Day 2 – PalFest 2009
Day 1 – PalFest 2009
Day 3 – PalFest 2009
Day 4 – PalFest 2009
Day 5 – PalFest 2009
Day 6 – PalFest 2009
….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.
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.
Yesterday I visited “The Freedom Theatre” in Jenin, together with Michael Palin and other members of the PalFest Delegation. The visit, and the work we did together confirmed what I already knew: political resistance without the support of culturally expressed resistance, will never be successful.
When the richly talented young actors – and acting students – showed us parts from their new play about life in the Palestinian refugee camp, they confirmed this to be right. It was quite an explosion of emotional and intellectual expression. In a few moments they told us more about the Palestinian situation than many newspaper articles could have done.
This is true here in Palestine as it was once true in South Africa. What culture means when we talk about the final fall of the ugly, racist system of apartheid, can never be exaggerated. And this will once be true even for the Palestinian people, today suffering under occupation, repression and – apartheid! True culture will always be part of the resistance here in Palestine.
What I saw in Jenin and the Freedom Theatre brings hope. What we must do is listen to the Palestinian stories and then we will understand that one day the oppression of the Palestinian people will go the same way as the wall through Berlin, and the apartheid system in South-Africa.
Nothing is too late. Everything is still possible!
25th May 2009
We’re now on the fourth day of PalFest. The skies have cleared, its as hot as I always thought it would be here, out here in lands I know only from the picture-books of the Bible.
So, its my first time in this part of the world – despite having been to over 90 countries, the Middle East has been a stranger to me.
When I left London I had a very clear idea of where or what Palestine consisted of. This trip has made me understand that though Palestine may not exist as a country on a map, it is a reality in the minds of 5 million people.
Highlights of my journey have been walking with Raja Shehadeh in the hills around Ramallah, and learning much from him of the old land of Palestine, most of which disappeared in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. From Raja I learned some of the history, of the old villages of Palestine which were destroyed after the war in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forced from their homes, to become refugees. I also saw something of the beauty of these stony olive-grove-covered hilles which I wouldn’t have appreciated without Raja.
Last night in Ramallah I witnessed some of the finest, most powerful poetry I’ve ever heard. Suheir Hammad had both herself and the audience electrified by the passion of her work and the marvellous rhythmic delivery. She eloquently and beautifully captured the sense of loss that she feels when she talks of Palestine.
This is a literary festival as well as a journey, and the quality of the participants – from Jeremy Harding to Henning Mankell and from Deborah Moggach to Claire Messud and Carmen Callil and all of those that have taken part has made me quite poignantly aware of what the occupation means to people and of their determination to speak up for the writers and musicians who feel that the occupation has taken their voice away.
It’s been an eye-opening experience for me, and I feel proud of my fellow writers and travellers who have shared it with me. And proud too, of the Palestinians we’ve met, who care so much and work so hard to keep Palestine alive.
We arrived here knowing so little! After 5 days we´ve seen sights unimaginable, learned astonishing facts and indeed, seen evil in action.
It was the Israeli writer David Grossman who used the word evil to describe the activities of his state. He grieves about the effect of the brutal occupation of Palestine on the soul of the people of Israel:
“Hegel said that history is made by evil people. In the Middle East I think we know that the opposite is true: we have seen how a certain history can make people evil. We know that prolonged existence in a state of hostility, which leads us to act more stringently , more suspiciously, in a crueller and more “military” manner, slowly kills something within our souls and finally hardens like an internal mask of death over our consciousness, our volition, our language, and our simple, natural happiness.
These are real dangers that Israel must act quickly to avoid….”
He is right to grieve. Yesterday we were in Bethlehem, we saw the wall Israel has constructed to imprison and to spy upon the Palestinians of the occupied territory: Watchtowers stud hideous cement panels interlocked, stretching and winding for mile upon mile. Cameras, CCTVs watch every move in the towns, refugee camps and land the wall encircles.
Everywhere there are checkpoints and Israeli soldiers, many of them young women, young girls really, all of them draped in weapons, smoking in our faces as they grudgingly allow our bus of writers to proceed from A to B. Our slow progress through Palestine is nothing compared to that of the men, women and children of the occupied territory who wait for hours to cross the thousands – to me there seem to be millions – of checkpoints that close them in and cut them off from family, school, work, medical help.
The stories we hear from the Palestinians we meet pile horror upon horror. Everywhere we see Jewish Settlements crowding out the old Palestinian towns. They are everywhere. There are new settlements and the beginnings of hundreds more. Curfews, roads blocked, areas where only Israelis can go. Towns and villages closed off and hacked to pieces by road blocks, checkpoints and walls. Labels, tickets, permissions, queries, intermittent water, constant harassment and constant questioning. Where have I read all this before ?: in the 10 years I spent researching and writing about the persecution of the Jews of France and their transportation to the death camps during the Second World War.
So much is the same. But! So much is different – the Palestinians we meet are remarkable people, they laugh, they sing, they charm – cannot fail to charm – all of us. Everywhere we go we meet such courage, such determination, such will to survive. They cannot destroy us, we hear again and again, no matter how hard they try.
Outside Palestine, we in the west know so little. You have to come here to see the evil and brutality of the Israeli state. We could see it all on Television of course: but try to get a camera near these camps, these settlements, these guns! And our media are hounded with that word which sings of injustice: Balance.
Two things are clear to me. First, Israel has become a rogue state and the Jewish people I have known, loved, and whose history I have studied, are betrayed by, and in thrall to, this rogue state.
Secondly. What I have seen is the terrifying intimidation, imprisonment and humiliation of the people of Palestine. But the truth of it is that it is the people of Israel who live in chains and who have no hope while their government inflicts these evils.
We are always being told that there are two stories, two sides to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Indeed there are but there is only one injustice, and that is the state of the Palestinian people imprisoned and tormented, as they are today, by the state of Israel.
It has been a week of unimaginable experiences: from the hours waiting at the crossing at Allenby Bridge, to the agonizing descent into darkness that was our visit to the old city of Hebron – a place of architectural and historical magnificence now blighted by sectarian violence and by a quotidian oppression that must be experienced, even for a few hours, to be believed. But I, at least, had naively imagined that our return to Jerusalem would entail some return to the world as I thought I knew it, to some relief from the Kafkaesque madness that is life under occupation.
Certainly our hotel, a stone’s throw from the beautiful American Colony Hotel, with a magnificent view of the city and a splendid breakfast buffet, gave that impression: the day dawned glorious and calm and we set out just before 9am in the company of our gracious and knowledgeable guide, Mahmoud, with a sense of optimism and – dare I say it, after the emotional strain of our brief visit to Hebron? – relief. The plan was to visit the Al Aqsa mosque – and to do so promptly, so as to be able to move on and take in Silwan and the rest of the old city before lunch. For the first time this week, we were spending the day as ordinary tourists, rather than as students or teachers: able to observe, and enjoy, to take in the extraordinary sites without, I imagined, being called upon to analyze.
The Old City is a maze of alleyways, of souks and courtyards, of tiny staircases and hidden oases. We marvelled, in the early morning, at the scent of mint and spices and fruit, and at the mesmerizing array of goods for sale – sandals and lamps and t shirts and sparkling belly dancers’ outfits, miles of knickers and bras and enormous plush teddy bears encased in plastic – everything a consumer could desire. And then, suddenly, the holy sites: the birthplace of the Virgin Mary, the Via Dolorosa, the prospect of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Western Wall – we found ourselves at the heart of religion: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, the centre of the city whose name signifies ‘peace’ (ur salaam, as Ahdaf Soueif explained). Even for the most secular among us, the visit could not be insignificant.
Generously, the waqf, (the Muslim trust fund administrators) who control al- Aqsa, had offered to give us a guided tour of the mosque, so we presented ourselves at Bab al-Sbat, where the Israelis control the checkpoint but the waqf oversee the mosques. At first, things seemed to be fine, with our guide, Mahmoud, we passed halfway through the checkpoint and were met by the waqf’s representative, a portly older man missing a tooth or two. He provided us with the coverings we were missing – skirts for the women wearing trousers, shawls for those whose arms were bare – and while he took care of this the guards at the checkpoint took a closer, and more sceptical, look at our group.
Was it the bracelets with the Palestinian flag bought in Hebron that some of us wore? Was it Ahdaf’s explanation of the history of the site, upon which they eavesdropped? Was it our international, multi-ethnic composition, or our idle chatter. We won’t ever know – which is the point, of course: the apparent mystery and arbitrariness of the hand of power – but the checkpoint soldiers changed their minds about us. They called us back past the barriers. They took our passports and scrutinized them. They radioed to superiors, they conferred, they frowned. And it became clear that they could not let us through. No way.
The waqf representative came to retrieve the loaned skirts and shawls, “I’m sorry” he said. “From my heart I am truly sorry.” And he seemed it, his pile of cotton skirts on his arm. The soldiers gave us no reason, no excuse; but suggested we go to the Moroccan Gate, the area under Israeli control, and visit the mosque from that side. The implication – blatantly false – was that the waqf wouldn’t have us. “From my heart I am sorry,” our would-be waqf guide had said. We knew the Israeli excuse for a lie. Our disappointment was intense, especially for the Muslims among us. If you enter the compound through Israeli territory you aren’t permitted to go inside the mosque and pray. Our hope had been to cross into the grounds with the guidance of the waqf and to learn as much as possible about the Muslim history of the site. It had seemed, when we set out, a simple enough thing. Nevertheless, we snaked our way through the old city to the Moroccan Gate; the entrance to the compound of tourists to Israel and there we experience a ‘democracy moment’: we didn’t need to show passports or open our bags or withstand sceptical scrutiny. Obviously we were to feel that what had been difficult under Palestinian control (the control of the waqf) was easy under Israeli control – except that it was not the waqf but the Israelis that had blocked our passage in the first place.
We crossed the square by the Western Wall, amidst many festive Jewish celebrations: there were sober Hasid men going to pray but also rowdy families and women in elaborate party frocks shouting to one another. One stout lady wore heels, frothy ruffles and a great flouncy hat as though on her way to a posh wedding. The hubbub was festive, almost frantic; but in the midst of it we could see the entrance to the mosque: a precarious covered wooden bridge suspended over a corner of the square, it looked like some temporary structure across a gorge in Tibet, not like a main entrance to one of Islam’s most holy sites. The holy sites, after all, are intended to be accessible.
To attain the precarious bridge, and to cross there into the courtyards of the mosque you have to pass another checkpoint. At this one, they were ready for us: later some of our group said they recognised the Israeli policeman from the first checkpoint – which would have meant they had dashed across the mosque grounds to pip us to the post. Either that, or they’d radioed through to alert them to our coming.
Again, it seemed OK at first. They let in two or three of us as far as the luggage scanner. The Palestinian bracelets had come off by now; there was no historical lecture, no idle chatter. They recognised us somehow. “Stop,” they said. “Go back,” they said. Eventually – and falsely – they announced the checkpoint was closed for the day (we saw them re-open it as we went away) – but not before one of them, who bore an uncanny resemblance to a mini-Sharon, lost his temper more than once and bullied some of our party. We never got a reason. Tourists from various countries passed us and went in. Settlers passed us and went in. But we were not to be permitted to enter. The threat was apparently too great.
Some strange dementia is afoot in Israel. This is the only thing I can conclude. European diplomats suggest it is licensed by the extremism of the new government. This may be. But it is hard to square our experiences today with those of a democracy. Our group is diverse in many ways – ethnically, nationally, religiously, temperamentally, and so on – but we are all literary people, on a cultural mission and we are all lovers and promoters of peace. On this day, in that place, we were not artists, even, but pilgrims and tourists hoping to see one of the world’s most significant religious sites. All of us had come many thousands of miles in hope of this visit, and yet it was denied us. Was it the bracelets? The chatter? The cut of our jib? Who knows. We couldn’t appeal. Our cause was lost.
But of how little significance is our thwarted visit next to what thousands of Palestinians endure every day? They, too, wander if it is their jewellery, or their conversation, or their hairdo, or their socks that might deny them access to one site or one city or another, and they’ll never know the answer. Adolescent soldiers decide their fates on a whim. It is, until you see it, or experience even a tiny fraction of it, very hard to understand what it is like; and it’s impossible, really, to understand why it is like this.
We did not see the mosque. But nor can thousands of Palestinians for whom it is the most holy of pilgrimages. Most often, like today, we won’t know the reason. But each arbitrary rebuff inflicts a wound, and each closing of a gate involves a small death, a spiritual loss on both sides. It is, surely, the opposite of what religions intend; and in this sense is as much a betrayal of faith as of humanity. At tonight’s beautiful closing ceremony Robin Yassin-Kassab read a sentence from Aimé Césaire: “there is room for everyone at the banquet of victory.” It is a profound truth, the hope for which we have all felt this week, but one which, in this historical moment, seems tragically all but impossible to attain.