Monday, June 02, 2008

palestine festival of literature

In the latest issue of the London Review of Books, Scottish novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan reflects on the inaugural Palestine Festival of Literature held recently in the West Bank and Jerusalem. “Thousands of people turned out: they wanted to believe that Palestine is not just a cause but also a culture and a country, a place not simply for stone-throwing but for ideas and for modernity” writes O’Hagan, whose latest book “The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America” has just been published by Faber.

O’Hagan was one of around 15 writers - British, Irish, American, Indian and Arab - who travelled to the festival from abroad to give public talks and readings, network with Palestinian writers, and hold workshops at universities.

During their travels between festival venues in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem the writers constantly came up against the harsh realities of the Israeli occupation and the “separation wall”. O’Hagan writes: “Everywhere we went the wall seemed a shadow, a heavy ornament of Israeli aggression and a horrible reminder to those us who grew to see the wall come down in Berlin and the end of apartheid in South Africa.”

In Hebron, the writers found that most of the shops had been closed down and “the general atmosphere is of a people being harassed, obscured, denied and cancelled.” But O’Hagan ends his piece on an upbeat note. He observes students at Birzeit University engaging in discussion under the olive trees, and comments: “They seemed to agree that too much talk about one’s suffering is a kind of provincialism and more than anything wanted to see themselves as a generation that could inhabit the world.”

The five-day festival, which took place at the same time as Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, embodied the call of the late Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said for the “reaffirmation of the power of culture over the culture of power.” The festival met with an enthusiastic response from those attending its events, which were often filled to bursting. There were repeated declarations of appreciation that the writers had come to Palestine.

The Palestinian festival coincided with the first Jerusalem International Writers Festival, organized by Israelis. Inevitably, some journalists and commentators drew attention to the total lack of interaction between the two festivals. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the Egyptian-British novelist Ahdaf Soueif was asked about the absence of Israel participants. She said this was not deliberate, but “I’m resistant to this idea of always having to twin, that every time you talk about Palestine you have to invite an Israeli, or vice versa. They aren’t twinned.”

The festival had a distinguished list of patrons: Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, British critic, writer and novelist John Berger, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, and two Nobel prizewinners – Irish poet Seamus Heaney and British playwright Harold Pinter.

There were seven local and international partners including the British Council and the AM Qattan Foundation, and support also came from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, UNESCO, the Ford Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Charitable Fund.

The delegation of writers included four Palestinians. Two of them - poets Nathalie Handel and Suheir Hammad - live in the USA, where they have built up substantial fan bases. Handel is editor of “The Poetry of Arab Women”, while Hammad is known for her brand of rap poetry.

The writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, who lives in Ramallah, is author of the acclaimed memoir “Strangers in the House”. His most recent work, “Palestinian Walks: Notes on the Vanishing Landscape”, has won the Orwell prize for political literature. Poet and author Mourid Barghouti has many published collections to his name. His book “I Saw Ramallah”, written after he returned to that city after an absence of 30 years, won the Naguib Mahfouz prize for literature and has been translated into several languages.

The delegation also included two of the best-known Arab novelists living in Britain: Ahdaf Soueif [below] (shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 1999 for “The Map of Love”) and the Lebanese Hanan Al-Shaykh [above] (whose highly-praised novels include “Only in London”). Novelist Jamal Mahjoub [right] , born to a Sudanese father and English mother, grew up in Khartoum and has lived in Denmark and Spain. He is the author of several novels that explore dislocations.

Among the British participants in the festival was Brigid Keenan, the journalist and author who is married to a British diplomat and whose books include “Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City” and “Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse”. William Dalrymple is a prolific author of books on themes related to Islam and to Middle Eastern and Indian history, among them “White Mughals” and “The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1957”. From Ireland, there was Man Booker prizewinning novelist Roddy Doyle, whose humor during festival performances was much appreciated.

The Indian member of the writers’ party was essayist and writer Pankaj Mishra, author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India”. The actor Khalid Abdulla, the star of the film “The Kite Runner” who was born in Britain to parents of Egyptian origin, took part in some of the festival events.

The festival began in Jerusalem with an evening of readings in Dar el-Tifl al-Arabi, chaired by the Palestinian politician, human rights activist and English literature scholar Hanan Ashrawi. The theme of the first session was journeys. Dalrymple spoke of the travels he undertook in Palestine while preparing his book “From the Holy Mountain”. British novelist Esther Freud [bottom] told of her childhood in Morocco (the basis of her novel “Hideous Kinky”), and Keenan recounted incidents from her life as the EU ambassador’s wife in Kazakhstan.

The writers travelled to Birzeit University, Ramallah, the next day. Among those who gave readings was British journalist and author Victoria Brittain, who read from “Enemy Combatant: The Terrifying Story of a Briton in Guantanamo”, the book she wrote jointly with former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg. The readings were followed by workshops with students, and a meeting at the A M Qattan Foundation with 20 leading Palestinian authors. During an evening at the Al-Kasaba Theatre, Roddy Doyle read from his Irish historical novel “A Star Called Henry” and drew parallels between the history of Ireland and Palestine.

Travelling from Ramallah to Bethlehem, the writers chose not to go by the easier tourist route, but to experience the way a Palestinian would have to go. They passed through the notorious Qalandia checkpoint, which the daily blog of the festival recorded as being “deeply unpleasant”. In Hebron, “we walked through nightmare wires, tunnels and metal detectors, saw groups of settlers out jogging with AK-47s round their necks.” To get to Abraham’s mosque, the writers were made to pass through another metal detector. “Once inside some people had to take themselves away to cry. All very very rough.”

The events in Bethlehem included an evening at the new Dar an-Nadwa cultural centre where Suheir Hammad’s rap poetry captivated a full house of several hundred. The main entertainment came from El Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe dressed in brightly colored costumes. The festival blog records that the writers were told how they had energized the city. “Bethlehem, they told us, is being slowly strangled to death, but this Festival has really given people a kick.”

The festival finale was an evening in the Palestinian National Theatre, Jerusalem. The writers took it in turn to read from their choice of works by other authors including James Joyce and Charles Dickens. There were performances by the group Yasmeen from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. But the realities of the situation on the ground intruded even into this. “Although their oud player and vocalist had been held at a checkpoint, the remaining four musicians played beautifully,” the festival blog said.

Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette, June 2 2008

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