A Literature Festival for Palestine - on Both Sides of the Green Line

Palfest isn’t just about celebrating the written word. It comes with an agenda.

Beneath a starry night sky, a crowd gathered on a spacious plaza in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, waiting for the next installment of this year’s Palestine Festival of Literature – Palfest for short. Braving unseasonably low temperatures and strong winds, the small but smart-looking audience listened with great interest as celebrated Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, the festival’s founder and chair, welcomed them simply to what may be one of the most complicated literature festivals on earth.

Complicated that is, because in most big festivals around the globe, organizers generally try to keep the focus on literature, pushing politics to the back burner wherever possible. If writers let politics rule the day, says the American novelist Marilynne Robinson, who was in town just two weeks ago for the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem, “we’ve talked ourselves down.”

But from the point of view of the organizers of Palfest, talking up the Palestinian cause is part of their raison d’etre, and to avoid that would be to deny the realities on the ground. The festival was founded in May 2008 not just as a celebration of Palestinian, Arab and international literature, but to bring attention to the myriad ways that Palestinian freedom is stymied by the Israeli occupation.

In fact, just over a mile from here on the other side of town sits Mishkenot Shaananim, the site of the aforementioned International Writers Festival in Jerusalem, a solidly Israeli project which was launched, coincidentally, the very same month as Soueif and her literary partners founded this festival. Six years later, the two festivals happening in each other’s shadow still have no contact with each other, and few if any souls manage to patronize the literary offerings of both. But Soueif, the author of “The Map of Love” (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and most recently, “Cairo: A Memoir of a City Transformed,” says she hopes that could one day happen.

“When the occupation is over and when everybody is equal, it would be amazing and it would be completely natural to have some coordination and exchange. But it needs to be on completely equal footing. As long as there’s an occupation, we can’t see that happening,” Soueif told Haaretz.

The festival does ipso facto interact with Israeli artists, or at least Palestinian artists with Israeli citizenship. For the second year in a row, they are having events well inside the Green Line: Last year it was Nazareth, and this year it is Haifa. After starting off Saturday night in Ramallah, the festival moved to Jerusalem on Sunday and Bethlehem on Monday. Tuesday night features an event in Haifa’s al-Midan theater. Wednesday the festival goes to Nablus, and Thursday, back to Ramallah for the grand finale.

Soueif says that while it is no picnic getting her bevy of international writers into the country – they came from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge and were made to wait there from about 11 A.M until 4 P.M. on Saturday before finally being allowed to cross – Israeli authorities have not put up any noticeable roadblocks to holding the Palestine Festival of Literature in Jerusalem and Haifa.

That is, unless you count the usual checkpoints. Writers crossing over from Ramallah into Jerusalem on Sunday through the massive Qalandia Checkpoint were photographed for Palfest’s website. One the site as well as on social media, one can find new photos as well as videos of previous years’ participants speaking about the dehumanization and discomfort they felt in going through the checkpoint. In fact, the annual festival is so savvy in its use of social media, posting high-quality photographs and videos and tweeting regular, relevant updates about its events that it almost makes the festival at Mishkenot Shaananim – held on alternate years – seem a little behind the digital curve.

And unlike the International Writers Festival in late May, at which some of the events were held in Hebrew without available translation to the surprise of audience members who had read the English schedule and weren’t warned – all the Palfest events come with simultaneous translation available by headphones. And though it is not a big-budget event – support comes from about 16 different organizations and private donors as well as the British Council – it has continued to attract some significant names in international literature. This year, these include Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, author of “The English Patient,” the African-American poet Sapphire; Rachel Shabi, a British-Jewish writer whose family comes from Baghdad; Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based Teju Cole; and Iraqi-British writer Haifa Zangana. Another well-known guest is Sharif Kouddous, the Cairo correspondent for the New York-based “Democracy Now!” program and a journalists who boasts over 68,000 followers on Twitter. On Monday, visting the the West Bank for the first time, he posted photos of the separation barrier he passed on the way to the event in Bethlehem with the line: “The Israeli-built apartheid wall is a grotesque manifestation of occupation.”

The festival’s events vary. Some are educational, such as writing workshops for adults and an animation workshop held for youth in the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. Some are performance-oriented, including music and drama, while others include readings and panels. Almost all are political – though perhaps there is hardly a sentence penned in this part of the world that is not.

The Sunday night event in Jerusalem, held at the open-air Burj al Luqluq Social Centre, featured the female vocalist Salam Abu Emneh, a woman from Nazareth who opened with a song about Jerusalem as the heart of the Palestinian nation.

Afterwards Hussam Ghosheh, a writer and actor from Jerusalem, donned a fez and did a short performance monologue. In it, he described a character crossing through an Israeli checkpoint and eventually, after a humiliating exchange with a Druze soldier, he dreams of beating the soldier’s head to a bloody pulp.

“And the settlers, they used to keep their eyes to the ground when they passed, but now they stare at you wildly,” Ghosheh concluded. “Alas, it looks as if we are tired, so God help us.”

In the final segment of the evening, Jerusalem poet Najwan Darwish read from his work, accompanied by Nathalie Handal, a poet from Bethlehem. Here, there was a beautiful interchange between Arabic and English, deft turns of phrase that have a strong sense of place but also seem to rise above it. In one particularly bold and irreverent piece, he compares Jerusalem to the mythical Medusa, adding: “When I leave you, I turn to stone. When I come back, I turn to stone.” The reading was interrupted repeatedly by the spray of gunshots that punctured the air above them, as if on cue for some movie about poetry unfolding in the middle of a warzone. At first, Handal told the crowd not to worry, it was just fireworks. But as it continued unabated without any pyrotechnics to accompany it, the fact that it was gunfire became clear. The two readers tried to continue but kept stopping, struggling to be heard over the bursts of bullets in the night sky. Soueif came forward to urge the poets to continue reading. And then, when the bullets still didn’t stop, she added: “I want to let you know that all of this shooting, we were just told, is because some prisoners were let out of jail.” The crowed erupted in hearty applause. (The following day, it became apparent that it was one prisoner who had finished serving his term.)

Indeed, Palfest isn’t just about celebrating the written word. It comes with an agenda, and so it should, says bookstore owner and literary critic Mahmoud Muna.

“We would be deluding ourselves if we said that this is solely a literary event without a political agenda. On the contrary, I think this is hugely political, and most of the authors are coming to support the Palestinian people,” says Muna, the co-owner of the Educational Bookshop, which owns four stores in East Jerusalem popular with the international crowd as well as local intellectuals.

“Until this conflict is finished and we know what is Palestine and what is Israel, I’m extremely happy that they’re doing their events everywhere in historic Palestine,” says Muna, adding that his only disappointment was that the big event began and will end in Ramallah rather than Jerusalem.