“The urgency to tell the Palestinian story to the world and to keep reminding Palestinians of their own story is crystallizing at this moment” – 5in10 with Sanabel Abdelrahman

Sanabel Abdelrahman holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Studies, focusing on magical realism in Palestinian literature, from Philipps-Universität Marburg. She completed her BA and MA at the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at EUME at the Forum Transregionale Studien 2023/2024 in Berlin. Sanabel co-founded the Berlin-based Nidalat initiative for teaching about Palestine and is co-editor of the FUNNY POLITICS publication. She is a bilingual writer of essays critiquing art and literature as well as fiction. She is interested in contemporary art and film.

Sanabel Abdelrahman

1. How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?

I work on Palestinian magical realism in literature. I use the literary mode as a guiding light for the spaces of hope and resilience in the face of occupation, alienation, negation, and erasure, and as a potent tool for imagining better, liberated futures.

In my studies, I approach magical realism as a literary mode used by colonized and post-colonized nations to resist imperial plunders of indigenous peoples’ physical spaces, memory, culture, and collective identity. I focus on traditional forms of knowledge, such as oral history (focusing on how folktales resist settler-colonial oppression) and connections to the land through folklore, literature, and everyday practices. I apply this to the Palestinian case under Israeli settler-colonialism.

I constantly seek to connect these topics to broader ones. The interdisciplinary nature of my research opens the space for cross-links with other works of literature, including African-American and Latin-American literature. I often draw links between the Palestinian struggle and others, such as black liberation, indigenous sovereignty, Latin-American post-colonialism, and Western hegemony in seemingly ‘innocuous’ mediums such as the archive, art exhibitions, television shows, and pedagogy. This is mainly because I approach literature as a potent, organic entity capable of imagining and reifying liberation. The theoretical grounds of my research are similarly varied: spatial studies, history theory, political philosophy, and literary critique.

Magical realism, often identified as a solely Latin-American literary genre, has been under-researched within the Arabic, especially the Palestinian context. In my research, I focus on how magical realism, with its strands of surrealism, political Gothicism, science fiction, fantasy, and absurdism, resists the ongoing ramifications of the Nakba (Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948) manifested in the destruction and mutation of physical structures (including Palestinian bodies) as well as metaphysical ones such as identity, memory, the empirical senses, temporality, and hope. I use recurring figures and tropes from Palestinian folktales and contemporary literary works such as ghosts, mythical creatures, dreams, and nightmares, as well as processes such as concretization (tammadī), metamorphosis, resurrection, animacy, and the intentional distortion of linear temporality to expound the magical-realist impetus.

I investigate these phenomena to build hopeful and liberated Palestinian futures and their materialization in the physical world. This intersects with the future work I intend to do on alternate cartographies, political magic, fables, oral histories, land knowledge, and other related popular and magical meanings and applications.

During my EUME fellowship, I build on the premises of magical realism in Palestinian literature, introducing other frameworks to understand not only the Palestinian settler-colonial context, but also the postcolonial one within geographies of indigeneity such as in Turtle Island (colonial name: Canada). I expand the “eco-surrealism” that I propose based on my research to explain instances of surrealism that reflect the Palestinian connection to the land within magical-realistic frameworks and the evolution of this connection from the dichotomy man-land (as woman/lover) to surrealist connections and possibilities. Women glued to the land or metamorphosed into parts of the tree, with branches growing from their shoulders and mythical-human creatures living inside the rocks and the sea reflect this eco-surrealistic relationship between Palestinians and their land.

“Pleasures in the Vivarium”, Photo: Sanabel Abdelrahman

I have also been investigating the potentialities of liberated futures that would prompt interconnecting Palestinian and indigenous futurisms. I linked notions around a potential future Palestine with the potentialities of magical realism by drawing from the past (popular tradition) to construct an image of the future. The term indigenous futurism refers, broadly, to the artistic and cultural practices used to carve out future spaces of the sovereignty of indigenous peoples- usually while drawing on traditional beliefs and practices.

Commonly, indigenous futurisms are tackled within speculative fiction frameworks, which I delved into through climate fiction or cli-fi, which broadly refers to literary and visual arts that revolve around climate change – a burgeoning field in which indigenous sovereignty and futurisms are increasingly being embedded. This link also opens for a more comprehensive inclusion of broader anticolonial/postcolonial/indigenous contexts and feminist frameworks.

In the future, I would like to delve more into object animism, or life in inanimate objects, which recurs in Palestinian folktales, as in the life and souls inside rocks, pots, scissors, needles, and even drops of blood. I will study how these instances are performances of agency and transmaterial solidarities.

2. What intrigued you when you started your academic journey?

Even before starting my doctoral research, I have been immensely interested in novel and alternative ways to tell the Palestinian story. A nuanced and painful one, the Palestinian story has, since 1948, manifested in myriad literary, cinematic, and other artistic mediums. The urgency to tell the Palestinian story to the world and to keep reminding Palestinians of their own story is crystallizing at this moment, as tens of thousands of Palestinians pay an unfathomable price to insist on their right to live. The study of Palestinian literature was how I have contributed to this urgency.

After acquiring my undergraduate and master’s degrees from Toronto (Tkaronto) in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, I was certain that I wanted to focus on literary topics, but I was not certain about the subject matter or context. Having the opportunity to do independent research in Germany, I was thrilled to be able to investigate a rarely researched topic and delve into it as deeply as I had wished for. For all those reasons, I chose to examine the potentialities of magical realism, one of the most compelling and kaleidoscopic modes to tell the Palestinian story.

My academic journey is inseparable from the other dimensions of my life. As a writer of fiction and essays, I am constantly revisiting the topics of my academic research in more creative and interdisciplinary ways. My writing practice provides me with a rich and vast space to ponder many research questions I frequently have about literature. For example, I have written extended features on topics such as the practices of the archive, Amal Dunqol’s invisible flâneur, the poetics of solitude in European and Arabic poems, Naji al-Ali’s potent spaces in his political cartoons, and other essays reviewing books, art exhibitions, and independent Arabic movies.

In addition to my writing practice, I regularly participate in various art and research projects to which I contribute with texts, film and digital photographs, and audio clips. I have been invited to write exhibition texts and reviews, read my poetry, give teach-ins about radical imaginations, participate in audio art, curate films, and submit photographs. I find these experiences particularly rewarding, not only because they make me a better academic who is active and mobile in the non-academic world but also because they allow me to connect with artists, writers, and other cultural workers who are doing incredible work that set a fulfilling experience of thought-provocation, imagination, and inspiration at multimodal levels.

In addition, I use writing and photography to explore the magical-realistic impetus in domestic and revolutionary spaces. I approach magical realism as a tool that illuminates the places of distortion and one that challenges this distortion by opening potent spaces for Palestinian agency, collective struggle, dreams of liberation, and hope.

3. What were formative encounters or challenges?

Whenever I would revisit many important Palestinian literary works and read emerging ones, I was constantly left with a feeling of despair that projected a bleak image of the future for me as a Palestinian. I was sure there must be another, more hopeful and powerful way to tell the Palestinian story without losing sight of the struggles and tragedies of reality: the past and the present. I refused to believe that the Palestinian imagination was to be held hostage by the oppressive demands of the material reality.

“Ghostly Invitations”, Photo: Sanabel Abdelrahman

Then, I noticed a pattern: almost all my favorite works of fiction (Palestinian and otherwise) were written within the same spirit. Lebanese writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s novel Le Fils Empaillé (al-Ibn al-Muṣabbar- The Stuffed Son), Syrian novelist Ghada al-Samman’s novel al-Riwāya al-Mustaḥīla: Fusayfisāʼ Dimashqiyya (The Impossible Novel: Damascene Mosaic), Jordanian novelist Ghaleb Halasa’s al-Bukāʼ ʻala al-Aṭlāl (Crying Over the Ruins), and American novelist Toni Morrison’s Beloved all shared a rare poeticism and agency in the face of postcolonial remnants and legacies. That was magical realism at work. Upon revisiting some of the same Palestinian works, I realized that the manifestations of the literary mode were discernible and powerfully prominent. That is when I decided to trace magical realism in Palestinian literature and, later, in other fields like film and visual arts.

4. What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?

I expect much from the humanities, social sciences, and academic practice. In the lecture halls, conferences, and solitudes of reading, writing, and thinking critically as academics, a great power to affect the world is in our hands. Unfortunately, much of the vital work that the humanities can do in criticizing oppression, empowering the populace, providing tools for understanding the world, building communities, bringing to the fore marginalized histories and struggles, emphasizing the emancipatory power of literature and the arts, is often abandoned in critical, historical moments of struggle.

The most flagrant example of that is the ongoing silencing around the Palestinian genocide, wherein humanizing Palestinians in those spheres is viewed as sufficient to put a dent into the academics’ careers.

I hope that in the future, we will witness the direly needed reversal of that and the transformation of those fields back into spaces of vital conversation and togetherness.

5. What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?

The movie Dreissig (Thirty), directed by Simona Kostova, is brilliant in its ability to capture the mundanity of everyday life in Berlin in the most literary of ways. It opens an unassumingly festive space for us viewers in this city. Centered around a young man’s thirtieth birthday, a group of friends gather in familiar apartments with unreplicable Berlin interiors. As viewers run together with those 20-somethings in the streets of Berlin, from apartment to bar to another bar to breakfast place, a wondrous image of this city expands. It is the ideal image of Berlin- one that will finally be able to open spaces for everyone, one that is not paralyzed with the polarization and danger of the country’s past, one where Palestinians will feel safe and at home—simply a city to run in with friends, from apartment to bar to breakfast place.


Citation: “The urgency to tell the Palestinian story to the world and to keep reminding Palestinians of their own story is crystallizing at this moment” – 5in10 with Sanabel Abdelrahman, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.01.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50213



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 23. Januar). “The urgency to tell the Palestinian story to the world and to keep reminding Palestinians of their own story is crystallizing at this moment” – 5in10 with Sanabel Abdelrahman. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vnhg

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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