You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Sabrina Mahfouz reflects on her time with the Palestine Festival of Literature in June 2014.
At the Allenby Border Crossing, four of us participating in the 2014 Palestine Festival of Literature had our passports detained for over three hours. As a group of around twenty writers, we knew that travelling to the occupied Palestinian Territories via Jordan would not be a breeze, but it was a necessary part of Palfest’s determination to show us tiny glimpses of what daily life has been narrowed into for the Palestinians.
The four whose passports were detained the longest, mine included, were those belonging to owners of Muslim surnames. The passports were British, American, Egyptian, Pakistani – but they all shared this seemingly worrying feature. We were asked two generic questions each. We were asked how many days we would be visiting. It struck me that in this part of the world, there is no such thing as a neutral number. Every digit is attached to a memory of destruction, death and displacement. ’48, ’67, 15 billion, 5 million. In the moment that I write this, people are tweeting that 42 Israelis and 1000 Palestinians have been killed in the current offensive against Gaza that began this month, ostensibly with the utterly unjust justification of Israeli retaliation for the deaths of three teenage settlers in Hebron, the blame apportioned to Hamas with absolutely no evidence to support the convenient presumption.
It is one month since I came back from that colonised land and now I remember our entrance into it with three tears on my face induced by the seven images I have just seen of two dead babies covered in the dust of fiery aggression funded by 3.5 billion of US taxpayer’s dollars.
That sunny June, as we drove into the West Bank, this coach load of fantastic, famous, daring, defining writers began filming and scribbling what they could see from the windows. Ahdaf Soueif and Michael Ondaatje are authors who changed the way I looked at immigration; at love; pulled naive teenage scales from my eyes when their books revealed to me the inevitability adult lives would be launched into, control being a childish illusion. Sapphire had shown that words written as if they could be performed are ones which can also make phenomenal novels and films (her book Push became the movie Precious).
Omar Hamilton’s citizen journalism collective Mosireen had redefined the analysis of political events for a global audience over the past few years in Egypt. It felt surreal to be taking in such a politically pivotal landscape amongst figures who had been so seminal in my literary education. However, as the information from Ahdaf regarding the extent of the settlements began emanating via the coach microphone and as the bulging white bricks appeared from spiky hills to illustrate the stories of devastation we were being told, awe was reserved for the ordinary people of this land who dealt with daily displacement, degradation and injustice in the face of a sprawling and seemingly unstoppable hostile force.
We were extremely lucky to have the towering talents of Susan Abulhawa and Nathalie Handal share their history with us. Not only did their writing rest inside my skin as a constant reminder that when it comes to details too difficult to gaze upon, words really can paint a thousand pictures; they are also both Palestinian and had a personal family and cultural legacy to contextualise a nation’s tragedy.
All of the Palestinian artists we had the honour of watching, hearing and talking with – from Najwan Darwish and Hussam Gosheh to Asmaa Azaizeh and Ministry of Dub Key – understandably had freedom as a constant theme running through their powerful work. It’s a huge loss to international art that this work rarely makes it around the world due to the travel restrictions imposed upon the artists and the isolation enforced on Palestine from most industries.
The authors who had traveled to Palestine with Palfest found plenty of common ground in their work to share with audiences – from Kamila Shamsie’s poignant reading on ‘lost homes’ to Teju Cole’s delicate rendering of a return to Nigeria from New York to Chicago-based poet Ed Pavlic’s reading of All American Erotica : A .38 Slug in My Vocal Chords and the One That Got Away with the lines ‘you see me/ dead before we met. I watch you blink/ watch the surface of the world/ close’. Chicago may not be in an official state of conflict, but considering that 82 people were shot in a 84 hour period in Chicago this July, stories of deaths are sadly just as common as if it were.
One of our days was spent in Hebron – a location that less than a month later became the stomping ground where the excuses for aggressive retaliation were uprooted and shown to the world via inaccurate and bias soundbites when the three Israeli settler teenagers were found dead.
Hebron is where the unequivocal apartheid enforced by the state of Israel is at its most visually apparent. I wrote the below video piece when we returned from there and I performed it at Palfest’s closing event in Ramallah. It was an evening of stories spoken and sung in Arabic and English, adults and children sat underneath drowsy leaves in a garden of the Sakakini Cultural Centre listening to words that no matter how powerful, could not prevent the Israeli propaganda machine soon going into overdrive – telling the world that Hamas use human shields; that they store weapons in schools and hospitals; that Israel must use force to protect themselves, they are only protecting themselves. We hear this as constant ticker tape audio and video clips on all the major channels. Meanwhile, Hamas are sporadically given cursory moments in which to put across a version of events from a different perspective. Their attempts to address the colossally disproportionate Israeli force being used and their reasons for engaging in violent actions are marginalised. Whatever you think of Hamas and whatever outcome you would like to see in the area, it is counter-productive to ostracise them from discussions and coverage.
Yesterday, I saw my 7 year old nephew on his last day at school. The kids high-five each other and run to their parents, book bags and water bottles in hand. They run, shout, smile and I can’t help but be overcome by the knowledge that at that very moment in Gaza, children of the same age are running – silent and without smiles, books or water – away from the ruinous rubble of the home they know as their world; away from the dismembered remains of brothers and sisters they have just joked or squabbled with – they have nowhere and nobody to run to. It is time for those of us who have never had to experience such confounding desolation to look beyond the false ‘historical’ and current justifications used by Israel and their supporting international partners – David Cameron and the UK featuring highly here – to expel Palestinians from their homeland through indiscriminate killing and chaos. It is unacceptable that such inaccuracies and bias should be given perennial multi-media platforms, enabling lives that have not yet had a chance to breathe a dream to be pulled apart, buried in small plots, nameless and in flames.
Litro’s mission is to find the best and most exciting new voices in fiction and non-fiction and give them a platform for their work. To read work from other writers to watch, get our All-Access membership for subscription to our print magazine, membership of our Book Club and unlimited online access.