Explore the depths of human courage and resilience through the best Palestinian authors and their most acclaimed works.
For decades, Palestinians have been a people at war, displaced throughout the world, and grappling to hold on to the heritage and culture of their homeland. Many writers who consider themselves Palestinians have not seen their home country in years, perhaps ever, and may write in Arabic, Hebrew, or another language altogether. As a result, Palestinian literature is an intricately woven tapestry of disparate voices and their shared experiences of resistance, exile, longing, and loss.
Though Palestinian literature is challenging to define, one common characteristic is a lyricism that many describe as poetic prose. Perhaps this quality has its roots in the playfulness of the Arabic language or the long poetic tradition of the culture. Still, Palestinian prose’s fragmented, elusive nature also mirrors the people’s enduring search for a sense of place and identity. If you’re interested in audiobooks, check out the best history books on audible!
1. Mahmoud Darwish, 1941 – 2008
Mahmoud Darwish was only seven years old when Israel was declared a state, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their home began. The Israel Defense Forces razed his home village to prevent his people’s return. Though they remained in Israel, Darwish’s displaced family moved around a great deal during the remainder of his childhood.
Not long after Darwish graduated high school, he published his first book of poetry. He soon moved to the USSR to study and joined the Palestine Liberation Organization. For this, he was not allowed back into his country for 20 years. Darwish published more than 30 books of poetry and eight novels in his lifetime and is widely regarded as Palestine’s national poet.
Darwish was suffering the effects of heart disease and knew that his death was approaching when he wrote and published his most notable work of prose, In the Presence of Absence. It is a moving, masterful final love song to Palestine and her people.
“Come with me tonight so that we might make tonight a shared past, says the one afflicted with longing. I will come with you to make a shared tomorrow, says the one afflicted with love.”Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence
2. Mourid Barghouti, 1944 – 2021
Mourid Barghouti was born in the West Bank, but as young adults, they traveled to Egypt to study English literature at Cairo University. While he was there, war erupted between Israel and Arab countries, so he was banned from returning home. He would endure 30 years of exile before being able to revisit his homeland.
Barghouti is, first and foremost, a poet. He has published 12 books of poetry, which were combined into a 700-page “Complete Works” edition in 1997. At the height of his fame, Barghouti regularly read in crowded refugee camps and packed arenas. Though the events of his past undeniably influence his work, Barghouti avoids political commentary in his poetry. He prefers to focus on the personal, human consequences of ongoing turmoil.
When Barghouti was finally able to return to his childhood home, he discovered that the home he remembered no longer existed. This experience inspired his memoir, I Saw Ramallah, in which he describes feeling just as displaced in his homeland as he had felt during his decades abroad.
“The calm of the place of exile and its wish-for safety is never completely realized. The homeland does not leave the body until the last moment, the moment of death.”Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah
3. Hala Alyan, 1986 –
When Hala Alyan’s mother was eight months pregnant with her, she hatched a plan that would change their lives. She decided to “visit” her brother in Illinois, leaving her Palestinian husband behind in Kuwait. While visiting, Alyan was born, which meant she would return to the Middle East with an American passport. Later, when her family sought asylum in the U.S., Alyan’s passport would secure their entry.
Alyan says she has witnessed first-hand the generational trauma that arises from displacement. She has long felt that she belongs nowhere and everywhere at once because of her family’s history. Alyan, a working clinical psychologist, explores these ideas and the complicated history of the Palestinian people in her award-winning poetry and prose.
Alyan’s debut novel, Salt Houses, earned a Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Arab American Book Award and was listed by NPR as the Book of the Year. This lyrical story spans three generations of a displaced Palestinian family and chronicles the enduring heartache and courage of people struggling to find a sense of home.
“And life, life has swept her along like a tiny seashell onto sand, has washed over her and now, suddenly, she is old. Her mother is dead. There is no one to ask the questions she needs to ask.”Hala Alyan, Salt Houses
4. Sahar Kalifeh, 1941 –
From a very young age, Sahar Kalifeh, the 5th born of 8 girls in her family, believed that being a woman was worthless. Just out of high school, she was forced to marry a man she did not love and spent the next 13 years shrouded in fear and misery. Her only solace during those long, lonely years was her books.
At last, Kalifeh divorced her husband and moved home with her parents. She enrolled in Birzeit University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to continue her studies in the U.S., eventually earning a master’s degree in English and a Ph.D. in American Literature and Women’s Studies. She has since published 11 novels, seven translated into English and founded the Women’s Affairs Center to advocate for women’s rights in Ghaza.
At the center of all of Kalifeh’s novels is the struggle of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, particularly the plight of her homeland’s women. Her most recent novel, My First and Only Love, tells the story of a young woman who returns to her country after many years of exile. There she falls in love with a young freedom fighter and, through their romance, discovers hidden family secrets.
“ We walk with the sleeve and the mask and stand in front of the mirror before going out to make sure of the appearance so as not to anger the street and the sheik of the mosque. We became afraid of the mosque, the street, and people’s looks. We became afraid.”Sahar Kalifeh, My First and Only Love
5. Gassan Hanafani, 1936 – 1972
Gassan Hanafani was the 3rd of 8 children born to a middle-class family living in the British-occupied Palestinian city of Acre. As a child, he studied at a prestigious French missionary school in Jaffa but was forced to leave at 12 when his family was exiled to Lebanon. He later studied Arabic literature at Damascus University and became known as one of the most important Arabic writers of the modern era.
As a young adult, Hanafani became a journalist, primarily working for politically focused news outlets. Most notably, he worked as the editor of a weekly publication for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This controversial group frequently participated in plane hijackings and bombings to fight against Israeli rule. As a result of his involvement with the group, Hanafani was assassinated in a car bombing when he was only 36 years old.
Men in the Sun, Hanafani’s most celebrated novel, follows three Palestinian refugees who attempt to cross the border into Kuwait, seeking work and a better life for their families. It is a testament to the Palestinians’ courage and an intimate look at the effects of war and dispossession. Men in the Sun is considered one of the most iconic works of modern Arabic literature.
“In the past ten years you have done nothing but wait… It took you ten long, hungry years to believe that you lost your trees, your house, your youth, and your entire village.”Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun
6. Susan Abulhawa, 1970 –
To say that Susan Abulhawa had a turbulent childhood would be an understatement. In the early years of her life, she and her Palestinian refugee parents bounced between Jordan, Kuwait, the United States, and Palestine. At ten, she was separated from her parents and lived in a Jerusalem orphanage for three years. Afterward, she briefly lived with her father in the U.S. before entering the foster care system, where she remained until being emancipated at 17.
Abulhawa finished high school, college, and graduate school on her own. She then worked as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company for several years before becoming a writer. Abulhawa has since published three critically acclaimed novels and has earned numerous literary awards. She is also a human rights activist and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, which seeks to provide safe gathering places for the youngest Palestinians.
Abulahawa’s first novel, Mornings in Jenin, sold more than a million copies and was translated into 32 languages. It is a multigenerational story that follows a family of refugees forcibly removed from their rural farming village by the newly created Israeli state in the late 1940s. For 60 years, the family has experienced tremendous love and loss as they grapple with their search for home and identity.
“Toughness found fertile soil in the hearts of Palestinians, and the grains of resistance embedded themselves in their skin. Endurance evolved as a hallmark of refugee society. But the price they paid was the subduing of tender vulnerability.”Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin
7. Adania Shibli, 1974 –
Adania Shibli was born in the West Bank just a few years after the Israeli occupation began. As a child, she experienced the ongoing terrors of war, institutionalized discrimination, and repression first-hand. Shibli eventually earned a Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Nottingham. In addition to her writing, she has worked as a part-time philosophy and cultural studies professor at Birzeit University in Palestine.
Shibli is fluent in six languages but only writes in Arabic. She has written several novels, essays, plays, and short stories and has been widely published internationally. Shibli’s writing style is unique in that it is nonlinear, at times more poetry than prose. Her most recent novel, Minor Detail, was a finalist for the National Book Award and was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
Minor Detail is a story about two women living in two different periods in Palestine. It is the story of a modern-day Ramallah woman who becomes obsessed with unraveling the historical account of a young woman, kidnapped, raped, and buried by Israeli soldiers many years earlier. At its heart, Minor Detail is about the struggle individual Palestinians face as they try to piece together their stories in the face of ongoing disempowerment. Looking for more? Check out our best essays about history!
“The borders imposed between things here are many. One must pay attention to them, and navigate them, which ultimately protects everyone from perilous consequences.”Adania Shibli, Minor Detail