….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 minues 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.
- Khalid Abdalla
- Suad Amiry
- Mourid Barghouti
- Victoria Brittain
- William Dalrymple
- Roddy Doyle
- Esther Freud
- Abdulrazak Gurnah
- Suheir Hammad
- Nathalie Handal
- Ian Jack
- Brigid Keenan
- Jamal Mahjoub
- Pankaj Mishra
- Andrew O’Hagan
- Ahdaf Soueif
- M.G. Vassanji
- Hanan al-Shaykh
Khalid has played leading roles in two films so far: United 93 and The Kite Runner – both Oscar nominated.
Born in 1980, Khalid was brought up in the UK to Egyptian parents and has dual nationality. After reading English Literature at Queens College, Cambridge, he studied at the École Philippe Gaulier in Paris, then went on to start a career in film as an actor.
Suad Amiry is a Palestinian writer and architect. She is the director of the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation – sponsored by Sida, the Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation, and the Ford Foundation. In 2006 she was appointed vice-chair of the Board of Trustees of Birzeit University. Her book Sharon and My Mother-in-Law has been translated into 11 languages and was awarded the prestigious 2004 Viareggio Prize. Her latest book is Murad, Murad. Amiry lives in Ramallah with her husband, the academic and political activist Salim Tamari.
Mourid Barghouti is a Palestinian poet. He was born in Deir Ghassana near Ramallah. He has published 12 books of poetry, the most recent of which is Muntasaf al-Lail (Midnight, 2005). Other works include Collected Works (1997), and A Small Sun (2003) his first poetry book in English translation. He was awarded the Palestine Award for Poetry in 2000 and his poems have been published in Arabic and international literary magazines including Al Ahram Weekly, Banipal, Times Literary Supplement, Pen, and Modern Poetry in Translation. His autobiographical narrative Raaytu Ramallah (I Saw Ramallah), 1997, published in several editions in Arabic, won the Naguib Mahfouz Award for Literature (1997) and was translated into several languages. The English translation, by Ahdaf Soueif, was published by the American University in Cairo Press as well as by Random House, New York and Bloomsbury, London.
Victoria Brittain has worked as a journalist in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for many years. For more than two decades she worked for The Guardian, where she was Associate Foreign Editor in recent years. She also writes for various French media outlets. She has been a consultant to the UN on issues of women and war, and to the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. Most recently she has been a Research Associate at the London School of Economics. She is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a trustee of Widows’ Rights International and Gift for Life, Rwanda. Among her publications is Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment in Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar. Her most recent work, the Meaning of Waiting, in which she describes the lives of the wives of political detainees using their own words set to music has been a major success on the London stage.
All three of her most recent books are translated into Arabic.
William Dalrymple is the author of six acclaimed works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize in 1994 and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain (1997); White Mughals (2002), which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson, and The Last Mughal (2006) which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New Statesman and The Guardian.
Roddy Doyle is an Irish novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. He has written 8 novels, a collection of short stories, a memoir of his parents, and 4 books for children. His first novel The Commitments (1987) was made into a very successful film, directed by Alan Parker. Several other of his books have been made into successful films. His novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, won the Booker Prize in 1993. His other novels include The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (1996) and A Star Called Henry (1999).
Esther Freud trained as an actress before writing her first novel Hideous Kinky, published in 1991. Hideous Kinky was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was made into a film starring Kate Winslet. In 1993 she was chosen by Granta as one of the Best of Young British Novelists. She has since written five more novels, Peerless Flats, Gaglow, The Wild, The Sea House, and most recently Love Falls, which was published in June 2007. She lives in London with her husband and three children.
Abdulrazak Gurnah is the author of seven novels which include Paradise, Admiring Silence and By the Sea. Paradise was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prizes.By The Sea was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and won the Radio France International ‘Temoin du Monde’ Prize. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar and lives in Canerbury, Kent. He teaches at the University of Kent. His most recent novel is Desertion (2005), shortlisted for a 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize.
The author of breaking poems, recipient of a 2009 American Book Award, and the Arab American Book award for Poetry 2009.Her other books are Zaatar Diva (2006), Born Palestinian, Born Black (1996) and Drops of This Story (1996). Her work has been widely anthologized and adapted for the theatre. Her produced plays include Blood Trinity and breaking letter(s), and she wrote the libretto for the multi-media performance Re-Orientalism. An original writer and performer in the Tony award-winning Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, Suheir appears in the 2008 Cannes Film Festival Official Selections, Salt of The Sea.
Suheir HammadMarch 19, 2012
….h, i, j, k, l.
Nathalie Handal is an award-winning poet, playwright, and editor. She has lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. She teaches and lectures nationally and internationally, most recently in Africa, at Columbia University and as Picador Guest Professor, Leipzig University, Germany. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, and she has been featured on PBS The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR, as well as The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, Mail & Guardian, The Jordan Times and Il Piccolo. Her most recent books include: the landmark anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton) and Love and Strange Horses (University of Pittsburgh Press), an Honorable Mention at the San Francisco Book Festival and the New England Book Festival. The New York Times says it is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” Her work has been translated into more than 15 languages, and some of her awards include: Lannan Foundation Fellow, Honored Finalist for the Gift of Freedom Award, Recipient of La Orden Alejo Zuloaga (Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature 2011), and the AE Ventures Fellowship, Shortlisted for The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Winner of the Menada Literary Award, and the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles National Book Award. Handal writes the blog-column, The City and The Writer, for Words without Borders magazine.
Ian Jack is a writer and editor who has a weekly column in the Guardian. From 1995 to 2007 he edited the literary magazine Granta and from 1991 to 2005 the Independent on Sunday, of which he was a co-founder. He began his career as journalist on newspapers in Scotland and for sixteen years worked at the Sunday Times as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent, mainly in the Indian Subcontinent. He has reviewed books for many periodicals, including the New York Times and the London Review of Books. His own books are Before the Oil Ran Out (1987) and The Crash That Stopped Britain (2001).
Brigid Keenan is an author and journalist. She has worked as an editor on Nova Magazine, The Observer and The Sunday Times. On marriage to a diplomat she re-orientated her career into writing books and, whilst travelling the world with her husband, has published two fashion histories as well as Travels in Kashmir (1989), Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City (2001), and the best selling Diplomatic Baggage(2005). Ms Keenan has lived and travelled in many countries in the Arab world and in Asia. She is a founding member of the Board of PalFest.
Jamal Mahjoub’s stories and essays have appeared in The Guardian, Le Monde, Die Zeit and other publications around the world. His novels have been widely translated and won a number of awards including, the Guardian/Heinemann African Short Story Prize, the NH Vargas Llosa prize and the Etonnants Voyageurs Prize. He is a contributing editor at Guernica Magazine and has recently begun a new life in crime fiction as Parker Bilal – The Golden Scales was published by Bloomsbury in 2012.
Jamal MahjoubMarch 31, 2012
Tuesday 8th May
On the hotel terrace in the morning, The Godfather has replaced Titanic as theme music of the day. Instead of mushy romance we now have eerie menace, punctuated by a series of sonic booms rolling in over the sea. Somewhere out there, invisible in the clear blue sky, are Israeli fighter planes breaking the sound barrier. It adds to the strange sense of being trapped in a huge oen air camp. Unlike in the West Bank, where the Israeli presence is clear and present in the form of watchtowers and surveillence as well as armed soldiers and checkpoints along with the omnipresent wall. From the hotel terrace at night, banks of fierce white floodlights emerge over the water, shining out of the darkness. These are a reminder of the three miles limit. The fish are beyond that, of course, and yesterday two fishermen were picked up and taken away by an Israeli patrol for trying to catch sardines.
Around midday we head along the coast to Rafah. The road runs alongside a thin strip of sand fencing off the sea. The water here is not clean enough to bathe in. At Museirat the river is choked with raw sewage. Water is a serious issue in Gaza. The Coastal Aquifer is not replenished sufficiently to provide enough clean water and the blocade means materials needed for repair to the system are not available. As a result large quantities of untreated sewage are released into the water system which in turn brings health problems.
The Israelis cleared some 21 settlements out of this part of Gaza in 2005. It is rich, fertile land filled with palm trees which give the name to the Deir al-Balah refugee camp. In Rafah, we visit the Rachel Corrie Center named after the 23 year old International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed there in 2003. Rachel was acting as a human shield, trying to protect Palestinian homes from being demolished by Israeli bulldozers. The centre provides activites for children. Many have nowhere to go outside school and here they have the chance to act in plays, to draw and to paint. There is a library and films are shown. Children with behavioural problems are provided with conselling by child psychologists.
From the centre we walk up to a tattered tent with an armed guard which marks the frontier zone. Many of the houses along this side of the town were destroyed by the Israelis in 2009. Some kids trail alongside and cheerfully point out which houses have been rebuilt. To them, everything happened ‘zamaan’, as in a long time ago. Such is the memory of a young child. It all blurs into the distant past. One day they will learn all the details but for the moment it is all just a game.
The street ends abruptly in a storm of fine sand whipped up by heavy lorries that grumble out of the cloud and disappear down into the streets beyond. The guard post is a shelled ruin of a building occupied by disgruntled police officers whose meal we have have just disturbed. A tin bowl of beans and a handful of round loaves lie on a bare table. There are no walls, no doors, nothing to stop the dust blowing through. Some fuss is made over our cameras which are duly put away. The lorries continue lumbering through, cutting their way through much less robust vehicles – cars, taxis, motorcycles all struggling through the mayhem.
Beyond you glimpse a cluster of shelters, some of them collapsed buildings, others flimsy shelters of flapping canvas. Grinning phantoms emerge from the shadows; men coated from head to foot in white powder that paints every eyelash and wrinkle, earlobe and hair. Tunnel diggers come to stare at us. We are the spectacle. A group going by on the back of an empty lorry wave as they bump past, to be swallowed up by the billowing sand.
After much to and froing, the guards accompany us across the soft sand to a shelter where we are invited to peer down into a well of darkness. It is twenty four metres deep and the only way down is on two bits of wood looped together into a seat that is winched up and down with an electric motor. ‘The power has gone,’ one of the men explains, without saying if there is anyone stuck down there waiting to come up. The ground beneath our feet is honeycombed with tunnels. There are rumoured to be a thousand of them, varying in length from 200m to almost a kilometre. There used to be five times that number. Some are only a metre square, while others are tall enough for people to walk through. Cars are brought through in sections although apparently there is rumoured to be one tunnel big enough to drive a car through at 20,000 dollars a go. Of course, they collapse on a regular basis. It is an indication of how desperate people are that there prepared to risk their lives and those of their sons. Young boys working the smaller tunnels earn a hundred dollars a day. The men operating the winches earn half of that. They bring in everything from medicine to cement. As if to prove this an articulated lorry loaded high with potato crisps goes by.
Opinion is divided about the tunnels but many Gazans are against them. They earn money for people on both sides, one reason why they are not closed. They also give people an excuse to attack, under the pretext that weapons are being smuggled in. There are aso those who argue that if the tunnels did not exist to alleviate the effects of the blocade, the world would be forced to take action to bring it to an end.
Gaining popular support for the Palestinian cause is also the subject of the meeting we hold with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions coordinators in Gaza later that afternoon at the hotel. Inspired by the anti-Apartheid campaign in South Africa as well as earlier movements such as India’s struggle against British rule, BDS group is determined to raise awareness here and abroad about the importance of boycotting Israeli products, academic institutions and participation in sporting events. There are suggestions about what Egypt can do to aid the boycott, like providing goods that are currently only available from Israel. In the U.S there is growing support for the divestment campaign as well as the boycott. Articles on the subject in the press have multiplied in recent years. Gradually, more and more people are beginning to realise that it is one of the few avenues open to try and bring about real change by non-violent means. The longer Israel is allowed to present itself as a normal country on an equal with any democracy, the longer the illegal occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people will be allowed to continue.
On our way back from Rafah we pass by the remains of Yasser Arafat Airport. Once a symbol of progress being made along the road to Palestinian statehood the opening in 1998 was a fanfare event attended by people like Bill Clinton. Three years later it was bombed by the IDF and the runways bulldozed. The ruins remain a testimony to that failed dream. The local coordinators are nervous as we wander around. In the distance the Israeli watchtowers can be seen.
Pankaj Mishra was born in North India. His first book, published in 1995, was Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, a travelogue that described the social and cultural changes in India in the new context of globalization. His novel The Romantics(2000) was published in eleven European languages and won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum award for first fiction. His most recent books are An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World and Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Beyond. He also contributes literary and political essays for the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Guardian, Outlook Magazine and New Yorker among other American, British, and Indian publications.
Andrew O’Hagan was first recognised as a literary talent in 1995 when he published his first book, The Missing, to considerable critical acclaim and the book was shortlisted for three literary awards. O’Hagan’s debut novel Our Fathers (1999) was also nominated several awards, including the Booker Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the IMPAC Literary Award. To affirm this success, Granta selected O’Hagan’s work for inclusion in their 2003 list of the top 20 young British novelists. He is also a contributing editor to both the London Review of Books and Granta, and writes occasional articles for the mainstream press, including a regular film column for Esquire.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 and translated into 30 languages), as well as the well-loved In the Eye of the Sun and the collection of short stories, I Think of You. Ms Soueif is also a political and cultural commentator. A collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004, as was her translation (from Arabic into English) of Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah. She writes regularly for the Guardian in the UK and has a weekly column (in Arabic) in al-Shorouk in Egypt. In 2007 Ms Soueif founded Engaged Events, a UK based charity. Its first project is the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). Ms Soueif has recently edited Reflections on Islamic Art (BQFP: 2011). Her account of Egyptian events, Cairo: my City, our Revolution, was published by Bloomsbury in January 2012. In 2010 Ms Soueif became the first recipient of the Mahmoud Darwich Award and in 2012 was awarded the Constantin Cavafis Prize in Cairo and the Metropolis Bleu Award in Montreal.
Ahdaf SoueifApril 18, 2013
So here we are at the end of Day One of the Festival and we’ve done it!
Our authors got through the King Hussein Bridge. Three were detained and questioned and questioned – and questioned. The rest waited for them and they all arrived in Jerusalem in time for some tea on the hotel terrace before heading off for our opening event at the African Community Centre in the heart of the Old City.
And in the heart of the Old City, surprise surprise, a new military barricade had sprung up just at the entrance to the African Community Centre. The armed Israeli soldiers as usual with their “forbidden, forbidden” – and the usual pretense that what they were doing was to protect the Aqsa Mosque. So we insisted that we weren’t going to the mosque and we kind of elbowed through. But the soldiers did manage to stop some of the audience and their presence meant that the reception and music that were meant to be on the street didn’t happen.
Never mind, we got on with the event: some great oud and songs by the terrific Golan musician Madar al-Mughrabi. You know, that’s a little indicator in itself: a Syrian musician with a Moroccan surname, performing Egyptian songs – Sheikh Imam and Sayyed Darwish no less – to a Palestinian audience – and it all totally normal and everyone knowing the songs and just about holding back from singing along. Anyway: then a great panel performance from Bidisha, Mohamad Hanif, Richard Price and Gary Young moderated by Najwan Darwish. The event was attended by many of our old friends including Wafa Darwish, Albert Agazerian and his two daughters, Suha Khuffash from the British Council and the new British Consul Sir Vincent Fean and many others.
I had to run off and do a BBC World interview – in an ENTIRELY empty huge television centre – and talk up the Egyptian Revolution – totally genuinely. How odd that the media still talks in terms of One Man: isn’t it a problem that the Revolution doesn’t have ‘A Leader’? (No, it’s not; it’s good that the Revolution is so broad-based and so authentic and so communally owned), how can you trust Field-Marshall Tantawi to deliver when he was part of the establishment? (Well, he is delivering, and he can’t act out of his personal will; he clearly has to act in negotiation – at least – with the wish of the people) and so on.
Ran back to the Festival in time for dinner at the amazing Jerusalem Hotel: maqloubeh and minty lemon and more Egyptian music. This time very loud and dancy. And who should come dancing in but our great friend, the irrepressible Munther Fahmi, owner and manager of the Bookshop at the American Colony, who is currently fighting a deportation order that would see him exiled from his native Jerusalem. If you’ve not yet joined the thousands of the great and the good who have signed the petition against his deportation please look it up on this website and SIGN.
Oh, and earlier today, while the other PalFestians were setting up in the Africa Centre I hopped off to Bethlehem to take part in the KidsFest that PalFest and Lajee Centre and the Hoping Foundation set up in Aida Camp. The 400 or so kids had reading workshops and singing and puppetry and face-painting and the grand climax was every child tying a message or a wish to the string of a helium balloon and everyone letting go at the same time and the balloons floating in a swarm of colour into the sky. One little boy said he hoped his balloon would get to Gaza. Rich Wiles and the leaders of the Centre there were exhaustedly happy and Rich can now go on a one-day holiday to Jericho with his Palestinian bride.
What’s also very heartening is to see how many of the volunteers there are young men and women who grew up in the Camp and who were themselves children at Lajee. Some have stayed within Palestine, others come back from universities and jobs across the world to volunteer at Lajee for a couple of months a year. Lajee says they bring energy and hope. They say the kids at Lajee give them energy and hope.
“Only connect,” famously said E M Forster. And that’s what we’re doing. All of us. Children and adults, artists and audiences, Palestinians, Arabs and Internationals. We insist on the dynamic and creative links between us, on maintaining them, enlarging and intensifying them. This is what matters, and this is what, across the world, will shape our future.
Ahdaf SoueifApril 18, 2013
It’s always a pleasure to go to Birzeit. That’s what we did this morning. Back to Kamal Nasser Hall and the buzzy, friendly students. We had an excellent panel with Dr Ahmad Harb of Birzeit university introducing Adam Foulds, Susan Abulhawa, Suheir Hammad, Rachel Holmes and Jillian Edelstein. I was embarrassed when it couldn’t go into question time because I had to be taken up to the stage to collect the Mahmoud Darwish Award. Embarrassed – but tremendously honoured by the Award and moved by the response I got from Birzeit and from my colleagues. I made a short speech and managed to get Gamal Abd el-Nasser into it!!
Into the coach and out of it we spilled into Tanya and Hanna Nasser’s courtyard where they gave us lunch and allowed us to wander through their amazing home. It’s a beautiful traditional Palestinian stone family home where every staircase is a delight and every room holds family treasure. On the piano were photographs of Edward Said and of a young and side-burned Mahmoud Darwish ‘baptising’ Tanya and Hanna’s baby daughter in poetry. We took away Tanya’s memoir, “A Family Room,” which she’d written for John Berger.
Time to go, and from the grace and graciousness of the Nasser’s home to the banalities and bullying of Qalandiya Checkpoint. There we raggled for an hour – to ‘raggle’: to move and hang about in a bedraggled manner or in a manner conducive to making you feel bedraggled. We got through and got ourselves back to Jerusalem and into our hotels then some of us sped out again to go to the British Council. The British Council was very kindly letting us use their video-conferencing facilities to talk with Dr Haidar Eid of al-Aqsa University in Gaza and some of his colleagues and students.
PalFest tried very hard this year to gain access to Gaza. But we failed. We needed to gain access from the Israeli side, from Erez, and so we needed to apply to the Israeli authorities besieging Gaza for permission. We could not apply for ourselves and, ultimately, we could not get any international organisation to apply on our behalf. Everyone we approached was friendly, everyone thought PalFest was a good thing and what it was doing was important, and maybe next year they could do something with us, but this year they must have been feeling the squeeze on permits was such that they could not afford to apply for anyone other than their own staff.
So Sheila Whitaker, Rose Fenton, Susie Abulhawa, Eugene Schoulgin and I sat in the British Council studio, and on the screen from Gaza we saw Haidar sitting at the head of a large table around which were ranged maybe 20 people, young and old, men and women, hijabed and not and they courteously thanked us for taking the trouble to come to the studio and talk to them and I, personally, was – as we Egyptians say ‘fi noss hdoumi’ – (only filling half my clothes) so diminished was I with shame. I won’t say who, but hardened campaigners from our side had to blow noses and wipe faces and the Gazans were, naturally, collected and eloquent and funny and passionate and they quoted our own work back to us and talked about ‘othering’ and about ‘writing back’ and they were just very politely keen that we should know that they do not think of themselves as suffering a ‘humanitarian’ problem and needing humanitarian aid; that what they wanted was recognition of the real nature of their problem and a fair and just solution to it. As the woman selling vine-leaves in the market in Jerusalem said to me back in November 2000: we don’t want rice. We want you to act politically.
Evening and there’s a stream of people walking in the dusk through the beautiful alleys of the Old City towards the African Community Centre. The Africans are one of the oldest communities in Jerusalem and their magnificent, vaulted centre has pride of place leaning companionably against the walls of al-Haram al-Sharif. They and our PalFest team had done an amazing job of dressing up the space: a brilliant two-winged auditorium had been created and we had lights, candles, a sound system and the excellent Jerusalem Ensemble for Arabic Music in place.
This was PalFest’s closing night and our participants stood up and spoke words not their own – words that had inspired them and that they wanted to leave behind in Palestine. You can watch thevideo of this superb closing event.
We went for dinner in Askadinya where we’ve now become friends with the two musicians (tabla and oud and vocals) who play Egyptian songs for us in between the Palestinian ones. We missed Mordechai Vannunu who’s now danced at the end of PalFest 2 years running but who’s now been re-arrested – possibly for consorting with us on the opening night.
Dear friends, colleagues, comrades, fans: PalFest 2010 is over. For PalFest 2011 to happen there has to be a way of raising £150,000 without it killing me. Ideas welcome.
Ahdaf SoueifApril 18, 2013
At the Allenby Bridge we sat down and waited.
Oddly, our Jordanian guide on the bus from Amman kept assuring us that we would hand over all our passports in one go, together with our ‘manifest’ (that’s the list of travellers with their passport numbers, rather like a bill of lading) and ‘our neighbours’ as he kept calling the Israelis would let us through in 3 minutes! Well, we were 21 people in the group queuing up at 11 am. Sixteen got through inside an hour but the rest were held behind. This being Saturday the bridge was due to close at 4.00. At 4.00 they let the remaining 5 through.
In Jerusalem we had a 45 minute turnaround time to shower and get into our heels and make-up – well, some of us, anyway, and head for our Opening Night at the Palestinian National Theatre. We walked down Ibn Khaldun Street. The weather was brilliant, it was 6 o’clock and the stone houses glowed in the dipping sunlight. The National Theatre is like treasure; it’s hidden behind a very ordinary-looking row of houses, you walk through a café, turn a corner and – there it is. Its courtyard always looked hospitable; tonight it looked festive. Our Palestinian partners, Yabous Productions, and our advance party, had done us proud: there was a long table with canapés, and all sorts of delicious goodies, there were fresh fruit juices, and a sumptuous bouquet of blue iris and white roses. Munzer Fahmi, from the American Colony Bookshop had set up his trestle tables and was already selling the works of the PALFEST authors.
I saw 10 old friends in the first minute, all the Jerusalem cultural and academic set were there, a lot of Internationals, a lot of Press. We stood in the early evening light, by the tables laden with books and food and flowers, nibbled at kofta and borek and laughed and chatted and introduced new friends to old.
Rania Elias and Khaled el-Ghoul from Yabous started calling us in. Everyone moved towards and into the foyer. Someone clapped for silence and Nazmi al-Ju’beh, Chair of the Board of Yabous gave a brief welcome speech. Then we started moving towards the auditorium and I heard someone say quietly “They’ve come.”
“Who?” Looking around – and there they were; the men in the dark blue fatigues, with pack-type things strapped to their backs and machine-guns cradled in their arms. I had a moment of unbelief. Surely, even if they were coming to note everything we said and to make a show of strength they still woudn’t come with their weapons at the ready like this? But then there were more of them, and more … “They’re going to close us down.”
“Yes. They have. They’ve closed us down. Look!”
Some people were already in the auditorium. The Theatre manager was telling them they had to leave. People – our audience, our writers – were surging backwards and forwards:
“let’s go into the auditorium..”
“Let them carry us out each one ..”
“If they get you inside the auditorium they’ll close the doors and beat the hell out of you ..”
“Let’s go outside and start the event on the street ..
“What’s happening? What’s happening?”
Throughout all this the 15 or so Israeli soldiers held their positions and their weapons – how they, or their leader, made their will known to the Palestinians I did not see.
As we stepped outside and I started wondering whether we should just kick off right there on the courtyard of the theatre or whether we might actually get beaten someone said ‘we’ll go to the French Cultural Centre.” The French Cultural Attaché was in the audience and he had offered to host the event.
We started walking down Salah el-Din street towards the French Cultural Centre. I looked behind me and there was the Festival: a brightly-dressed, ornamented procession of authors and audience strolling along Salah el-Din Street, chatting and laughing and cradling in their arms trays of baclaveh and kibbeh and salads and bouquets of flowers.
We sat on the raised patio of the French Cultural Centre and our audience sat and stood in the garden. Henning Mankell spoke of how his involvement with Africa makes him a better European. Some workmen engaged on the first floor of the house next door paused to listen. Birds swept through their goodnight flight around us. Deborah Moggach spoke about children and the changing shape of the family. A cat shared the stage with us for a brief moment. Audience and authors were engaged and the energy flowed from the patio to the garden. Carmen Callil spoke about her Lebanese grandfather in Australia. A wedding party passed honking its horns outside. Abdulrazak Gurnah, M G Vassanji and Claire Messud read from their work. When the sunset prayers were called the audience started asking and commenting and suggesting. We could have gone on for hours – but we stopped at half past eight. We dispersed; energised, happy, shaking hands, signing books, promising to all meet up again.
Today, my friends, we saw the clearest example of our mission: to confront the culture of power with the power of culture.
M.G. Vassanji is one of only of two writers to have won Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize, twice: in 1994 for The Book of Secrets and in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. His latest work, The Assassin’s Song, was also short-listed for the prize in 2007. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He attended MIT and U Penn before moving to Canada in 1978, having specialized in theoretical nuclear physics. In 1989 he published his first novel, The Gunny Sack, which won the Commonwealth Regional Prize. Vassanji is the author of six novels, two collections of short stories, a memoir of his travels in India, and a biography of Mordecai Richler. In 2005, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Toronto.
Hanan al-Shaykh was born and educated in Beirut and Cairo. Her work explicitly challenges the roles of women in the traditional social structures of the Arab Middle East. Through her writing, she challenges notions of war and violence, sexuality, obedience, modesty, and familial relations. Much of her work has been translated into English, including, Women of Sand and Myrrh, The Story of Zahra, Beirut Blues, Only in London, I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops. She has written four plays, the last one being “A Fly on the Wall” inspired by the barrier wall in Bethlehem.