- Archiving the Political, Narrating the PersonalThe Year in Lebanon
The year 2017 was the centenary of the controversial Balfour Declaration, and 2018 marked the seventieth year since the partitioning of Palestine and the historic Nakba prefiguring the creation of the State of Israel. These anniversaries occasioned several literary events in Lebanon—memoir launches, online biography releases, and the publication of interdisciplinary archival personal narratives. In addition, the literary timeline that extended toward the end of 2018 featured storytelling events rewriting, narrating, and (re)presenting transgender lives in Beirut, as well as an outpouring of feminist biographies, oral histories, and personal narratives, both by new and established woman writers.
Reja-e Busailah's autobiography, In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood,1 was launched by the Institute for Palestine Studies2 in Beirut in 2018 in the presence of its author. The book recounts the coming-of-age experiences of the blind eighty-nine-year-old Busailah, who holds a PhD in English from New York University, as a boy struggling with the loss of both his eyesight and his homeland in the 1940s. Written against a backdrop of foreign occupation, the memoir reimagines sensory details, such as the echo of sound in a room and the smell of burning newspaper or olive leaves, as tools, whether endearing or frightening, which help the young Busailah come to terms with home as it breaks.
If Busailah's memoir brings to light the connection between physical blindness and a disintegrating homeland, Sherene Seikaly's personal essay "How I Met My Great-Grandfather" combines autobiography with both biographical writing and archival research. Seikaly integrates her own personal experience of revisiting the life of her Palestinian great-grandfather Naim Cotran (1877–1961) with her exploration of the family archives preserved by her maternal aunt Lamia in Covina, California. An Ottoman ikhraj qayd (civil status record) of her great-grandfather's triggered a voyage into his life in Palestine during the Ottoman Empire and the [End Page 84] British Mandate, all through the Nakba, and subsequently as a refugee in Lebanon.
Like Busailah, Seikaly traces the experience of dispossession and loss of home to the expropriation of, and in Naim Cotran's case, the failure to reclaim material objects: family heirlooms, olive orchards, and the Order of the Nile "of great sentimental value" that Cotran had been awarded by the historic Sultan Hussein of Egypt (8–9). Seikaly avoids being entirely celebratory of her great-grandfather's life, even as he "faltered in the face of a bureaucratic structure that intended to exclude and deprive him at every turn" (16). The experience of revisiting Cotran's life resurrects uncomfortable moments in which Sa'da, an enslaved woman gifted to Cotran's family, is brought to life. Seikaly concludes: "I knew that my work was on some level autobiographical, but until my meeting with my great-grandfather, or rather Lamia's manila folder, I had not realized the depth of the autobiography" (18).
Similarly, the Lebanese historian Bayan Nuwayhed Al-Hout has revisited the Nakba through several entries of a biographical nature. In 2018, she documented the lives of six key Palestinian public figures, archivists, activists, educators, and cultural personalities: Walid El Khalidi (1925–), Zalikha al-Shihabi (1903–1992), Asma Tubi (1905–1983), Samiha Khalil (1923–1999), Kulthum Odeh (1892–1965), and Salma Khadra Jayyusi (1925–present).3
Al-Hout writes that Zalikha al-Shihabi joined the nationalist struggle during the British Mandate, participating in a massive, unprecedented all-women demonstration in 1929, with some one hundred cars driving through the streets of Jerusalem and shouting thunderous slogans, amid enormous popular enthusiasm. She organized large audiences to attend rebels' trials, and visited imprisoned activists to raise their morale and show the British authorities that the people were backing their heroes.
In the 1920s, Palestine witnessed a renaissance of the theater. Asma Tubi, initially an acclaimed playwright, soon became a feminist activist. Her biography, as Al-Hout presents it, shows parallels with al-Shihabi's. Tubi too visited the wounded and the families of martyrs, providing them with food and medication. In the wake of the 1937 revolt against the proposal...