Your enemy is a person whose story you have not heard, and Palestinians have a story about their pain and injustice that the world in general and their enemy in particular needs to hear. Until now, storytellers have been few.
The Palestine Writing Workshop, a relatively new project, aims to remedy this.
In the spring of 2009, in the second year of the Palestine Festival of Literature (Pal Fest), the seed was planted when the festival’s creative writing workshop at Birzeit University saw an overwhelming number of participants expressing a keen desire to learn techniques to express themselves.
As a result, the Palestine Writing Workshop was officially created with its first writer-in-residence workshop, facilitated by South African writer Rachel Holmes. It drew much interest in this place under occupation where very few creative opportunities are permitted.
With humble beginnings in the university town of Birzeit, the workshop has been held in other Palestinian cities, namely Nablus, Gaza City and Jerusalem, fostering a community of emerging writers through an array of programmes in both Arabic and English.
Morgan Cooper, an American married to a Palestinian, has taught English literature at Birzeit University and is also the founder/director of the workshop. “The organisation was born of a deep belief and conviction in the power of writing to effect change in Palestine and empower individuals and communities, which remains at the heart of our story,” she says.
When Cooper saw the immense artistic potential and interest in her students, she was determined to formalise creative education opportunities. “We work to inspire youth to read and write more creatively as well as to develop educators and professionals’ capacity in writing skills,” she explains. “Through training, internships, literary events, book clubs and more, we encourage people to utilise writing as a tool for social change as well as professional and academic development”.
Cooper acknowledges the special role played by international poets and writers.“We are honoured and indebted to those who have given freely their time and energy,” she says, “to share their knowledge and experience with emerging writers in Palestine — such as British poet Joanne McNally, BBC journalist Bee Rowlatt and, Canadian travel author Marcello Di Cintio.”
In March of this year, the workshop hosted Githa Hariharan, who is known for her collection of short stories, “The Art of Dying”, and her book for children, “The Winning Team”.
Hariharan facilitated workshops that dealt with some major challenges posed by writing about conflict – be it the more obvious examples of war or riots, or the more day-to-day experience of occupation as well as prejudice and discrimination. She focused on some of the research and narrative strategies used in writing about fear and grief, hatred and despair, through conversations, writing exercises and discussions of texts from around the world.
Apart from such interactions with international poets and writers, many other local initiatives continue to enhance the creative spirit of aspirant writers, especially e-workshops, which are valuable in reaching out to young writers in Gaza who don’t have access to the workshops in the West Bank.
Cooper describes the activities directed at children: “Our weekly storytelling activities in the ‘Cave of Imagination’ was a wonderful weekly project that began in 2011 and concluded a year later, for the children in Birzeit and the surrounding communities who have no public library. We also organised two events with Bee Rowlatt of the BBC, in Birzeit and Ramallah, and even staged a 5-kilometre run/walk to raise funds to introduce reading as an enjoyable subject away from academia. The reading programme was cost-free, making it accessible to children from low-income families, particularly those from the Birzeit refugee camp.”
Last summer, she adds, “we staged a successful four-week summer camp for free, transforming play to reading and storytelling, even visiting surrounding villages, with the children there joining us. We also ran a pilot aimed to enable the children’s understanding of historical spaces and use them as an inspiration to tell their stories with words as well as art, with the workshop emphasising the value of heritage and culture and their presence in the community. The final product is a book written and illustrated by the children of the village of Deir Ghassaneh, which shall be published and distributed in Palestine. In May, we shall be putting on a children’s festival for an entire week, including in Gaza.”
Once a month for four months, Cooper says “we have summer literary nights, with Palestinian poets and writers: a café in Ramallah becomes the venue for readings/recitations and discussions, and also book launches”.
The Palestinian Writing Workshop also has a Book Club with books donated by writers and publishing houses, and Cooper says, “we stage regular discussions in Ramallah and Gaza, joined by several authors via internet link to discuss their books”.
Cooper looks back at what the workshop has achieved so far: “After three years of working in creative writing and literature in Palestine, we believe our small contributions to fostering emerging writers has been very significant. Participant evaluations of workshops are stellar, youth feedback is positive — sometimes even desperate for more activities in communities — and attendance at literary panels and readings, book club chapters and other activities are always very good.”
The Palestine Writing Workshop obtains small grants for specific activities and, at present, Cooper and the administrative assistant, Ala Saffouri — a Palestinian graduate in English Literature from Birzeit University who is responsible for all the children’s programmes, book clubs and logistics and the only person engaged with the workshop full-time — are the only people driving this project.
“We mainly depend on volunteers and are most grateful for the assistance provided by our sister organisation, the Palestine Festival of Literature, which continues to share its facilities in Birzeit with us, while partnering us on training and events and supplying us with books for our library and book club,” Cooper says.
Sadly, in February, after a break-in at their premises, there were damages to their property and petty cash amounting to about a quarter of their budget was found to be missing. Furthermore, they loaned books to readers from their Reading Room for a deposit, which they ended up losing as well. Nevertheless they labour on.
“Palestinian literature in English sells because people love the narrative and are hungry for it,” Cooper says. “The point is, what sells is written in English but great storytellers here are in Arabic literature and the need for translation distorts the message.”
On the other hand, Cooper is optimistic, “Storytelling here is amazing, although like everywhere else it is also crippled by the publishing industry, and the literary community is made up of the same people but we wish to expand that to others, with the belief that spectacular opportunities beckon on the horizon.”
This wonderful initiative that emerged from Pal Fest — supported by internationally renowned poets and writers, guided by the vision of its founder and powered by the passionate commitment of her assistant — may be a small step in terms of creativity but a giant leap for the telling of the Palestinian story.
Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in occupied Jerusalem.