Ibrahim Nasrallah…Hala Alyan…Huzama Habayeb…Ghassan Zaqtan.
These are some of the greatest living voices in Palestinian literature.
Yet they are rarely heard, and often rarely read, here in North America.
That is about to change. On March 27-29, the first-ever festival of Palestinian literature in the United States will feature each of these writers, and dozens more, at Palestine Writes, a three day celebration of Palestinian writing in New York City.
The Festival will take place at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and New York University. More than 70 writers, artists and intellectuals, from Palestine to the U.S., will take part.
Why a Palestinian literature Festival in the U.S.? And why now?
There are many answers to the question. Since the 1970s, Palestinian cultural expression has rarely reached the United States because of the fierce resistance in the West to a Palestinian interpretation of life under Israel settler-colonial occupation. Palestinian literature has suffered the same fate as Palestinian people—silenced, or blockaded, or censored by a Western cultural establishment. For many years, Edward Said was often the only Palestinian writer even North American intellectuals were familiar with.
Secondly, and relatedly, North American publishers have traditionally been reluctant to conscript Palestinian writers to their lists. This prejudice has kept many of the most important, award-winning Palestinian writers—like those I began this article with—away from the eyes of readers.
Yet slowly, this has begun to change. In 2008, Palestinian writers Ahdaf Soueif, Brigid Keenan, Victoria Brittain and Omar Robert Hamilton organized the first Palestinian literature Festival within Palestine. “Pal Fest,” as it was known, was held in Jerusalem. It attracted many leading Palestinian writers, and over time, writers from the West sympathetic to Palestinian life and Palestinian writing: Michael Ondatjee, Alice Walker, and others. Pal Fest continued to grow. Now coming into its 12th year, more than 200 writers have taken part.
The Festival helped bring attention to Palestinian writing in Western metropoles like London. In 2017, Bloomsbury, a well-regarded publishing house, published This is Not a Border: Reportage and Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature. More than 45 writers contributed to the volume.
Culture and politics often go hand in hand. The crack in the apartheid wall forced open by global consciousness of the Palestinian Boycott Divestment, Sanctions Movement, and the rising tide of world opinion against Israel’s oppressive regime, began to create new spaces for Palestinian literary voices to be heard.
In the past ten years, North American and British publishers have brought forward major new works by Palestinian writers, including Susan Abulhawa (a Festival co-organizer) author of The Blue Between Sky and Water (Bloomsbury, 2015); Hala Alyan’s novel Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin, 2017); Leila Abdelrazaq’s graphic novel Baddawai (Just World Books, 2015); Ibtisam Barakat’s memoir Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine (Farrar, Straus, Giroux/Macmillan, 2016).
For many western readers, these books have provided a first but very incomplete glimpse into the long, rich history of Palestinian writing. The Palestine Writes literature festival exists in part to bring this full-body of work into focus in one place, at one time.
Featured writers at Palestine Writes include writers in Palestine and the diaspora with magnificent records of accomplishment. These include the aforementioned Ibrahim Nasrallah, author of 14 poetry collections and 16 novels, including his epic series of 8 novels covering 250 years of modern Palestinian history. Four of his novels and a volume of poetry have been translated into English, including his novel Time of White Horses which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 and for the 2014 London-based Middle East Monitor Prize for the Best Novel about Palestine. Lanterns of the King of Galilee was also longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013.
Other writers to be featured at Palestine Writes include Lisa Suhair Majaj, author of the children’s book Naila Shares a Story (Benchmark Education), about a Palestinian child from Jordan who moves to the US with her family. She is also author of the prize-winning poetry volume Geographies of Light (Del Sol Press) and of poetry and prose in journals and anthologies across the US, the Middle East, Europe, and India. She has coedited three collections of critical essays on Arab, Arab-American, and international women’s writing.
Mahmoud Shukair is an award winning Palestinian writer born in Jabal al-Mukabbar, Jerusalem, in 1941. He writes short stories and novels for adults and teenagers, and is the author of forty-five books, six television series, and four plays. His stories have been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Chinese, Mongolian and Czech. He has occupied leadership positions within the Jordanian Writers’ Union and the Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists. In 2011, he was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression.
The Festival will also acknowledge Palestinian writers and visual artists, many of whom are residents of North America: California-based professor and writer Randa Jarrar; New York-based poet Remi Kenazi; and Palestinian-American journalist Laila El-Haddad.
Finally, Palestine Writes will celebrate the myriad forms of solidarity that Palestinian political and cultural expression have helped to birth. Longtime Palestine solidarity activist and Black radical icon Angela Davis will speak at the Festival, as will indigenous activist Nick Estes.
For novelist and Festival co-organizers Susan Albuhawa, Palestine Writes is a moment for Palestinian writers to demonstrate that, as the original Pal Fest slogan had it, “the power of culture is stronger than the culture of power.” Said Albuhawa, “As those with extraordinary political, economic and military force shrink the land beneath our feet, we will definitely expand our cultural and intellectual presence in the world.”
People interested in purchasing tickets or providing support or sponsorship for Palestine Writes may do so here at the Festival website: www.palestinewrites.org.