The Other Wells: Family History and the Self-Creation of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra
national identity
In Remembrance
1919 - 1994

The Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (né Chelico) was born in Adana in the French Mandate of Cilicia on 28 August 1919. Jabra’s Syriac Orthodox family survived the Sayfo genocide and probably hailed from the Kurdish-speaking Syriac village of Midën in Tur Abdin, in northern Mesopotamia. In the early 1920s, the Chelico family immigrated to Bethlehem, where Jabra grew up. Jabra was a consummate autobiographer who wrote two autobiographies, six autobiographical novels, and dozens of personal essays. Yet he never revealed his family’s history in Tur Abdin, his birth in Adana, and his immigration to Palestine as a child. In this article, the author exposes and contextualizes biographical facts that Jabra concealed. Tamplin analyzes Jabra’s two autobiographies – The First Well (1987) and Princesses’ Street (1994) – and his novel In Search of Walid Masoud (1978) in light of these revelations to argue that Jabra’s project of “self-creation” (Neuwirth, 1998) extends well beyond his first autobiography. Moreover, Jabra’s lifelong project to propel traditional, collectivist Arab society into modernity by valorizing individual experience precluded other possible sources of identity, such as family history, from compromising Jabra’s sense of modern Palestinian national identity. The author proposes new directions in which to take Jabra criticism, such as trauma studies. Until the full range of concealed facts about Jabra’s life is exposed, literary biographers and critics of Jabra should regard his work with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Author biography: 

William Tamplin is a visiting fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, where he earned his PhD in 2020. The author would like to thank Alex Winder, Salim Tamari, and the small army of people who helped him with this article: Roger Allen, Hanna “Jan” Beth-Sawoce, Alexander Chelico, Linda Chelico, Nabil Chelico, John Cleaver, David Gaunt, Sadeer Jabra, Abigail Jacobson, Caroline Kahlenberg, George Kiraz, Justin McCarthy, Butrus Ni‘meh, and the three anonymous reviewers.