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.
“You will go and see for yourself – just see how it is. They have ethnic roads. Certain roads for one ethnicity, other roads for another ethnicity. It is not just about the wall. It is about how people live – how people have to live.”
These were the words of a London-based Palestinian academic and activist when I told him I’d be attending the 2011 Palestine Literary Festival – Palfest for short – founded by the internationally bestselling and highly respected Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif and supported by a group of trustees and various cultural and educational institutions internationally. I told the man that I was ignorant, that reading briefly about the history of Palestine and Israel was nothing like experiencing its reality in the long term, that despite the best will in the world I wasn’t sure how a group of writers could change anything after only a week of touring, reading and speaking. I told him that I have never appreciated non-specialists and dilettantes who weigh in on matters of combined international social, ideological, political, economic, historical and cultural importance after a brief dip in troubled waters. Such experiences can be distorted by a sense of privilege, voyeurism, touristic objectification or simple ignorance. I told him that it is contemptibly easy for those whose lives have never been touched by oppression to have big opinions about the lives of those whom they regard as small, weak, oppressed and outgunned. I told him that Palestine wasn’t on my roster of issues, that I have never thought much about it or taken any stance other than (or more nuanced than) a distanced distaste for the Israeli occupation. I had never been an activist about this issue and I did not plan to become one.
But the man’s answer was wise: since I am a journalist I should participate in Palfest and observe what is around me, without sentimentality or editorialisation. He joked in return that my ignorance could be moulded into neutrality, indifference into impartiality, disinterest into balance, flippancy into black humour.
For the next week I’ll follow his advice. I am in the company of more than a dozen writers as well as various people who are filming, fixing, presenting, organising and documenting the experience. The participants include Gary Younge, Lorraine Adams, Mohamed Hanif, Ursula Owen, Ghada Karmi, John McCarthy, Alice Walker, Ala Hlehel, Asmaa Azaizeh and Anne Chisholm, all of whom are internationally renowned as thinkers, writers and speakers. We will be discussing everything from life writing and autobiography to diaspora and orientalism. Palfest is not overtly political, but it is about combining ideas, people, power, culture and creativity to make something which has a lasting effect on the attendees, the speakers and the wider society in the cities we visit. We will be in Jerusalem, Nablus, Nazareth and Ramallah, the refugee camp at Balata and the university at Bethlehem, with the aim of doing nothing more (and nothing less) than celebrating the written and spoken word, sharing stories and ideas, honouring survival and resilience, deepening our perspective, widening our understanding, examining history and envisioning a future.
The day started brilliantly with breakfast on the terrace and most of us are feeling restored after a good sleep. “We are Family” is playing over the restaurant loudspeakers. The track seems to speak to the rapidly growing bonds of friendship within in our group. But then again the song’s refrain is ironic, to say the least, in terms of the ‘relative values’ displayed by Israeli officialdom.
Heading north from Jerusalem, we re-entered the West Bank and followed winding roads through steep valleys, past olive groves, Arab villages and Israeli settlements. The Israeli settlements are mainly very neat, uniform developments, approached by neat spur roads. In the stark, wild beauty of this landscape such trim suburbs look very out of place behind their perimeter fences. The Arab villages were more organic, rougher around the edges.
And there are checkpoints of course. The one just outside the town of Nablus has been left open for some years now, but nevertheless an Israeli flag still flies above it, just to remind everyone that Israeli might is never far away.
Nablus was buzzing. Immediately you had the sense of a thriving community – an economic and social centre for the area. Wandering the narrow alleyways of the souk with Ursula and Gary, I felt the surge of warmth and excitement I’ve come to associate with being in an Arab town. Although I’ve but a pittance of Arabic, somehow I get the vibe and feel at home. But then why wouldn’t you feel at home in a place where every few metres someone greets you with “Welcome!” It seems amazing that the welcome for strangers – even the smiles and banter for each other – remains such a constant part of Palestinian society. The souk has everything on sale, small stalls selling spices, clothes, hardware. I’ve got to say though that a bucketful of sheep heads beside a butcher’s shop has me hurrying on.
After lunch in a little cafe we rejoined the group and headed north again. The horizon opened out; the landscape more gently rolling than it was near Jerusalem. There seemed to be fewer settlements.
North of Jenin the country opened out even more, acres of farmland surrounding small towns with distant low hills off to the west. It gives you a feeling of how the land would have been right across old Palestine. Then we hit a traffic jam. Not an accident or road works but a checkpoint, a big one, the border. Beyond this we will go “into the ‘48”; that is, into Israel.
The oppression of Israel’s obsession with ‘security’ hits home at places like this. It is a crude industry of humiliation. The security people walk about very slowly chatting noisily to each other as they rudely wave some drivers on, others to stop. They barely look people in the face as they demand to see ID papers. It’s the rudeness, the ritual quality of the degradation that is so obvious and so distressing.
Suddenly we were in the thick of this nonsense again. A plain clothes policeman took exception to one of us taking pictures. We all had to get off the coach to have our passports and bags checked. The racism was rampant. Anyone with a brown skin did not get their passport back – even though they were citizens of America, Britain or Canada.
Most of us were then told to get back on the bus and wait. Around our bubble of detention, cars stood half emptied as sniffer dogs and border guards rifled through them. Their human cargo went through the hall for ID checks and questioning. Some are taken into a small room, for more detailed questioning, perhaps a full body search. Talk on the bus turned again to wondering how the Palestinian people keep so level headed, apparently letting it wash over them.
After more than an hour we went on. Most of us anyway Ahdaf, Omar, Murat and Mohammad were kept there for a couple more hours to answer pointless questions. (Omar and Murat suffered the indignity of a body search.)
Eventually we gathered together again at the Arab Cultural Association in Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel. After supper there we enjoyed an evening with a panel – and much discussion from the floor – on the theme of how the experience of Palestinians can best be expressed to the world through literature.
At the start of the event, the chair of the Arab Writers’ Union, who bore a surprising resemblance to a youthful Danny Kaye, said a few words. He spoke of the importance of literature in the development of the Palestinian liberation narrative. And, touching Ahdaf’s note from yesterday’s blog, he spoke of the importance of building connections: between Palestinian communities in Israel, the Palestinian territories and beyond, and with the wider world.
Sitting in the packed room, looking around at audience and the Palfest group, I was touched by the sense of connection between us all. I don’t know how to say “we are family” in Arabic, but I know I felt it tonight.
The last day of Palfest 2011 — it started quietly. Our trusty bus, the fat bellied one in which we all sat together, rolled out of Ramallah. As I stared out of the window, I could see the wild flowering yellow sprays in amongst the rocks on the hillside, and on a knoll where we stopped for a minute, a whole cluster of the delicate red anemones. The ones with the dark hearts that leap up on the frail green stalk.
At Palfest we have come as visitors, well wishers, writers come to a land that is undergoing great difficulty. I thought of the stumps of olive trees, a scarred field glimpsed out of the bus window one morning near Nablus. The Israeli soldiers had cut the trees because they were deemed to be a security risk. Whole families depended on the livelihood from the trees.
We got into Hebron a little later than planned, There was a tour of the embattled city, where settlers had come into the very heart of the city and terribly disrupted the lives of Palestinians. The glorious city of sandstone and carved trellis work, an ancient city was being depleted of its inhabitants and The Hebron Rehabilitation committee which we visited was involved in helping rebuild the houses, stone by stone, millimeter by millimeter as someone there put it. In the street of the Gold market there were international observers. One of the them told me that there job was to watch the school children, both boys and girls had their bags checked by soldiers and were also subjected to body searches. The gentleman at the Hebron Rehabilitation Center who was speaking to us about the experience of the children had said: `These things come in the blood, they are bloody things.’
We walked in the street and above our heads was netting – the settlers who lived above the street had flung garbage and all manner of waste, onto the heads of the shopkeepers there. There were soldiers everywhere, on rooftops, at street corners. I thought of the students in the workshop at Hebron University. How attentive they were to the music of poetry. What were their daily lives like? I thought back to the child in Balata refugee camp who had made a picture of barbed wire, knotted around a flag, and a huge lock on the barbed wire and a creature that looked part bird, part woman flying down. In its beak was a key.
We passed Beit Jala in our bus and on the walls of the check point at Bethlehem, those enormous dirty grey walls that cut the air and sky, someone had painted a hand, on the palm a red heart, but the fingers missing – with the caption Five Fingers of the same Hand. Elsewhere on the wall there was huge and colorful graffiti, animals with huge tails and wings, trees, people gathering, a celebration of life and resistance. Inside the checkpoint we were in a large empty shed. No soldiers were visible, but there was a very loud voice that came on from time to time, barking out orders. Ahead of us was a Palestinian family with two tiny boys. One of the boys held onto the bars of the swivel gate and tried to poke his head through, the sort of thing a child would do. Behind us was a multicolored poster of the church of the Holy Nativity. `Come and feel the glory’ it said and under it, in elaborate letters – Israel. It took us a while, but we were able to find our way to the right gate, the one that suddenly had a light flashing. One by one, passport in hand, we made our way through.
The evening started with a reception for Palfest in the American Colony Hotel. After the wine and canapes we set out in a bus for Silwan. We were to read that night in the solidarity tent. Silwan is where houses are being demolished and the people are resisting as best they can. Earlier that evening the Israeli army had lobbed tear gas at the tent, trying to get rid of the people in it. Close to Silwan the bus stopped. We left the bus and walked in a group. The acrid scent of tear gas was everywhere. The dark was illuminated by lights from a few shops, and we could see the glowing lights in the houses nearby. A cluster of people stood there, as we figured out what to do. Onions helped, cut onions that were passed around, scarves, scraps of tissue, anything to ease the tear gas. There were broken stones on the road, and from the houses nearby the people were chanting Allah u Akbar’ Whistles came in the dark. There were soldiers on the hillside nearby, though we could not immediately see them. Our destination was close by. How dark the tent was as we stumbled in, a cheer went up as the lights came on. Plastic chairs were rearranged quickly. Fekhri Abu Diab from the Silwan Solidarity Committee who welcomed us spoke in very moving fashion. `We had wanted to welcome you’ he said `in our own way and with the poems of a thirteen year old poet, but see we now welcome you with tear gas.’– One of the signs in the tent – `Israel wants to demolish the houses of 1500 years. We will not give up our houses — Bustan Committee.`
Several of us read, poems and prose pieces and Ahdaf did an amazing job of on the spot translation. There was supposed to be an open mike so the people of Silwan could read and share their work, but because of the tear gas, the parents had taken their children to the relative safety of home. The Palestinian rap group DAM brought the house down with their songs. The first rap was in English, for the benefit of Palfest, since many of us did not know Arabic. An amazing piece about being in an elevator with a beautiful woman who could well aim her machine gun at you. The lead singer had a T shirt with a teddy bear. The bear had an eyepatch. When I asked him what it was. He looked at me and said `Just like that.’
So ended our last evening all together.
At Herod’s gate
I heap flowers in a crate
Poppies, moist lilies –
It’s dusk, I wait.
The color of your eyes before you were born
That hard winter
And your mother brought you to Damascus gate.
My desire silent as a cloud,
It floats through New gate
Over the fists
Of the beardless boy-soldiers
You stopped for me at Lion’s gate,
Feet wet with dew
From the torn flagstones
Love, I was forced to approach you
Through Dung Gate
My hands the color
Of the broken houses of Silwan,
At Zion’s gate I knelt and wept.
An old man, half lame,
– He kept house in Raimon’s café –
Led me to the fountain.
At Golden gate
Where rooftops ring with music,
I glimpse your face.
You have a coat of many colors — impossible grace.
c. Meena Alexander 2011
April 4, 2011 – Composed late at night, Indian Hospice, Jerusalem
(Actually early the next morning, 12:38 am; continued writing very early morning April 5)
April 20, 2011 – Performed in Silwan