Why Palestinian writers must be heard

By winning the 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Basim Khandaqji's unfiltered account of his people's experience will reach a wider audience

'A Mask, the Colour of the Sky' author Basim Khandaqji. For Palestinians, literature is one of the few means at their disposal of telling their own story. Vidhyaa Chandramohan for The National
Powered by automated translation

“I might have good friends, travel, luxuries,” Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz told The Paris Review in a 1992 interview. “But without literature my life would be miserable.” Although Mahfouz was correct about writing’s ability to enrich and uplift, it also has a more profound quality – helping people to explore and understand complex issues in a way that resonates universally.

This quality can be seen in Palestinian writer Basim Khandaqji’s novel A Mask, the Colour of the Sky, which was awarded the 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. It tells the tale of a Palestinian archaeologist living in a refugee camp in Ramallah who finds an Israeli ID and takes on the identity of the card’s namesake to understand life behind the Israeli security fence.

Khandaqji’s story explores a theme contained in other modern Palestinian works, such as The Book of Disappearance by Ibtisam Azem. This 2019 novel is set in a Middle East where, much to Israelis’ shock and unease, the Palestinians have suddenly disappeared, leaving Israeli society frightened and confused. Both Azem and Khandaqji’s novels imaginatively explore how two peoples who live in such proximity have radically different and unequal experiences of justice, freedom and security.

For Palestinians, literature is one of the few means at their disposal of telling their story in an unmediated and unfiltered way. Palestinian public figures are often pressed in interviews with the international media to begin with a rhetorical denunciation of violence before they can make their point. Palestinian writers, however, are freer to shape their own narrative.

Sadly, because of the continuing occupation of Palestine, it is a narrative in which violence and division often play a central role. Khandaqji has been in Israeli prison since 2004, when he was given three life sentences after being convicted on charges of terrorism for planning a bombing that killed three people in Tel Aviv. That year was also one of major turmoil: the long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died, the second intifada was raging and Israeli society was in turmoil over plans to evacuate its settlements in Gaza. Twenty years later, it is a tragedy that the situation for Palestinians and Israelis has, if anything, worsened.

As the world witnesses the continuing war in Gaza, the need for Palestinian voices has rarely been greater. As the IPAF prize comes with funding for English translation, A Mask, the Colour of the Sky will soon reach a wider audience. The second Palestinian novel on the IPAF shortlist, Osama Al Eissa’s The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem, will also gain a deservedly higher profile. Such support is a vital part of literary prizes as well as events such as the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which begins today. This recognition reflects the UAE’s consistent backing, seen in other prizes such as the Zayed Book Award, for important contributions from the Arab world, not just in literature but in many other fields.

It is perhaps fitting that Mahfouz, the only Arab so far to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, will be a focal point for this year’s book fair in Abu Dhabi – one of his most celebrated works, 1961’s The Thief and the Dogs, deals with themes of imprisonment and revenge, two realities that have sadly dominated much of the Palestinian experience for decades. Until such a time comes that Palestinians are free to explore other realities, we will need to listen closely to what writers such as Khandaqji have to tell us.

Published: April 30, 2024, 3:00 AM