For July 2009 we discussed Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifeh. The book was first published in 1976 and translated into English in 2005, was the first Arab novel to offer a glimpse of social and personal relations under Israeli occupation. Featuring unsentimental portrayals of everyday life, its deep sincerity, uncompromising honesty and rich emotional core plead elegantly for the cause of survival in the face of oppression.
Sahar Khalifeh is an award winning Palestinian novelist who was born in Nablus in 1941. She taught at the University of Iowa and at Palestine’s Bir Zeit University, and founded the Women’s Affairs Centres in Nablus, Gaza City and Amman. Khalifeh’s writing intersects issues of feminism, post/colonial oppression, life under occupation, and the position of the individual in all these registers. Wild Thorns is her third Novel.Her other novels include: “Al-Mirath” (The Inheritance); “Lam Na’ud Jawari Lakum” (We Are No Longer Your Slave-Girls); “As-Sabbar” (The Cactus); “Abbad Ashshams” (The Sunflower); “Muthakkerat Imra’a Ghayr Waqi’yyah” (The Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman); and “Bab Assaha” (The Plaza Gate).
Wild Thorns is available in English at Saqi Books – http://www.saqibooks.com – or – Interlink Publishing -www.interlinkbooks.com/ To order in Arabic: http://www.adabmag.com [00961(01)861633 or firstname.lastname@example.org]
More about Sahar Khalifeh’s Life
Sahar Khalifeh is considered the foremost Palestinian novelist, widely acclaimed for being the first feminist Palestinian writer, and for her “sensitive, economical and lucid” style. She is the most translated Palestinian author after Mahmoud Darwish. Her fame extends beyond Palestinian and Arab borders, as her translations in many languages attest: She was the only author participating in the French organized Palestinian cultural spring in 1997, whose books sold out immediately.
Sahar Khalifeh, a Palestinian from Nablus, a town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was born during the British mandate over Palestine, in 1941. She married at the age of eighteen in 1959 and divorced thirteen years later, leaving a frustrating marriage for an American education in literature and women’s studies. She began writing shortly after the 1967 Israeli invasion of Gaza and the West Bank, and published her first novel in 1974. Her first novel was confiscated by the Israelis, the second was first published in Cairo. Khalifeh completed her secondary education in 1959 in Amman at the Rosary College.
The author began a new life after her divorce and completed a BA in English literature from Bir Zeit University. In 1980 she obtained a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States and obtained an MA in English literature from Chapel -Hill University in North Carolina. She also completed a Ph.D in women’s studies and American literature from Iowa University in 1988. She taught at the University of Iowa and Bir Zeit University, the premier institution of Palestinian higher education. Khalifeh returned to Palestine in 1988, and founded the Women’s Affairs Center in Nablus, which opened a branch in Gaza City in 1991, and in Amman in 1994. She has two daughters, and lives between Amman, Jordan; and Nablus.
Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns”: Themes and Discussion Points
Khalifeh employs a simple, non-polemical prose, that incorporates beautiful evocations of the land and has an integration of flow of thought and dialogue that makes the book seem very real, the expression of events very human. The following are a few points or themes we discussed.
- Much of the post/colonial fiction available to English-speaking readers is written by native historical witnesses; i.e. the author has lived through what s/he writes, or is inspired by events and circumstances occurring in the country of his/her origin. Khalifeh is definitely in this category. Do you feel there is any way to separate the author from the story? Do you feel as though readers often conflate the author/story is an injustice to the writer? Does it add to the story for you?
- Wild Thorns reflects divergent portrayals of Masculinity intersecting with violence. In a paper titled “‘The Effect Guaranteed’: Readings of Palestinian Masculinity in Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns”, Norah Bowman (University of Alberta) explores the “two kinds of masculinity as characterized in Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh’s novel Wild Thorns. In Wild Thorns, the angry protagonist Adil expects Palestinian men to respond to Israeli occupation as either patriots or cowards. Adil associates patriotism with singular violence to self and others and cowardice with discussion, analysis, and weakness. Being a man, therefore, is as much about being enmeshed in cycles of violent retribution as it is about swift action with little or only narrowly focused premeditation. Usama denigrates his cousin Adil for reading the occupation as a complex network of economic, familial and gender relations. Instead, Usama repeats throughout the novel that a Palestinian man must read only one narrative and must focus only on one kind of action.” How does this perspective differ or agree with your reading of the characters?
- Khalifeh clearly explores the polarizing affects of occupation where we see the internal divisions (in prison, against the laborers working in Israel) lead some to turn against family / friends. Moreover, the book is a strong portrayal of the diversity of responses to the situation – the individual is the story.
- Here Khalifeh illustrates the varying responses to Israeli occupation sustained by Palestinians: “surviving” complacently under colonial constraints is contrasted to and informs the insistence on militancy as a necessary venue of resistance. The condition of diaspora is never a totalizing structure for Khalifeh, who crafts each character as a subjective prism. The individual as historical agent is always legible in Wild Thorns; whether in the example of the underground, militant high school students, or the shopkeeper who sells groceries to Israeli soldiers or the village mothers who ululate in solidarity and protest while occupiers bulldoze their homes, Khalifeh allows the reader to hear a chorus of voices in the cacophony of occupation.
- Is an action collusion/collaboration or a necessity for the families to ‘get by’? Economic dependency / oppression is a major controlling factor of the occupation. How do the different characters in Wild Thorns respond to this reality?