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Background: The Intellectuals

In 1930, after thirteen years of British occupation of Palestine, the Director of Education admitted in his report that: "Since the beginning of the occupation, the government has never undertaken to provide sufficient funds for the building of a single school in the country," and in 1935, the government turned down 41% of the applications by Palestinian Arabs for places in schools. In the 800 villages in Palestine there were only fifteen schools for girls and 269 for boys and only fifteen village girls got as far as the seventh elementary grade.

There were 517 Palestinian Arab villages which had neither boys' nor girls' schools and there was not one secondary school in the villages. Moreover, the government "censored books and objected to all cultural links with the Arab world, and did nothing to raise the educational level of the peasants..."50

Thus in 1931 among Palestinian Muslims 251 per thousand males and 33 per thousand females had attended school, and among the Palestinian Christians 715 per thousand males and 441 per thousand females (for Jews the figures were 943 per thousand males and 787 per thousand females.)51

These figures give an idea of the educational situation in the rural areas, but not of that in Palestine as a whole, which had played a pioneering role in education since the start of the Arab resurgence at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, a large number of printing presses had been established in Palestine before the British occupation, about fifty Arabic newspapers appeared between 1904 and 1922, while at least ten more with a wide circulation made their appearance before the 1936 revolt.

A number of factors, which it is not possible to deal with at length here, had made Palestine an important center of Arab culture, and the persistent efforts of intellectuals migrating into and out of Palestine were a basic factor in establishing the cultural role of Palestine and in the establishment of literary associations and clubs which began to appear in the early twenties.

This cultural development, which was constantly fed by a flow of Arab graduates from Beirut and Cairo, was accompanied by an extensive activity in the field of translation from French and English. The foreign missions that were primarily attracted to Palestine for historical and religious considerations, placed a prominent role in disseminating an atmosphere of education in the cities. However, it is not the general cultural climate in Palestine during that period that is of concern to us, but rather, in particular, the influence of the aggravating economic and political crisis on the literary movement. The development of a certain "popular culture" was very significant. It represented a certain awareness that existed in rural areas despite the widespread illiteracy, an awareness that was spurred by the rapidly developing economic and political reality. Popular poetry in particular reflected a growing concern on the part of the rural masses over the course of events. This spontaneous awareness led to a spirit of mobilization in the villages.

The majority of urban intellectuals, for their part, were of a feudal or commercial petty-bourgeois class affiliation. Although they basically advocated a type of bourgeois revolution, the objective conditions were by no means favorable to the development of the class that would logically lead such a struggle. As political activists, they thus remained under the control of the traditional leadership. Their work nevertheless reflected a degree of awareness that, in general, was not shared by their counterparts in other Arab countries.

The struggle between advocates of revolution and reactionaries in the rural areas, and between revolutionary militants and defeatist elements in the cities was developing in favor of the revolution. We do not know of a single Palestinian writer or intellectual in that period who did not participate in the call for resistance against the colonial enemy. There is no doubt that the intellectuals, even though they were not, in general, mobilized by a revolutionary party, played an important role in the national struggle.

The position of Palestinian intellectuals was unique. Having completed their studies and returned to their towns, they became aware of the incapacity of the class they belonged to of leading the national struggle. But at the same time they suffered from their own inability to participate and benefit from the process of industrial development that was essentially controlled by an alien and hostile community. On the other hand, in the rural areas of Palestine, the peasants, who for centuries had been subject to class and national oppression, lived in a most archaic society where local feudal and religious leaders exercised absolute authority. Popular poetry often reflected the submissiveness of peasants*, which the Palestinian intellectuals, and in particular the poets, could not combat easily. Certain intellectuals attempted to overcome the submissive mood of the rural masses and played a prominent role in disseminating progressive awareness.

Wadi al-Bustani, a poet of Lebanese origin who graduated from the American University of Beirut and settled in Palestine, played an important role as a progressive intellectual. He was the first to warn against the Balfour Declaration and its challenges, the very month it was issued. His period (as Palestine was on the verge of armed revolt) produced a powerful vanguard of revolutionary poets whose works became part of the cultural heritage of the masses.** On January 29, 1920, the British Mandatory Government sent a letter to the editor of the cultural magazine Karmel, which was then published in Haifa, requesting the publication of a poem by the celebrated Iraqi poet Ma'ruf Al-Risafi that was dedicated to the British High Commissioner and that praised and eulogized him along with a Jewish speaker called Jehuda. The editor agreed to publish it along with a reply to it. Al-Bustani wrote the reply in the form of a poem which said the following:

    "Juda's" speech? Or acts of witchcraft? And Rasafi's saying? Or lies of poetry
    Your poetry is of the choicest words, you are well-acquainted with the jewels of sea verse
    But this sea is one of politics, if justice spreads high its low tide begins
    Yes! He who has crossed the Jordan River is our cousin but he who comes from across the sea is suspicious.53

This long poem, which became very famous at the time, was in fact a unique political document; it not only made Al-Risafi look a fool, but also asserted, even at that early date, political facts of great importance. It not only mentioned Jewish immigration and the danger it constituted, but also the role played by Britain in fragmenting the Palestinian Arabs, the Balfour Declaration, and its implications, etc.

A short time before this, on March 28th 1920, Al-Bustani had himself led a demonstration, which chanted a song that he had composed himself. He was summoned to an inquiry, and the following appears in the records of the inquiry conducted by the Public Prosecutor:

    Public Prosecutor: Statements have been made that you were carried shoulder-high, and that you said to the people who were following behind you: "Oh Christians, Oh Muslims".
    The Accused: Yes.
    Public Prosecutor: And you also said: "To whom have you left the country?"
    The Accused: Yes.
    Public Prosecutor: Then you said: "Kill the Jews and unbelievers."
    The Accused: No. That violates the meter and the rhyme. I could not have said that. What I said was both rhyming and metrical. It is called poetry.54

In the subsequent periods poetry played an increasingly important role in expressing, on all sorts of occasions, feelings of the helpless masses. Thus, when Balfour came from London to attend the opening ceremony of the Hebrew University in 1927, the ceremony was also attended by Ahmad Lutfi al-Said, as the delegate of the Egyptian government, and the poet Iskandar al-Khuri wrote the following lines addressed to Balfour:

    "Running, from London you came to stir the fire of this battle
    Oh Lord I cannot blame you for you are not the source of our misery.
    For Egypt is to be blamed as it only extends to us empty hands."***

Ibrahim Tuqan, Abu Salma (Abd al-Karim al-Karmi) and Abd al-Rahim Mahmud were, since the beginning of the thirties, the culmination of the wave of nationalist poets who inflamed the whole of Palestine with revolutionary awareness and agitation. As'af al-Nashashibi, Khalil al-Sakakini, Ibrahim al-Dabbagh, Muhammed Hasan Ala al-Din, Burhan al-Abbushi, Muhammed Khurshid, Qayasar al-Khuri, the priest George Bitar, Bulos Shihada, Mutlaq Abd al-Khaliq and others.

The work of these three, Tuqan, al-Karmi and Mahmud, displays an extraordinary power of appreciation of what was going on, which can only be explained as a profound grasp of what was boiling in mass circles. What appears to be inexplicable prophecy and a power of prediction in their poems is, in fact, only their ability to express this dialectical relationship that linked their artistic work with the movement that was at work in society.

The fact that we have concentrated on the role played by poetry and popular poetry does not mean that other manifestations of cultural activity in Palestine did not play any role, or that their role was insignificant. Literary newspapers and articles, stories and the translation movement all played a significant pioneering role. For example, in an editorial published by Yusuf al-Isa in Al-Nafa'is in 1920, we read: "Palestine is Arab - its Muslims are Arab - its Christians are Arab - and its Jewish citizens are Arab too. Palestine will never be quiet if it is separated from Syria and made a national home for Zionism. . ."

It was expressions of this kind at the beginning of the twenties that fashioned the revolutionary cultural tide in the thirties, which was to play an important role in promoting awareness and sparking off the revolt - writers such as Arif al-Arif, Khalil al-Sakakini (a mocking writer of fiery prose, and son of a master carpenter), As'af al-Nashashibi (a member of the upper bourgeoisie who was influenced by al-Sakakini and adopted many of his views), Arif al-Azzuni, Mahmud Saif al-Din al-Irani and Najati Sidqi (one of the early leftist writers who, in 1936, extolled the materialism of Ibn Khaldun and deplored idealism.) He was probably the first chronicler which the Arab nationalist movement had from the beginning of the renaissance who used a materialist analysis of events. He published his researches in Al-Tali'a in 1937 and 1938: Abdullah Mukhlis (who in the middle thirties started calling for the view that colonialism is a class phenomenon, and maintaining that artistic production must be militant), Raja al-Hurani, Abdullah al-Bandak, Khalil al-Badiri, Muhammad Izzat Darwaza and Isa al-Sifri (whose eulogy of the death of al-Qassam had a profoundly revolutionary significance.)

This effervescence in the Palestinian cultural atmosphere which reached its climax in the thirties, was expressed in a variety of forms, but for many reasons related to the history of Arabic literature, the greatest influence was always exercised by poetry and popular poetry.

This alone explains the role which poetry took upon itself in this period, which was almost direct political preaching.

Ibrahim Tuqan, for example, commenting on the establishment, in 1932, of the "national fund" to save land in Palestine from being sold to the Zionists (this was the fund established by the feudal-clerical leadership on the pretext of preventing the land of poor peasants from falling into the hands of the Zionists) says: "Eight of those responsible for the fund project were land brokers for the Zionists."

As early as 1929, Ibrahim Tuqan disclosed the role that the big landowners were playing in connection with the land problem:

    "They have sold the country to its enemies because of their greed for money; but it is their homes they have sold. They could have been forgiven if they had been forced to do so by hunger, but God knows that they have never felt hunger or thirst."

    "If only one of our leaders would fast like Gandhi - perhaps his fast would do some good. There is no need to abstain from food - in Palestine a leader would die without food. Let him abstain from selling land and keep a plot in which to lay his bones."55

In the same year, Tuqan had written his epic on the death sentences passed by the Mandatory Government on the three martyrs, Fuad Hijazi, of Safad, and Muhammad Jumjum and Ata al-Zir of Acre. This poem became extremely famous, and came to be regarded as part of the revolutionary heritage, like the poem of Abd al-Rahim Mahmud written on August 14, 1935 in hich he addressed the Amir Saud who was visiting Palestine:

"Have you come to visit the Aqsa Mosque, or to say farewell to it before it is destroyed?"

This poet was to lay down his life in the battle of Al-Shajara in Palestine in 1948, but before that he was to play a prominent role, along with Abu Salma and Tuqan. In laying the foundations of Palestinian resistance poetry which later, under Israeli occupation, was to become one of the most conspicuous manifestations of the endurance of the Palestinian masses.

Poetry and popular poetry accompanied the mass movement frm the early thirties, expressing the developments that preceded the outbreak of the revolt.

The poem of Abu Salma, in which he chronicled the 1936 revolt, courageously describes the bitter disappointment caused by the way the Arab regimes abandoned it:

    "You who cherish the homeland revolt against the outright oppression
    Liberate the homeland from the kings liberate it from the puppets. . .
    I thought we have kings that can lead the men behind them
    Shame to such kings if kings are so low
    By god, their crowns are not fit to be shoesoles
    We are the ones who will protect the homeland and heal its wounds."

Mention must also be made of the popular poet "Awad" who, the night before his execution in 1937, wrote on the walls of his cell in Acre a splendid poem ending with the lines:

    "The bridegroom belongs to us; woe to him whom we are fighting against - we'll cut off his moustache with a sword. Shake the lance with the beautiful shaft; where are you from, you brave men. We are men of Palestine - welcome with honor.

    "Father of the bridegroom, do not worry, we are drinkers of blood. In Bal'a and Wadi al-Tuffah there has been an attack and a clash of arms. . . Oh ye beautiful women sing and chant. On the day of the battle of Beit Amrin you hear the sound of gun-shooting, look upon us from the balcony."56

The anger felt against all three members of the enemy trinity - the Zionist invasion, the British mandate and Arab reaction, both local and otherwise, grew constantly as the situation grew more critical.

At that time the countryside, with the escalation of the conflicts and the outbreaks of armed uprisings, was developing its new awareness through the contacts of its "cultural" elements, with the towns and the multiplication of factors inducing such awareness:

"Good people, what is this hatred? A Zionist with a Westerner?"57 and "the gun appeared, the lion did not; the muzzle of the gun is wet with dew," or: "His rifle, with the salesman I say my heart will never rest till I buy it His rifle got rusty from lack of use but still longing for its fighter."

Indeed, the inflammatory call to revolt went to such extraordinary lengths that, after all the inherited proverbs which counseled submissiveness, and constituted a lead with the infallible authority of traditions, popular poetry suddenly became capable of saying: "Arab, son of weak and poor woman, sell your mother and buy a gun; a gun will be better than your mother when the revolt relieves your cares."58

As the conflict became more and more acute, the "gun" was to become the instrument which destroyed the age-old walls of the call to submissiveness and suddenly became able to pierce the heart of the matter, and the revolt became the promise for the future - better than the warmest things in the past, the mother and the family.

But over all this effervescence the patriarchal feudalism was ossified with its impotent leadership, its authority and its reliance on the past.

In the midst of these complicated and heated conflicts, which were both expanding and growing more profound, and which mainly affected the Arab peasants and workers, although they also pressed heavily on the petty and middle bourgeoisie and the middle peasants in the country, the situation was becoming ever more critical, expressing itself in armed outbreaks from time to time (1929-1933). On the other hand, the Palestinian feudal-clerical leaders felt that their own interests too were threatened by the growing economic force - Jewish capitalism allied with the British Mandate. But their interests were also threatened from the opposite quarter - by the poor Arab masses who no longer knew where to turn. For the Arab urban bourgeoisie was weak and incapable of leadership in this stage of economic transformation which was taking place with unparalleled rapidity and a small section of this bourgeoisie became parasitic and remained on the fringe of Jewish industrial development. In addition both their subjective and objective conditions were undergoing changes contradictory to the general direction Arab society was pursuing.

The young intellectuals, sons of the rich rural families, played a prominent role in inciting people to revolt. They had returned from their universities to a society in which they rejected the formula of the old relationships, which had become outdated, and in which they were rejected by the new formulas which had started to take shape within the framework of the Zionist-colonialist alliance.

Thus the class struggle became mixed, with extraordinary thoroughness, with the national interest and religious feelings, and this mixture broke out within the framework of the objective and subjective crisis which Arab society in Palestine was experiencing. Due to the above, Palestinian Arab society remained a prisoner of the feudal-clerical leaderships. In view of the social and economic oppression which was the lot of the poor Palestinian Arabs in the towns and villages, it was inevitable that the nationalist movement should assume advanced forms of struggle, adopt class slogans and follow a course of action basd on class concepts. Similarly, faced with the firm and daily expressed alliance between the invading society built by the Jewish settlers in Palestine and British colonialism, it was impossible to forget the primarily nationalist character of that struggle. And in view of the terrible religious fervor on which the Zionist invasion of Palestine was based, and which was inseparable from all of its manifestations, it was impossible that the underdeveloped Palestinian countryside should not practice religious fundamentalism as a manifestation of hostility to the Zionist colonialist incursion.

Commenting on the emergence of the Black Panther movement in "Israel," the leftist Hebrew-language magazine Matzpen (No. 5, April 1971) says: "Class conflicts in Israel sometimes tend to take the form of confessional conflicts. Class conflicts, even when translated into the language of confessionalism, have from the start lain at the heart of Zionism." Of course this statement applies to an even greater extent to the role played by religion against the Zionist incursion, as being a form of both national and class persecution. For example: "One of the results of Zionism was that celebrations of the Prophet's Birthday were turned into nationalist rallies under the direction of the Mufti of Haifa and the poet Wadi' al-Bustani and were attended by all the Christian leaders and notables, not a single Jew being invited. In this way, saints' days, both Muslim and Christian, became popular festivals with a nationalist tinge in the towns of Palestine."

The feudal-clerical leaderships proceeded to impose themselves at the head of the movement of the masses. To do this they took advantage of the meagerness of the Arab urban bourgeoisie, and of the conflict which was, to a certain extent, boiling up between them and British colonialism, which had established its influence through its alliance with the Zionist movement; of their religious attributes, of the small size of the Arab proletariat and the meagerness of its Communist Party, which was not only under the control of Jewish leaders, but its Arab elements had been subjected to oppression and intimidation by the feudal leadership ever since the early twenties. It was against this complicated background, in which the interlocked and extremely complicated conflicts were flaring up, that the 1936 revolt came to the forefront in the history of Palestine.


*Examples of such proverbs: He who eats from the Sultan's bread, strikes by his sword; Let no grass grow after mine; Today's egg is better than tomorrow's hen (A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush);When we started selling coffins people started dying; The most severe of pains is the present one; He runs after the loaf of bread and the loaf of bread runs before him; Life goes well with the well to do.52

**According to Taufiq Ziyad, a resistance poet in occupied Palestine (Nazareth): "Our revolutionary poetry (Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim and myself) is an extension of the revolutionary poetry of Ibrahim Tuqan, Abd al-Rahim Mahmud, Mutlaq Abd al-Khaliq and others...because our battle is an extension of theirs." (On Popular Poetry, Dar al-Thawra, p.15)

***Taufiq Ziyad described this poem in the following words: "I have not known a poetry work equivalent in the strength, sacrifice and bravery in this great poem." (from Literature and Popular Literature, Dar al-Awda, p. 30).