Palfest 09: a Participant’s First Response

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.

There was inspiration and conversation. There were great meals. At one I harangued Mahmoud Abbas’s chief of staff (Rafik Husseini took it like the gentleman he clearly is), and at another I was talking to the heroic Mordechai Vanunu. There was a walk in the beautiful, Zionist-vandalised hills outside Ramallah, in a thin gap of olive trees between the thick scars of occupation. There was even dancing. But there was weeping too. For me, two afternoons of weeping, in the Aida camp in Bethlehem and in the old city of Hebron/ al-Khalil. And I’m not such a weepy person. I will write about all of this in the coming weeks.

What I can tell you in brief is that the tragedy is much worse than we imagine. I didn’t learn anything new in terms of the facts. I’d already seen videos of the brutal settlers of Hebron. I knew already that most Palestinian children need psychological treatment because their homes are fired on from snipers in the panopticon towers which shadow villages and camp alleyways, because they’ve had their front doors kicked in at night and seen their fathers beaten and dragged away. But to see it with your own eyes, to experience the humiliation of the checkpoints and the walls yourself, to be held for five hours at the border, to breathe the air of oppression – this is very different from what my happy imagination could produce.

I’ve been fascinated by Palestine for 25 years. My aunt’s house in Beirut was destroyed by Zionist planes. I have a Palestinian brother-in-law, and I don’t know how many wonderful Palestinian friends. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve listened to music, I’ve watched films, I’ve written about it. But this was my first visit. I always said I wouldn’t go unless I had a real reason to go, unless I would be doing some good. Plus as a Syrian (although my only passport is British) I’m not allowed to go. Yet I think I was wrong to wait so long. The Palestinians need our solidarity, and we need to see what is being done on the eastern Mediterranean with the support of our media, governments and money. Therefore I would advise everybody to visit Palestine. Not only because it is worthy to do so, but also because visiting Palestine is a fascinating, inspiring, unforgettable experience.

There are organisations which can arrange tours of West Bank towns and meetings with Palestinian NGOs, teachers, and ordinary people. Organisations suggested to me by American Christians in Hebron include Jeff Halper’s Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Friends of Sabeel, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’m sure there are many more.

The first and last nights of the Festival were supposed to have happened at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, but on both occasions heavily armed Israelis closed the theatre and forced people out. Here’s the Guardian report on the the first night, and here’s Karl Sabbagh’s letter to the Guardian:

I was at the opening of the Palestine literary festival in Jerusalem on Saturday night, when heavily armed police pushed their way into the midst of talks by Michael Palin, Deborah Moggach, and Henning Mankell, along with many of their readers from Palestine, Israel and elsewhere. The police had come to close the festival down, and in another PR debacle of the type for which Israel is becoming famous, their clumsy actions drew far more attention to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians than if they’d allowed the event to continue.

The sight of the expelled participants and audience as we filed down East Jerusalem’s main street, some people carrying dishes of canapes, to the new and hastily organised venue at the French Cultural Institute might have seemed merely odd or amusing. In fact, it was a vivid reminder of Israel’s fear of anything which might suggest that Palestinians are as cultured, civilised and deserving of respect as their Israeli neighbours.

Karl Sabbagh.

Much more to come, including films and photographs.

Click here to see my photo album of people.

Click here to see my photo album of walls.

Click here to see my photo album of al-Khalil/ Hebron.

Click here to see my photo album of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Please read the captions.

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