Sunday, February 17, 2013

Palestinians at Sea

The Ship (al-Safīnah)
by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

The ‘ship of fools’ has been an important allegory in Western art and literature for at least five hundred years. Typically involving a pilotless ship packed with fools of every kind, it is the story of a journey to nowhere, an apologue, a parable, that has been traced to actual practice in Renaissance Europe. As described by Michel Foucault in his book Madness and Civilization, there was a tradition—no one knows how rare or widespread—of ridding a city of its lunatics by crowding them onto a ship then turning it out to sea.  

I first really learned of this allegory when I happened upon a copy of Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 novel, Ship of Fools, a story about a motley collection of Mexicans, Germans, Americans, and Jews bound from Veracruz, Mexico, aboard a German freighter called the Vera, to Europe on the eve of World War II—a journey to nowhere indeed! Clearly Jabra Ibrahim Jabra had something similar in mind when he wrote The Ship, if with some bold and compelling variations. Set shortly after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, what Palestinians refer to as ‘The Catastrophe’ (النكبة, an-Nakbah), the novel follows an assortment of Palestinian exiles—writers, professors, artists, and intellectuals, as well as a smattering of Lebanese, Iraqis, and Europeans—on a journey aboard the passenger ship Hercules as it plies the Mediterranean en route to London.  Drinking, dancing, debating, declaiming, the travelers pass their days in a state of restless limbo, a sort of floating Purgatory between East and West, neither here nor there.  Into this crucible Jabra pours all of the hopes and dreams, all of the anger, frustration, and despair of the Palestinian people, as well as that of the Arab world itself.  According to translators Adnan Haydar and Roger Allen, “Palestine is the microcosm of the Arabs’ defeat, of their failure to determine their destiny in their own lands.  The fall of Palestine in not an incidental event; it is the tragic fall of the whole Arab world, a product and a result of Arab acquiescence in a reality before which they are helpless.  Palestine is the land, the soul to be reclaimed…” 

What is so striking about Jabra’s novel, The Ship, about his particular version of the allegory, is that for all its nods to the West, its rich and numerous allusions to classical Greece and nihilism, to Bach, Freud, Goethe, Balzac, Eliot, Le Corbusier, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Thomas Aquinas, the novel hardly feels Western at all.  For we read also—and to equal effect—of Ibn al-Arabi, Ahmad Shawqi, and the Arab history of Palestine, hear the haunting, incomparable voice of Umm Kulthum. Told from a variety of perspectives, in a series of dramatic, sometimes internal monologues, the novel feels far more like a modern version of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights than a remaking of Porter’s Ship of Fools.  Distinctly Arab in style, distinctly Palestinian in longing and grief, the novel represents a dexterous bridging of East and West that springs directly from the identity of the author himself.  Born to a Syriac Orthodox Arab family in Bethlehem in 1919, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra came to be one of the finest ambassadors of his time between the Arabic and European worlds. Novelist, poet, translator, sculptor, painter, art collector, playwright, and critic, his work and interests knew no boundaries. Sadly, as noted by the late Anthony Shadid in a 2010 article for The New York Times,His [Jabra’s] secular notion of identity has withered before the ascent of sectarian and religious forces.  In an asymmetric conflict, at times cartoonish, an aggressive West faces a seething East.” 

Here, to round things out, is one of Jabra’s best-known poems:

In the Deserts of Exile

Spring after spring,
In the deserts of exile,
What are we doing with our love,
When our eyes are full of frost and dust?
Our Palestine, green land of ours;
Its flowers as if embroidered of women’s gowns;
March adorns its hills
With the jewel-like peony and narcissus;
April bursts open in its plains
With flowers and bride-like blossoms;
May is our rustic song
Which we sing at noon,
In the blue shadows,
Among the olive trees of our valley
And in the ripeness of the fields
We wait for the promise of July
And the joyous dance amidst the harvest.
O land of ours where our childhood passed
Like dreams in the shade of the orange-grove,
Among the almond-trees in the valleys—
Remember us now wandering
Among the thorns of the desert,
Wandering in rocky mountains;
Remember us now
In the tumult of cities beyond deserts and seas;
Remember us
With our eyes full of dust
That never clears in our ceaseless wandering.
They crushed the flowers on the hills around us,
Destroyed the houses over our heads,
Scattered our torn remains,
Then unfolded the desert before us,
With valleys writhing in hunger
And blue shadows shattered into red thorns
Bent over corpses left as prey for falcon and crow.
Is it from your hills that the angels sang to the shepherds
Of peace on earth and goodwill among men?
Only death laughed when it saw
Among the entrails of beasts
The ribs of men,
And through the guffaw of bullets
It went dancing a joyous dance
On the heads of weeping women.
Our land is an emerald,
But in the deserts of exile,
Spring after spring,
Only the dust hisses in our face.
What then, what are we doing with our love?

When our eyes and our mouth are full of frost and dust?

*Translated by Mounah Khouri and Hamid Algar

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920 – 1994) (Arabic: جبرا ابراهيم جبرا) was a Palestinian author born in Bethlehem at the time of the British Mandate. Educated in Jerusalem and, later, at Cambridge University, he settled as an exile in Iraq, in Baghdad, following the creation of the State of Israel.  An internationally renowned writer, artist, and cosmopolitan, he distinguished himself in the Arab world with his critically acclaimed  translations of Shakespeare, Chekov, Eliot, Beckett, Faulkner, Camus, Wilde, James Frasier, La Fontaine, Edmund Wilson, and Dylan Thomas.  The Ship is published by Three Continents Press.  Also noteworthy is Jabra’s novel In Search of Walid Masoud published by Syracuse University Press.
Note: The house that Jabra built in Baghdad (complete with his beloved orange trees, library, and art collection), a home in which for more than forty years he played host and mentor to artists, writers, and intellectuals from around the world, was destroyed in a car bomb attack in 2010.

*Photograph of Jabra’s house by Holly Pickett for The New York Times
* Detail of painting ‘Ship of Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch (painted c. 1490–1500)

Peter Adam Nash


  1. may i know who is the writer of this article?

    1. All posts on this blog, save one, were written by either Ovitt or Nash, and all are signed.