MAAN NEWS AGENCY
In occupied Jerusalem, Lit Fest can’t avoid politics
Date: 24 / 05 / 2009 Time: 18:20
Jerusalem – Ma’an – On its opening day, Israeli soldiers walked past piles of books for sale and commemorative PalFest’09 tote bags into the Palestine National Theatre to tell the owner that the Palestine Festival of Literature was an event organized by the Palestinian Authority and therefore illegal.
Writers, poets, diplomats and artists were herded onto the street. The event to foster discussion about literary themes and techniques was off to an ominous start.
“The PA has nothing to do with PalFest,” said local organizer Omar Hamilton following the forcible eviction. The event is sponsored by the British Council, UNRWA, the AM Qattan Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Charitable Fund. It is hosting 20 authors, 17 from abroad, in a six-day traveling literary workshop.
The authors are a diverse group, including Kenya born, Tanzaniya-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 organizer Victoria Brittain an hour before armed soldiers told her to evacuate the Palestine National Theatre. “[Politics] is separate from the talks, precisely because everybody is talking about literature.”
'We don’t talk about politics, but our presence is political'
There is a political dimension to the event, however, explained participating author Jamal Mahjoub. “The fact that you have writers coming from all over the world…all of this is somehow in its self a political statement, because you are saying, ‘This is what we want;’ 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. Honoring Al-Quds Capital of Culture 2009, the group chose to begin and end their tour of Palestine in Jerusalem. Another political feature of the tour is that it travels to Palestinians, because most cannot travel to them; the political and geographical fragmentation of the West Bank means most young men have a difficult time traveling from the north to the central West Bank, or the south to the north, etc.
"The thing that was striking [to me about] last year," said Mahjoub, who is the only returning author from last year's festival, "was that it was about literature, and not politics." That, he emphasized, "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, the UK, Canada, Australia and the Middle East all talk about “departure” as a theme in a work or in various works, 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 explains, “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, “than 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 organizers, “we need you because we do not want the occupation to succeed in sealing our minds,” like it had already sealed off the West Bank and Gaza, was the implicit undertone.
But the workshops themselves are not political, all insist.
“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; and for me that’s the main point,” said Mahjoub.
Back to the books
Organizers said they hoped the workshops, which will continue in Ramallah on Sunday, Jenin on Monday, Bethlehem on Tuesday, Hebron on Wednesday and back to Jerusalem Thursday, will go off with less drama of the political sort.
“Nobody’s stopped us from going on the walk through the hills,” organizer Hamilton said over the phone. The group was set to follow the steps of Rajah Shehadeh, who wrote Palestine Walks, and is participating in the 2009 festival.
Shehadeh will also present his work during the panel discussion on “Registering Change: Landscape and Architecture” at the Sakikini center Sunday evening. 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 modernizing 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 organizers that discussion will once again be on expression and literature, on creativity and humanity and not on themes relating to Palestinian politics. “The theme of every meeting is around the texts,” explained Brittain, “We did not choose these because they are relevant to the Palestinian issue; we absolutely didn’t.”
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 of the 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 that country witnessed 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.
The events schedule for the festival can be found at www.palfest.org