Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa was born to refugees of the 1967 war and currently lives in Pennsylvania with her daughter. She is the author of Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury, 2009),  founder and president of Playgrounds for Palestine, a children’s organization dedicated to upholding The Right to Play for Palestinian children. Her essays and political commentaries have appeared in print and international news media and she is a contributing author to two anthologies: Shattered Illusions (Amal Press, 2002) and Searching Jenin (Cune Press, 2003).

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Susan Abulhawa

March 19, 2013

Day 5:

The tunnels are a blessing and a curse. The network of underground arteries has enabled Palestinians in Gaza to bypass the limited caloric intake that Israel tried to impose. The tunnels offer a way to rebuild what Israel destroys and they provide an outlet of defiance. But the tunnels have also spawned a sort of ‘black market’ industry, complete with big bosses whose business interests trump the national or societal interest. There is nearly no oversight or regulations, except where it pertains to the collection of taxes for the local ‘sulta’ and general protection of the tunnel operations.

This means that goods coming into Gaza, especially food and medically related products, are often expired or otherwise unusable. Child labor, although not pervasive, is still present, even if in small numbers. The longer term damage of the tunnels is that they help to normalize, or even obscure, a situation of deliberate and targeted economic, civic, social, and familial destruction.

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Susan Abulhawa

March 19, 2013

Day 4

The roots of exhaustion are pushing deeper into me and I’m not sure I can stay awake long enough tonight to give the day its due on this blog. But I’ll try.

It turns out my phone clock was an hour behind. Until this morning, I had the time wrong. As I’m an early riser and was generally do whatever and whenever Rana B. Baker (da boss) says, I didn’t have to rely too much on the clock. Until this morning. We were supposed to meet at 6:30 downstairs. I rolled over and saw the clock said 5:20 and decided I could sleep a bit more. Next thing I know Lina is knocking on my door. Everyone was waiting! It was actually 6:30 am. Last night I had gone to bed at 2:30 am, not 1:30; and I got less than 3 hours of sleep instead of the 4 I planned on. Thankfully, Arabs invented coffee a few centuries ago.

I did the best I could to clean up and dress in 10 minutes but today I was the disheveled borderline stinky participant. Our first stop was the farms at the northern border. International volunteers stand around as ‘human shields’ or eyewitnesses as farmers work their land. The watch towers are menacingly close and soldiers often shoot. Sometimes people are killed, sometimes wounded. But farmers keep coming back to their land. The land was dry and the crops weren’t great, but it was “better than nothing” one of the farmers told me and Ayman Qwaider. They were harvesting wheat. I don’t know what wheat farming is supposed to look like or how the land and plants are supposed to be, but one sees that conditions are not ideal by looking across the border, where the earth looks as if a green carpet had been unrolled on the other side, stopping just at the separation line. Heavy farm machinery dotted those fields behind the mist of spraying water. The earth where we stood was brown and parched, stamped with the treads of tanks that destroyed portions of the crops.

Ayman and I decided to help the farmers work. That was fun, but also tiring. There are machines that could have reduced 10 hours of labor to one hour. But Palestinians are denied access to such machinery. (and they say there is no apartheid. ha!) What is it like to perform such backbreaking monotonous work for hours on end, day in and day out? what is it like then to eat the fruits of all those hours of toil? I wondered. I said profane things in my head, or maybe I said them out loud, when I looked at the fertilized and watered earth just across the fence. The inhumanity and injustice of the scene provoked me. It didn’t help that it was very humid and sweaty. I was well into stinky territory by now. The bus air condition helped a little.

But I was with forgiving people and it was okay. The love I feel for Gaza is reciprocated and that just compounds it all into a veritable love fest. You should have seen us at the various events – hugging, kissing, taking pictures, eating, singing. Somewhere in all that, we had a few serious discussions. The most interesting was at Al Aqsa University where we held a panel discussion on a wide range of topics, including literature, narrative, forms of resistance, culture, revolution (in the context of Egypt), and so much more.

I ate Suma2iyeh for the first time in my life. It was delicious. Sameeha Elwan’s mother made it for us. Apparently the recipe for this dish is a carefully guarded secret in Gaza. Despite much probing, I still can’t get a coherent list of ingredients or method of preparation. But I shall persist, 7attay annasr.

I know you’re all getting tired of me telling you how awesome the young people around me are, bas wallah it’s like awesome overload. PalFest was hardly advertised (deliberately so) and yet every venue is packed to capacity. People are curious, interested, involved, ambitious, hopeful, thoughtful.

My friend Majeda came to the hotel during a large group discussion with political youth leaders. She stuck around for that a bit before the two of us left together to get a bite at a restaurant on the water. It was fabulous to catch up with her. The evening was typically cool, light, and breezy. People played on the shore and splashed in the water beneath a shimmering sky. And the constant rhythm of the ocean sopped up my tiredness for the next few hours.

More people came and Majeda and I grew into a group of some 20 people. Majeda left. Then a few others. I stayed with Ayman and Mohammad to watch Arab Idol, of course!

Back at the hotel now and it seems I made it through another blog. Before I sign off, a shout out to Majd El Wahaidi and Aya Majed El-Zinati for bringing me flowers yesterday. So thoughtful and sweet and lovely. like I said, awesome overload!

Peace out!

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Susan Abulhawa

DAY 3

I just settled into bed to begin the daily recap of this splendid trip. Excited words were rushing to be written, because today was marvelous. But as I opened Facebook, I was confronted with the picture of my friend Dr Jabbour Khoury. I had written to him a few days ago to make sure he knew that #PalFest was coming to Haifa this year. So I was excited to see his picture. Then I read just above it “may he rest in peace.” I’m heartbroken. I didn’t know he passed away. I don’t even know when it happened. Dr Jabbour Khoury is one of the “1948 Palestinians”, those Palestinians who stood their ground and didn’t leave in 48, proving a lie the zionist claim of ‘a land without a people.’ I never met him in person. We connected through the intimate bonds created by literature, a shared narrative, shared wounds and longings, and common belief’s about an individual’s responsibility to the rest of humanity. Among many things, he was a physician whose professional skills were shared generously without fee. So I start today’s entry with a farewell my friend Dr Jabbour Khoury. Ra7mat Allah 3la ro7o.

At the other end of today, however, was a very different set of feelings. In fact, with a combined total of no more than 8 hours of sleep in the past two days and constant ‘running around’ from place to place, the only way I can explain the fact that I’m awake enough to write this after midnight is the thrill of being here. We left early on the bus and went to the Old City in Gaza. I’ve uploaded an album and will put captions to photos from this part of the day soon. We went to an ancient bath house, an ancient mosque that used to be an ancient church that used to be an ancient military outpost (see photo captions later). I met a really sweet little girl named Ahlam who just finished first grade and told me all about the mosque where we were, about her family, her nice principal whom she wishes would replace her teacher that she doesn’t like so much. When she asked me to come back tomorrow, it kinda sucked telling her that I couldn’t.

Like I always do when I come to this part of the world, I bought lots of spices, bharat, tamer, dates, mlookhiya, zaatar and olives. I need to find good bizir tomorrow, too. I loved the old market. It was my first time there. I like the chaos, the fruits and vegetables that look and smell the way they were meant to be. Watermelons and tomatoes were a deep deep red that I never see in US supermarkets, not even farmer’s markets that are supposed to be organic. I wonder if GMO foods are really food anymore. As I do with nearly every trip I take, I saw something of Ramzy Baroud. Usually it’s his book. This time, it was his family home (which has been rebuilt) in Nusseirat refugee camp. (I took a picture)

Speaking of food, take a look at the pictures I uploaded of the waraq dawali, jaj mashwi with roz b’loz o za3faran. Yousef Aljamal’s mother made this delicious spread for us. Lina Attalah was a true sister who kept eating with me even after everyone else was clearly done. Such solidarity, wallah! (this same scene was repeated at dinner, which only served to strengthen our sisterhood!) Lina, btw, is a brilliant journalist with impressive credentials as a reporter, organizer, and activist. She has reported from some truly raw situations where many reporters are afraid to go.

Then came time for the workshops at al Mathaf cultural center. We had a full house and started as a large group in a big circle, then broke out into three workshops led by myself, Lina, and @AliAbunimah. Lina talked about alternative narratives, how to construct them, and effective use of social media. Ali discussed his experience with the creation and leadership of Electronic Intifada, which as become a formidable independent media site. Of course, I got this all second had because i couldn’t attend them, as I was holding my own session. But I heard all about them afterward from satisfied participants who would have liked the sessions to continue longer.

Indeed, I would have liked for them to last longer, too. The four hours went by as if 30 minutes. In my workshops, we talked about literature, the process of writing. We talked about the idea of narrative and ownership of narrative. Specifically, we discussed the evolution of the Palestinian narrative over time and considered some recent developments that are important to this important, though overlooked, aspect of liberation and resistance. We also talked about turning our heads to look South, toward our natural allies in South America and Africa. This was my favorite part of the workshop because it provoked a great dialogue and some real “aha” moments. I think I’ve convinced some folks to start thinking about reciprocal solidarity with like struggles in places where people don’t need to be convinced, where we don’t need to prove our humanity. Because there is a depth of liberation that can only come from being a part of the liberation of others. Everyone seemed really engaged and it was great. It even got heated once or twice. Shout out to Ghada Zayyan, Sarah Ali, Ahmed B. Issa, and Sameeha Elwan,

We came back to the hotel a much bigger group than the previous night and had a wonderful time carrying on the discussion. I met a young man, Mohammad, with the great dilemma of having to choose between full scholarships to six major universities across England, France, and Italy. He’s just one of so many impressive young people here, defying an imposed destiny to forge their own brilliant paths. Finally, the moment came. ARAB IDOL! Everyone who knows me understands that this generally isn’t the kind of show I watch. But, if you follow me on facebook, you’ve probably seen my posts about @MohammadAssaf89 , the Palestinian singer (motrib) from Gaza whose glorious voice is reverberating across the Arab world. Anyway, the hall in the hotel where we watched him sing was packed with people, all of whom cheered wildly for him. It was very exciting.

I must try to sleep now. it’s 1:30am and we have to be on the road by 6:30 am, which means I will just get my average of 4 hours of sleep tonight.

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Susan Abulhawa

Day 2

More than a day, maybe two or three, have fit into the past 18 hours. It wast wasn’t only me, Ali asked if it was just yesterday that we picked him up from the airport. That’s how it was coming into Gaza. A spectrum of emotions peaking and falling, crammed into the single space of a heart, the single space of a day. This sense concurs with Gaza itself, the most densely populated place on earth. But then it changes. The density of it all – the elation so close to deflation, anticipation, excitement, love, longing – it all opens up on the Western border and diffuses toward the expanse of the sea, where the constant breeze was welcoming as I sat having dinner with people whose enthusiasm was so generous and warm.

We set out from Cairo early this morning, kinda. Two cars, two drivers, four passengers and lots of luggage (mostly suitcases full of books since there is a huge shortage on that front – we’ll still take book donations, btw, to get more in at later times). Alaa Abd el Fattah and I were in one car, Ali and Lina in the other. They apparently had a smooth ride. More than a few times, I saw my life flash before my eyes as we came precariously close to death by vehicular accident. But that was just my American perception. The driver was unfazed and in control. Alaa didn’t seem too concerned either. I found the seatbelt in the back but there was no place to fasten it. for a ridiculous moment i looped it through my arm. Thankfully, no one noticed.

Alaa is a fascinating guy and I was glad to get a chance to talk more with him. Somewhere in the conversation, we saw a big truck flip on its side in the opposite direction. A few minutes later a car to our right had a tire blow out. Soon, I fell asleep and so did Alaa. Our driver, a young man with the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen, kept us safe until we got to the border. I wanted to take a picture of him, but was too shy to ask. Remember the Afghani girl with the impossibly blue eyes on the cover of National Geographic in the 90s? His eyes were like that. He lived in Arish and he said life there by the water was zay el 3asal, “like honey”.

Walking to the ‘ma3bar’ was exciting. I took a picture of Ali and tweeted it. He was excited, too, I could tell, but he wouldn’t say it out loud lest he jinx himself, I think. The first time Ali tried to get to Gaza was in 2009 during the Freedom March. Hosni collaborated with Israel to stop them, of course, and he didn’t make it in. The second time he was set to enter Gaza, the revolution happened. He made it this time, but unfortunately, Alaa wasn’t allowed through. That was a really deflating moment for all of us. Ali, Lina, and I went on toward Rafah without him.

Luggage inspections, passport stamps, several points of exit fee payments, a short bus ride that pulled our luggage behind the bus on a hitched wagon; then, Rana and Ayman and Sameeha and Mohammad all came through and it was brilliant! I was elated again. I had wanted to meet these fabulous people for a long time. They don’t seem to know how inspiring they are. They’re nearly half my age but they probe their lives, feelings, and the world around them with an introspection and perception i didn’t have until much later in life. Again, conversations at dinner were meaningful and fun. It was really nice to talk with Ali. I realized that in all the years that we’ve communicated directly and indirectly as activists, we had never met in the same place.

On the bus, we blared songs by Mohammad Assaf, the Palestinian young man from Gaza whose magnificent voice has moved the whole of the Arab world and rallied all of Palestine behind him as he competes in the final rounds of Arab Idol. Finally, we got to our hotel. It’s late now. I should sleep, but i can’t. Tomorrow is another full day. enshallah.

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Susan Abulhawa

Day 1

Arrived in Cairo in the am. A man asked in English if i needed something (i think a hotel or taxis) and when I said “na3am” in Arabic to indicated that I didn’t get what he said, he smiled broadly and greeted me in the familiar way that Arabs welcome each other. He said, “el Hamdillah assalamah” (gratitude for your safe arrival), like I was coming home. It’s a perfunctory nicety, like we’d say “bless you” when someone sneezes, but it made me happy. there is an endless warmth to the calls and responses of the Arabic language. so I smiled back, just as broadly, and answered the familiar call “Allah yisalmak” (God keep you safe).

Hamada, driver of the famous brilliant writer, Ahdaf Souief, picked me up and after I checked in at the hotel, he took me around a few places before we went to pick up Ali Abunimah from the airport. Hamada was great to talk with and I learned a lot from him about the attitudes on the streets of Egypt post revolution. There’s too much to include here for now, but suffice it to say, the people are a little disillusioned. On the way back from the airport, we listened to Morsi’s address to the Egyptian people. It gave me a headache, then a bellyache. Ali shook his head in disgust, and Hamada chuckled.

Dinner at Dr Souief’s home was brilliant. The food was delicious and the conversations ranged from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Black Consciousness, Muslim Brotherhood, Bashar, Libya, Gaddafi, and the US/Israel role in it all.

Tomorrow, we leave for the Rafah border! As of today, Egypt said it was open and people were passing in and out of Gaza. Fingers and toes crossed we’ll get through, too. #PalFest

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Susan Abulhawa

March 19, 2013

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,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn’t happiness.
Trust me:
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…

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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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Victoria Brittain

Victoria Brittain

Victoria Brittain has worked as a journalist in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for many years. For more than two decades she worked for The Guardian, where she was Associate Foreign Editor in recent years. She also writes for various French media outlets. She has been a consultant to the UN on issues of women and war, and to the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. Most recently she has been a Research Associate at the London School of Economics. She is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a trustee of Widows’ Rights International and Gift for Life, Rwanda. Among her publications is Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment in Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar. Her most recent work, the Meaning of Waiting, in which she describes the lives of the wives of political detainees using their own words set to music has been a major success on the London stage.

All three of her most recent books are translated into Arabic.

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Najwan Darwish

Najwan Darwish

Najwan Darwish is a poet, critic and literary editor. He lives in Jerusalem, Palestine. He is the literary advisor of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). He has published five books, and his Selected Poems, translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, will be published in 2014 by the New York Review of Books.

In 2009, the Hay Festival Beirut39 named him one of the 39 best Arab writers under  39.

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Falastine Dwikat

Falastine Dwikat is a Palestinian poet from Nablus. She is a graduate of an-Najah National University and is currently earning her MA in Applied Linguistics and Translation. She is the programme manager of the Research Journalism Initiative (RJI) at an-Najah. Her work with “Poetry of Witness” has created a meaningful bridge with students in US classrooms. Falastine has several articles published online and she is about to publish her first collection of selected poems.

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Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer’s many books include But Beautiful, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It , The Ongoing Moment and, most recently, a novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. His many awards include the Somersert Maugham Prize, the E. M. Forster Award and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. A new collection of essays,Working the Room, will be published by Canongate in November.

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Jillian Edelstein

Jillian Edelstein

Jillian Edelstein is a London based, award winning photographer. She was born and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa and her portraits have appeared in several major publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Interview. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally at venues including the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers Gallery, The Royal Academy New Art Space, the Tom Blau Gallery in London, the Recontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France and the Bensusan Museum, Johannesburg.

www.jillianedelstein.co.uk

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Adam Foulds

Adam Foulds

Adam Foulds has produced three books in the last five years. The novel, The Truth about These Strange Times (2007) won the Betty Trask award and made him the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. Broken Words (2008), a narrative poem, was short-listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys award and won the Costa Prize in poetry. In 2009, his novel, The Quickening Maze, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

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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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Selina Hastings

Selina Hastings

Selina Hastings is a writer and journalist, the author of four literary biographies. A lifelong Londoner, Selina was educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Oxford University. Her first job was at Hatchard’s bookshop, after which she worked for fourteen years on the Daily Telegraph and for eight years was literary editor of Harper’s & Queen. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she reviews regularly and has been a judge of the Booker, Whitbread, British Academy, Ondaatje and Duff Cooper Prizes, and of the UK Biographers’ Award. She has written biographies of Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Rosamond Lehman.

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Rachel Holmes

Rachel Holmes most recent book, The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Saartjie Baartman, was published by Bloomsbury in 2007. She is currently writing a life of Eleanor Marx. Rachel is Head of Literature and the Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre, London, and runs the annual London Literature Festival. She is a founder and patron of FOTAC UK, which supports the Treatment Action Campaign in the fight for HIV and AIDS in South Africa, and Chair of Africa Beyond, celebrating African artists in the UK.

She was named as one of the 50 women to watch by the Arts Council’s Cultural Leadership Programme.

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May Jayyusi

May Jayyusi obtained a BA honors in Philosophy from University College, London and MSc. in Film and Communications from Boston University, Boston. She writes on philosophy and politics, and was a Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin Research fellow (1994-1998), and has been a recipient of an International Collaborative Research Grant Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, New York. She is also member of an international research team working to produce “A Micro-History of Palestinian Life in the Twentieth Century” based on personal accounts. She has translated into English a number of Arabic novels and collections of poetry, including works by Ibrahim al-Koni, Ghassan Kanafani, Muhammad al-Maghout and Ibrahim Nasrallah. Jayyusi has been executive director of Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy since 1995.

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Amani Juneidi

Amani Juneidi is a short story writer and novelist, and holds a B.A. degree in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Jordan and a diploma in education. She worked as a teacher of Arabic language in the Ministry of Education in Palestine, a director of a school and is currently working in the Department of Literature at the Ministry of Culture. She also is an editor of the cultural page in the Democracy Journal published in Ramallah. Some of her works include A Woman with a Taste of Strawberry (Ugarit, 2005) and An Intelligent Man and Dim Women (Dar Shurouq, 2007).

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Remi Kanazi

Remi Kanazi

Remi Kanazi is a Palestinian-American poet and writer. He is the co-founder of PoeticInjustice.net and the editor of Poets For Palestine, an anthology of poetry, spoken word, hip hop, and art. His political commentary has been featured in print and online media throughout the world. He has performed poetry across North America and has appeared in the New York Arab American Comedy Festival. He is a recurring writer in residence for the Palestine Writing Workshop as well as a member of its advisory committee. His first collection of Poetry, Poetic Injustice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine, was released in 2011.

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Brigid Keenan

Brigid Keenan

Brigid Keenan is an author and journalist. She has worked as an editor on Nova Magazine, The Observer and The Sunday Times. On marriage to a diplomat she re-orientated her career into writing books and, whilst travelling the world with her husband, has published two fashion histories as well as Travels in Kashmir (1989), Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City (2001), and the best selling Diplomatic Baggage(2005). Ms Keenan has lived and travelled in many countries in the Arab world and in Asia. She is a founding member of the Board of PalFest.

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Mercedes Kemp

Mercedes Kemp

Mercedes Kemp was born and grew up in Southern Spain. For the past thirty years she has lived in West Cornwall. Since 2001 she has worked in close collaboration with Bill Mitchell, developing storylines and text for site specific pieces in Malta, Cyprus, France and Britain. She is a core member of WILDWORKS.

As well as the production of text and story line, her role within WILDWORKS involves creating and maintaining relationships with host communities, exploring their relationships with place and memory and adapting text to fit each new location.

Her method involves a kind of eclectic ethnographic research into a variety of sources: archives, libraries, cemeteries, village halls, bus stops, local historians, town gossips, snapshots, old photographs, conversations, and, above all, a close observation of the process of memory and its effect on the value that people place on their environments.

Her freelance work includes commissions for The Eden Project, The Guardian and BBC Radio 3. She worked as a writer for Kneehigh Theatre in Strange Cargo, Manel’s Mango, Shop of Stories, Doubtful Island, Island of Dreams and A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. She is a founding member of the writing and performing collective Scavel an Gow. Mercedes is Senior Lecturer in Critical Studies at University College Falmouth.

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Mercedes Kemp

March 19, 2012

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”.

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Nancy Kricorian

Nancy Kricorian

An American writer and poet. She has taught at Yale and Barnard Colleges, among others. Her poetry has been published in Parnassus, Mississppi Review, Graham House Review, Ararat, and other journals. She is the author of the novels Zabelle (1998) and Dreams of Bread and Fire (2003). She is currently dividing her time between writing her third novel and working as the New York City coordinator for CODEPINK WOMEN FOR PEACE, a women-initiated grassroots peace & social movement known for its use of direct action and street theatre.

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Nancy Kricorian

March 19, 2012

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.

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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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Ritu Menon

Ritu Menon

Ritu Menon is co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s oldest feminist press, and founder-director of Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, which between them have published many of the most important texts in women’s studies in India. She has written several books, among them the path-breaking Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition; and edited several anthologies of writing by Indian women. She is also a Founder Member of Women’s WORLD (International) and Women’s WORLD (India), free-speech networks of writers and publishers that work on gender-based censorship across the world. Since 2000, the India network has worked with over 300 women writers from five South Asian countries.

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Deborah Moggach

Deborah Moggach

Deborah Moggach’s many screenplays include the recent TV adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank and the film Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley, for which she was awarded a BAFTA nomination. She is the author of 16 successful novels including, most recently,These Foolish ThingsTulip Fever and In the Dark. She lives in London.

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Sonia Nimr

Sonia Nimr writes books for children and youth both in Arabic and English. She received her PhD from Exeter University in 1990 in Oral History. Currently she teaches at Bir Zeit University, Department of Cultural Studies. Her English books include A Little Piece of Ground which she wrote with Elizabeth Laird (2004), and Ghaddar the Ghoul (2007). In 2004 she was on the Honours List of the IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People, for a story in Arabic called Begins and Ends With Lies(2003). She lives in Ramallah with her young son and husband.

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Amir Nizar Zuabi

Amir Nizar Zuabi

Amir Nizar Zuabi is a theatre director and playwright, and a founding member of Shiber Hur Theatre. He has directed a number of plays, including I am Yusuf and this is my Brother (Shiber Hur Theater Company, Haifa & The Young Vic Theater, London), Stories Under Occupation(Kasaba Theatre, Ramallah), When the World was Green (The Young Vic Theater, London), The Mural by Mahmoud Darwish (The National Palestinian Theatre, Jerusalem), Burning of the Temple, The Story of the Fall (Midan Theater, Haifa), War is More (Shiber Hur Theater Company, Haifa), Samson and Delilah (Flanders Opera, Antwerp), among others.

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Eugene Schoulgin

Eugene Schoulgin

Eugene Schoulgin is International Secretary and Chairman of the Board of International PEN and an author of Norweigan-Russian origin. He began his career as a writer in 1970 with his first novel The Rabbit Cage; since then he has published both short stories and novels, most notably the best-selling trilogy of novels Memories of Mirella (nominated for the Nordic Literary Award), Federico – Federico! and Salto Mortale.

Since 1994, Eugene has divided his time between writing and working for the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN which he chaired from 2000 to 2004. With this committee he has visited many countries and helped set up PEN Centres in some of the more troubled regions of the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

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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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Hala Shrouf

Hala Shrouf is a Palestinian poet, and holds a BA in English Literature and Translation from Birzeit University. She has worked as a teacher at the Ministry of Education and has taught the deaf at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. She is now working at the Tamer Institute for Community Education. Shrouf won the the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Writer Award in 2004 and published her collection of poems, I Will Follow the Cloud, in 2005. Her work has been translated into several languages including English, French, Spanish and Swedish. Palestinian newspapers regularly publish Shrouf’s work.

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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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William Sutcliffe

William Sutcliffe

The author of five novels, New Boy, Are You Experienced?, The Love Hexagon, Bad Influence and Whatever Makes You Happy, which have been translated into twenty languages. He also works as a journalist and screenwriter. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

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William Sutcliffe

March 19, 2012

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?
Suad: Yes.
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.

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Tashweesh

Tashweesh

Tashweesh is an audio-visual performance group that brings together the different practices and interests of artists Ruanne Abou-Rahme, boikutt, and Basel Abbas (Aswat), using sound, music, image and text. The result is an exploration and collision between sound and video field recordings, archive material, vocals, breaks and soundscapes. The artists have also collaborated and performed together, individually and as Ramallah Underground, since 2003 in various venues and festivals around the world. PalFest is proud to present their first full performance as Tashweesh.

www.tashweesh.com

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Wildworks

Wildworks

Wildworks is an international company of artists, musicians & theatre makers who create unique landscape theatre in challenging places and with extraordinary communities. Their productions have been sited in old quarries, derelict mines, shipyards, abandoned department stores, a Napoleonic citadel, a Royal Palace, the Green Line in Nicosia… They have worked with gospel choirs, drama groups, North African migrants, cake-makers, ex-miners, a young hip-hop group, abseilers and a Hell’s Angels chapter.

They bring the seeds of a story to a site and weave in the strands that tie people and place together.

www.wildworks.biz

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