Suad Amiry

Suad Amiry

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.

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Carmen Callil

Carmen Callil

Founded Virago Press in 1972 and ten years later became managing director of the publishers Chatto & Windus & The Hogarth Press. She is the author (with Colm Tóibín) of The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950. In 2006, she published Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland, a biography of Vichy figure Louis Darquier, whose daughter was Callil’s therapist. Callil was born in Melbourne, Australia. She moved to the United Kingdom in 1960.

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Carmen Callil

March 19, 2012

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.

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Suheir Hammad

Suheir Hammad

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.

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Suheir Hammad

March 19, 2012

….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.
still.

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Nathalie Handal

Nathalie Handal

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.

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Jeremy Harding

Jeremy Harding

Jeremy Harding has been a contributor to the London Review of Books for 25 years. His first pieces were about the unfinished wars of liberation in Eritrea, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. Small Wars, Small Mercies: Journeys in Africa’s Disputed Nations was published with Penguin in 1994. He joined the LRB as an editor two years later. In 2000 his long report for the paper on unauthorised migration and refugee routes to the European Union won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism. The piece has now been updated with new material from Europe and the US/Mexican frontier for his most recent book, Border Vigils (2012). He has worked in the Balkans, West Africa and the Middle East. In conjunction with the Palestine Festival of Literature he has run writing workshops in Birzeit and Ramallah. His memoir, Mother Countr,y is a record of his search for his two elusive mothers, adoptive and biological. His translations of Rimbaud are published in Penguin Classics.

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Jamal Mahjoub

Jamal Mahjoub

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.

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Jamal Mahjoub

March 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.

 

 

 

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Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell

Crime novelist and playwright, is the creator of the Kurt Wallander detective novels which have been published in 33 countries and consistently top the bestseller lists in Europe. A political dimension is always present in his writing. He has received major literary prizes and generated numerous international film and television adaptations. He was born in Stockholm and now lives between Sweden and Maputo, Mozambique, where he works as the director of Teatro Avenida.

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Henning Mankell

March 19, 2012

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!

Henning Mankell

25th May 2009

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Claire Messud

Claire Messud

Claire’s debut novel, When the World Was Steady (1995), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 1999, she published The Last Life, a story of three generations of a French-Algerian family, which won Britain’s Encore Award. Her 2001 work, The Hunters, consists of two novellas. Her most recent novel, The Emperor’s Children was long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

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Claire Messud

March 20, 2012

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.

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Michael Palin

Michael Palin

Michael established his reputation with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Ripping Yarns. His work also includes several films with Monty Python, as well as The Missionary, A Private Function, an award-winning performance as the hapless Ken in A Fish Called Wanda, American Friends and Fierce Creatures. His television credits include two films for the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys, the plays East of Ipswich and Number 27, and Alan Bleasdale’s GBH. He has written books to accompany his seven very successful travel series Around the World in 80 DaysPole to PoleFull CircleHemingway AdventureSaharaHimalaya and New Europe. He is also the author of a number of children’s stories, The PlayThe Weekend and the novel Hemingway’s Chair. In 2006 the first volume of his Diaries, 1969–1979 spent many weeks on the bestseller lists.

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Michael Palin

March 19, 2012

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.

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Alexandra Pringle

Alexandra Pringle

Alexandra Pringle is Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury Publishing. She began her career in publishing at Virago Press in 1978, becoming Editorial Director in 1984. In 1990 she joined Hamish Hamilton as Editorial Director and four years later left publishing to become a literary agent. She joined Bloomsbury in 1999. Her list of authors includes Donna Tartt, Hanan al-Shaykh, Barbara Trapido, Kamila Shamsie, Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward Said, Esther Freud, Leila Aboulela, William Boyd, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Anne Michaels, John Berger, Ronan Bennett, Colum McCann and Romesh Gunesekera. She is a Director of the Management Board, Bloomsbury Book Publishing Company Limited, and a Trustee of Index-on-Censorship. She lives in London.

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Raja Shehadeh

Raja Shehadeh

Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah He is a founder of the pioneering human rights organisation, Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the author of several books about international law, human rights and the Middle East. Shehadeh is the author of the highly praised Strangers in the House (2002), When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege(2003) and Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2007), published by Profile Books, for which he won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2008.

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Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif

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.

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Ahdaf Soueif

April 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.

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Ahdaf Soueif

April 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.

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Ahdaf Soueif

April 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.”
“No!”
“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.

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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Robin Yassin-Kassab’s first novel, The Road from Damascus, was published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) in 2008. He has worked as a journalist and an English teacher in Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Oman. He is currently living in Scotland and working on his second novel.

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