Palestine Festival of Literature: The Authors Speak

Michael Palin
Ex-Python Michael Palin with Munzer Fahmy at the Palestine Festival of Literature

From the Authors’ blog:

25 BethlehemMichael Palin

We’re now on the fourth day of Palfest. The skies have cleared, its as hot as I always thought it would be here, out here in lands I know only from the picture-books of the Bible.

So, its my first time in this part of the world – despite having been to over 90 countries, the Middle East has been a stranger to me.

When I left London I had a very clear idea of where or what Palestine consisted of. This trip has made me understand that though Palestine may not exist as a country on a map, it is a reality in the minds of 5 million people.

Highlights of my journey have been walking with Raja Shehadeh in the hills around Ramallah, and learning much from him of the old land of Palestine, most of which disappeared in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. From Raja I learned some of the history, of the old villages of Palestine which were destroyed after the war in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forced from their homes, to become refugees. I also something of the beauty of these stony olive-grove-covered hilles which I wouldn’t have appreciated without Raja.

Last night in Ramallah I witnessed some of the finest, most powerful poetry I’ve ever heard. Suheir Hammad had both herself and the audience electrified by the passion of her work and the marvellous rhythmic delivery. She eloquently and beautifully captured the sense of loss that she feels when she talks of Palestine.

This is a literary festival as well as a hourney, and the quality of the participants – from Jeremy Harding to Henning Mankell and from Deborah Moggach to Claire Messud and Carmen Callil and all of those that have taken part has made me quite poignantly aware of what the occupation means to people and of their determination to speak up for the writers and musicians who feel that the occupation has taken their voice away.

It’s been an eye-opening experience for me, and I feel proud of my fellow writers and travellers who have shared it with me. And proud too, of the Palestinians we’ve met, who care so much and work so hard to keep Palestine alive.

25Jenin Henning Mankell

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

24 Ramallah Suheir Hammad

….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, clmbing 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 accesible. 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.

23Jerusalem Ahdaf Soueif

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.”
“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.

27 al-Khalil/Hebron Carmen Callil

We arrived here knowing so little! After 5 days we´ve seen sights unimaginable, learned astonishing facts and indeed, seen evil in action.

It was the Israeli writer David Grossman who used the word evil to describe the activities of his state. He grieves about the effect of the brutal occupation of Palestine on the soul of the people of Israel:

“Hegel said that history is made by evil people. In the Middle East I think we know that the opposite is true: we have seen how a certain history can make people evil. We know that prolonged existence in a state of hostility, which leads us to act more stringently , more suspiciously, in a crueller and more “military” manner, slowly kills something within our sousl and finally hardens like an internal mask of death over our consciousness, our volition, our language, and our simple, natural happiness.

These are real dangers that Israel must act quickly to avoid….”

He is right to grieve. Yesterday we were in Bethlehem, we saw the wall Israel has constructed to imprison and to spy upon the Palestinians of the occupied territory: Watchtowers stud hideous cement panels interlocked, stretching and winding for mile upon mile. Cameras, CCTVs watch every move in the towns, refugee camps and land the wall encircles.

Everywhere there are checkpoints and Israeli soldiers, many of them young women, young girls really, all of them draped in weapons, smoking in our faces as they grudgingly allow our bus of writers to proceed from A to B. Our slow progress through Palestine is nothing compared to that of the men, women and children of the occupied territory who wait for hours to cross the thousands – to me there seem to be millions – of checkpoints that close them in and cut them off from family, school, work, medical help.

The stories we hear from the Palestinians we meet pile horror upon horror. Everywhere we see Jewish Settlements crowding out the old Palestinian towns. They are everywhere. There are new settlements and the beginnings of hundreds more. Curfews, roads blocked, areas where only Israelis can go. Towns and villages closed off and hacked to pieces by road blocks, checkpoints and walls. Labels, tickets, permissions, queries, intermittent water, constant harassment and constant questioning. Where have I read all this before ?: in the 10 years I spent researching and writing about the persecution of the Jews of France and their transportation to the death camps during the Second World War.

So much is the same. But! So much is different – the Palestinians we meet are remarkable people, they laugh, they sing, they charm – cannot fail to charm – all of us. Everywhere we go we meet such courage, such determination, such will to survive. They cannot destroy us, we hear again and again, no matter how hard they try.

Outside Palestine, we in the west know so little. You have to come here to see the evil and brutality of the Israeli state. We could see it all on Television of course: but try to get a camera near these camps, these settlements, these guns! And our media are hounded with that word which sings of injustice: Balance.
Two things are clear to me. First, Israel has become a rogue state and the Jewish people I have known, loved, and whose history I have studied, are betrayed by, and in thrall to, this rogue state.

Secondly. What I have seen is the terrifying intimidation, imprisonment and humiliation of the people of Palestine. But the truth of it is that it is the people of Israel who live in chains and who have no hope while their government inflicts these evils.

We are always being told that there are two stories, two sides to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Indeed there are but there is only one injustice, and that is the state of the Palestinian people imprisoned and tormented, as they are today, by the state of Israel.
Carmen Callil

May 28 2009 (c)

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

4 thoughts on “Palestine Festival of Literature: The Authors Speak”

  1. Marcy – could you please send me the cultural boycott statement. Although I am aware of the boycott, I wasn’t aware of the statement. If I like it, of course I will sign it. I will also encourage the writers I know to do so too.

  2. hi robin, yes, the cultural boycott statement for people in the u.k. can be found here:

    there is an email address to add your name there. for people in the u.s. they can sign the usacbi statement here:

    palestinian filmmaker annemarie jacir has a new group on facebook that you may join as well to help organize in re: the cultural boycott:

  3. Thanks, Marcy. I’ve emailed my name in and forwarded the information to the other writers in the group.

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