Kalimat: The Palestinian Literature Festival— a five-day celebration of books and culture — featured 14 critically-acclaimed Palestinian and international writers in nightly public events staged in occupied Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Haifa earlier this month. Writing workshops were also conducted with students at An Najah, Birzeit, Bethlehem and Al Quds universities.
However, the event was overshadowed by the detention and deportation by the Israeli authorities of bestselling Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa who was expected to headline the festival. Nevertheless, Abulhawa still spoke to Palestinian audiences from her home in USA — thanks to Skype.
At the launch of the event at the Palestinian Heritage Museum in occupied Jerusalem, she said, “I lived the best years of my childhood there, despite my separation from family and the sometimes difficult conditions we faced living under Israeli occupation. Dar Al Tifel is the legacy of one of the most admirable women I have ever known — Hind Al Husseini. She saved me in more ways than I suppose she knew, or that I understood at the time. She saved a lot of us girls. She gathered us from all the broken bits of Palestine. She gave us food and shelter, educated and believed in us, and in turn made us believe we were worthy.
“There is no more appropriate place than Dar Al Tifel to read this statement: The bitter irony of our condition was not lost on me. I, a daughter of the land, of a family rooted at least 900 years in the land, and who spent much of her childhood in Jerusalem, was being deported from her homeland by sons and daughters of recent arrivals, who came to Palestine a mere decades ago with European-born ethos of racial Darwinism, invoking biblical fairy tales and divinely ordained entitlement. The true vulgarity is the way they have taken and continue to take everything from us, how they have carved out our hearts, stolen our everything, and occupied our history. I want to leave with one more thought I had in that jail cell. Israel is spiritually, emotionally, and culturally small, despite the large guns they point at us — or perhaps because of them. It is to their own detriment that they cannot accept our presence in our homeland, because our humanity remains intact and our art is beautiful and life-affirming, and we aren’t going anywhere but home.”
The philosophy of the festival was to blend world-renowned writers with the cream of local and underground writers and it worked.
Despite Abulhawa’s absense, the festival went on — organised by the Educational Bookshop and the Kenyon Institute, partnered with the British Council Palestine, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Institute Francais Jerusalem, the Goethe Institute in Ramallah; and the support of Al Qattan Foundation.
Mahmoud Muna, who spearheaded and worked tirelessly, remarked at the opening, “We hope Kalimat can be a space to celebrate and explore how culture and writing act as means for maintaining dignity and hope. Writing in all forms — poetry, fiction, non-fiction and journalism — facilitates experiential reflection, the documentation and defence of historical narrative, and helps build community and resilience. It is a tool to communicate to audiences beyond our own immediate surroundings, and is a basic means of human expression by which it becomes possible to appeal to commonalities in the human condition. The use of this tool is all the more important for those caught in situations of injustice, and for those who are prevented free exchanges of movement and access. Such as here in Palestine. Towards these ends, Kalimat aims to generate and widen existing discourses and practices of writing, shedding light on how writing can serve as an exercise in agency, humanism, creativity and resistance.”
I met Muna at the end of the festival. Reflecting on the experience, he noted successes and areas for improvement but most of all he was very happy with how the festival progressed. He spoke about the difficulties that Palestinians under Occupation have to circumvent daily, and yet, things do work out in the end. He hoped that the festival would become a yearly event in the Palestinian literary calendar.
“The philosophy of the festival was to blend world-renowned writers with the cream of local and underground writers and it worked. Marcello Di Cinito from Canada whose book — Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense explores life in contemporary Palestine through the lens of Palestinian literary culture — made a huge impact. And then there was Gavin Francis, a Scottish nonfiction writer and physician who even embarked on medical tours which we arranged for him on the sidelines of the festival. Cathy Otten, award-winning British journalist, best known for her book With Ash On Their Faces: Yezidi Women and The Islamic State, was able to see the state of women in Palestine and then we also had Sylwia Chutnik from Poland, a feminist who won many awards with her debut book Pocket Female which has been translated into several foreign languages. The cream of Palestinian writers comprised of Rajah Shehadeh, Suad Amiry, Nur Masalha, Nasab Hussein, Maya Abu Al-Hayat, Salim Tamari, Ala Hlehel, Fida Jiryis and Asmaa Azaizeh.”
“The festival launched in Jerusalem and then moved to Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem ending in Haifa. We came up with themes for each city — wide enough to involve everyone’s work and relevant to Palestine — from ‘narratives and nations, ‘breaking boundaries’, ‘the personal and the political’, ‘the sacred and the profane’ and ‘excavating histories’. It gave Palestinians — who cannot travel out of their cities — an opportunity to listen to and interact with world-renowned writers. As a bookshop, we have a responsibility to connect readers with writers and that was what the spirit of the festival was all about.”
A novel approach was to include universities and facilitate workshops in order to inspire aspiring writers. Muna explains, “In Jerusalem at Bard College, Cathy did two sessions on journalism and literature. Sylwia worked in conjunction with the women and gender department who brought together various women activists in Jerusalem. In Nablus, we had more than 60 students where Nur discussed work on Palestinian history, as well as spoke about the role of writing and how writers have huge responsibility. At Birzeit, Marcello facilitated two workshops with the English department, on taking a brief and converting it into a book and in Bethlehem Susan did a Skype discussion.”
The group, led by Muna and Mandy Turner the Director of the British Research Institute in Jerusalem, also fitted in tours in various cities to provide the international writers with an “on the ground appraisal of the Palestinian condition, including a visit to the cultural attractions of Nazareth where they even met with renowned journalist Johnathan Cook who resides there. For four of the visiting writers, it was their first time here, and the experience may reflect in their writings in future, we hope we have planted the seed.”
“The festival ended in Haifa with 150 persons attending the event there. From Jerusalem to Haifa, we used literature to reconnect the Palestinian division. All in all, 600 persons attended all the events, add to that 200 students and in the end, we are more than satisfied. The events were filmed and we shall upload them on YouTube, soon, giving the festival further exposure.”
Muna concludes on a philosophical note. “History has consistently proven that attempts to curb free expression and thought do not work as the human condition refuses to be controlled and we have already begun working on the next Kalimat Literature Festival.”
Rafique Gangat, author of Bending the Rules, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.