Early in his newly published essay, Figures du Palestinien, identité des origines, identité de devenir, Elias Sanbar explains that though he has long wanted to produce a book on Palestinian history and identity he has, up to now, been frustrated in his search for an appropriate form for the book to take. Even before deciding on the form and possible content of the book there was the question of what to call it, only resolved by chance encounters with a film by Joseph Losey and a painting by Francis Bacon, both entitled Figure(s) in a Landscape and both asserting a relationship between individuals and the landscapes containing them.
Sanbar’s “figures” are those of Palestinians at three historical moments and set against three different landscapes: as part of the Ottoman empire until 1918, under the British mandate until 1948, and, following the creation of the state of Israel, as refugees, obliged to force themselves on world attention if historical Palestine, and with it Palestinian identity, were not to be forgotten. Palestinian identity, Sanbar suggests, is a matter of tracing Palestinians through these formative moments of their history, in so doing short-circuiting a debate on historical precedence — who was in Palestine first — the terms of which can have nothing to do either with righting present injustices or with illuminating Palestinian or Israeli identities.
The author or editor of a good half dozen books on aspects of Palestine, most recently a collection of photographs and images of Palestine and Palestinians from 1839 to the present, Sanbar is also founder and editor of the French-language Revue des études palestiniennes, perhaps the pre-eminent forum for discussion of all aspects of Palestinian history and society. His 2001 memoir, Le Bien des absents (Absentees’ Property), presented key episodes from his autobiography, from his family’s fleeing Palestine in 1948 when Sanbar was only 15 months old, to a life spent in exile but one closely involved with the Palestinian cause. This background gives the present book its authority, as Sanbar’s most elaborate statement on Palestinian history and identity to date, and it will find a wide and appreciative audience.
The first part, or “figure”, of the book, “People of the Holy Land,” describes nineteenth-century Palestine, when the area was part of the Ottoman empire. Like other Ottoman-controlled areas, Palestine was accorded a deal of local autonomy, at least until reform efforts, known as the tanzimat, attempted to assert central Ottoman control in the second half of the century. Also like other areas controlled by the Ottoman state, Palestine was the object of intrigue by the European powers, chiefly Britain, France and Russia, feeding off Ottoman weakness and eager for influence at each other’s expense, this jostling for influence bearing a religious inflection that was absent, for example, in Anglo-French rivalry for control of Egypt.
Indeed, it was the religious significance of Palestine for the European powers, when combined with Ottoman weakness, that determined the country’s future. Sanbar shows how the European habit of seeing in Palestine a land ripe for “redemption,” ignoring its actual inhabitants, paved the way for later colonial control and for a Zionist project of return to a “land without people.” While the nineteenth-century European search for biblical origins in the Arab regions of the Ottoman empire was not confined to Palestine, contributing, for example, to archaeological ventures in what is now Iraq, in Palestine the search was a particularly intense one and carried with it the habit of seeing the Palestinian population as a vestige of Ottoman administration ready to be replaced by a resurrected Israel.
As early as 1838, British protestant writers were promoting the idea that this part of the Ottoman empire should be awoken from its “oriental slumbers” through British intervention and sponsorship of a proto-Zionist cause of constructing a Jewish state in Palestine. However, nineteenth-century Palestine was far from slumbering, and Sanbar reveals the extent of the changes that transformed Palestinian society in the course of the century. From being a predominantly rural society organized around local centres where families of local notables held sway, Palestine by the end of the century was integrated into the world economy, notably through the thriving ports of Jaffa and Haifa, and it had gained a conception of itself as an Arab society distinct from the empire of which it was a part.
This development of Palestinian national consciousness is a theme of the book’s second section, “Arabs of Palestine,” which examines Palestinian history from the end of Ottoman rule until the close of the British mandate and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Betrayed by the British at the beginning of the period, when the former Arab provinces of the defeated Ottoman empire were carved up and awarded as mandates to the European powers, the Palestinians were then awarded a double whammy: not only were they now to live under formal European control, negating efforts towards self- determination, but they were also to live in a sense on borrowed time, one nation having, in Arthur Koestler’s words, “solemnly promised the territory of another to a third.”
Sanbar, quoting Koestler’s observation, goes on to examine the famous 1917 “Balfour Declaration,” in which this promise was made. Taking the form of a letter from the then British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild of the Zionist Federation, it said that the British government would “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
As Sanbar points out, this text does not promise the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, only of a “national home,” and it sees the establishment of this home as being carried out under British administration and control. There is a guarantee of the rights of “non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” though this pointedly avoids speaking of a Palestinian nation, as Koestler does. Nevertheless, British colonial control of Palestine after 1918 and the British promise contained in the Balfour Declaration meant that the Palestinians were obliged to struggle not only for self-determination and against colonial control, but also against a threat of another kind specific to their situation and not shared by neighbouring Arab countries also fighting for independence.
Sanbar’s third “figure” is the “Invisible Palestinian, the Absentee,” his text exploring the Palestinian condition after 1948 and recalling meditations on visibility and absence already broached in his memoir Le Bien des absents. For Sanbar, the challenge after 1948 was one of fighting loss through a heightened effort of memory and through an effort to make Palestine continuously visible, not least to Palestinians themselves. Living in exile, Palestinian writers produced inventories of what had been lost, one of the earliest of which, Mustapha Mourad al-Dabbagh’s ten- volume Biladuna Filastina (Our Country Palestine), was “the reconstitution down to the smallest detail of a swallowed-up society.”
Commenting on the work of Palestinian writers, both inside and outside of Israel, including Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Tuquan, Ghassan Kanafani and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Sanbar notes that their role has been in large part to ensure the “existential re-emergence of the Palestinian people.” In addition, the fact that such figures, among the best known of all Arab writers, also played a key role in the modernisation of Arab intellectual life in general and not just in keeping alive the link between Palestinian past and present, links them to the role the Palestinians have long played in suggesting new horizons for politics and society in the Arab world as a whole and not just in Palestine.

Book: Figures du Palestinien, identité des origines, identité de devenir (Figures of the Palestinian: Identity of Origins and Identity to Come),
Author: Elias Sanbar,
Publisher: Paris: Gallimard, 2004. pp299
Reviewer: David Tresilian