Topographies of Literary Estrangement in Haifa

By Drew Paul
Submitted to Session P4676 (Environment, Space & Time in Literature, 2016 Annual Meeting
Israel; Palestine;
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The city of Haifa, which was majority Palestinian until its incorporation into the new state of Israel in 1948, an event that led to the flight of many of its Palestinian inhabitants, has retained a significant Palestinian minority population and has long functioned as both a cultural and political center of Arab life in Israel as well as a reminder of what was lost in 1948. This political and cultural history has of course shaped literary representations of Haifa over time. Many of these engage with the changing political and cultural topography of the city, from the strange new Hebrew names Ghassan Kanafani’s character encounters after 20 years of absence in Return to Haifa (1970), to Emile Habiby’s iconic novel The Pessoptimist (1973) in which the protagonist mistakenly believes that authorities in the new Jewish state have changed the name of his beloved city from “Haifa” to “Israel.” These depictions attest to the confusion, displacement, and alienation produced by a changing and newly hostile political, physical, and linguistic urban landscape.
This presentation considers the relationship of Haifa’s literary-geographical heritage to a contemporary depiction of the cityscape, a 2012 novel by Ibtisam Azem entitled The Sleep Thief: A Haifa Stranger. This work depicts the estrangement experienced by its Arab inhabitants of Haifa, through its main character, who faces arrest and interrogation for an imagined crime. This character’s experience of estrangement is even inscribed in his name, Gharib Haifawi, the literal meaning of which is “a Haifa Stranger,” so chosen because his mother’s nostalgia for her home city. However, Azem’s novel also paradoxically uses this estranged relationship with Haifa to range beyond the borders of a particular neighborhood or even house that confined earlier works. I argue that she instead claims the entire city as her character’s domain, as he roams across the city’s beaches and mountains. I draw on writings about place and estrangement by Hoda Barakat, Michel Foucault, and Marc Auge to show that the pre-condition of estrangement – imposed upon Gharib from the moment of his birth – actually opens up the city’s many topographies to this character. This reading allows us to consider estrangement not simply as the expression of loss but also as a starting point for imagining modes of engagement with different types of spaces.