When Are You Coming Back?
After an uncertain week in which the Egyptian authorities didn’t seem to want to let us in, and six hours of waiting for permits to be accepted, the group of forty that comprises PalFest 2012, clapped in jubilation as their bus crossed the border at Rafah. Joining the group from Qatar, as part of the team that coordinated upcoming high school workshops, I was tired but also watchful. I wanted to soak in every minute about this place I had heard about so much both from personal stories of Palestinians living in Qatar and also from the international media.
On the surface, life in Gaza City appears familiar, like most other Arab cities I’ve been to. “This reminds me of Syria,” I say as we pass a roundabout with a waterfall. As we tour one of the universities, I am reminded of a workshop I gave once in Yemen. The friendliness of the people is another commonality with the openness you’d find in much of the Arab world: people are eager to meet us, shake our hands, and grin widely as the PalFest bus passes through their neighborhood.
But once you are here for a few days, you begin to see that this is not ordinary life at all. There are men in identical sage suits, each with a discrete lapel pin of a tricolored flag. When one goes, two more come to replace him. At most public gatherings men and women move to opposite sides of the room whether at meetings, or in a classroom. From the daily power outages which halt lectures in progress, meals being made, or the internet router, to those who wait for news of loved ones, missing for months or years, this is a place where people are balancing the pressures of hope and fear as if weighing scales hover over them.
Everyone greets us with the same opening: “Welcome to Gaza.” And it’s not an insignificant greeting since getting here is not easy. Once you are here, though, and you see the passion in their eyes for news of the outside world, the high tech gadgets that give them virtual access where physical mobility is limited, you hope it will be much easier for all those who want to come and support their resilience.
As the days rush forward, we hear another repeated phrase: “Public events in Gaza are not common.” The uncommonness of workshops, poetry readings, and even a concert, encourage residents to behave as they’d wish, not as they are expected. Attendees of the PalFest concert featuring Eskanderella and Palestinian groups sat together, in mixed rows. During the closing evening, audience members protest loudly when someone came in to take away a young girl’s mobile phone, punishment for taking unauthorized footage of a plain-clothes policeman. To those living outside the unique circumstances of a double, if not triple siege, these actions are commonplace, ordinary, and instinctual. For those living between Egypt and Israel, and under surveillance by their own people, they are the essence of autonomy. Autonomous action that is the building block of self-respect as well as expression.
Tuesday 8th May
On the hotel terrace in the morning, The Godfather has replaced Titanic as theme music of the day. Instead of mushy romance we now have eerie menace, punctuated by a series of sonic booms rolling in over the sea. Somewhere out there, invisible in the clear blue sky, are Israeli fighter planes breaking the sound barrier. It adds to the strange sense of being trapped in a huge oen air camp. Unlike in the West Bank, where the Israeli presence is clear and present in the form of watchtowers and surveillence as well as armed soldiers and checkpoints along with the omnipresent wall. From the hotel terrace at night, banks of fierce white floodlights emerge over the water, shining out of the darkness. These are a reminder of the three miles limit. The fish are beyond that, of course, and yesterday two fishermen were picked up and taken away by an Israeli patrol for trying to catch sardines.
Around midday we head along the coast to Rafah. The road runs alongside a thin strip of sand fencing off the sea. The water here is not clean enough to bathe in. At Museirat the river is choked with raw sewage. Water is a serious issue in Gaza. The Coastal Aquifer is not replenished sufficiently to provide enough clean water and the blocade means materials needed for repair to the system are not available. As a result large quantities of untreated sewage are released into the water system which in turn brings health problems.
The Israelis cleared some 21 settlements out of this part of Gaza in 2005. It is rich, fertile land filled with palm trees which give the name to the Deir al-Balah refugee camp. In Rafah, we visit the Rachel Corrie Center named after the 23 year old International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed there in 2003. Rachel was acting as a human shield, trying to protect Palestinian homes from being demolished by Israeli bulldozers. The centre provides activites for children. Many have nowhere to go outside school and here they have the chance to act in plays, to draw and to paint. There is a library and films are shown. Children with behavioural problems are provided with conselling by child psychologists.
From the centre we walk up to a tattered tent with an armed guard which marks the frontier zone. Many of the houses along this side of the town were destroyed by the Israelis in 2009. Some kids trail alongside and cheerfully point out which houses have been rebuilt. To them, everything happened ‘zamaan’, as in a long time ago. Such is the memory of a young child. It all blurs into the distant past. One day they will learn all the details but for the moment it is all just a game.
The street ends abruptly in a storm of fine sand whipped up by heavy lorries that grumble out of the cloud and disappear down into the streets beyond. The guard post is a shelled ruin of a building occupied by disgruntled police officers whose meal we have have just disturbed. A tin bowl of beans and a handful of round loaves lie on a bare table. There are no walls, no doors, nothing to stop the dust blowing through. Some fuss is made over our cameras which are duly put away. The lorries continue lumbering through, cutting their way through much less robust vehicles – cars, taxis, motorcycles all struggling through the mayhem.
Beyond you glimpse a cluster of shelters, some of them collapsed buildings, others flimsy shelters of flapping canvas. Grinning phantoms emerge from the shadows; men coated from head to foot in white powder that paints every eyelash and wrinkle, earlobe and hair. Tunnel diggers come to stare at us. We are the spectacle. A group going by on the back of an empty lorry wave as they bump past, to be swallowed up by the billowing sand.
After much to and froing, the guards accompany us across the soft sand to a shelter where we are invited to peer down into a well of darkness. It is twenty four metres deep and the only way down is on two bits of wood looped together into a seat that is winched up and down with an electric motor. ‘The power has gone,’ one of the men explains, without saying if there is anyone stuck down there waiting to come up. The ground beneath our feet is honeycombed with tunnels. There are rumoured to be a thousand of them, varying in length from 200m to almost a kilometre. There used to be five times that number. Some are only a metre square, while others are tall enough for people to walk through. Cars are brought through in sections although apparently there is rumoured to be one tunnel big enough to drive a car through at 20,000 dollars a go. Of course, they collapse on a regular basis. It is an indication of how desperate people are that there prepared to risk their lives and those of their sons. Young boys working the smaller tunnels earn a hundred dollars a day. The men operating the winches earn half of that. They bring in everything from medicine to cement. As if to prove this an articulated lorry loaded high with potato crisps goes by.
Opinion is divided about the tunnels but many Gazans are against them. They earn money for people on both sides, one reason why they are not closed. They also give people an excuse to attack, under the pretext that weapons are being smuggled in. There are aso those who argue that if the tunnels did not exist to alleviate the effects of the blocade, the world would be forced to take action to bring it to an end.
Gaining popular support for the Palestinian cause is also the subject of the meeting we hold with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions coordinators in Gaza later that afternoon at the hotel. Inspired by the anti-Apartheid campaign in South Africa as well as earlier movements such as India’s struggle against British rule, BDS group is determined to raise awareness here and abroad about the importance of boycotting Israeli products, academic institutions and participation in sporting events. There are suggestions about what Egypt can do to aid the boycott, like providing goods that are currently only available from Israel. In the U.S there is growing support for the divestment campaign as well as the boycott. Articles on the subject in the press have multiplied in recent years. Gradually, more and more people are beginning to realise that it is one of the few avenues open to try and bring about real change by non-violent means. The longer Israel is allowed to present itself as a normal country on an equal with any democracy, the longer the illegal occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people will be allowed to continue.
On our way back from Rafah we pass by the remains of Yasser Arafat Airport. Once a symbol of progress being made along the road to Palestinian statehood the opening in 1998 was a fanfare event attended by people like Bill Clinton. Three years later it was bombed by the IDF and the runways bulldozed. The ruins remain a testimony to that failed dream. The local coordinators are nervous as we wander around. In the distance the Israeli watchtowers can be seen.
Coming back to Cairo from Gaza is a strange and difficult experience. For five days the Palestine Festival of Literature – a collection of Arab artists from inside and outside the Arab world – lived in Gaza City. Now we have left.
The lights, the noise, the traffic of Cairo. The contrast is overwhelming.
Gaza, our neighbour, our sister: how close we are, have always been. And how hard she struggles now, alone.
But Gaza is not defeated.
Sarajevo wears her scars with defiance– memorializing history’s lessons for the next generation. Beirut paints hers over with malls and make-up – choosing to forget, to live for today. New York pushes herself further into the heavens – challenging the future. But Gaza, Gaza rebuilds and rebuilds and rebuilds again. It takes everything she has to continue to exist. She can neither cement her history nor secure her future. She exists firmly in the present: rebuilding, rebuilding, resisting.
In Gaza your daily life is consumed by fundamentals – water, electricity, petrol. All in short supply, all arriving and disappearing according to the designs of foreign hands.
In Gaza the only free breath you can take is looking out to sea. But when the sun sets the water is illuminated with prison floodlights – a perfect unmovable line of lights that cuts short the horizon, erases the possibility of the unknown.
In Gaza people know you’re foreign when you jump at the explosion of a sonic boom; still not yet numbed to the jailor’s torments.
In Gaza you exist between the past and the future, suffering colonial barbarities unleashed by robots in the air.
In Gaza I was greeted with a friendliness I have never felt before. I saw a resilience that should not have to be possible. And I had the honour of meeting a people who are keeping alive – against all odds – the values we prize as humans: compassion, community, patience. That they have been so abandoned should make every one of us question what little humanity we have left . And do everything we can to hold on to it.
“Art is a hammer to shape reality”: PalFest breaks the siege of Gaza
Amid the focus on the economic hardships caused by Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, it has been easy for many to overlook the fact that the territory’s 1.6 million people have been kept under a cultural siege as well.
This is ironic because much international debate has emphasized the rights and wrongs of cultural boycott of Israel in the context of the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.
For years, the Palestine Festival of Literature — PalFest — has been trying to break this siege.
PalFest began in 2008 in the West Bank, and tried its best to come to Gaza in 2009 with the clear objective of connecting international writers with Palestinian writers and audiences in Gaza. However, Israeli occupation forces denied organizers entry permits through the Erez crossing in the north of the Gaza Strip. In 2010, PalFest organizers tried again to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing — along the Strip’s border with Egypt — but were also denied entry by the regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011.
Academics, intellectuals and students had eagerly followed the news of whether or not the authors invited by PalFest would be allowed into Gaza this year. Undeterred by the disappointing denial, some authors last year were able to take part via video conference (see video of Haidar Eid’s 2010 introduction).
On 5 May this year, some 14 months after the Egyptian revolution began, we were finally able to welcome PalFest — and an impressive group of writers, artists, bloggers and social activists — to Gaza.
This would scarcely have been possible without the uprisings in the Arab world. This gathering demonstrates that despite the Palestinian cause being hijacked by dictatorships for many years, it continues to bring Arabs together as well and helps foster a re-emergent sense of pan-Arabism.
Not without a struggle
Egyptian novelist and PalFest founder Ahdaf Soueif, wrote in the independent daily al-Shorouk about the motivations behind the festival: “Civil society brings to life the conscience of the world, travelling by sea and air to express solidarity with our brothers in Gaza … the world asks: Will the Egyptian revolution, the awakening of Egypt, change the circumstances under which Palestine lives?” (“Palestine Literature Festival,” 2 May 2012 [Arabic])
And although PalFest did finally come to Gaza this year, it wasn’t without a struggle. It is well known that the Egyptian government has contributed to the Israeli-engineered siege on Gaza. In spite of bureaucracy, restrictions and delays from the Egyptian foreign ministry to issue entry permits for the 43 writers, PalFest participants were so determined that they undertook a media campaign until the permits were granted.
A joyful, but delayed welcome
On 5 May at 2pm, and after thorough preparations inside and outside Gaza for the upcoming events, six BDS activists were on the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and the guests were on the Egyptian side.
But the hours passed and the sky began to darken. PalFest producer Omar Hamilton called. “Things are fine with most of us, but still there are issues with some of the participants’ papers!”
It was Alaa Abed El-Fattah, his wife Manal and their infant son Khaled who were sent back, but not for long as they joined the group the next day.
Only at 7pm, ululations and chants rolled through the place where the hosts were standing when they saw the bus approaching.
Healing wounds not breaking legs
“Culture, art and academia contribute directly to shaping the individual and collective consciousness,” said Dr. Haidar Eid, PalFest’s partner in Gaza and a professor at al-Aqsa University, at a press conference and welcoming ceremony at Rafah as soon as the guests crossed.
Eid, active with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PACBI), spoke about the growth of BDS campaigns around the globe that aim to pressure Israel to end its policies of apartheid, colonization, abuses of human rights and regular violations of international law.
Solidarity with the Palestinian people through BDS is one of the key unarmed forms of resistance, he said. “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” Eid said, quoting Bertolt Brecht.
Eid also recalled the words of Mubarak’s last foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who once promised to “break the legs” of Palestinians if they dared “breach Egypt’s national security.” This time, “our brothers and sisters from Egypt are coming to kiss the feet of Gaza children, to heal the wounds created by the dictator’s regime,” Eid said.
Literature, Poetry and Music
Over the next four days, PalFest participants fanned out across Gaza, conducting writing and translation workshops in coordination with four universities and five public schools. At a creative writing workshop at Gaza University, for example, Egyptian novelist and Cairo University lecturer Sahar El-Mougy, shared her own literary experience with students. Similarly, Ahdaf Soueif, Khaled El- Khameissy and Tariq Hamdan had deeply engaged discussions with Al-Aqsa University students.
A public concert at Gaza City’s Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Centre brought together Palestinian and Egyptian musicians. The event was opened by Palestinian singer Muhammad Akeila performing “Mawtini” (My Homeland), and Egyptian revolutionary band Eskenderalla performed “Ya Filastinia” (Oh Palestinians).
Poet Amin Haddad recited the words of his father, poet Fouad Haddad, the legendary dean of vernacular 20th Century Egyptian poetry:
Sow the land with resistance
Spread the seeds everywhere
Where there is darkness, it brings light
When imprisoned, it breaks the wall
Be the first …
Be the first Only blood is honest
From the times of emigrant home
To the day of victorious home
Sow the land with resistance.
Performed with artistic sensibility and thoroughness, the concert was closed with a joint Palestinian-Egyptian song. “Build your palaces on our fields and orchards, from the efforts of our hard-working hands,” implored the song, a masterpiece written by Ahmad Fouad Nigm and performed by Sheikh Imam Issa in the 1970s.
For the first time, PalFest’s organizers made their support for the BDS movement crystal clear. “PalFest has endorsed the 2004 Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. PalFest 2012 stands against the siege of Gaza; it is committed to re-invigorating cultural ties between Arab countries, ties that have been eroded for too long,” the festival said in a 29 April statement (“The 2012 Palestine Festival of Literature”).
This support was cemented during PalFest with meetings between organizers, writers and BDS activists in Gaza. All the discussions emphasized that BDS is a rights-based movement, that seeks to uphold the fundamental and universally-recognized rights of the Palestinian people: an end to military occupation and colonization; full rights for Palestinians citizens of Israel, and respect for the rights of refugees, including the right to return.
Authors participating in PalFest stressed the history of anti-normalization in the Arab world and mainly in Egypt as they promised to work on establishing the Egyptian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Others proposed efforts to end the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ), an economic and trade agreement that Egypt signed with Israel in 2004, which mainly functioned to remove the Arab taboo against conducting business openly with Israel.
Closed down by the police
The final night of PalFest at Dar al-Basha, a historic house in Gaza City, was shut down by the police — an incident for which the police chief later apologized verbally, although no written statement has yet been issued (“#PalFestGaza shut down by police, then receives official apology,” PalFest press release, 10 May 2012).
The repression did not dampen spirits. Participants and the audience left together for the Al-Quds hotel, and chanting “let’s continue,” they made sure the festival went on. It was an unforgettable night of poetry from Amin Haddad, Tariq Hamdan and music from the talented artist and oud player Hazem Shaheen.
Between darkness and light
In Gaza, the only breath of fresh air you can have is when you look at the sea. On my way home on the last evening, and as the taxi was moving along the coastline in the night, one might be shocked to see for the first time the ominous prison-like floodlights shining in the sea, or as Omar Hamilton accurately put it, “a perfect unmovable line of lights that cuts short the horizon, erases the possibility of the unknown.”
On land, by contrast, all of Gaza was drowning in a sea of darkness, with queues of cars and motorbikes waiting for the fuel supply to run. Each time I came to the festival, until that moment, cars were waiting in an interminable line.
The contrast is really overwhelming. Sitting beside the taxi driver, an agitated and tense passenger angrily talked about the lack of electricity and abruptly lamented the loss of his father and house in Israel’s winter 2008-2009 attack on Gaza.
He seemed traumatized; it didn’t seem usual to hear at that time of the night a story from the days of Operation Cast Lead. He was recalling an event that took place three years ago, as if it took place just hours before.
It was a reminder that returning to the usual rhythm of Gaza life after the unusual and exciting experience with PalFest is really strange and difficult. Nevertheless, times are changing and the global BDS movement is helping to empower us and our supporters with effective moral choices to end the injustices we live through.
This is why PalFest in Gaza was so important. In the face of so many obstacles, it was a celebration of the power of culture in the face of the culture of power.
Taking literature to where shit happens
First published in BookBrunch here.
There can be few literature festivals in the world that are as controversial or as difficult to get to for the participants, the audience and the volunteers as the Palestine Festival of Literature. There are also few literary festivals which are as appreciated.
There has been a blockade on Gaza since Hamas were elected in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Tunnels have been built on the Southern border to bypass restrictions put in place by this illegal blockade. As the Gazan joke goes, don’t worry, at the end of the tunnel, there is a tunnel.
The types of products we witnessed being “smuggled” through the Rafah borders by the rather pernicious economy that has developed as a result of these unnatural restrictions were truckloads of Tide washing powder and disposable nappies. It is a cruel and arbitrary closure that is causing malnutrition, through restrictions in food supplies, bad housing, through restrictions in the importation of building materials, and death, through banning the importation of essential medicines.
The worst, worst thing about being in Gaza, one student told me, is not being able to get the books we want.
Earlier this month, I was part of a delegation breaking the siege on Gaza by crossing the Egyptian border. We thought at one point that we might have to resort to the tunnels to get in, as the Egyptian authorities held up the permission-granting process for Egyptian participants until the day before our departure date and, even then, it was only through drumming up international media pressure that these permits were granted. We were again stalled at the border trying to get in, this time for over four hours in the hateful carcinogenic capsule that is the Rafah border crossing. In previous years, participants in the West Bank have been strip-searched at checkpoints by the Israelis, tear-gassed at readings, filmed and threatened by settlers, and female writers have been slapped in the face by soldiers.
A sign,”Welcome to Palestine”, greets the visitor to Gaza with the emblem of the Palestinian National Authority above it. “FREE GAZA!” demands the graffiti lower down on the opposite wall, and on some levels it feels there is a stand-off going on between the two statements. A shelled-out building staring out to sea then reassures the visitor that they are in the right place.
Night had fallen when we arrived and Gaza for us was velvet darkness, a swollen moon and a gentle sea. On that first drive into Gaza, I thought that the route up from the border was uninhabited and I wrote that I felt as though we had journeyed into a secret garden, a forbidden city. But that was only because I had not realized the extent to which Gaza was being literally blacked out.
Through the combined effect of the Israeli bombing of the power station in 2006 and the blockade, which also inhibits the importation of fuel, electricity is limited to eight hours a day, backed up, if inhabitants can afford it, by generators that are unstable and fume-producing. Most petrol stations stand empty, but queues that can last all day of cars, tractors, motorbikes and pedestrians begin on the basis of a rumour that petrol has finally arrived.
The sea, previously the only unlimited visible expanse for the fenced-in, crowded, predominantly young inhabitants of this strip of land, has recently been lit by Israeli floodlights that illuminate the darkened population at regular intervals, to prevent Palestinian fishermen from fishing the fish they have harvested for generations.
The students we lecture and hold workshops for are as students in an ideal world should be: ballsy and bright. “Why,” they ask, “should Palestinian writers only write about politics? How do you write from a child”s perspective? Does revolutionary writing go stale? Why is Gaza so misrepresented?” “Why,” one student asks a prominent Egyptian blogger, “did you tweet that you were scared to be visiting Gaza? What were you scared of exactly?”
At night, some cafes are lit by bare candles stuck on white tiles and shisha coals glow in small mounds as men inhale, in silence, in the dark. But our crowds cheer as the lights go out, Ha! It”s done it again! is the tone of it as the power cuts out again, and again, before generators kick in, if they do. Security men stand around in suits with small guns and little work, occupied only with duties of watching and waiting and informing on others who watch wait and inform in defense.
A taxi driver shows us where the Israeli prison was (it was bombed along with thousands of public institutions, factories, farms homes and other buildings during the January 2009 attacks), he spent four years there in the 1970s for not having his ID card with him when stopped by Israeli soldiers. The mother of a prisoner at the sit-in held in solidarity with the hunger-striking prisoners who are protesting against administrative detention, solitary confinement, the lack of family visits and demanding other very, very basic human rights for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, tells me that a letter she sent to her son, who she has been unable to see for eight years, took two years to reach him via the Red Cross.
We meet visual artists, theatre producers, poets, novelists, filmmakers and actresses. We bring a music festival to a room which seems fit to explode with a jerky, moving energy even before the music starts. “I had never been to a music concert before, one girl of 19 says, I had no idea what they were like.”
I meet one man who had been trying for seven years to finish his studies in Cairo, but has been denied an exit visa. “The Israelis say I am Hamas,” he says, “I say I am not Hamas. They say I am. I say I’m not. What can I do? They are the enemy.”
“You have quite a fearsome enemy,” I say.
“Yes,” he replies, looking up, “As the Americans say, shit happens.”
“They will come again, and again,” a lawyer tells me, speaking of Israeli F16 strikes of the type that killed over 1,500 inhabitants of Gaza in 2008/9. “We just need one of these prisoners on hunger strike to die and Islamic Jihad will send one tiny rocket [he indicates three quarters of the length of his finger] “and that’s it. They are just waiting for an opportunity. And again, and again they will come. And we are here. Waiting.”
At an event as part of this year’s Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) in Gaza, an audience member spoke about the dilemma facing the Palestinian identity. “We are constantly referred to as Gazans” he said, “but I am Palestinian”. The subtlety of his statement may be missed at first, but in the context of the ever-compromised Palestinian identity, this distinction points to a crucial component of Israel’s strategy of power. The siege on Gaza succeeds in physically isolating the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians living in the occupied territories and in Israel; similarly, the militarised checkpoints, illegal settlement building and apartheid Wall that occupy the West Bank are all designed to fragment the Palestinian people. Yet the desire to restore and strengthen a unified cultural identity is willed by Palestinians everywhere.
No wonder then, that this year’s PalFest – a cultural festival that places Palestine at the centre of the initiative – was greatly welcomed by people in Gaza. Since 2008, the festival has repeatedly tried, but never managed to reach Gaza from the West Bank because of the restrictions imposed by the Israeli Occupation. Members of the festival had also failed to cross via the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border once before. So finally getting into Gaza was a sign that the demands of the Egyptian revolution to open the Rafah border had partially been met and an apt way of celebrating the fifth PalFest. We took with us over 1,000 books, 37 Arab artists and packed festival programme to hold free public events, creative-writing workshops at schools and universities and meet with bloggers, writers and activists working in Gaza.
Unlike in the West Bank, the overt signs of occupation and military control do not pervade the Gazan landscape. But somehow the sense of an imminent threat constantly hovers over you to test your patience. It is because we have read about the many remorseless tragedies inflicted on innocent Palestinians? Is it because the sonic booms of Israeli fighting jets are practice sounds for the real attacks that are to come? Is it because the glaring floodlights at sea serve as a constant reminder that Israel is in control of the airspace, the coastline and the gateway to other Palestinians? On the ground, the constant presence of Palestinian ‘watchmen’ makes you understand why people living in Gaza refer to it as “the world’s largest prison camp”. But for four days, our group of authors, poets, bloggers and musicians were determined to lift the moral and cultural siege by bringing festivity to Gaza. For PalFest, finally connecting with audiences in Gaza helped us consolidate our links to Palestine and gave new meaning to the festival.
This was the first year PalFest publicly endorsed the 2004 Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, though unofficially it has supported the boycott from the start. The festival has always resisted the idea of using the event as a space for dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian writers. Firstly, if such a dialogue were to take place it must exist outside the colonial hierarchies set by Israel; secondly, the main aim of the festival has always been to strengthen the cultural autonomy of Palestinians and enrich cultural life in Palestine. The call for boycott is more than just taking a resistant stance against cultural initiatives that normalise illegal acts of Israeli occupation. Rather it forces writers, administrators and audiences to re-engage with the politics of cultural initiatives and making sure that culture is administered appropriately in regions where civil liberties are quashed. In a context like Palestine, where cultural production is inextricably bound to the politics of the region, the call for boycott offers a useful strategy to carve out an independent cultural space and re-establish culture as means of political engagement.
The most important lesson the festival teaches is that the right to self-representation and narration is the real power to be seized. Especially in Gaza, where cultural production is met with endless limitations: there are limited book supplies and some are censored by the authorities, there is no cinema in the whole of Gaza, electricity cuts out so online connectivity is slow and the political conservatism in Gaza puts cultural production under duress. Our closing night event at this year’s festival was shut down by police and though we later received a public apology, no real reason was given. But one can assume it was to silence the words of our participants. The constant blows to free expression are harming the freedoms of Palestinians everywhere. But these limitations are an inevitable part of life in Gaza. As the late Palestinian poet and PalFest patron, Mahmoud Darwish, wrote: “We are unfair to her when we search for her poems. Let us not disfigure the beauty of Gaza. The most beautiful thing in her is that she is free of poetry at a time when the rest of us tried to gain victory with poems.” And despite this, when you speak to bloggers, activists, audiences and writers you realise how much culture is fought for in Gaza. There are several new online writing projects that PalFest is supporting like Diwan Ghazza that connect bloggers across Palestinian cities and the aim is to keep these connections growing.
The work that PalFest achieved during the four-day festival in Gaza is only the start of the work that must continue in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. Until the festival returns to Palestine next year the bilingual website will be the main space to continue our links with audiences there as well as a platform for new artistic collaborations.
Piece first published in Untitled Books