”, says Teebi.
He weaves his stories patiently, interspersing quiet moments of sharp wit and humour throughout in an almost sardonic look at the reality of what it is like existing as a Palestinian in the West. He averaged about a story a month over the period of a year, save for the last story, Enjoy Your Life, Capo, which took several months of writing.
Following the Sheikh Jarrah evictions in May last year, Teebi wove the events into his story while personally processing how he felt about what he was seeing coming out of Palestine — trying to distance himself, compartmentalise and find perspective while simultaneously feeling a lot of traumatic emotions; just like the main Palestinian character in the story.
It is surprising that — save for a short story he wrote in his early twenties — Teebi is only, now, in his forties, sitting down to write rich and complex tales, humanising Palestinians and making them relatable in a way that’s rarely seen in fiction about the diaspora.
He spent the past two decades toying with the idea of writing, thinking about the characters he wanted to create and the emotions he wanted to articulate. As a lawyer and father of two, life didn’t leave much room for pursuing personal passions, but being stuck at home during the pandemic allowed him to carve out one to two hours a day he could dedicate to finally writing down the stories he wanted to tell.
And the stories he felt compelled to tell, he says, are stories about Palestinians.
“I don’t see how I would write about any other people,” he says. “There is not enough writing about Palestinians. It’s already a fertile field for fiction.”
Choosing to begin his foray into writing with a short story collection allowed him to share a different experience of what it’s like being Palestinian in the diaspora — something the author knows only too well.
Teebi was born to Palestinian parents in Kuwait; his late father himself was born a refugee in Lebanon to parents who were forced out of Palestine. After a period in the US following the Gulf War, Teebi moved to Canada at 16, where he has been living ever since.
“There were so many Palestinian experiences that were not portrayed anywhere and I wanted to be able to give voice to them,” explains Teebi.
“Short stories can hopefully have a greater chance of connecting with a greater number of people, and because there are just so many stories to tell when it comes to Palestinians, it just made sense to start with a short story collection.”
That’s not to say he shies away from the idea of a novel. Teebi is already writing again, properly entrenched in a novel that examines immigrant ambition, full of Palestinian main characters experiencing “Palestinian things”. He says he's not just writing it for himself, but because he has something to say to an audience that he hopes can better understand the Palestinian experience.
“Palestinians are a population that has been made invisible in many ways. I wanted to make them more visible; I wanted to inject humanity in what is otherwise a news story that lacks humanity.”
If humanising Palestinians without purposefully tugging on heartstrings is what Teebi set out to do, he has accomplished his goal with aplomb. His stories — original, intelligent and finely nuanced — present characters who, although vastly different, are united in a uniquely Palestinian form of loneliness, one that stems from feeling out of place in a world that sees them as a nuisance.
Each of the characters hold themselves back in some way or other, perhaps not as physically oppressed as the Palestinians who live in Palestine, but certainly oppressed in that they feel restricted in what they can say or do, because of the weight of the history they represent.
Her First Palestinian will be launched on September 21 at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival’s opening night, where Teebi will be doing readings and taking part in a conversation with writer and cultural critic Huda Hasan. More information is at www.tpff.ca
Scroll through images of the Palestine International Book Fair in Ramallah below