A Palfest Diary

May 31

We head from Amman, Jordan, to the Allenby Bridge terminal, the only land crossing into the West Bank open to Palestinians. We are advised not to utter the word palestine to Israeli customs officials, lest they take umbrage and deny us entrance, as they have the power to do. And so the Palestine Festival of Literature, or Palfest, as it’s called, enters the West Bank discreetly, afraid of being turned away.

We wait at the terminal for five hours, until everyone else has passed through and the cleaning crews have started their sweeps. But we are armed with patience, and the terminal isn’t a bad place to chat and to read. (We are carrying copies of all the participants’ books distributed throughout our bags. Another batch, sent through DHL, has been held up at customs in Tel Aviv, and seems unlikely ever to arrive.) Finally, the last few members of the group—all with Arab names—are let through. From our bus, we glimpse the Dead Sea in the muggy distance, and we head up through the dry yellow hills, crowned with Israeli settlements, towards Ramallah.

Palfest was established in 2008 by the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif to celebrate Palestinian writers, and to put them in conversation with writers from other parts of the world. This year’s participants include the novelists Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole, the poet Ed Pavlic, and Sapphire, the author of Push. In the evening, a crowd sits under the canopy of a large fig tree at the Sakakini Cultural Center. Ahmad Harb, a writer and the dean of the Faculty of Arts at Birzeit University, reads in Arabic from a manuscript based on stories his mother told him. During the 1948 war, Harb’s uncle, “a fat man with a weak heart,” fled the village of al-Dawayima, the site of a massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers. He dragged his small son and daughter with him, but when he felt he could no longer go on, he decided to save the male child, and threw the girl down. She clung to his clothes and ran after him, crying. He ignored her. The story ends with the uncle’s words to his grown daughter: “You lived by your own will, you grew by your own will, forgive me.”

Later that night, the Danish author Hanne-Vibeke Holst reads from her novel The Apology, in which a middle-aged Danish woman’s prejudices are realized when her daughter’s Palestinian boyfriend turns out to be a suicide bomber. Holst’s book is satirical, and has a big twist, but this isn’t clear from the excerpt she reads. An indignant audience member asks, “Why are Palestinians always depicted as suicide bombers?” and adds: “Palestinians don’t want to be suicide bombers. They want dignity, honor and to be human.” He mentions two teenage boys who were shot dead not far from here on May 15. The Israeli army denied responsibility until CNN broadcast footage that shows Israeli soldiers firing at the exact moment the boys fall—as they walk home, separately and unarmed, after a demonstration.

June 1

We’re on the move again. Because so many Palestinians can’t travel, Palfest brings writers from around the world to them. And because Palestinians can’t even move freely from one West Bank city to another, the festival travels every day, to reach as many people as possible.

We take the Qalandia Crossing from Ramallah to Jerusalem. After passing through the checkpoint’s narrow metal chutes and heavy turnstiles, we emerge on the other side of the giant cement wall that Israel began building twelve years ago, and that zig-zags across the West Bank. The Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana is reminded of checkpoints in Baghdad, and marvels at how easy it is to “make things familiar that are unacceptable.”

Jerusalem’s Old City is beautiful and bitter. Little by little, day by day, its Muslim residents are stripped of land and homes and residency permits. Israeli settlers have occupied about eighty buildings in the Muslim and Christian quarters, covering them in flags and barbed wire.

In the evening, on the esplanade of the Burj Al-Luqluq Social Center, the local poet Najwan Darwish reads from his collection Nothing More to Lose, recently published by NYRB Classics. His poem “Jerusalem (I)” opens:

“We stood on the Mount

to raise a sacrifice for you

and when we saw our hand rise


we knew

that we were your sacrifice”

The reading is nearly drowned out by the sound of nearby fireworks, set off to celebrate a neighborhood resident’s release from prison.

June 2

In Bethlehem, we make a short stop to observe the Israeli-built wall. Covered in graffiti, it hugs the city, separating farmers from their olive fields, surrounding one unlucky house on three sides. At Bethlehem University, a crowd of students has waited an hour for Palfest to arrive (“This is a huge deal for us,” says a professor. “We don’t get a lot of visitors”). They lap up the lively performance of Sabrina Mahfouz, a British-Egyptian author whose collection of plays and poems, The Clean Collection, was released by Bloomsbury this year. In one piece, she argues against understanding female genital mutilation as a cultural phenomenon, moving from helplessness (“sometimes I’m ashamed to breathe”) to challenge (“why is it things can be covered/under the heading of cultural sensitivity/only when it suits you.”)

The theme of the reading is “Women, Identity, and Writing History.” Susan Abulhawa, author of Mornings in Jenin, is a refugee of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war who spent a good portion of her life without identity papers. As a child, she smuggled herself across multiple borders.Mornings in Jenin,Nathalie Handel, whose family is from Bethlehem, but who can only return for limited visits on a foreign passport, shares several poems that invoke her similarly peripatetic upbringing. “Blue Hours” draws on time Handel spent in the Caribbean. In it, she describes approaching a negrita: 

“and all I want to know

is her name

and ask her

have you ever heard

your heart undressing,

seen a stray dog at midnight,

realized he understands this hour

better than we will understand any hour?”

negrita: Identity can be an inspiration and a tether. Is it hard to calibrate one’s voice as a Palestinian poet, to keep one’s writing from buckling under the weight of so much living metaphor? As the great poet Mahmoud Darwish once wrote: “and this sea is mine, / this humid air is mine, / and my name, / even if I misspell it on the coffin, / is mine. / But I, / now that I have become filled / with all the reasons of departure, / I am not mine / I am not mine / I am not mine…”

For images from the festival, see the Palfest 2014 flickr page.