In occupied Jerusalem, politics hits lit fest

May 29, 2009

On its opening day, Israeli soldiers walked past piles of books for sale and commemorative PalFest'09 tote bags into the Palestine National Theatre in Jerusalem to tell the owner that the Palestine Festival of Literature was an event organised by the Palestinian Authority and therefore illegal.

Israeli soldiers herded writers, poets, diplomats and artists onto the street. The event, aiming to foster discussion about literary themes and techniques, was off to an ominous start.

PalFest'09 is a travelling cultural roadshow across the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank, scheduled from May 23-29.

Its website said: "Because of the difficulties Palestinians face under military occupation in travelling around their own country, the Festival will travel to its audiences. It will tour to Ramallah, to Jenin, to al-Khalil/Hebron and to Bethlehem."

"The PA has nothing to do with PalFest", said local organiser Omar Hamilton following the forcible eviction.

The event is sponsored by the British Council, United Nations Refugee Works Agency, the AM Qattan Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Charitable Fund. It is hosting 20 authors, 17 from abroad, in a six-day travelling literary workshop.

The authors are a diverse group, including Kenya born, Tanzania-raised Canadian immigrant and winner of the Giller Prize, M.G. Vassanji, and British writer and actor Michael Palin, best known for his work on the Monty Python films and his latest novel, Hemmingway's Chair.

Most have never been to Palestine before, and are meant to discuss literature and literary themes to groups of literati and university students across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"You'd be wrong to think that in each session people were discussing politics, it doesn't happen, it doesn't come up at all", said festival organiser Victoria Brittain an hour before armed soldiers told her to evacuate the Palestine National Theatre.

"We don't talk about politics, but our presence is political."

There is a political dimension to the event, participating author Jamal Mahjoub said. "The fact that you have writers coming from all over the world ... all of this is somehow in itself a political statement, because you are saying ... we want to be able to address Palestinians in cultural terms and that is political."

Suheir Hammad, who was also set to be interviewed before the opening events, was too harrowed from her five-hour interrogation at the Allenby Bridge to sit down and discuss literature.

The festival seems on both sides of the line between literature and politics, as is often unavoidable in Palestine.

One political feature of the tour is that it travels to Palestinians. The political and geographical fragmentation of the West Bank means most young Palestinian men have a difficult time travelling through the occupied territory.

"The thing that was striking [to me about] last year", said Mahjoub, the only returning author from last year's festival, "was that it was about literature, and not politics".

That, he emphasised, "is what created the bond between the audiences and the writers, particularly at the universities".

Literature binds Palestinians to a world they are cut off from.

When authors from Africa, India, Britain, Canada, Australia and the Middle East talk about "departure" as a theme, explained Mahjoub, it "creates that bridge to allow the Palestinian experience to come out through a cultural dimension, through cultural expression — not political".

This festival offers, he said, "a sense of recognition between the authors and the audiences ... the fact that your experience is not unique to you ... a recognition that these authors are talking to you about things you understand".

That is what literature does, he said.
As the presenters and audience members from the opening night panels got comfortable at the French Cultural Center, a few blocks away from the Palestinian National Theatre, theatre owner Jamal Ghosheh stood up to speak.
"If the occupation is afraid of a literature festival", he said, addressing the elephant in the room of literature buffs and the culturally inclined, "then they are very fragile indeed".

Ghosheh then addressed another central, and also political, reason for the importance of the festival and its return to the area. "We need you", he said to the authors and organisers. "We need you because we do not want the occupation to succeed in sealing our minds" — as it has physically sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip being the implication.

But all insist the workshops themselves are not political.

"The idea is not to come and present a platform for political debate, but to give space for the Palestinian culture aspect to meet the cultural lives of these authors who come from very diverse backgrounds. That is creating a space in which a part of the Palestinian experience that is not reflected normally in the media can come out", said Mahjoub.

The workshops were scheduled for the remaining days to occur in Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem, Hebron and back to Jerusalem.

"Nobody's stopped us from going on the walk through the hills", organiser Hamilton said over the phone. The group was set to follow the steps of Rajah Shehadeh, who wrote Palestine Walks, and participated in the 2009 festival.

Shehadeh will also present his work during the panel discussion on "Registering Change: Landscape and Architecture" at the Sakikini centre in Ramallah.

Shehadeh's observations of the changes wrought on the Palestinian landscape since his boyhood will be discussed alongside Palin's novel about a small-town postal worker whose life is shaken up when a new and modernising manager is brought into the mix.

Well-known Palestinian author Suad Amiry will join the conversation with her book on her coming-of-age under occupation and her changing landscape of exile between Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo.

It is the hope of festival organisers that discussion will once again be on expression and literature, on creativity and humanity. "The theme of every meeting is around the texts", explained Brittain.

"We did not choose these because they are relevant to the Palestinian issue."

Themes of change, of relocation, distance, departure and travel, it seems, are prominent not just in the Palestinian case.

Indeed, the politics of PalFest'09 as well as the literature being presented have a humanist and universal element that speaks to the modern age and many issues that people the world over grapple with.

Mahjoub put it best when he spoke of his own work around conflict in Darfur. "Emotionally we understand things better through fiction", he said.

"Fiction allows you to describe conflict in a way that is at once more simple than the reality and more complete than reportage, than the news. Because you create it within a human emotional context, a landscape that you created with families and people."

His next project, however, is a non-fiction work on the genocide witnessed in Darfur in recent years, which will grapple with the facts, not the emotions of the story.

The artists at PalFest'09, as fiction and non-fiction writers, poets and filmmakers, bind the emotional with the factual in an event that speaks to both, and of the impossibility of separating the two.

[Reprinted from the May 24 Palestinian Telegraph, . Beesan M. Ramadan is PT editor.]

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