what is a palestinian festival of literature?

apartheid wall, beit lahem with painting of mahmoud darwish
apartheid wall, beit lahem with painting of mahmoud darwish
close up of mahmoud darwish painting on the apartheid wall
close up of mahmoud darwish painting on the apartheid wall

it was the fourth day of the palestinian festival of literature today. the schedule had the group spending the afternoon in aida refugee camp and a friend of mine at badil was doing the logistical organizing so i asked him if i could join them and he said yes. i had to be a bit unobtrusive, however, as i learned that problems emerged today. there were three journalists who have been accompanying the writers to document the festival: one from electronic intifada, one woman from a singapore newspaper, and one woman from the new yorker. apparently ahdaf soueif decided that there are “the writers” and then there are “writers.” journalists, apparently, fall into the second category. so although they had been traveling with the group for the past few days, they were not allowed to come to the camp.

i walked to the camp, but the writers were behind schedule so i went to the lajee center where the program in the camp would begin. as i walked to the camp i noticed this new art on the apartheid wall. i guess it has been there a while, but i had not noticed it before. it is a painting by a french painter of mahmoud darwish (i cannot recall his name, but if someone knows please remind me). the same painting is in several different public spaces in palestine including in manara square in ramallah, in the garden at the khalil sakakini centre in ramallah, and before the front door of the lajee center. it is a reminder of darwish’s powerful presence in the psyche of palestinians. it is also a reminder of the importance of poetry in palestinian culture. one would never see such a tribute paid to an american writer. i cannot image any american writer being mourned and memorialized the way that darwish is here.

view of apartheid wall and gilo colony from aida refugee camp
view of apartheid wall and gilo colony from aida refugee camp

the lajee center has moved since the last time i was there. they have a much bigger space now and their building has a view of the apartheid wall as well as the gilo colony nearby on the land of beit jala. when the group finally arrived they came up for a presentation that started with two of the digital resistance project by children in aida camp that i’m actually writing about in the chapter i’m working on right now. the first is from a girl named abeer and the second from a girl named kholoud:

a couple of people talked about the camp and what it means to be a refugee and then the group went downstairs to view a photo exhibit produced by the children. then a brief walking tour of the camp began. it concluded with a dabke performance at al rowwad center in aida camp.

nathalie handal in aida refugee camp
nathalie handal in aida refugee camp
suheir hammad in aida refugee camp
suheir hammad in aida refugee camp
al rowwad dabka performance
al rowwad dabka performance

as i observed this visit to the camp i thought about the narrative being told about an nakba and about colonization in palestine. about the words chosen. about bearing witness. about what it means to be told these stories. about the responsibility of the listener who hears those stories. about how it affected these writers. one writer, henning mankell, who fell asleep while onstage during the first night’s performance in al quds, appeared as if he could barely stand being in the camp today. before the tour even began he stated loudly, “i’ve heard enough,” and left the group. while possibly he had jet lag the first night, and perhaps today he was tired, this outburst was extremely rude and deeply offensive to those who heard it.

i’m not sure what could have offended mankell. actually the language seemed quite mild to me. a lot of these writers are new to the subject of palestine and for most of them this is their first trip here. when internationals come here i think it is important for them to understand that when they learn about the colonies like gilo that they can see swallowing up palestinian villages like beit jala, they also need to understand that those are not the only colonies. they need to understand that villages like beit jebreen or zakariya are also colonies that occupy the land where palestinian refugees in aida camp–or any other camp for that matter–come from and where they have a right of return to. i wish that part of this trip had included not just the camp visit, but also a visit to a couple of the original villages with a couple of the kids from the camp. they could have conducted a writing workshop in that context and both the internationals and the youth from the camps could have composed poems or narratives about the village, about what it means to be a refugee. indeed, going to villages with refugees is the most powerful, awe-inspiring experience one can have in palestine. and helping give voice to palestinian refugees who wish to narrate their stories about an nakba and their right of return is essential, especially given the fact that the zionist entity is trying to make it illegal for palestinians to mourn this annual historical event marking their dispossession:

The Israeli cabinet ministers approved on Sunday a draft law banning the commemoration of the Nakba, the Arab word for catastrophe.

Palestinians mark their Nakba every year on the 15th of May as this the day when Israel was created after hundreds of Palestinians were killed and the majority of the people living in that territory lost their homes and became refugees.

The draft law will be submitted for Israeli parliamentary approval next week. If this law will pass people can face prison sentences up to three years. About 1.2 million Palestinians live inside Israel and thus constitute a minority of around twenty percent.

Dr. Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the Israeli Parliament told IMEMC over the phone that this law shows the real face of Israel. “This is a stupid, racist and very rude law that is unprecedented in the world. This law will control the feelings of people. It’s a rude law in particular because Israel has expelled our people and destroyed our villages, and then now they want to steal our cry of pain from us.” Dr. Zahalka said.

The draft bill was brought forward at the instigation of the radical ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman, now Israel’s foreign minister.

During the Israeli elections of 2009, Yisrael Beitenu, now holding 15 of the 120 seats in parliament, targeted Israel’s Arab minority during the election campaign, adopting the slogan “No Citizenship without Loyalty”. Nadeem Nashif, President of the Association for Arab Youth, Baladna, a Palestinian NGO in Israel, told IMEMC that this law, if it will pass, will not stop the commemoration of the Nakba

“We will continue to commemorate the Nakba, no one can force use not to do so, for us it is an important part of our history and heritage. As we commemorated the Nakba in the past will do it in the future.” Nashif said.

On Monday Israeli media reported that three Labor ministers declared their intention to appeal the approval by the ministerial panel.

Israeli Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, and Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman said the draft bill will damage the freedom of expression and freedom of association.
The draft legislation has sparked up a lot of controversy in the Israeli society as well.

“To what level of stupidity can they sink?” said Dr. Eyal Gross, a constitutional law expert at Tel Aviv University as quoted in Israeli media, “it’s the kind of law that tries to make everyone think the same way. I don’t know of any similar laws in any democratic country.”

According to Gross, despite the fact that the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union has fallen, it seems that someone in the Knesset longs for the days in which there was only one truth, that was dictated by the government

The bill is expected to pass as the Israeli government holds the majority in the Israeli parliament.

At the same time Lieberman’s party has put forward another controversial draft legislation to the ministerial committee. The proposal calls for an amendment to the Citizenship Law. It states that people who refuse to state their willingness to serve in the army or perform alternative service will not be entitled to Israeli citizenship, as Yisrael Beiteinu also put forward in its election slogan.

The draft also includes an oath of allegiance: “I pledge to be loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state, to its symbols and values, and serve the state, as required, in military service, or alternative service, as stated by the law.”
The amendment to the law also suggests that signing this declaration would be conditional in order to obtain an identity card in Israel. It determines that the state would be allowed to cancel the citizenship of a person who did not fulfill any of the described duties.

In Israel the Palestinian population is exempted from compulsory military service. In recent years the discussion has come up that Palestinian Israelis, instead of doing military service, should be engaged in alternative civil services, to serve the Israeli state in a different way.

As with the Nakba ban proposal the criticism on this draft proposal is that it limits the freedom of expression and it damages the basic principles of democracy.

robin yassin-kassab, claire messud, jamal mahjoub, michael palin
robin yassin-kassab, claire messud, jamal mahjoub, michael palin

after the visit to the camp i went to a coffeeshop with some friends until the reading for tonight began. there i learned from one of the journalists covering this trip that the criteria for being chosen is just whether or not they are famous. not what they will do after. not whether or not they have feelings or even curiosity about palestine. the subject tonight was “literary representations of migration and travel” and included claire messud, michael palin, robin yassin-kassab, and jamal mahjoub. for most of the discussion, as well as this literature festival more generally, i kept wondering: what is the point of this festival? is it merely a literature festival in palestine? it certainly isn’t a palestinian literature festival. yet again the bulk of the panel discussion had nothing to do with palestine even though the theme of the panel was about a subject that is very much related to palestine and yet it took quite some time before the subject was brought up. i feel like palestinian writers–here and from abroad–should be included in every one of the panel discussions, in part to inject the subject of palestine into the context. suheir hammad and nathalie handal should be included in these panel discussions; they are the only palestinian writers on the tour and yet, from my perspective, seem totally marginal in terms of how much we in the audience have heard their voices (nathalie has yet to do a reading of her poems).

robin yassin-kassab was the only one to bring up palestine–in relation to suad amiry’s talk the other night–in relation to the changing landscape in palestine in relation to his countries of origin, britain and syria. meanwhile claire messud brought up salman rushdie’s book imaginary homelands without ever connecting it to the very real aspirations for palestinians and their right to their homeland. and this is after spending an afternoon in a refugee camp. at one point my friend abed asked them a pointed question about what they will do after their trip here, but they seem to side step the question. i also asked a similar question, but made mine particularly pointed especially because there was someone in the audience with an american accent who identified himself as “living in israel,” which almost made me lose it; i took off my sandal wanting to throw it at him. so my question began with a statement that made it clear that whether it was gilo they were looking at or the apartheid wall: it is not about this recent confiscated land and that those villages they heard about today are every bit as much colonies as those we can see from the camps. and then i asked them what will they do when they go home? will they use their voices? their pens? pressure their governments (u.s. and u.k.)? these are people who have people’s attention far more than someone like me: what will they do with their voices? will they speak about the right of return for palestinian refugees? or will this just be an experience they had and that’s the end of that? messud directed me to the mission statement of the festival which reads as follows:

Palfest brings writers and artists from around the world to Palestinian audiences. It initiates and organizes cultural festivals with international and local participation. It organises workshops with students in Palestinian academic institutions in co-operation with Palestinian academics.

clearly this statement is working overtime trying to be apolitical. but the problem is coming here one cannot be apolitical as even the pope found out when he visited aida refugee camp. if they are here to help palestinian students and academics, why not do so in a way that can help them in literary and political ways? why not invite anti-colonial writers–ngugi wa thiongo’ comes to mind–who can share not only their art and craft, but also their political experience with people here? why not bring people who can talk about literature and resistance? moreover, who is this festival for? none of the events so far have had translation and all of the speaking has been in english. those who speak english well enough to attend such events are necessarily going to be from predominantly elite families. so is this a festival only for the elites of palestine?

and, by the way, the last question of the evening was about the cultural and academic boycott campaign (only two of these authors is signed onto the cultural boycott: victoria brittain and ahdaf soueif).

even the palfest blog is disappointing in terms of the kinds of things that the writers are observing. but not suheir hammad. never suheir. she posted something today about her day in ramallah:

….h, i, j, k, l.

between “k” and “l” no thing. air. space.

a walk. a wall. a walk.

raja shehadeh is a walker and a trail blazer, but not a tour leader. we walked and climbed and slid and sometimes crawled through the hills in our city slicker clothes. we held each other’s hands as we made ways up and then down. thorns everywhere. settlements on highest ground, and the sun behind clouds. sumac and zaatar and maramiya growing. terraced hills.

the israeli settlers from nearby colonies get to walk in these hills unmolested. the palestinians do not. the beauty and energy of the land, i imagine, has no political motivation, unless the desire to be loved and appreciated is political. it is here.

i wonder if soil has heart. i wonder if blood, sweat, and tears do feed roots and flower fruit. if the earth itself has memory, and can she remember, somehow, all those who came and planted and ate here. especially, as i struggle through the climb, i think of the women in traditional gear, expected roles, climbing with broad steady feet these steps in the hills. i wonder if some people are walking phantom limbs looking for home.

*suad amiry this evening talks about how she gets lost in the west bank, when once she knew it like her hand. so many checkpoints and detours where once there were open roads. “space and time here is not what you think,” she says and i understand. what once took 20 minutes now takes ten times the time. where there was space to plant and even bbq and picnic, there is now…the space is still there but it’s no longer accessible. so “here” and “now” mean different things in this place.

*in ramallah i get to see many friends who come out for the festival’s evening event. i ask them each, how has the year been, and the answers are the same, and in an order. first they respond, “alhumdilallah” or something like it, meaning “thank god/all good”. then they ask how i am. then i ask again and the answer is something along the lines of “not bad”. ask again, and the truth comes, and the truth here, now, is beautiful and hard, like the land we walked.

*there is a wall.
here is a land.
now is the time.
the people are here.
still.

7 thoughts on “what is a palestinian festival of literature?

  1. Marcy – I understand your anger at Zionism, but I fear you are misfiring here. Part of this has to do with understanding how literature as opposed to political activism works. You can’t demand an immediate response from a novelist as to how they are going to use the experience of visiting Palestine or what they are going to do to help, because experience takes time and transformation before it becomes literature. Discussing culture and literature is not the same as making a political speech. I do both, Iknow both are important, and I know they are very different. And what would be the point of making a political speech to a Palestinian audience.

    To an extent, of course part of our reason for being there was simply to do a literature festival in palestine. What’s wrong with that? Palestinians told me that it gave them a breath of normality that helped them to survive. If you live in London or Tel Aviv you can go out for an evening and hear someone telling funny stories and relax. Why shouldn’t you be able to do that in Palestine? Michael Palin didn’t directly address politics, but the Palestinians I spoke to were delighted that he had come and seen the situation, and that they had had a chance to hear him speak.

    Is it really true that the journalists travelling with us were stopped by Ahdaf from visiting the camp, or is it just a rumour? I know that Ahdaf is very concerned to get as much media coverage as possible. Ahdaf, by the way, is a tireless campaigner for Palestine, who has written essays and articles, who organises Palfest unpaid, who has translated and promoted Palestinian writers in the West.

    Of course I agree there should be a response from the writers, and I’m sure it will come, from everybody who participated, in the medium and long term in their fiction, and in some cases more immediately, in journalism.

    Henning Mankel’s comment may have been rude. I didn’t hear it myself. But I was with him in the Aida youth club, where he asked pertinent questions, took notes, and was obviously very moved. He left because he was exhausted. On our first night, when we were closed down, he alerted his contacts in the Swedish media. Sweden was therefore the country where the closure was best reported.

    Claire Messud feels passionately about Palestine. She is writing a piece on the festival for Newsweek. Probably her piece wont be as radical as a piece you or I might write, but still, she’s clearly an ally. A very major, very well-known writer who sympathises with Palestine. I wonder who it helps to sneer at her?

    The Bethlehem event most certainly did have translation. I could see and hear the translator while I was on stage, and had been consulted beforehand about what I would read if I had time. You needed headphones to hear. Also, when we did do readings from our work, we were careful to read from excerpts that had been translated into Arabic in the festival book which was available free of charge at the venues.

    I was pleased to do workshops with students at Bir Zeit and in the poorer al-Khalil university, so we did meet non-elite Palestinians.

    The criteria for selecting a writer is certainly not ‘whether or not they are famous’. I am not famous, yet I was selected. I know a couple of writers who are more famous than me, one who is very famous, who want to go but have not yet been asked.

    Several of the writers had extensive experience of battling apartheid in south africa, and many of those who had not been to palestine before are very knowledgable indeed about the issues. Having spent a week with these people, I must say I don’t recognise them from your description. I worry that misdirected anger is making you pick fights with your allies. This reminds me of a classic mistake of infantile leftism, which squanders energy insisting on ideological purity, and which ends up creating irrelevant groupuscules when we need the widest possible alliance to fight the huge forces ranged against us.

    1. thank you for your thoughtful response, robin. for me, even as a literature professor, i do not separate politics from literature. i read and i use literature as a tool of resistance along the lines of people like chinua achebe and ghassan kanafani who rightfully argued that armed resistance and cultural resistance go hand in hand. i am not asking that these writers transform their literary works into tools for the struggle to end the colonization of palestine per se, but i am asking that they sign up for the cultural boycott, actively campaign on its behalf, and use their voices and writing in some way that helps to change the situation so that palestinian refugees are finally given their right of return. i am also not saying that writers should come here and necessarily give political speeches. but i found it odd that there could be panels–like the one on family–in which it seems never to occur to anyone on the panel to add into the discussion the plight of palestinian families from an nakba or the current ways in which families are forcibly separated from one another to offer a couple of examples. i asked such a question at that panel and most people who came up to me after the panel told me they were quite disappointed with the responses.

      certainly palestinians, like anyone else, deserve the right to hear literature and have entertaining events hosted in their country. but part of what i’m saying here is: what is a palestinian festival of literature. the names seems to me to be rather misleading. this is why i feel like a title like “a literature festival in palestine” might be more appropriate. but i also feel like the people i know who attended events with me, who are not a part of palestinian elite society, were quite annoyed at the way in which they, too, felt the festival was not related to palestine. they wanted to hear from outsiders reflections on their national literature and impressions these writers had about their country and the situation they find themselves in. my friends are quite used to foreigners coming, looking, learning, and then doing nothing. my friends, like me, feel that people–especially those with access to a large audience–should commit themselves to saying and doing something to help their cause.

      as far as journalists are concerned, i heard from two palestinian friends, one journalist, one not, who were at the lunch when the journalists were kicked out. they told me the same story that day after the tour of aida refugee camp was finished. and they told me the same story separately. in fact, i was supposed to meet one of those friends at the restaurant but was advised to go directly to aida because my friend said that ahdaf would likely kick me out too if she saw me join your group. i was on my way to the restaurant when i was informed of this. so for me i don’t see this as a rumor given that two people whom i trust and know quite well told me what happened.

      i have read ahdaf’s work on palestine and quoted it here on the blog and think that she does some good work; i am pleased to know, too, for example, that she is a signatory to the cultural boycott statement that john berger issued a few years ago. at the same time, i heard several stories, again from close palestinian friends of mine, about the way she treated them; indeed one refused to get on the bus again with you all because this friend was sick of being bossed around by her. it’s one thing to lend your voice and political solidarity to people; it is another to treat them poorly. it seems to me that she does a great job engaging with the elite, but among ordinary refugee friends of mine they had quite another story to tell.

      if henning mankell was tired that is entirely understandable. my point about him is that there is a different way of excusing oneself when one is tired. but his comment was loud and heard by a few refugee friends of mine who were deeply offended by it. i was as well.

      i don’t know much about claire messud, but as a witness to all the evening events i certainly never heard any indication that she is an ally. if she is that’s great. i hope she’ll sign the american boycott statement, though she was rather silent when that was brought up in bethlehem.

      if the bethlehem event had translation it certainly wasn’t made clear. i have several friends whose english is rather weak and they left because they didn’t see any headsets. i wasn’t looking for them myself, but my comment was in relation to friends who did not have access to translation and this barrier made them feel even further that this event was entirely for elites.

      as for the statement about criteria for the event–this was a direct quote that ahdaf told one of my palestinian journalist friends covering the event. i wasn’t there, but this is what was told to me.

      i’m sure you know these writers far better than me and if they are truly allies and act publicly in that way in the future that’s terrific. but as a blogger these were my impressions, most of which were shared by my palestinian friends who attended these events with me.

  2. I’m not accusing you, by the way, of being an infantile leftist (I think that was Lenin’s phrase), just drawing a parallel. Similarly, I worry sometimes about angryarab’s attacks on potential allies, even if I agree with everything he says.

    1. funny that you bring up as’ad, who is a friend of mine. one of the many reasons why i left the u.s. permanently is because i grew sick of compromising and i feel that the real struggle is here. not only in palestine, but in this region. and i do have high standards and expect people to act. i see my allies as those who are committed to anti-colonial resistance. most of my friends who live here in this region feel the same way.

  3. I don’t want to get bogged down here in an argument between people that should be allies but you’re making some factual mistakes that need correcting here:

    1. In response to the journalist’s being asked to leave. When the group was touring Bethlehem we had swollen to an unmanageable size, and it was becoming a hindrance to the day. So, at lunch, we asked that the journalists traveling with the group, and also our guides and other fellow travelers leave the authors to go to the camp alone. This was so that the we could see as much of the camp and hear from as many of the people working there as possible without having to manage 40 people.

    This was a decision taken by myself and Victoria Brittain. Ahdaf had nothing to do with it. So I think that you could spare the needlessly vituperative hearsay as it seems that what begun as an politico-ideological critique of the festival has turned into something more personal.

    2. Translation was available at every event, except when we were shut down by the army and the equipment couldn’t be moved to the new venue.

    3. As far as aiming at the elites of Palestine, it should be noted that the festival toured to both Jenin and al Khalil. And the only reason we didn’t come to your university, Nablus, was because your exam schedule changed.

    The PalFest team have worked tirelessly to put this festival on, and its done entirely out of solidarity and the desire to do something about the situation. You have had my email address for a long time – if there is a conversation about the organisation of the festival you’d like to have, then let’s have a conversation and let’s have it in private.

    1. thank you for clarifying some of the details, omar. i don’t really see that it matters who asked the journalists to leave, however. for them they felt like distinctions were being made betweeh “THE writers” and the journalists, who, of course, are also writers.

      while it is good to know that there was translation at every event except those in al quds because the zionist colonist terrorist army shut you down, i also think that if this is true, then why is it that not only my friends never saw any translation equipment, but also the people sitting around us. in ramallah and in beit lahem all the people i sat around were sitting next to people who were translating for them. this says to me that if there was translation equipment, it certainly wasn’t marked very well.

      as for the elitism issue: i am not talking about location. every city in palestine has its elites like everywhere else. have you not seen mounib masri’s enormous palace overlooking the city of nablus? it is not about where you went, but who you engaged with and how you engaged with them differently. yes, it’s great that you went to meet with students in khalil and in jenin: but you did not do any evening performances there, for instance. personally, i find that problematic.

      i know that many of you worked tirelessly to put this festival on and that it is done in the spirit of solidarity. but i do have observations about the kind of solidarity that i witnessed and that friends who spent more time working with your group shared with me.

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