Reading Violence in Comparative Literature - Arabic, Trauma, and new frames
The readings below are designed for a guest lecture in a Comparative Literature survey course at the MA level. The literary works are from two generations of Palestinian writers—the national poet Mahmoud Darwish, and the edgy leader of a new generation of writers Adania Shibli—both address the massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps from vastly different perspectives.
Darwish, writing the year after the massacre on a boat leaving Beirut, thinks back to the period of Palestinian resistance in Lebanon. Israeli forces had entered Lebanon and advanced to Beirut. Under the cover of Israeli military protection, the Lebanese Phalangist militia entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and carried out a mass slaughter. With uncountable unmarked mass graves, even the numbers of dead are unclear, ranging from 450-3,500. In his poem, he gives words to the impact of the massacres on Palestinian memory and the future of resistance.
Shibli’s Touch, writes from the perspective of a Palestinian child, who is just learning the meaning of key terms in her history. Her brother is killed, and on the television there are newscasts of Sabra and Shatila. The chapter mulls the words ‘sabra’ and ‘shahid’ – words with multiple meanings that multiply further in the contexts that the child comes across them. Sabra means ‘steadfast,’ it comes from ‘sabr’ –cactus fruit (prickly pear), the giant plant that would grow and demarcate one field from another. Often all that is left from destroyed Palestinian villages, the plant and its name have come to mean a great many things, and is constantly re-defined as Palestine changes and transforms.
Both works set up definitions and create a structure of understanding that integrates the violence of Sabra and Shatila in different ways. We read the texts alongside Stef Craps’ ‘Beyond Eurocentrism,’ which raises the question of ‘trauma’ and its definition. He suggests that trauma as an idea emerged in Europe, was refined in Europe, and responds to European ideas and ideals. When applied to other contexts, Craps suggests, trauma must be re-defined.
Elias Khouy’s paper gives one alternative frame—he suggests that the traditional way of seeing the experience of Lebanese Civil War (as something with a beginning, and end, and a logical telos) is irrelevant and misleading for understanding the ‘war.’
The class asks students—based on the reflections of Craps and Khoury—to read how trauma is being built and understood within the Darwish poem and Shibli chapter. We test out different frameworks, and wonder about possible solutions—possible redefinitions of trauma based on the contexts from which it is experienced.
Mahmoud Darwish – [trans Saad El Kurdi] ‘Sabra and Shatila’ excerpted from the long poem ‘Eulogy for a long shadow’ (1983).
Shibli, ʻAdaniyah – [trans Paula Haydar]. Touch. Northampton, Mass: Clockroot Books, 2010. [Chapter 4 – Language]
Steph Craps – “Beyond Eurocentrism: Trauma theory in a global age” in Buelens, Gert, Sam Durrant, and Robert Eaglestone. The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism. London: Routeledge, 2014.
Khuri, Ilyas. The Novel, the Novelist, and the Lebanese Civil War. Seattle [Wash.: Dept. of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, University of Washington, 2006.