From Vanunu to the New Jew

June 6, 2009 § 7 Comments

Mordechai Vanunu breaks the rules

Mordechai Vanunu breaks the rules

I cannot keep silent … Disaster follows disaster; the land lies in ruins … My people are fools; they do not know me.” Jeremiah 4:19

Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew, born in Marrakesh. Today he credits his humanity to having been born in an Arab country rather than in the Jewish state. He was nine when he was taken to Israel. He attended an ultra orthodox school, and after his military service became a nuclear technician at the Dimona plant. At this time his anti-Zionist politics developed. Later he flirted with Buddhism, converted to Christianity, and in London in 1986 told the Sunday Times what he knew of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, backing his claims with photographic evidence.

He was then caught in a ‘honey trap’, lured by a beautiful woman from London to Italy, drugged and kidnapped in Rome by Mossad (with the connivance of British, French and Italian intelligence services), and brought back to Israel, where he served 18 years in prison for his truth-telling, twelve of them in solitary confinement. He says he survived because of his strong will (“the first thing I did in prison was give up smoking”), and by playing opera records. He refused to converse with the only human beings available – his guards. His lawyer describes him as “the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met.”

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Like Cattle in an Abbatoir

June 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

Debborah Moggach and Suheir Hammad respond to conditions in Hebron/al-Khalil

Debborah Moggach and Suheir Hammad respond to conditions in Hebron/al-Khalil

More on Palfest. Deborah Moggach, author of 16 novels and the screenplay for ‘Pride and Prejudice’, describes her week on the West Bank, below. It is important that this is on the Books pages, rather than the news pages, of the Guardian – culture offers an opportunity to reach people beyond the usual channels. Read to the end for Sousan Hammad’s beautifully-written piece on the literature festival.

I’m still recovering from a tumultuous week in Palestine where, between 23 and 28 May, 16 writers from around the world took part in the Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest). It was started last year by Ahdaf Soueif as a way of bringing poets, journalists, publishers and novelists to the occupied territories to celebrate, in Edward Said’s words, “the power of culture over the culture of power”. There’s nothing else quite like it: due to the restrictions on movement, it is we, the visitors, who bring the mountain to Muhammad, travelling around in a bus visiting towns in the West Bank to do readings with Palestinian writers, stage music and poetry events, conduct workshops with students and visit refugee camps. This year’s group included Michael Palin, Henning Mankell, Claire Messud, Jamal Mahjoub, Abdulrazak Gurnah and the dazzling poet/performer Suheir Hammad.

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Suheir Hammad

June 5, 2009 § Leave a comment


Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Suheir stars in the film Salt of this Sea, but it is surely time someone directed her in a poetry performance DVD. You have to hear her read to really appreciate what she does. A good place to start is the poem First Writing Since, which concerns 9/11. Here is We Spend the Fourth of July in Bed. And one for Rachel Corrie. Here is part one and part two of an al-Jazeera International interview, and here she is reading for Palfest in Ramallah. I hope the Palfest film-makers have more to come. The most powerful part of her reading in Ramallah – powerful enough to bring the audience to tears – was her series of poems for Gaza:

Jeremy Harding describes Suheir as “a younger, image-conscious, thoughtful militant for Palestine, one of a new generation who do the writing, while the Israelis oblige by extending the wall.”

Facts in the Air

June 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

The web, writes Palfest participant Jeremy Harding, is one of the few places where Palestinians, losing ground by the day to the realities of occupation and settlement, can make their aspirations plain. Jeremy’s first diary piece on Palestine is here.

A good way to grasp what’s happening to East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories is from the air. Google Earth can do that for you, but there’s a history of contention: in 2006, users created tags for Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the war of 1948-49; the following year Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades were said to be checking potential Israeli military targets against Google Earth pictures; last year there was a controversy over the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam, when a user called Thameen Darby posted a note claiming it was formerly a Palestinian locality ‘evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war’. Kiryat Yam, its residents protested as they reached for the nearest lawyer, was built in the 1930s.

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Palfest 09: a Participant’s First Response

June 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

At the Qalandia checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. Leila Khaled's head peeks out between the I and O of Hip Hop.

At the Qalandia checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. Leila Khaled's head peeks out between the I and O of Hip Hop.

I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MJ Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.

They will stand up, even if I can’t tell how they possibly can. What I saw in Palestine confirmed me in my belief that a two-state solution is impossible, but also made me very pessimistic about the only real solution, the one-state solution – such is the level of Zionist hatred and arrogance, so deeply entrenched is Zionist settlement on the landscape and Zionist assumptions in the minds of Israeli Jews.

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