Claire Messud’s beautifully written and painfully evocative account of her visit to occupied Palestine where she was a featured writer at the Palestine Festival of Literature. It is also noteworthy that this article appears in the Boston Globe which is owned by the New York Times company. This is the power of culture, it can infiltrate territories otherwise proscribed for dissenting views.
I RECENTLY returned from a literary festival that was to have opened and closed in Jerusalem; but which, to our surprise, opened in France and closed in the United Kingdom.
Some 20-odd writers from the world over–including the popular British travel writer and comedian Michael Palin; Sweden’s preeminent thriller writer Henning Mankell; and Canada’s Giller Prize-winning M.G. Vassanji – found our events at Jerusalem’s Palestine National Theater shut down by machine-gun toting Israeli soldiers in flak jackets. On the first evening, with a Gallic flourish, Jean-Paul Ghoneim of the French Consulate opened the French Cultural Center impromptu, and hosted our event on nominally French soil: we paraded through the streets in our party clothes, bearing trays of canapés and looking, I’m sure, very threatening indeed.
By the festival’s closing night, the British Consul General Richard Makepeace had made plans to welcome us at the British Council – which was fitting because the British Council was the festival’s primary sponsor.
You might well ask how a bunch of novelists and nonfiction writers could be so dangerous as to require a military-ordained ban in a democratic country. I can’t tell you; except that our literary festival had the word “Palestine’’ in its title, and the use of this word in Jerusalem apparently constitutes a security threat. The city has been declared the Capital of Arab Culture for 2009, and according to Palestinians we met, the Jerusalem police have shut down more cultural events than they have permitted–including the timed release, by schoolchildren, of colored balloons in celebration of Al-Quds. Balloons are also a security risk.
During the week of the Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest for short), we gave readings in Ramallah and Bethlehem as well as in Jerusalem, and taught workshops at universities in Ramallah, Jenin, and Hebron.
We lumbered about in a great tour bus, repeatedly grateful for our foreign passports (nowhere have I been more conscious of the liberating power of my US citizenship); but still, privileged as we were, we waited interminably at borders and checkpoints, in the shadow of the vast, ugly hopelessness that is the Wall, under the panopticon scrutiny of the watchtowers. We answered questions barked by teenagers at the point of their guns. We got a very small taste of what it’s like to be Palestinian. Members of our group likened it to living under apartheid; to Orwell’s “1984’’; to Kafka. But none of these allusions fully conveys the disturbing psychological experiment currently perpetrated on Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Ramallah-based architect and writer Suad Amiry put it best when she explained that to be Palestinian now means never to feel at home, because you have no control over time or space. You can live a lifetime in one place and yet not master its geography: routes long-familiar will suddenly be blocked off by barriers or checkpoints; while open spaces in the middle-distance will sprout settlements almost overnight, vast urban conglomerations that change the landscape altogether. You can live a lifetime in one place and yet never know how long it takes to get anywhere: a mere 20-mile journey might consume a whole day, depending on the checkpoints and the whim of the soldiers you encounter. You might never get there at all: you could well be turned back.
The author and lawyer Raja Shehadeh–a gentle man of Gandhi-esque demeanor, whose book “Palestinian Walks’’ won Britain’s Orwell Prize last year–led us on a walk in the hills outside Ramallah, to show us the land that he loves and upon which he has walked all his life. We scrambled up rocks among terraced olive groves to a stone shepherd’s hut, from which we could see the green and gold hills interlaced to the horizon. We picked our way along a dry riverbed, surprising a patterned tortoise, and on to a small village, where a mangy donkey gazed balefully from its tether and ruddy-faced children demonstrated their tree-climbing prowess.
So simple and beautiful, our walk was, alas, illegal: the olive groves of Raja Shehadeh’s childhood have been declared a militarized zone. We might have been arrested at any moment simply for standing in them. (Israeli settlers, however, are free to walk there; just as they are free to carry arms, and they do.) Part of being Palestinian is having your movements curtailed on every front.
What is a world where you cannot go for a walk, cannot assemble to read and discuss literature in public, cannot be certain of visiting your grandmother in a neighboring city? What is a world where you cannot lose your temper, cannot laugh in the wrong place? (Imagine, if you will, living your entire life in the security line at the airport, on a bad day.) For us, the French and British consulates opened their doors; but they can’t always do so for the Palestinians.
This dystopian surreality is not reserved for Palestinians: on our last night, we adjourned after our reading to a restaurant where, in the din of live music, I tried to speak to a nut-brown man in a worn windbreaker who sat apparently forlorn, while others chattered and laughed around him. He said his name, but the noise was too great. “Have you heard of me?’’ he asked. I indicated that I couldn’t hear. He reached into his breast pocket, drew out a calling card, and pressed it into my hand.
He was Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli whistle-blower who exposed his country’s nuclear capability almost 25 years ago. His card reads: “VANUNU MORDECHAI For a world free from all atomic weapons, kidnapped in Rome Sep 30th 1986. After 18 years in Israel prison, waiting in East Jerusalem to be free. To leave–SEE THE WORLD.’’
His prison time long served–including 11 years in solitary confinement–Vanunu is still denied a passport. An unlikely emblem of the conflict, he waits in limbo, bound by checkpoints and borders, a prisoner of time and space, unable to be free.
Claire Messud, a resident of Cambridge, is the author of the novel “The Emperor’s Children.’’