Day 1 – PalFest 2010
Day 2 – PalFest 2010
Day 3 – PalFest 2010
Day 5 – PalFest 2010
Day 6 – PalFest 2010
The Jordanian side
Day One started out just fine. I was actually the first one to the breakfast room; had breakfast; went back up; then down again for a second breakfast with others.
The Concierge taped my glasses. So I have one arm that folds normally on its hinge and the other that perpetually sticks out at a straight right angle, more or less.
Bus was loaded and we were off by 8:30 as planned. The driver’s sidekick started his tourist spiel and continued until Ahdaf couldn’t take it anymore, which was approximately when he was making some point or another about the Hashemite family. It sounded like a commercial for the ruling family and I couldn’t help but wonder if that part was required spieling – one never knows.
Thanks to said sidekick, whose name I’m embarrassed not to remember, we made it through the Jordanian border [Suheir, myself, and Lana were summoned so they could get our quadruple name, which, for Arabs, identifies our lineage for four generations back.]
The Israeli side
About an hour into processing at the Israeli side, most of the group was cleared to go on, except for five individuals: me, Suheir, Muiz, Lana, and Ahdaf
I was called out of the group and separated for special treatment. I wished a positive correlation existed between the probability of getting special Israeli treatment and the probability of winning the lottery.
Five hours, multiple interrogations, massive searching of my bags, I was allowed to join the other four outlaws, who waited together in another part of the border crossing. It was great to be with my fellow outlaws, my beautiful partners in crime. Our dear John, PalFest treasurer and quiet protector, had also stayed behind for moral support and to ensure that we had a way to go back if we were not allowed to go through. I slipped into their previous conversations, which were apparently mostly about food. None of us had eaten anything for several hours. I would learn later that Lana should never be left to go hungry. The mention of Kinder eggs stretched her lips into a brilliant smile and made Muiz lean back in his chair with dreamy eyes. No one had Kinder eggs handy but apparently, Suheir had snickers bars on the bus; so, we turned our hopes to devouring them soon.
About half an hour later [it could have been 15 minutes or two hours, honestly. I had really lost concept of time movement] a uniformed Israeli came out with passports. Everyone was allowed to go through, except me. The okay for me had not come through, “yet” and I latched onto the word “yet”, praying silently in my mind not to be turned back.
John and Ahdaf decided to remain with me until some resolution came, which it did, luckily, after a few minutes that I could go on through. I was ridiculously happy to get that news that I forgot how tired and hungry I was. Suheir handed me a snickers bar as soon as I got on the bus; and she, Muiz, Lana and I shared a “snickers toast.”
Becoming a group
On the way out of that awful place, I discovered that the time we all spent at the border – whether it was me waiting alone, my fellow outlaws waiting and being interrogated in another part of the complex, or those of us who made it through and waited together on the other side – brought us all together as a group. Few of us knew one another before boarding that bus to the border, but when we finally left for Jerusalem, we were a single group bound by six hours of worry and uncertainty at the border. For some, that was the first view of Israeli “procedures”.
At our hotel at last. The wonderful organizers of PalFest, Christina, Victoria, Robbie, and others, had sandwiches and drinks waiting for us. Ah…
No time to waste, we all went up for quick showers and met back in the lobby within 45 minutes to head out to the Palestine National Theatre for the opening night of PalFest 2010. While I was changing to get ready, I realized that not only had the Israelis stuffed my belongings into my bags, some of the things I had packed were no longer there. I joked later that “first they stole my home, heritage and history, now they took my favorite leather boots!”
The Palestine National Theatre – opening night
The evening’s event was in honor and celebration of the great poet Taha Mohammad Ali. On the panel, Ahdaf was the moderator. The presenters were Selina Hastings, Victoria Brittain, Najwan Darwish and I and the house was packed.
I read first. Moments before going on stage, I had chosen a passage from the beginning ofMornings in Jenin, when the Abulheja was forcibly removed from their village of Ein Hod. I thought the theme of theft was appropriate given the events of the day thus far.
Victoria Brittain went next, starting with a lovely tribute to Taha Mohammad Ali, who unfortunately had not been able to join us at the theatre. Then she told us about her most recent work: The Meaning of Waiting, a collaborative work with ten women, the wives of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, which shows hidden truths about the “war on terror” told through the stories of these women, of whom Victoria introduced us to three: Alexia, Sabah, and Yasmine. Alexia had been born in France, became a Muslim in Algeria, and she loved to play basketball. Sabah had been a school teacher in Jordan. Yasmine, who was raised in a traditional Arab home in Jordan, was the most beloved of her six sisters. Each is married to a man imprisoned without charge or trial or clear evidence in America’s Guantanamo Bay Prison. In the oppression of waiting, the anguish of not knowing, each narrates her story simply and with humanity.
Selina Hastings, a renowned biographer and literary critic, whom I later discovered was also a prolific writer of children’s books, spoke to us next. She introduced us to Somerset Maugham’s secret life. He was one of the most famous writers and his best known work, Of Human Bondage, is one of the most widely read works of fiction of the 20th century. His friends ranged from Winston Churchill and D.H. Lawrence to Charlie Chaplin. But this extraordinary public figure lived most of his life in secret – a double life. He was engaged in espionage in the first world war and he was homosexual in a time when homosexuality was not only considered immoral, but was also illegal. Selina concluded by offering that Maugham would have been displeased by her biography. He had wanted his secret life to die with him. In an interview well into his early 80s, Maugham said that there was nothing about his life to warrant a biography. That his life story was “bound to be dull”. It seems quite the opposite from Selina’s reading.
Finally, in another genre (poetry) and another language (Arabic), Najwan Darwish gripped the audience with his poems. One in particular, which I will call “fabricated” elicited laughter and several questions during the Q & A session. It was a funny poem, suffused with a cynicism that had people wondering what about life did he feel was not fabricated?
A giant of a man
For me, the highlight of the night came at dinner time, when Taha Mohammad Ali showed up. Najwan introduced this literary giant of a man with humor and humility. Unsteady on his feet, Taha leaned on the table in front of him as he stood; and with a shaky voice that still does not fully pronounce the R sound, he recited for us one of his poems. Here is the English translation:
Lovers of hunting,
and beginners seeking your prey:
Don’t aim your rifles
at my happiness,
which isn’t worth
the price of the bullet
(you’d waste on it).
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
every which way,
like a partridge,
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.
I heard the words of a legendary gentle heart today. The aggravation of the earlier hours of the day faded to nothing. Now, simply I was there when…
I have never before given a reading in a Turkish bath. Nor have I given a reading to a room packed to the rafters with a buzzing audience of Palestinians, residents of a city that was only recently cut off from the outside world for six years by the Israeli army. Last year’s festival could not get here. More intimidating still, never before have I shared a stage with anyone quite like Suad Amiry. The word “charisma” does not do justice to this woman. A statuesque and commanding six-foot beauty in a crisp white shirt, she takes the microphone as if she was born with one in her hand. From the first word she utters, the audience is rapt and silent, utterly gripped by her account of accompanying, on foot, a Palestinian worker on an eighteen hour walk across the border, through a vulnerable gap in a fenced area of the separation wall, on his way to seek work in Israel. Despite the subject matter, this talk somehow seems to contain more jokes than you would expect from a stand-up comic, all delivered with immaculate timing in English, her second language.
Then a ringing phone interrupts her. She turns and we all look at an old fashioned brown land-line plugged into the wall. With all the assurance of a seasoned, unflappable star actor, she walks slowly to the phone and answers in Arabic. A translator relays the following conversation with a male caller:
Caller: Hello, is that the Hammam?
Caller: Is tonight mens’ night or women’s night?
Suad turns and eyes the audience, savouring the moment. A mischievous smile forms on her face as we see her considering whether or not to inform him that tonight the baths are closed for a literary event.
Suad: Tonight it is mixed.
Caller: I’m coming straight over.
As a writer who has spent most of my career pursuing comic fiction, worrying away at the nexus between laughter and pain that has facinated me all my life, this evening – as with every day I have spent so far in this amazing country – has provided me with an extraordinary masterclass. Nowhere else have I seen such pain; rarely before have I felt embraced by such laughter.
A local man offers us a lift back to the hotel, happy to squeeze five passenger into his tiny car. I am given the seat of honour, on top of the handbrake, all of us laughing as we squeeze into the car. Shortly before we set off, the man casually mentions that this is the spot where he was shot with a dum-dum bullet when he was sixteen, for throwing stones at the Israeli army. When I ask, he lifts his shirt and shows us the angry scar of the entry wound. Two minutes later, he is joking again, telling us that last time he gave a lift to this many foreigners he was stopped by the police, but they all happily pretended that he was kidnapping them, with big smiles, and the policeman was so confused he sent them on their way. One more last minute masterclass.
Tomorrow, to the theatre in Jenin refugee camp. I know I will come close to tears; I know at some point I will rock with laughter. I am beginning to understand Palfest.
Jenin Refugee Camp. The Freedom Theatre. As we set up the stage area for a workshop, the young people arrive. They stride down the steps one by one, purposefully. Each one takes our hands, gripping them firmly. “My name is Miriam.” “My name is Faisal”. One after the other they make an entrance. Confident. Looking us in the eye. Impressive. We start the workshop with a physical warm-up. There is a real electricity in the group. Strong eye and body contact. Communication without language.
The students have brought with them the photographs we requested. We had asked for an image with personal significance. We project the photographs on the large screen at the back of the stage.
A young man shows an image of a little boy holding a stone. He says, “when I was this child’s age, the second Intifada started. 8 years of my life disappeared without meaning.”
There is an image of a small plant growing in a pot. “I feel so sad when I see it. Because I know this plant. Sometimes it nearly dies and then it comes back to life. The thing that really surprises me is that it never gets any bigger. It’s life and death together, but the title of my photo is ‘life’”. A girl has brought a photo of her brother’s grave. Her brother who was killed fighting for his land and freedom. The title of her photograph is ‘Sadness and Glory’. There is a beautiful image of a ripe pomegranate, the juicy seeds bursting out of the leathery skin. The boy says: “It will work, there is hope to fix things.”
The one that really moves me is an image of a boy standing on a rock by the sea. His arms are up and sea spray surrounds him like a halo. He says “This is me, by the sea, in Germany. It is the only time I’ve seen the sea. I was happy, but I was also afraid. I love the sea, but I lost some people I love who were trying to free a way to the sea for Palestinians”. And then it hits me. I was born and grew up in the Mediterranean shores in Spain. Palestine feels very familiar to me. The smells, the narrow streets, the warmth of hospitality. From Algeciras to Istanbul we are people of the Mare Nostrum. And yet, these children have no access to the sea. They are landlocked. And I think of the fields full of the stumps of olive trees, chopped down by the settlers, and remember my grandfather saying that the worst thing you could do to a man was to destroy his olive trees. Like sacrilege. Like a declaration of war.
I feel such sorrow for these young people who have all been born displaced. Who have lost fathers, brothers, loved ones. But what I see in the Freedom Theatre is strength of spirit, hope, intelligence, talent. And I’m so full of admiration for Nabeel and Micaela, who teach performance here with fierce gentleness, dedication and professionalism. Their first child will be born here, in Jenin Refugee Camp, in two months. May this child know the freedom of the land one day.
After the workshop we are shown a film of the theatre students talking about their hopes and ambitions. In one scene a group of girls discusses how their lives are constrained, not just by the Israeli occupation, but also by cultural expectations that they will limit their lives to child-rearing and housework. One of the girls retorts:” It doesn’t have to be like that, but if you believe you’ll end up in the kitchen, you will end up in the kitchen.”
A boy talks about how the experience of making theatre has changed his expectations: “I used to wish to be a martyr, but now I want to die a natural death”. And yet another: “We tried to have a violent revolution and that didn’t work. Now we want to have a theatre revolution”.
Wednesday was a tough day.
Our first event was at Al Khalil/Hebron University, where our host pointedly announced from the podium, “We are not a free people.” After the plenary, Rachel and I headed to our workshop entitled “The Media’s Role in Creating Political Realities.” The classroom was filled with journalism students, the majority of them young women in headscarves, and two of their instructors. Rachel started by asking the students to define the word “media,” and I then used a specific campaign to illustrate “finding a hook” in order to attract attention for a story.
The discussion that followed quickly grew heated. The students were angry about the Western media’s bias in reporting the Palestinian situation. There was a lot of outrage in the room, and unlike many of our other interactions, I’m not sure we added, or received, many rays of sunshine.
Next we toured the Old City with the public relations director of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, which has restored many buildings in the Old City and placed Palestinian families in them as a way to hold back the encroaching settlements. The volunteer families have to live cheek-by-jowl with the most extreme of the Jewish settlers. We visited a small row of Palestinian shops just past an Israeli checkpoint facing a settlement. We bought ceramics, bead bracelets, and embroidered scarves and hats while the settlers eyed us from across the road. The dry wit of our English writers definitely helped cut the tension: Adam made note of the settlers’ “Biblical hippie” style. “They look like they need a good scrubbing, those boys do,” Sheila added.
We were running late, but our guide had made an appointment for us at the local kheffiyeh factory, whose owner was awaiting our arrival. We were going, no we didn’t have the time, and finally, okay we could stop for five minutes, which of course turned into a half hour. We entered the small ground-floor factory to the deafening clatter of the weaving machines. What kept us longer than intended was the difficulty of making a selection from the dizzying array of colors piled up on the shelves of the storeroom. Our group swarmed and buzzed over the goods. The designs were beautiful, and the kheffiyehs affordable as well as easily transportable.
For a moment we felt like proper tourists—it was nice to shop without having what felt like bigots who suffered from borderline personality disorder watching your every move.
From the factory we boarded the bus towards round two at Bethlehem Checkpoint, with its watchtowers, barbed wire, and concrete barriers. A professor at Bethlehem University told me they refer to the checkpoint as “Lambs to the Slaughter,” and as I made my way through the metal chute towards the narrow turnstile, I did feel like a variety of livestock. In addition, the disembodied, garbled soldiers’ voices barking through loudspeakers gave the whole thing the aura of a dystopian science fiction novel. The Palestinian father in front of me was waiting poised for the green light to flash at the top of the turnstile. He held a two-year-old in one arm as a four-year-old stood clutching the father’s pant leg. The trick, you see, was for all three of them to make it into the contraption together—or else risk possibly hours of separation. I calculated the space available and decided it was possible, although barely. The green light finally lit up and the three of them pushed through.
After arriving at the hotel in Ramallah, I headed to the Khalil Sakakkini Center with a few others who were scheduled to “perform” that night. The outdoor garden of the restored mansion was another dramatic venue—like the Turkish bath and the Ottoman castle in Nablus earlier in the week—and the inspiring video message from Arundhati Roy was followed by readings that ranged from the comic to the tragic. My contribution was on the darker end of the spectrum, in keeping, I suppose, with the dark mood I felt that afternoon. Nothing like imaginatively recreating the Armenian Genocide after a long day in Hebron.
The evening ended with a dinner where I found myself being interviewed by New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner, whose articles I tend to read with skepticism—his son is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and he often can slant his facts to a fairly doctrinaire Israeli point-of-view. But I was happy to honestly share my experiences with him. He was writing about the two literary festivals—The International Festival of Writers of Israel in West Jerusalem and PalFest in East Jerusalem and across the West Bank—that were happening simultaneously.
When I saw the piece the next day, I was surprised by its frank assessment of the occupation and the way PalFest voices framed the discussion.
I guess you know you’ve had a tough day when the New York Times coverage may well be the best part of it. But tough days can sometimes be the most productive: I hope at least one of the students I so briefly interacted with in Hebron went to sleep that night, not less angry, but less despairing. I myself ended that day angry, exhausted and yet poised for action.
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.