What they talk about when they talk about Palestine

Notes from ten years of the Palestine Festival of Literature.

 |  4-minute read |   27-07-2017
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What purpose do literary festivals serve? Some claim they’re simply celebrity carnivals, and the love of books and reading is a private affair; many others believe that opportunities for writers and readers to meet, and assemblies devoted to writing and reading, are invaluable.

One such festival, though, is unique in its mission. For ten years now, the annual Palestine Festival of Literature has celebrated, in Edward Said’s words, “the power of culture over the culture of power.” Ahdaf Soueif, one of the founders, calls it a “cultural roadshow”: “people should not have to cross checkpoints to come to a PalFest event; PalFest would cross the checkpoints to reach its audiences.”

Thus, it’s a festival that moves, in more ways than one, with writers and organisers travelling across cities such as Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Haifa and Nablus. Since participants have to face the onerous barriers and checks involved in such passages, it’s also been called “the Iron Man of literary festivals.”

palfest_072717014129.jpgPhoto: Publishing Perspectives

From its inception in 2008, over 200 writers from all over the world have participated in readings, discussions, workshops and seminars. Now, to commemorate its first decade, a selection of essays and poems from 47 of them have been collected in an anthology, This Is Not a Border: Reportage and Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature. These are views and deliberations from those who have sought to overcome artistic and mental blockades.

As Omar Hamilton, trustee, producer and writer, puts it: “Lack of access to art, culture and education is a form of restriction. We wanted to do what we could to support cultural life in Palestine, and to put on a festival that would be taken for granted anywhere else.” Maath Musleh echoes this: “Do we put a hold on culture, on joy? Or on protests and confrontations? No. Events like PalFest keep us going. They add much-needed colour to our lives.”

Unsurprisingly, words such as “surreal” and “Kafkaesque” crop up in these reports; not surprising too are the accounts of delays and detainment while travelling through the bridges, walls and gateways that must look so easy to cross on the map.

Time and again, in these “fragments of what I’ve seen with the eyes of the heart”, as Mercedes Kemp puts it, one hears of the hospitality and fortitude of the beleaguered people. In Deborah Moggach’s words, “Everywhere we were given the warmest of welcomes and were astonished by the courage, humour and resilience of those we met.”

Included here is JM Coetzee’s famous address in Ramallah in 2016. To compare Israel’s policies with those of apartheid South Africa would draw one into “an inflamed, semantic wrangle”, he states, before going on to describe the two systems using much the same terms and ending with the terse: “Draw your own conclusions.”

For Gillian Slovo, “what it reminded me of was my childhood in South Africa. At that daily sight of black men and women made to produce their green pass or their blue one, to prove their right to occupy the space in which they were.” Adam Foulds is more specific: “Two populations in the same place under two different legal systems determined by their ethnicity. Clearly this fulfils the very definition of apartheid.”

For Foulds, it was a journey “that took me both deeply into my Jewish culture and showed it to me from the other side of the mirror.” He feels “great anguish at the unnecessary suffering of the Palestinians and anger on my own behalf, but also on behalf of all the loving, reasonable, humane Jews I know and love in the diaspora.” Elsewhere, Henning Mankell, a champion of the festival when alive, draws a clear line between anti-Semitism and hatred of the occupier.

Palfest 2017 evening event in Ramallah

Palfest 2017 evening event in Ramallah

Writers from the subcontinent have also used the festival as a mirror. Pankaj Mishra finds “extraordinary ideological convergence” between India and Israel, drawing parallels with the situation in Kashmir. And Mohammed Hanif discovers: “You don’t need an Israel to mess you up, you can be your own Israel. You can kill your own children, you can build your own ugly walls.”

The writers who have organised and attended the Palestine Festival of Literature over the years are doing what they can; however, as Jamal Mahjoub says, “Palestine is being dismantled, turned into a jigsaw puzzle so complex that eventually it will be impossible to see the pieces for the lines between them.”

This is why Ghada Karmi, not without some despair, writes: “If only it had been an ordinary place, without a special history or a sacred geography, without religion or scripture, then perhaps we, its people, might have been left in peace.” With reports coming in of fresh disturbances in the West Bank because of additional security measures at the al-Aqsa mosque, that seems unlikely anytime soon.

Also read: How literature should translate into films

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Sanjay Sipahimalani Sanjay Sipahimalani @sansip

Literary critic

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