In a reference to Walid Khalidi's book Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948, the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique wrote: "We have all heard of 'a land without a people for a people without a land.' This book comes as the living proof to discredit this argument." The photographs in Khalidi's book depict a vital society active in all areas of life: on farms, in factories and construction sites, in demonstrations, cinema houses, health clubs, social evenings, weddings, and cultural and artistic activities. In fact, many renowned artists and writers of the Arab world visited or performed in pre-1948 Palestine - Um Kalthoum, Naguib al-Rihani and the writer Tawfiq al-Hakim - testament to the existence of a well-established society and to a rare dynamism, in spite of the historical context and the looming disasters.


I recently came across a 1937 copy of An-Nafir newspaper, which used to be published in Haifa. The issue featured photos of Palestinian Arabs appearing in front of the Palestine Royal Commission in the wake of the 1936 Great Revolt. But what really captured my attention was an advertisement inviting the public to purchase shares in the Arab Cinema Company Ltd., registered in accordance with the 1929 company law. It was the first project of its kind in Haifa, with a capital of 5,000 shares valued at one Palestinian guinea a share. The advertisement goes on to assure the Arabic public of the solidity of the shares and their high-yield interest, exhorting them to "invest in a bid to reinforce the Arab economic infrastructure." This might seem an insignificant piece of information; its import, however, lies in the fact that it demonstrates a recognition that the film industry forms part of the economic life of nations.
In his well-researched book entitled Palestinian Cinema in the 20th Century, Bashar Ibrahim states that the history of Palestinian cinema dates back to 1935, when Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan filmed a 20-minute documentary about the visit of King Saud to Palestine. Sirhan also produced a film under the title Ahlam tahaqaqat (Dreams Fulfilled), with the participation of the Palestinian singer Sayed Haroun. Two other films followed: Fi laylat el-eid (On the Night of the Feast) and Assifah fil-bayt (A Storm at Home). During those days, Egyptian films were also shown in Palestinian cinemas, notably Ibn al-sahra (Son of the Desert), starring Badr Lama, an artist of Palestinian origin who, in collaboration with his brother Ibrahim Lama, is credited with the founding of Egyptian cinema.


The history of Palestinian literature formed part of the wider literature of the Arab nation. The term "Palestinian literature" was not used until after the end of Ottoman rule and the arrival of European colonialism, with the subsequent division of the Arab world into states and spheres of influence. With the dispersal of the Palestinians, a bulk of their writings was lost - some completely - or perhaps for some reason or another they have not been discovered yet. Only four years ago, I learned of the publication of the poetry of the Palestinian poet Ahmad Hilmi Abdel Baqi, whose poems were found 40 years after his death. This led to the re-drawing of the map of Palestinian and Arabic poetry in the first half of the 20th century, as Abdel Baqi was a distinctive poet who composed all his poetic output in quatrains.


During the 19th century, a great number of translations into Arabic were done by Palestinians. What paved the way were the missionaries and the spread of more than one language - French, German, English, Italian and Russian. Several pioneers in literary translations appeared on the scene, such as the Palestinian dramatist Khalil Beidas, who in 1908 founded the newspaper An-Nafa'es. Others were Salim Qub'ein and Anton Ballan - in addition to the many translators of articles and stories.
In 1889 Khalil Beidas translated three Russian works, among them Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter. Najati Sidqi translated works by Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gorky and Chekov. Translations from the English also appeared by the hands of Ahmad Shaker al-Karmi, who is credited with being the father of translation in the Arab world. The translated output included works from English, French and other languages, namely, Wilde, Melville, Shelley, de Maupassant, Tagore and Twain. Anbara Salam Khalidi translated the epics the Iliad, the Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. Jamil al-Jowzi and Nasri al-Jowzi translated dozens of plays from the English. Adel Zu'aiter, for his part, translated from the French a number of important literary texts by Voltaire, Rousseau and Anatole France, as well as the complete works of the social psychologist Gustave Le Bon. Finally, in 1938, Amin Abu al-Shi'r translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno). All this activity was documented by Hussam al-Khatib in his book about translation in Palestine, where he also notes that the Palestinian newspapers and magazines in the 1930s were full of translations. Research indicates that the number of newspapers and periodicals - literary, political, economic and sports magazines - published in Palestine between 1871 and 1948 reached 190.

Drama and the Novel

Again going back to Khalidi's Before Their Diaspora, we get acquainted with a life filled with dramatic activity. The pioneering figure in this genre was Jamil al-Bahri, a Palestinian dramatist who died in 1930 and has 12 plays to his name. Nasri al-Jowzi wrote 17 plays, Istfan Salem eight plays and Asma al-Toubi four. Before 1948, there were more than 30 Palestinian theater troupes in Jerusalem alone.
The Palestinian novel saw its emergence in the 1920s. Khalil Beidas wrote al-Warath (The Inheritor) in 1920, and also in 1920 appeared the novel al-Hayat Ba'da al-Maout (Life after Death) by Iskandar al-Beit-Jali. But it was only in 1946 that the modern Arab novel made its real appearance, in the form of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's novel Surakh fi-Layl Tawil (A Scream in a Long Night).

Literary Criticism

Among the first Palestinian critics was Rouhi al-Khalidi, who published his book Tareekh 'Ilm al-Adab 'Inda al-Franj wal- 'Arab (A History of the Study of Arab and Foreign Literature) in 1904; it was preceded in 1902 by a booklet entitled Victor Hugo: Batal al-Hurriya wa Sha'er al-Faranciyeen fi-Qarn al- Tase' 'Ashar (Victor Hugo: Champion of Freedom and Poet of the French in the 19th Century). Palestinian criticism later on played an important role in Arabic literature, with two prominent Palestinian critics backing the Modernist movement in poetry; they were Ihsan Abbas and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. The arrival in 1948 of the latter in Baghdad was tantamount to an artistic storm. The Iraqi poet and formal critic, Farouq Yusef, notes that "Jabra dragged with him the thread of his freedom from Jerusalem to Baghdad, to Beirut. And this thread illuminated his artistic life just as a lantern illuminates the dark." Jabra's creative talents and innovative poetry were widely anticipated by his peers. The 1950s bear witness to the important transformation he brought into the artist's outlook on life and, conversely, into society's outlook on art.
One remembers all this on the occasion of the passage of 60 years since the loss of Palestine and, at the same time, appreciates the fact that the Palestinians managed to avoid falling into despondency. Instead, they have been able to come up with artistic and literary achievements, creating an inspiring culture, in spite of the setbacks that have been plaguing them for over 100 years.