Palestinian Festival of Literature celebrates 10 years of culture exchange, challenging oppression

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Tucked away in a quiet corner of the winding alleyways in Nablus’s old city, the Community Resource Development Center of Nablus hosted the city’s gathering of the Palestinian Festival of Literature this week.

Most of the guests and speakers arrived just at seven, the time the event was officially scheduled to start, but no one was in any rush. Instead, they headed to the roof to watch the setting sun descend behind the arched mountains of Nablus. Guests and speakers laughed, talked politics and snapped selfies together, taking breaks to awe at the full-circle view of the city between hills.

Though many had never met before, the sense of community was immediate, fitting for the event designed to be a culture exchange.

The Palestinian Festival of Literature celebrated its 10th year in 2017. With a slew of respected artists and writers on its program, the festival met in cities across the occupied West Bank and Israel. From Haifa, to Ramallah, to Nablus and Jerusalem, the festival once again brought people from across the world to the stage.

Guests and speakers gather on the rooftop before the event to watch the sunset (Photo: Mondoweiss/Sheren Khalel)
Chris Jackson and Nadeem Aslam sit with an attendee, chatting before the event. (Photo: Mondoweiss/Sheren Khalel)

Each event was focused on a central theme. The first of the events in Ramallah was entitled “The Future of Citizen,” while the Jerusalem events were “The Future of Borders” and “The Future of History,” in Haifa they analyzed “The Future of Truth” and in Nablus, speakers focused on “The Future of Empire.”

Once the last sliver of sun had disappeared, patrons were content to funnel down the spiral wooden stairs into the center’s intricately designed meeting room. Under a mosaic ceiling, surrounded by traditional arched windows and doorways, five authors took their seats in front of the audience. The guest speakers included Nadeem Aslam, a fiction writer born in Pakistan and raised in the UK, Rachel Holmes a British writer of biographies, Jamal Dahar, a Palestinian novelist and professor at Birzeit University, Chris Jackson, an American publisher and editor-in-chief of One World and Ghassan Naddaf, Palestinian author of “The Death of the Bread Thief” and a local drama school teacher.

Aslam, the first speaker at the event, read an excerpt from his most recent novel, “The Golden Legend.”

The expert described a raid on a home in Kashmir, soldiers destroying the furniture, humiliating an old man and terrifying children. The imagery was parallel to that of Israeli raids on Palestinian homes.

After the reading, Aslam closed the hardcover book, placing it in his lap, and leaned forward to the audience.

“The future of Empire?” he asked with a wry smile, alluding to the topic of the evening. “The empire has no future.”

(Left to right) Nadeem Aslam, Rachel Holmes, the festival’s host, Jamal Daher, Chris Jackson and Ghassan Naddaf. (Photo: Mondoweiss/Sheren Khalel)
Books that were written by guests of the festival on display for sale at the Nablus event. (Photo: Mondoweiss/Sheren Khalel)

Holmes, holding printed pages of her own notes for the event, spoke about colonialism and the importance of standing tall against oppression. One by one, the authors took turns sharing readings, personal accounts and favorite quotes to the captivated crowd.

Jackson, the American publisher, read an expert from the beginning of the memoir “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson about Stevenson’s time as a lawyer defending death row inmates, where Stevenson explains what it was like as a law student in the 80s, when he was tasked with meeting a black death row inmate named Henry, and how instead of being met with the anger and despair he expected, he was met with hope and steadfastness.

“I looked at him and struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring, something that expressed my gratitude to him for being so patient with me,” Jackson read. “But I couldn’t think of anything to say. Henry looked at me and smiled. The guard was shoving him toward the door roughly. I didn’t like the way Henry was being treated, but he continued to smile until, just before the guard could push him fully out of the room, he planted his feet to resist the officer’s shoving. He looked so calm. Then he did something completely unexpected. I watched him close his eyes and tilt his head back. I was confused by what he was doing, but then he opened his mouth and I understood. He began to sing. He had a tremendous baritone voice that was strong and clear. It startled both me and the guard, who stopped pushing.”

Jackson said he had originally planned to read an excerpt from a different book, but changed his mind last minute after seeing with his own eyes the effects of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

“Proximity changes us, you have to get close,” Jackson said.

“The important detail to me, is that before he began to sing, he resisted the pushing of the impatient guard,” Jackson said, explaining his choice of reading. “Henry plants his feet, he knows he must. He knows that this moment of stillness and autonomy is resistance … This is the site of the story’s last minute inspiration to me, the moment Henry pushes back and uses his own weight as resistance, literally occupies the space he’s in and then fills the room with song. This vision testifies to a different future than the one the prison has promised him … Even in a time of empire there are unchained, unconquerable regions within us … I have heard a lot of settler colonialism since I have been here [in Palestine], this morning I heard a phrase that chilled me: ‘Settler colonialism is when an outsider arrives and rather than joining and living side-by-side, instead claims ownership of someone else’s home.’”

“The frightening thought that accompanied that definition was this — our most intimate moments are our interior life, and even this can become subject to a colonial outsider’s claims of ownership. Our songs and stories, our political and cultural imaginations, the refuge of our minds and memories — nothing is safe unless you struggle for it,” he said.

Jackson left tears in the eyes of Ahdaf Soueif, literature festival’s founder.

“So powerful,” she repeated, again and again, shaking Jackson’s hand and wiping tears from her face.

Soueif started the festival in 2007 with the goal of creating a cultural exchange among artists around the world.

“Palfest was our way of putting every resource we have in the service of Palestine. It has created a community of writers and artists who lived the experience and came to a new realization of what’s happening here,” Soueif told Mondoweiss.

Among the festival’s patrons are well-known writers, some of which passed before they were able to see the literature festival reach its tenth year, such as Chinua Achebe, John Berger, Mahmoud Darwish, Seamus Heaney and Harold Pinter. Philip Pullman and Emma Thompson are also listed as patrons.

Youth from the Edward Said Music Conservatory in Nablus play traditional Palestinian songs. (Photo: Mondoweiss/Sheren Khalel)

In its closing statement, the festival’s organizers asked participants to think deeply about the connection between imperialism, occupation, justice, art and freedom.

“There can be no justice without justice in Palestine. But equally important, and what we must always remember: we cannot be defeated until Palestine is defeated. What, then, is the role of the artist, the festival, the witness in today’s battles? We turn to you, our audience, our friends, our authors, with that question. What is the shape of the world to come and how can we write what is yet to be written? Palestine is the laboratory of the future: the checkpoints, the sieges, the psyops, the architecture, the credit lines, the algorithms – all are commodities sold to future repressions. What of that future can we still unmake? What new future can we still imagine? That is what is under siege today: the possibility of imagining.”

“After our closing night, here, in 2017, we will take a step back, a pause into thought for a year. Our hope is that together we can return in a future year with the right festival to take into battle.”

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Impressive undertaking; thanks for telling us about it.