Saturday, December 08, 2012

PalFest celebrates 5th anniversary with premiere of the film 'PalFest Gaza 2012'

The short film PalFest Gaza 2012, made during the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) visit to Gaza in May, received its premiere on the night of 5th December at the Free Word Centre in London, during PalFest's 5th birthday celebrations.

PalFest, established in 2008, aims to support cultural life in Palestine, break the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation and strengthen cultural links between Palestine and the rest of the world. It reaffirms, in the words of Edward Said, "the power of culture over the culture of power". PalFest's annual literary festival in Palestine is at the heart of its activities. PalFest has taken to Palestine many influential literary figures from the UK, US, Arab world and elsewhere to teach workshops and perform in free public events. Every year PalFest partners with many cultural and educational Palestinian organizations.

The PalFest producer Omar Robert Hamilton, an independent filmmaker, explained before the screening of PalFest Gaza 2012 that PalFest had tried for years to get into Gaza "because obviously we insisted on the unity of the Palestinian state, and the division of the West Bank and Gaza is one of the key means of Israeli control."

But PalFest was unable to enter Gaza until May this year when "because of the Egyptian revolution we decided that this was the time to pressure the Egyptian government and to take a delegation of people in through Rafah, through Egypt." This first Gaza visit of PalFest to Gaza was "a tremendous success", as demonstrated in the film PalFest Gaza 2012 which was  directed, filmed and edited by Murat Gökmen. (The PalFest Gaza programme can be found at Global Voices Online ; a "Sleepless in Gaza" blog post recounts some of the difficulties that were encountered.)

Omar Robert Hamilton

The film is a moving tribute to the value of the Gaza Palfest as seen from the point of view of Gazans  and of four visiting PalFest delegates: PalFest's chair and founder, Egyptian-British novelist, author and activist Ahdaf Soueif;  Egyptian novelists Sahar Elmougy and Khaled Al Khamissi, and Sudanese-British novelist Jamal Mahjoub.

The film shows the damage from the Israeli offensive of 2008/09 and the impact of the siege, including on the livelihood of Gaza's fishermen. It conveys the tremendous energy and enthusiasm for reading literature and writing among the Gazans involved in PalFest events, who eloquently explain the value of writing and literature in helping them transcend their situation.

PalFest organised workshops and seminars in Gaza schools and universities.  The  programme also included a concert performance by the Egyptian group Eskenderella. In the film Soueif is seen addressing a workshop of some 130 young women in a packed hall at Al Aqsa University, "all of whom were well read, and had a lot of questions, and wanted to work". The students work in difficult conditions and during the event the electricity "went off every 10 minutes".

Al Khamissi said the reactions of the Gaza students taking part in PalFest "were amazing;  they were glowing, their questions were glowing, their ideas were glowing." One girl asks Al Khamissi: "In terms of political and literary maturity, where does the Arab world rank for you? Because hardly any Arabic books are translated into other languages. Very little of what goes on inside ourselves is translated to the outside world."

The guests at PalFest's 5th birthday party included many who have been involved with PalFest as founders, board members, partners, and as participants have been on the journey to Palestine with the Festival. Some participants have a continuing involvement with Palestine - for example returning for writing workshops or, like Alexandra Pringle of publisher Bloomsbury, offering internships. At the beginning of the festivities it was announced that PalFest has become an associate member of the Free Word Centre.

Speaking from the platform Soueif said: "We are in the heart of a big collaborative effort that people undertake out of love and out of commitment, because really the Palestine issue has become  an issue of conscience for people across the world," as was the case with apartheid South Africa. "We see individuals and groups all over the world taking matters into their own hands because they are dissatisfied with what their governments do for the Palestine issue."

 Ahdaf Soueif

Soueif said it might seem very little to go to Palestine and read poetry, or run a translation workshop, at at a time when people there are being dispossessed or killed, or having their homes pulled down around their ears.  However, those who follow events in Palestine, and those who have been there, know the degree to which occupation and dispossession inform and affects the texture of daily life "every minute of every person's day". An intervention at the level of PalFest is of value  in "changing of the texture of the day, and what somebody can feel or can look forward to or can talk about - as indeed you heard the young students in Gaza saying."

One of the 500 or so young Egyptian activists who crossed into Gaza during the recent Israeli attacks in order to give blood at Al-Shifa hospital told Ahdaf that she was asked by Gazans whether it was  her first time there. When she said she had been there before, for Gaza Palfest, she was told that people in Gaza are still talking about the Festival, and habout how it made a difference to them.

Soueif said PalFest is a commitment, but that it is also "an enormous privilege to be able to do this and be part of this And every year that we do it, and more people join this group, this community, it feels like more and more of a privilege." She stated that BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is necessary, with conditions for the Palestinians deteriorating. Conditions for the Palestinians in Jerusalem for example have noticeably worsened in the five years PalFest has been going there.

The speakers included publisher turned author Carmen Callil who read from the diary she had kept during her first visit to Palestine, for PalFest 2009. She said that before PalFest 2009 she had spent  nine years writing a book, Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland, about Vichy France: "In other words I spent many years living in close quarters with the history and actions of a rogue state." She describes in her diary similarites she found between Vichy France and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians: photographs of the Wall covered with barbed wire resemble photos of the French concentration camp at Gurs. Callil vividly depicted the way in which checkpoints, passport controls, permits, roads for Jews only and so on constrain the movement of Palestinians.

 Carmen Callil

Palestinians may have to walk for mile and pass through a checkpoint to see a neighbour who lives only a stone's throw away.  "The intricacies of who can go where formed the black spider's web through every conversation I had in Palestine." She spoke also about the endless illegal Israeli settlements and the way in which Israel controls water and sells it back to Palestinians in the camps.

She wrote in her diary of how children and students resist all this with their Palestinian culture, "one of their few and best weapons. This is why PalFest is so important: it honours their culture." Before travelling to Palestine she had written about evil and cruelty and the death of innocent children, and had written about Jewish children, "but until I went to Palestine I'd never seen such things for myself. I saw things in Palestine that cracked my heart. Three years later, my heart remains cracked." Far too many people in Europe ignore the injustice done to the Palestinians and their plight as a result of the evils of the rogue state of Israel. "In so doing, grave injustice is done to the Jewish people too. Accepting injustice requires us to lose our own humanity. It's for our own sakes as well as the Palestinians' that we must fight for them. We owe a great debt to PalFest for teaching us this lesson."

The editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing, Alexandra Pringle, took part with Callil in PalFest  2009. She said: "When I went to Palestine I knew what I thought about Palestine, but I didn't know what I felt about it. And literally from the moment we were all at that border waiting in the hot sunshine for those of us who had gone through very quickly, and the Arab writers who were kept back all those hours, that's when the feeling about Palestine began. And every moment of every day it accumulated and  accumulated"

Pringle recalled the Festival as a mixture of things that were desperate and terrible, and things that were wonderful: "There were, I have to say, a lot of good times". She added: "When you think of literary festivals you think of having fun and you think about literature - you don't think that a literary festival is going to change your life. This is what this literary festival did. We were completely overturned, we were all absolutely changed by what we saw, and what we heard, and what we felt."

During the visit to Palestine there had come a moment when Callil turned to her and said: "Darling, we writers can't do very much, but you are a publisher and you can do something." And that is what Pringle has done. At the time she went to PalFest, Bloomsbury had already  published books by Edward Said and Mourid Barghouthi, and she had just bought for Bloomsbury the multi-generational novel Mornings in Jenin by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa. "I went back absolutely determined to publish the hell out of that book."

Since then, Bloomsbury has published other works by Palestinians. "Our sister company BQFP (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) publishes Suad Amiry who had us hooting with laughter in PalFest. We also published Izzeldin Abuelaish's I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity which is the most horrifying and anguishing book to read." Bloomsbury has also published the novel  Out of It - by Selma Dabbagh, a guest at the evening. The novel is  "her incredible account of what it's like to live in Gaza right now.

Alexandra Pringle

Pringle said she was very proud that Bloomsbury will next year publish a novel by PalFest alumnus, William Sutcliffe, who is Jewish . His novel,  The Wall , is aimed at adults and young adults. It takes the reader into Palestine from the point of view of a 13-year old Israeli Jewish settler boy "who finds his way onto the other side of the wall, and finds out what the truth is."

Pringle said she thinks it is "so courageous of him to write this book.  I had an incredible email last week from Raja Shehadeh who said this is an important novel that he will do everything for, and that we must do everything for." Pringle added: "What has  happened to me is that I want to publish everything that I can on the Palestinian cause, but in the most imaginative way. And for me there is nothing quite like reading a novel that takes you out of your world and puts you into that other world and helps you emotionally understand and feel what it is that has happened in that place at that time."

During the evening there were performances by two leading Palestinian poet activists. Rafeef Ziadah gave a compelling, impassioned recitation of her poem 'We Teach Life, Sir' - She was just off the plane from the World Social Forum Free Palestine held in Brazil. (This video is from an earlier performance of Ziadah's poem ).

Rafeef Ziadah

Remi Kanazi 

New York-based Palestinian poet  Remi Kanazi was among the participants in PalFest 2010 and took part in a writing workshop.  "For me it was really an honour to be able to go over, to connect, to build with different communities." He performed  Normalize This during the PalFest anniversary evening. He strongly criticised US military support for Israel and its "preferential trade agreements with an apartheid regime. It's up to us, the global community, to stand against that." He also noted the way in which Israel uses culture and art for state propaganda, or for normalization projects. "When culture and art and bringing dialogue together is used to service propaganda, we have to challenge it."

 Jeremy Harding

Writer and journalist Jeremy Harding took part in PalFest 2009 and has since then been involved in workshops under PalFest's auspices. More funding is needed for the workshops: "I think it would be a really good thing if more writers were able to get out but there is a financial issue." In order to bring alive the sense of what a workshop can be, he read out a striking text in the form of a profile of a Palestinian grandmother,  produced by a participant in an editing course in Nablus in which Harding took part last year.

At the conclusion of the speeches Soueif said: "We are at that point now where really we either grow or we vanish. And PalFest is straining to grow - so the workshops happen without our having planned them and they're being carried on by people in quite hard circumstances in Ramallah. We've been given a beautiful house in Birzeit but we can't afford the heating of it and so it can only be used briefly." She added: "We're finding it very hard to get core funding for a director who will take responsibility for the running of the Festival. So far we have been doing this on a voluntary and semi-voluntary basis for a long time. A full-time director is needed if PalFest is to be able to follow up all the leads and gestures of goodwill that come its way. 

Soueif confirmed that PalFest will return to Palestinian cities on the West Bank in late May 2013. 
"We feel that we should continue to be involved in Gaza, but we believe that Gaza does not need us to drop in once a  year. The West Bank is fine for that because there is a lot going on there, but in Gaza what is needed is a more ongoing and possibly lower-profile engagement, with one or two people going in maybe every three weeks to do something for a few days."

The guests were given cotton party bags on their way out, bearing the original PalFest logo designed by Jeff Fisher, and printed in Egypt. The contents included books donated by Bloomsbury, Garnet Publishing and Profile Books, literature from the Palestiine Solidarity Campaign (PSC)  - and bottles of Zaytoun organic extra-virgin Palestinian olive oil.
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very inspiring event by dedicated, and talented, volunteers. Much more needs to be done, in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. As I know from my own experience, people of all ages and backgrounds living under the occupation there relish exposure to the world of the literary, the film, the arts. I particularly liked the quote from Edward Said, i.e. "the power of culture over the culture of power". But it should be remembered, too, that such efforts as PalFest help to empower a people who have been left powerless for decades.

Thanks Suzannah, both for the beautiful narrative, AND the pictures!