More from Palfest

Palfest writer Deborah Moggach negotiates a checkpoint
Palfest writer Deborah Moggach negotiates a checkpoint

Jeremy Harding writes of the crossing into Palestine that I wrote about here. Then Rachel Holmes describes her impressions of the Palfest week, and is reminded of South Africa in the 70s. Jeremy first:

After the defeat of the Arabs in June 1967, many Palestinians who’d been driven east over the Jordan River by the fighting tried desperately to return to their homes by slipping back across. The bridges, including the Allenby Bridge, had been damaged, but the patched-up remains were serviceable. The Allenby Bridge crossing was closely guarded, however, and used by the soldiers on Israel’s newest frontier to put people out, rather than allow them in. Palestinian refugees trying to get home from Jordan, as well as groups of fedayeen, preferred to ford the shallow river at dead of night, although 50 IDF ambush parties were stationed along the west bank, instructed to fire on shadows in the water. By September, more than a hundred people had been shot dead trying to return and a thousand had been deported back to Jordan.

On the Jordanian side of the river journalists were counting up to 80,000 refugees in tents, with more being driven in from the west bank as Israeli soldiers fired over their heads to hurry them along. To avoid what was clearly an international scandal in the making, the Israeli government decided to stage a televised return of several thousand Palestinians. There was disagreement among the ministries about how to select the fortunate few. A Foreign Ministry official argued that the key point was demographic: children and women of childbearing age should be kept to a minimum; but in the prevailing view, the older refugees of 1948 were far more undesirable.

Operation Refugee allowed for an intake of 20,000; in the event only 14,000 got in. ‘And so,’ Tom Segev writes in 1967, his extraordinary study of the Six-Day War, ‘Israel missed the great opportunity offered by the victory’ to heal ‘the malignant wound . . . left by the War of Independence’: in less than two decades, ‘the 600,000 Jews living in Israel at its inception took in more than a million new immigrants. They built hundreds of new communities, including cities, all within the confines of the Green Line. The refugees could have been rehabilitated as well.’ Yet the carefully managed return of a few thousand was enough to allay the world’s misgivings. In Segev’s book, the Israeli poet Haim Gouri stands at the Allenby Bridge to watch, and notes ‘an elderly hajji with a distant look’ who ‘seems to come from ancient pictures of the Palestine that died long ago’.

The original bridge, built in wood and iron, is a part of that vanished past. It was completed in 1918 by the Royal Engineers (Allenby had conquered Palestine in 1917) and destroyed in 1946 by a few well-trained Palmach men laying explosives. The Night of the Bridges was a Haganah exercise designed to cut Palestine off from its neighbours and keep the British on the run. The bridge was repaired after the attack and survived for about 20 years, but after the Six-Day War, a new, similar structure was built. It’s now another relic of the past, one that’s still visible in aerial photographs, standing idly to the side of the four-lane blacktop that spans the (much-depleted) river, courtesy of Nippon Koei consulting engineers and the Japanese government.

The crossing is still referred to as the Allenby Bridge and it remains a place of uncertainty and fear for Palestinians. Did the 14,000 refugees know how they were selected in 1967? Nowadays, in the vast set of hangars at Israeli border control, do people know why they were allowed through in April, say, but not in May? Last month I crossed from Jordan, as one of the guests invited to the Palestine Festival of Literature, a touring event that goes to audiences who wouldn’t be able to attend if the week-long series of readings and workshops were held in a single venue: the West Bank is now a run of cages, dominated by the segregation wall; transferring from one cage to another is very hard for residents; getting in and out of Jerusalem can be harder still.

Even foreigners are treated to an intimation of these difficulties, especially once they cross the bridge and enter the thick press of people waiting to be dealt with by Israeli border security, the great majority Jordanian-based or West Bank Palestinians. Most of the festival people with security-friendly names or neutral birthplaces got through in an hour or more. Others with dubious names (Gurnah, Mahjoub, Ghappour! Vassanji? Hammad!) were held up and questioned for three or four hours. ‘What is the plot of your novel?’ Robin Yassin-Kassab, the author of The Road from Damascus, was asked.

Had it not been names, it might have been clothing or colour of eyes. The occasion felt more like a disagreeable game than anything to do with security. In 2003, Ahdaf Soueif records in Mezzaterra, hundreds of students at Birzeit were prevented from entering the university until, in the end, a checkpoint officer decided that only the ones with gel in their hair would go through. ‘Today,’ he announced, ‘gel will buy you an education.’

Six hours after clambering from the bus onto the west bank of the river, we were back on board, heading for Jerusalem. The visitors who’d been held for questioning, and forced to play at being Palestinians for an afternoon, spoke about the people without British passports or published books to their credit whom they’d seen turned away. The same evening, bright, chilly, windswept, at the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem, there was another long delay, as the opening event was shut down by Israeli security. Scores of well-dressed people, drinking orange juice and managing their canapés, suddenly found themselves backing away from large men kitted out to fight the Battle of the Bulge or assault the Sunni Triangle. The visitors objected, but Palestinians knew better than to prolong the objection. The audience and performers left the theatre murmuring quietly; it all went off like a disappointing glitch at Hay-on-Wye, but there was a touch of thuggery about it too. As we were about to disperse, the French cultural attaché, who happened to be present, invited the audience and panel to hold the event in the garden of his building in Jerusalem. Where were the stalwarts of the British Council, one of the festival’s funders? It turned out that they’d decided to adopt a low profile, but they were with us on our short walk to the Centre Culturel, carrying the remains of the nibbles and fussing over the clingfilm. A few days and checkpoints later, the final event of the festival, also scheduled at the Palestinian National Theatre, was again closed by special order. This time the British were out in force and the consul made a commendable statement in front of the Israeli police. The evening unfolded in the leafy courtyard of the British Council building.

‘Palestinian’ is a bad word when it’s attached to any event in Jerusalem and ‘Palestinian national’ is worse. Raja Shehadeh has made a translation of the banning order pinned up at the theatre. In the Arabic and presumably the Hebrew, the building is referred to as the Hakawati Theatre – Hakawati is the name of the resident troupe, not the theatre – in order to avoid the P-word. Here is the relentless, commissar component of the cultural war between ‘Arabs’ and Israelis. Rather more grandly, the Arab League recently fired a provocative salvo by nominating Jerusalem capital of Arab culture in 2009. The celebrations were supposed to begin in March, but the Israeli authorities came down hard; the closures of the PNT are just two episodes in a string of bannings, many of which invoke the Oslo Accords. You’d be pressed to find anyone with a high opinion of those.

Like the refugees in Segev’s account, the poet Mourid Barghouti became homeless in 1967. Unlike most of them, he was already out of the country, enrolled as a student in Cairo and then, suddenly, unable to go home to Ramallah. In 1996 he was allowed to return. He was overwhelmed by the extent of the change, and the scars of occupation, at a loss to find points of continuity between the Palestine he remembered and the one before his eyes. Occupation, he wrote, ‘interferes in every aspect of life and of death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to market, the emergency hospital, the beach, the bedroom, or a distant capital.’ He had re-entered from Jordan at the Allenby Bridge crossing. He was elated and nervous, a panicky list-maker, invoking the many names this transit point had acquired over the years – ‘ the Bridge of Return’, ‘the King Hussein Bridge’, ‘Al-Karama’, ‘Allenby’. Yet for all its associations, he felt it in the end as the ‘boundary between two histories, two faiths, two tragedies’, in a landscape with few consolations: ‘The scene is of rock. Chalk. Military. Desert. Painful as a toothache.’ That’s about how it feels today, if you add the buses backed up at Israeli barriers and lines of people shuffling slowly through layers of Israeli security. To that extent, it’s less a crossing than a long preamble to the way things are done in the Occupied Territories.

Rachel Holmes was among those taking part in PalFest, the British Council and UNESCO-supported literary festival which last month took authors to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The violence and intimidation she witnessed took her back to South Africa in the 1970s, and the worst days of Apartheid, as she writes in her diary


Rare is it that the show goes on regardless when shut down on both opening and closing night. But this week the travelling cultural roadshow of writers on the Palestine Literature Festival kept the show on the road despite the constant intervention, obstruction and bullying of the Israeli military occupation. Because of the difficulties faced by Palestinians under military occupation attempting to travel around their own country – or even neighbourhood – PalFest moves to its audiences.

To celebrate the city’s year as Cultural Capital of the Arab World, this year’s Festival began and ended in Jerusalem. PalFest founder Ahdaf Soueif defined the theme and spirit of our journey around Jerusalem and the West Bank as inspired by Edward Said’s dictum to engage the culture of power with the power of culture.  

It seems that our irrepressible posse of authors poses a powerful cultural threat to Israeli military security from the minute we cross the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge and the group is separated from those with Arab-seeming names or faces, who are held back, questioned and kept waiting for five and a half hours – though, like all of us, they carry American, Canadian and British passports. Standing beside Suheir Hammad, the brilliant and beautiful poet, I feel helpless as she is treated abominably by the barely-out-of-school armed border guard, who rudely grabs her passport and barks at Suheir to stand aside.  Pushed forward, I hand over my passport. Seeing my name, the guard looks up, her previously distorted scowling face breaking into a beaming smile, her voice transformed. “Rachel, what a beautiful name!  Is this your first trip to Israel?  Welcome to Israel, Rachel.” As she smiles approvingly at my Aryan blue eyes and blond hair, I’m hurled back with a nauseating lurch 30 years to growing up in 1970s apartheid South Africa and my instinctive recognition of the experience of racist selection and privilege. Welcome to Israel.
So alarmed are the occupiers by literary culture, armed soldiers occupy the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem on opening night, close down the theatre, eject us from the site and block the streets around it.  We pick up the colourful platters of delicious reception food and drink and process through the streets of Jerusalem with our audience to the garden of the French Cultural Institute, unhesitatingly offered as an alternative by the gracious French cultural attaché.  With armoured vehicles, soldiers and sirens gathered outside the garden walls, an inspirational show goes on, that evening and every day after. Music, poetry, and walking, with author and lawyer Raja Shehadeh through his Ramallah hills, in communal gentle defiance of the putative illegality of so doing.  In the gorgeous garden of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, I chair an event featuring Raja, Michael Palin and Palestinian author and architect Suad Amiry, a panel whose collective literary and comic genius is broadcast live by Al-Jazeera, communicating Palestinian art far beyond the shadow of the West Bank wall.

Clearly, as writers and artists we are to be feared. On our way to Bethlehem, Jenin, and al-Khalil/Hebron we are treated with disrespect and aggression by the occupying military every road-blocked, check-pointed, obstructed step of the way. Well, it must be admitted that the women amongst us are without exception, articulate, loud, opinionated, mischievous, devastatingly good looking, universally stylish and sadly lacking entirely in any aptitude for demure restraint or the ability to muster respectful deferral to aggressive and illogical authority.  

Pity any armed soldier faced with the combined charms and mounting impatience of a peace force of literary women – Victoria Brittain, Clare Messud, Alexandra Pringle, Deborah Moggach, Carmen Callil, Nathalie Handel, Suheir Hammad, Brigid Keenan, Ahdaf Soueif, Pru Rowlandson.  Indeed, we are dangerous – full of disarming rational questions, constant explosions of laughter and rocket-launching wit and intelligence. 
Most dangerously, we practise and celebrate imagination everywhere we go.  As the evening shadows lengthen over our delay at Allenby Bridge, we get thirsty.  We set up The Bright Side of Life Imaginary Bar, managed by landlord Michael Palin, who presents invisible fridge-chilled glasses for our cooling delectation.  As barmaid, I gather lemons from the fragrant make-believe orchard in the car park.  Debbie Moggach gets a dry-ice burn on her hand whilst pouring the gin.  The Bright Side of Life Imaginary Bar jukebox plays only songs from The Life of Brian, which we sing with our gin and tonics whilst admiring from the bar terrace the fetching vista of the West Bank hills and in view of the hillside caves, from which there are occasional glints and flashes in the darkness, as if someone inside is watching.  The landlord regales us with jovial tales of his crucifixion.

In a maddening intervention, we are collectively barred by the Israelis from entering Alaqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, even though we have permits and a warm welcome from the Waqf, the administrators of the mosque.  Theoretically, the Waqf are answerable to the Jordanian government and are in charge of who enters the mosque through every gate except the Moroccan Gate.  The guardian who welcomes us stands helplessly by as the Israeli soldiers bar our way, claiming at one point that “the Moslems will not let you into the mosque”.  The soldiers send us round to the Moroccan Gate – the only one the Israelis control – but there we are again barred entry; and the same officer reappears.  When we try to reason with them, the mood turns nasty.  A soldier roughly pushes Alexandra and Brigid backwards down the steps, threatens to arrest our photographer, and briefly takes his passport.  Here, as in the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the reality of Hebron, we see and experience what Robin Yassin-Kassab pithily describes at Birzeit University as “the architecture of intimidation”.  

Rattled, frustrated and furious, we decide to redeem our faith in humanity by visiting instead the Khalidiyyah Library. Suheir links arms with me to talk on the way. There is a two metre-wide pavement, but no-one will let us walk on it – knee-high settler children jostle and bar our way. No families or groups of settlers or religious tourists will part even a small channel to let us walk.  We are jostled from behind, barred from the front, and physically forced off the pavement.

The wonderful librarian of the Khalidiyyah Library is Haifa al-Khalidi, daughter of the famous historian and custodian of the family collection that became this extraordinary library.  She shows us breathtaking manuscripts describing crusader battles in scripts of pure gold.  The archivally inclined amongst us peel off to see the archives across the street.  I’m reflective and instantly calmed in a book-filled library with walls as thick as history. Ahdaf takes down books and explains them to me – David of Antioch giving advice on the treatment of concussion; maths; poetry.  Jamal Mahjoub runs an elegant finger over a beautiful old book.  The date we are barred from Alaqsa Mosque by the Israelis and go instead to Khalidiyyah Library is 28 May – the Day of the Torah.

The evening I’m back home, the beloved and I cuddle to compensate for over a week of difficult communications.  Entwined in front of the telly, we watch Desmond Tutu in conversation with Peter Florence at Hay.  Asked what is to be done, the Archbishop says to the Hay audience: “I think the West feels a deep shame about what happened during the Holocaust. And you jolly well ought to. But the West are not paying for the Holocaust. The people who are paying for the Holocaust are the Palestinians.  This is the problem, and it is our problem. If we do not solve this problem we can give up on everything.”  I tell the beloved how it was the best and the worst of times. About the brilliant art, imagination, poetry, music, dance,  fiction, debate, top-class education, breathtaking architecture, talented children, warm and generous hospitality we were welcomed with wherever we went – no matter how impossible the pressures and adversity of the lives of our hosts, under siege and cruel military occupation.  PalFest returnees chat and text amongst ourselves – sharing our bafflement and tongue-tied disquiet at our friends asking us if we had a lovely time, an enquiry that conjures for me the poster at the brutal Bethlehem wall checkpoint – a cheerful family of white Aryans, blonde-haired and blue-eyed like me, carousing on a sun-kissed beach beneath the legend Welcome to Israel, incongruously pasted to a grey bullet-proof metal wall.  Bethlehem checkpoint, built up since last year, is designed like a military complex and not a place to pass through – a dizzying, disheartening maze of fenced walkways, innumerable turnstiles (we tried, but lost count), surveillance cameras, red and green stop-start lights, barking disembodied voices demanding we hold up our passports to invisible eyes.  Suddenly, convinced I’m about to become processed into a frozen chicken, I make a fleeting and snobbish prayer to end up in Waitrose rather than Tesco. The beloved calls it the world’s biggest deceit. 
At Birzeit University I run a workshop on “Advocating for Human Rights in Fiction”.  The tutor is understandably miffed when I satirise the title and change it to “Advocating Nothing: Writing about Human Rights and Wrongs in Fiction”. It’s irrelevant either way to the students – they want only to discuss the ethics and representation of human rights in political discourse and the media – in their view constantly promised but perpetually denied them by the West.  Time bends me back 20 years to 1991, South Africa, teaching critical theory to struggle students at the University of the Western Cape – the People’s University, with it’s huge ceiling-to-floor library banner EDUCATION FOR LIBERATION.  I share with the bright, articulate and engaged Palestinian students how those young South Africans – the generation of ‘76 – grew up with totalitarian apartheid that seemed utterly intractable, but proved to be solvable.

At Hebron University, Robin Yassin-Kassab and I run a workshop on the role of fiction in creating new political realities.  At first, the students are mute – our questions greeted with long silence.  Gradually, they let go, and become so loud we’re asked by the corridor monitor to keep it down.  So determined are all to have their say, I firmly barricade the door with my bottom and prevent the head of department trying to end the session before all the groups have done their presentations. The female students cluster around at lunchtime to complain; the male tutors talk at them and don’t listen; the boy students don’t let them speak; they don’t get to read any literature by women.  I repeat to them what Victoria Brittain said to me, her arm around my shoulder, tenderly and firmly, when I finally broke down in tears of frustration and fury after a confrontational exchange with an idiotically macho and abusive Israeli soldier at Morocco Gate in Jerusalem.  “Do you see the Palestinians crying, Rachel?  They live with this all the time. Don’t mourn – organise.”  It’s tough love, but Victoria’s put Joe Hill’s song in my head, and I am instantly back on mettle.  

So when the Hebron students complain, I tell them “Don’t moan, organise.” You are free to think and read what you want.  No-one can stop you.  By the end of lunch we have founded the Hebron Book Club, organised by three female students, and an independent extra-curricular study group.  The Hebron Book Club is twinned with the Southbank Centre Book Club in London – we make arrangements to share our books, and set up a blog.  

Now I’m back, remembering the beautiful resistance of the young dancers who performed to a world-class standard for us in the community theatre in Aida Camp. And not mourning, but organising.

Photos by Raoof Haj Yehia: Rachel Homes with Raja Shehadeh on stage; Police try to close the opening night; the group at the Wall running through Aida Refugee Camp; and at the British Council

© Rachel Holmes, May 2009

Rachel Holmes is Head of Literature and the Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre, London, and runs the annual London Literature Festival. Her most recent book is The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Saartjie Baartman (Bloomsbury) and she is currently writing a life of Eleanor Marx. She is founder and patron of FOTAC UK, which supports the Treatment Action Campaign in the fight for HIV and AIDS in South Africa, and Chair of Africa Beyond, celebrating African artists in the UK

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