This is Not a Border Celebrates the 10th Anniversary of the Palestine Festival of Literature
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In 2013, I made the short flight from Cairo to Amman so I could meet up with the 2013 Palestine Festival of Literature. That year, I became one of the 170-odd writers who have joined this traveling festival since its opening in 2008. Now, 47 PalFest supporters and visitors have contributed to a new collection This is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature, ed. Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton.
There is no lack of writerly material at this five-day event, where authors not only take buses to appearances and workshops all across historic Palestine, but also experience as much of the country, and its challenges, as is possible to cram into a few days: historic walks, not-so-historic checkpoints, hospitals, NGOs, homes under threat, more checkpoints, historic religious sites, and yet more low-roofed, bus-terminal-esque, sweat-smelling checkpoints.
Yet to write about PalFest is to enter a thicket of narrative challenges. As Jamal Mahjoub writes in his essay, “So much of what is now said is merely the regurgitation of established tropes.”
In this 326-page layered collage of essays, poems, and articles, we see multiple manifestations of writers’ experiences of the 10-year-old Palestine Festival of Literature. We hear several times about the devastating vertical segregation of Khalil (Hebron), where Israeli settlers throw their garbage down on the Palestinians below; the Separation Wall, particularly where it squeezes and suffocates in Bethlehem; the endless bus rides; and the humiliations and frustrations of getting one’s luggage through the checkpoint at Qalandia.
Most interesting are the essays that are not straightforward reportage, but are about the writer’s own gaze, and the collective gazes of others around them.
Mahjoub, a Sudanese-British crime writer and literary novelist, grew up in Khartoum, where he was told to finish his peanut soup because of the starving children in refugee camps. "For decades martyrdom has been the role of Palestinians in the Arab world, their suffering a cover for all its failings–nationalism, despotism, corruption."
Many of the contributors have made intellectual and moral journeys as they see and re-see “Palestine”: When Brigid Keenan was younger, she saw Ariel Sharon as "young and handsome"; for Pankaj Mishra, "one of my earliest heroes was the Israeli general Moshe Dayan” with his “black eyepatch and mischievous grin”; when he was eighteen, Adam Foulds traveled to Israel on a gap-year trip as a “secular kibbutznik.”
Foulds offers a moving change of vision and “a revelation that’s so obvious, so bound to be true, I’m almost ashamed to admit it: Palestinians are normal people.” For him, the Star of David had always “meant home and familiarity,” but the experience of PalFest made him see the symbol from a different angle. In his essay, Foulds doesn’t have a solution so much as a challenge, “to integrate those perspectives and contradictory stories to form the whole that comes closest to encompassing the complex reality of the situation.”
Pankaj Mishra writes beautifully and simply about how the experience of PalFest helped him see afresh divisions in India, where Israel has been a “special friend,” particularly to Hindu nationalist politicians. Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie brings us in her essay, work by the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), and she translates his "Lullaby to a Palestinian Child."
There is not only the difficult, but also joy and humor. “How quickly,” Ru Freeman writes, “we learned to wrest joy out of denial.” And always, anywhere you allow Suad Amiry a platform, there is the larger-than-life irony she deploys here in “Privatising Allenby.” Mohammed Hanif writes with a wonderfully conversational humor about a Pakistani Jewish man he met in Israel and how "I was pleasantly surprised to see the Jewish diaspora divided along Indian–Pakistani lines. Some of us might go to the promised land but we are bringing our enemies with us."
Perhaps the most heartbreaking essay is “Letters from Gaza,” by Gazan novelist and memoirist Atef Abu Saif. It opens with a childhood writing assignment for an English-language class: “a letter to your friend abroad inviting him to visit you in your hometown.”
I met Abu Saif in London in 2015, where he had an eight-week writing residency. As I sat down to interview him, he was quick to offer me a cup of cardamom-flavored coffee he’d brought from his home, which he prepared in the Delfina Foundation kitchen. It was an act of reflexive hospitality from a man who can never invite anyone from abroad to visit his home, as the school’s writing prompt had implicitly promised.
In his This is Not a Border essay, Abu Saif writes in his characteristic mix of the banal, the lyric, and the ironic:
"Gaza is a hot place for news only. It is a bakery for delicious exciting breaking news. People come here to make stories about wars. Nobody comes just to visit. Dignitaries and public figures come to find out about Gaza. Sartre came to Gaza. My dad saw him in the street. "
The collection is bursting with words by some of the world’s most celebrated living and recently deceased writers. Collectively, they have won dozens of literary prizes, from the Fringe First to the Nobel. Some of their contributions are short statements, or straightforward reportage, but many more make unexpected connections.
As Mahjoub writes: "And perhaps the point is that this is no longer about Israel and Palestine, it is about who we are and what kind of world we want to live in.”
This is Not a Border will be launching at the Balham Literary Festival on June 10th.
Four more recommended reads by Palfestivians on Palestine:
Suad Amiry, Nothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18-Hour Journey with Murad. Where Amiry transgresses the Separation Wall along with undocumented workers.
Najwan Darwish, Nothing More to Lose, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid. A collection of the young poets work, selected and translated by the award-winning Abu-Zeid.
Atef Abu Saif, The Drone Eats with Me. A painful, banal memoir written during the summer 2014 bombardment of Gaza.
Raja Shehade, Palestinian Walks. An Orwell Prize-winning journey through a vanishing landscape.