Salma Khadra Jayyusi (b. 1923 in Salt, Jordan) was a notable Palestinian poet, writer, translator, and anthologist. She founded the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA), which published numerous anthologies, novels, and poetry collections by Arab writers, translated for English-speaking audiences.
Salma Khadra Jayyusi
Childhood and Education
Jayyusi spent much of her childhood and youth in Acre and then in Jerusalem: She attended al-Ma’muniyya School there for elementary school and Schmidt’s Girls High School in Jerusalem, graduating in 1941.
She pursued her education in Lebanon, first at the Beirut College for Women and then at the American University of Beirut (AUB), where she studied Arabic and English literature and graduated in 1945. She returned to Jerusalem and taught at the Teachers College for Women in Jerusalem.
Marriage, Early Career, and Children
In 1946, Jayyusi married Burhan Kamal Jayyusi, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin and fellow student at the AUB who studied political science. A diplomat, he worked at the Jordanian Consulate in Jerusalem until 1947, when he moved to Jordan; she moved with him. The next spring, one of her most beloved students, Hayat Balbisi, was killed during the Deir Yassin massacre on April 9, 1948, at the age of 18. This deeply affected Jayyusi; she mentioned Balbisi in various articles.
Jayyusi’s diplomat husband was subsequently transferred to Rome, Madrid, Baghdad, and London, and during that time she studied, wrote, and translated while raising their three children—Usama, Lena, and May. Living in Baghdad in the 1950s, her knowledge of Arabic literature and especially poetry grew deeper. The Jayyusi family returned to Amman after the 1958 revolution in Iraq. Three years later, they moved to Kuwait where she became involved with Palestinian women’s groups.
She received her PhD in Arabic literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, in 1970. Her dissertation was titled “Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry.” She would expand this study in later years and publish it with Brill in two extensive volumes in 1977 totaling more than 900 pages. The Jerusalem academic, scholar, and literary translator Issa J. Boullata described her work as “one of the best historical and analytical studies of Arabic poetry of the last hundred years.”1
Her son and firstborn, Usama, passed away in 2015 at age 68; they had been especially close, as she shared in a 1986 poem called “To Usama”: “Without your presence / All time of day and night are void.”2 In an interview some years later, she described Usama’s death as “a bitter blow that overshadowed everything.”3
Jayyusi worked in radio and journalism briefly before she began her academic career, teaching Arabic literature in various parts of the world. From 1970 to 1973, she taught at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, and then at the University of Algiers in Algeria from 1973 to 1975. In 1973, she was invited through the Middle East Studies Association of North America to give a lecture tour in Canada and the United States. She addressed students at 22 universities in North America and had an opportunity to establish a role in academic circles and return to the US in 1975 as a visiting professor of Arabic literature. She first taught at the University of Utah and later at other universities in Michigan, Washington, and Texas.
Writing, Editing, Translating, Publishing
She published her first book of poetry in 1960, titled Returning to the Spring of the Dreamer (also translated as Return from the Dreamy Fountain). Her style was prose poetry.
In the 1960s, she translated various works from English to Arabic. This included the translation of Louise Bogan’s Achievement in American Poetry, 1900–1950 (1960), Ralph Barton Perry’s The Humanity of Man (1961), Archibald MacLeish’s Poetry and Experience (1962), and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.
Jayyusi took it as her mission to encourage the wider dissemination of Arabic literature and culture to English-speaking readers. She was deeply dismayed that so few Arabic literary works had been translated into English and by the weak methodology evident in those that had been translated. She was angered that her generation, raised during the British Mandate of Palestine, had no awareness whatsoever about the rich Arab culture and folklore. The education they received focused on the accomplishments of the West; education of Arab civilization and culture was absent.
In 1980, Jayyusi founded the Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA) with the aim to bring Arab culture to the broader world and to provide the best translation of Arabic literature into English. Initially, the director of Columbia University Press, John Moore, invited Jayyusi to prepare a comprehensive anthology of modern Arabic literature. With the support of the university in New York, and later with funds from the Iraqi Ministry of Information and Culture, she completed and published the Arabic poetry encyclopedia, and then launched PROTA. Her involvement was intense and deeply committed:
Jayyusi closely followed the progress of PROTA and worked with tens of translators, editors, and researchers in the western and Arab worlds. The project had no official headquarters, and her homes in Boston, London, and Amman (in addition to the hotels where she stayed) served as the project office.4
It produced encyclopedias on Arab and Islamic civilization, anthologies of novels, plays, folktales, and novels. It also published important translations of poetry authored by influential Arab poets including Nizar Qabbani, Muhammad al-Maghout, and Aboul-Qacem Echebbi.
At the ceremony in which she received the Zayed Book Award for her substantial contribution to Arabic literature and culture (see below), Jayussi explained what motivated her:
it was a great hurt in my heart to see that we were not known anywhere in the world because our language was not translated, our work was not exposed to museums and galleries, and I thought that this all has to change. So I left everything and started work on that.5
As founder and director of PROTA, Jayyusi edited more than 30 works, and supervised the publishing of more than 50. This includes massive encyclopedias of Arabic literature, such as the anthologies published by Columbia University Press (1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, and 1994) of modern Arabic poetry and an anthology on modern Arabic drama (Indiana University Press, 1995).
Jayyusi edited The Legacy of Muslim Spain. This two-volume work included contributions from more than 42 specialists in Europe, the US, and the Arab world and covered all aspects of the Islamic civilization in Andalusia. Published in 1992 by Brill, this book is the first ever to compressively cover all major aspects of Islamic civilization in medieval Spain. This collection was later translated to several languages and caught the attention of the King of Spain.
In 1990, Jayyusi founded her second project, East-West Nexus, which focused on Arab and Islamic culture and aimed to make scholarly work on Arabic civilization and cultural achievements available in the English language through academic conferences and literary events. In 1997, it began a project for Jerusalem, which generated books on the city’s history and experience. Here we highlight two works from that project. My Jerusalem: Essays, Reminiscences, and Poems, published in 2005, includes accounts of writers, artists, and poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Etal Adnan, and Kamal Boullata, on their relationships to and connections with Jerusalem. Jerusalem Interrupted: Modernity and Colonial Transformation 1917–Present, published in 2015, was edited by Lena Jayyusi and includes essays describing socioeconomic conditions in Jerusalem during the mandate and the transformations that took place after 1948.
Combined, PROTA and East-West Nexus produced “more than fifty volumes, eleven of which had an encyclopedia nature.”6
Pain over Jerusalem
Jayyusi edited Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, which was published by Columbia University Press in 1992. The comprehensive work offers the widest selection ever compiled of modern Palestinian literature, with works by more than 70 Palestinian writers, including Emile Habiby, Sahar Khalifah, Mahmoud Darwish, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and Fadwa Tuqan. The anthology includes 232 poems, 25 short stories, and 14 excerpts that relay narratives of occupation, displacement, imprisonment, and resistance before, during, and after 1948.
On writing about Jerusalem and Palestine in general, and about the Nakba in particular, she called attention to the resistance as well as sacrifice of Palestinians and the great pain of being uprooted from their homeland:
Palestinian writers’ greatest struggle and greatest victory is their refusal to be helpless victims of humanity in the second half of the twentieth century. Although they never stop feeling their people’s suffering, they exhibit endurance that transcends tragedy and necessity. This is what defined the direction and tone of contemporary Palestinian literature . . .
Palestinian writers are unable to flee the events of today’s history, which engulf them even before they are born. They can’t change their memories, rearrange their relations that go beyond random events, or choose what they liked about their past. They have become permanent exiles: eternal strangers who encounter challenges of all sizes and shapes.7
Awards and Honors
Jayyusi was described by Ahdaf Soueif as “the undisputed doyenne of Palestinian letters.”8 She was the recipient of a myriad of prestigious prizes, including from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1991, the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) in 1996, the Kuwait Ministry of Culture in 2002, the Higher Council for Culture in Egypt in 2006, the Algerian Ministry of Culture in 2007, the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Saudi Arabia (specifically, the Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz International Translation Prize) in 2008, and al-Ahliyya University in Amman in 2009.
That same year, she also won the Radius of Arab American Writers Edward Said Award for Career Excellence. At the event in New York in June, Mariam Said handed the award to her and mentioned how her late husband had admired Jayyusi’s work, particularly The Legacy of Muslim Spain.
In 2019, Jayyusi received the Jerusalem Medal by the Palestinian Minister of Culture, Atef Abu Saif, at the Jordanian Writers’ Society. The prestigious medal was awarded to her in appreciation for her work in introducing Arab literature and culture to the world, and for the great contribution in enriching Palestinian and Arab culture. Jayyusi received the award in tears, noting that Palestinians will remain the compass and living heart of the Arab cause and its future.
In April 2020, Jayussi received the annual Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s Cultural Personality of the Year Award. This award has been referred to as “the Arab world’s equivalent to the Nobel prize.”9 In 2023, she received the Mahmoud Darwish Award for creativity.
Jayyusi died on April 20, 2023 in Amman, just four days after her one-hundredth birthday.
Returning from the Dreamy Fountain. [In Arabic.] Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1960.
Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1977.
Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
The Literature of Modern Arabia: An Anthology. London: Kegan Paul International in association with King Saud University, 1988.
Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
The Legacy of Muslim Spain. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1992.
[Coedited with Roger Allen.] Modern Arabic Drama: An Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Beyond the Dunes: An Anthology of Modern Saudi Literature. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
My Jerusalem: Essays, Reminiscences, and Poems. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2005.
Human Rights in Arab Thought: A Reader. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.
Classical Arabic Stories: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Ali, Yasser. “Salma Khader al-Jayyusi Launches Palestinian Poetry to the World.” [In Arabic.] Arabi21. January 29, 2022.
Allen, Roger. “PROTA: The Project for the Translation of Arabic.” Middle East Studies Association of North America Bulletin 28, no. 2 (1994): 165–68.
Bedirian, Razmig. “The Fascinating Life of Palestinian Poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi: ‘My Poems Are about Being Human.’” The National News. April 16, 2020.
“Dr. Salma al-Khadra al-Jayyousi.” Sultan Bin Ali al-Owais Cultural Foundation. Accessed March 7, 2023.
Hassan, Salah. “Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature.” Middle East Report, no. 189 (1994).
Hlehel, Ala. “The Eternal Strangers: Palestinian Literature from within the Green Line.” Translated by Hind Husseini. This Week in Palestine, no. 297 (2023): 63–66.
Nashwan, Hussein. “In Her Ninth Decade, al-Jayousi Receives the Medal of Culture, Science and Arts.” [In Arabic.] Al Jazeera. June 19, 2019.
“RAWI Presents Salma Khadra Jayyusi the Edward Said Award for Excellence.” [In Arabic.] al-Dustur. June 8, 2005.
“Salma Khadra Jayyousi.” All 4 Palestine. Accessed March 7, 2023.
“Salma Khadra Jayyusi.” Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestinian Question. Accessed March 8, 2023.
“Salma Khadra Jayyusi.” [In Arabic.] Noor Library. Accessed March 8, 2023.
“Salma Khadra Jayyusi—Palestine.” Takreem Foundation. Accessed April 5, 2023.
Sheikh Zayed Book Award. “Sheikh Zayed Book Award Announces 2020 Winners of One of the World’s Most Lucrative Literary Prizes.” April 8, 2020.
Stewart, Ashleigh. “Sheikh Zayed Book Award: Palestinian Poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi among 2020 Winners.” The National News, April 15, 2020.
Soueif, Ahdaf. “Art of Resistance.” Guardian. October 21, 2006.
Zayed Book Award. “Meet the Winners of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.” [In Arabic.] YouTube. May 3, 2020.
[Profile photo: courtesy of May Jayyusi]
As quoted in Razmig Bedirian, “The Fascinating Life of Palestinian Poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi: ‘My Poems Are about Being Human,’” The National News, April 16, 2020.
Bedirian, “Fascinating Life.”
“Salma Khadra Jayyusi.”
Ala Hlehel, “The Eternal Strangers: Palestinian Literature from within the Green Line,” trans. Hind Husseini, This Week in Palestine, no. 297, (2023): 63–66.
Ashleigh Stewart, “Sheikh Zayed Book Award: Palestinian Poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi among 2020 Winners,” The National News, April 15, 2020.