Palfest Literary Festival 2016
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After six hours of waiting at the Allenby border crossing to travel from Jordan into the occupied West Bank, the 22 writers and poets making the journey to participate in the Palestine Festival of Literature were shocked to witness young and spirited writer Gaza-born, UK-based Ahmed Masoud being refused entry. Hardly a few hours into the festival and the mood had already turned somber for the motley crew of poets, novelists, journalists and editors. Though the rest finally made it to Ramallah just in time for the inaugural night, the intensity of the day had made clear that this trip would be riddled with the draconian politics of surveillance, policing and racialization.
The Palestine Festival of Literature, now in its ninth year, is a unique traveling festival. It aims to bring literature, music, art and books to a general Palestinian public that has severe restrictions on its movement. For a period of six days, a total of 31 participants will hold free events in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Haifa.
The reasoning behind the festival is two-fold. On the one hand, it puts Palestinians in touch with a global literary scene, and on the other hand, it reveals the reality of living under a 68-year Israeli occupation to the writers involved. When I spoke with one of the festival organizers, Yasmin El-Rifae, many months ago, she explained that the goal was not only to invite writers and book industry folk who have already been active and vocal about Palestinian issues but also to bring writers who are not entirely clear about the complexities of the region and the conflict.
Recently Jewish American novelist Michael Chabon’s visit to occupied Palestinian territories with the group, Breaking the Silence, prompted him to say that this was, “the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life.”
Past participants of Palfest such as Richard Ford, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Foulds, China Miéville have also written about the resounding impact that the week-long festival had on them.
This year’s Palfest boasts the largest number of participants in its history. The list ranges from star-studded literati to young, emerging voices. South African Nobel Literature prize winner J.M Coetzee, Irish writer Colum McCann, American nature writer Barry Lopez, Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami, poets Jehan Bseiso, Remi Kanazi and Rickey Laurentiis are joined by journalists Rob Mackey and Jack Shenker along with the sprinkling of academics like Saidiya Hartman and Mohamed Elshahed.
Palfest was founded by Egyptian novelist, Ahdaf Soueif, in 2008 in an effort to position culture over power, and to break the “cultural siege” on Palestine. Small, energetic and elegant, Soueif is forced to play parent to a group of boisterous and curious writers and artists. She patiently guides the group on every single bus ride; her effortless and articulate explanations cutting through any obfuscations one might harbor about the region’s history and politics.
The first night of Palfest opened to a packed audience in Ramallah’s Ottoman Court. Younger, lesser known poets such as Asmaa Azaizeh, Ghiath al Madhoun and Jehan Bseiso set the mood for the night which went from jubilant to melancholic to politically passionate. American writer Barry Lopez who is known for his deep engagement with questions of land and American colonial history read passages from his book, The Rediscovery of North America.
The participants have a hard few days coming up. The week long schedule includes trips to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, a tour of the heavily militarized old city of Hebron, walks around the apartheid wall and a visit to densely populated Balata Refugee camp.
Dubbed as the Iron Man of all literary festivals, the week is bound to prove physically and psychologically difficult for participants. Whether this will inspire literary and journalistic output is hard to predict but it is sure to have lasting reverberations for everyone involved.