PalFest: Between occupation and literature

On May 28, the annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) came to a close after a week of literary events in various locations across the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

Around 30 poets, novelists, translators and journalists had been invited to attend the eighth edition of this traveling festival, which moves between the cities of historic Palestine and the obstacles of the Israeli occupation that divide them.

For me, a first-time traveler to the West Bank, PalFest started a couple of days before the opening event, when my Yemeni-Scottish wife, filmmaker and PalFest invitee Sara Ishaq, was denied access to Israel at the Allenby Bridge crossing. After being kept for a good seven hours, I was told to leave her behind in the custody of four muscly men wearing tight shirts marked with the different insignias of Israel’s numerous security agencies. The incident gave us a glimpse of what Palestinians have to endure in their everyday dealings with the Zionist state.

It is exactly this glimpse PalFest is designed for. Besides bringing literary talent from around the world to a place people rarely visit, the festival operates in the face of the physical manifestations of occupation, the reality of which Israel tries to obscure from the public eye.

Foreign passport holders and Israelis can access the smooth settler-only roads that connect the settlements to Israel proper, cutting through ever more Palestinian lands. Along these roads, massive red signs warn travelers in three languages that areas under control of the Palestinian Authority are off-limits. Entering these areas can be “dangerous to your lives,” the signs read. At the settler checkpoints, Israelis and foreigners are granted unhindered passage. The heavily armed soldiers are made out to be nothing more than a necessary security measure to keep citizens and visitors safe.

Palestinians, however, are forced to take detours to avoid settlements and settler roads. Checkpoints for them are massive concrete and steel constructions, where they have no choice but to wait in line, wedged in between fences, monitored by security cameras and shouted at by soldiers sitting lazily, but heavily armed, on the other side of the turnstile behind bullet-proof glass.

The morning after the opening event at the Ottoman Court in Ramallah, where Palestinian author Wafa Darwish presented the audience with beautiful written memories of her childhood in Jerusalem and the women that inspired her, the organizers urged us to pass through the massive Qalandia checkpoint on foot, feeling, however briefly, the everyday humiliation Palestinians have to go through.

Behind the checkpoint lay Jerusalem in all its splendor, but the grand monuments of monotheism paled in comparison with the grand monuments of military might that stared us down, demanding obedience.

The settlements that stretched out over the hilltops struggle to present a facade of tranquil normality. In reality, the settlements are the outer borders of an intrinsically expansionist state, ever encroaching on Palestinian land, slowly engulfing every meter like thick lava, choking all life it encounters. They are the so-called facts on the ground, weapons in a war of numbers designed to tip the demographic balance. In Palestine, talk of a two-state solution seems delusional.

Looking out over the Jordan Valley from the garden of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem on the second day of the festival, we see a last Palestinian village trying to hold on as it is surrounded by settlements, watch towers, Israeli flag posts and the massive division wall that stretches 8 meters high over more than 400 km of Palestinian land. Ray Dolphin, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, pointed out to us the intricacies of the occupation. Back in his office, he browses through a number of maps as he speaks about the division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C, nature reserves and military zones, restricting Palestinians’ movement and settlement. Meanwhile, around 600,000 Jewish settlers now live in the occupied West Bank, we are told.

That same evening, American author David Mura speaks at Dar al-Tifl, an all-girls orphanage and museum on the edge of the old city, about racism and the struggle of Japanese immigrants and their descendants in the United States.

Where the occupation in Jerusalem could seem rather deceptive, in Hebron (El-Khalil) there is no looking past it. Above the old city, Israeli flags stick out aggressively. Around 400 settlers, protected by 2,000 heavily armed soldiers, have taken over part of the city center, closing certain streets to all, approximately 150,000, Palestinians in the city. In the central market, Palestinians out for daily groceries walk under nets put up to protect them from objects being hurled down from the second-story dwellings the settlers have occupied. In the hills surrounding the city, watchtowers monitor all movement.

In light of all this, the pebble that hit the side of our bus (we were carrying yellow Israeli number plates) as we made our way down the steep and narrow roads of the city felt like a reassurance. At least the spirit of the younger generation hasn’t been broken. After realizing that the bus wasn’t full of settlers, the under-aged perpetrators emerged from an alley clenching the remainder of their ammunition wearily in their small fists.

After spending the morning of the third day in Hebron, we left the occupied Palestinian West Bank behind and headed for the northern coastal city of Haifa, the hub of Palestinian cultural life inside Israel proper. On the road, Maath Musleh, our tour guide and consultant on everything Palestinian, explained the geography of the Nakba. Much of what we today refer to as Israel consists of rich, fertile plains on the coasts of historic Palestine. As the Zionist militias ethnically cleansed over 500 villages, the Palestinian population fled to higher grounds, where they were able to keep the militias at bay. The green or armistice line of 1949 divides the hills from the plains.

In the evening, we sat in the blistering heat, listening to performances outside the Arab Cultural Centre in Haifa. By telling their stories of alienation, loss and perseverance, the performers are keeping Palestine alive inside Israel, refusing to succumb to the all-dominating narrative of Zionism.

The next day, activist and PalFest Production Manager Beesan Ramadan took me on a tour of her hometown Nablus, a city renowned for its fierce resistance during the Second Intifada. As a result, Nablus was effectively sealed off from the outside world by Israeli occupying forces for years. The city carries the scars of violence. Beesan shows me which family homes were destroyed to make way for the advancing Israeli tanks. Under the arches, where spies used to be executed by the Palestinian resistance, an eerie feeling still lingers. The Israelis still control all entrances to the city, and close the checkpoints whenever they think necessary.

We bump into Beesan’s acquaintance, who was shot in front of his home during the the Intifada. Every year, on the day the bullet hit his body, he celebrates life on the same spot. With the bravado of a survivor, he invites us to attend the upcoming celebrations.

That night, having heard Iraqi poet and novelist Haifa Zangana draw parallels between Iraq under US occupation and Palestine in the Nablus municipal library gardens, we are awoken by heavy bursts of gunfire, as Israeli soldiers carried out a nighttime raid in the refugee camp of Balata, adjacent to the old city.

Some 18 hours later, we walk alongside the wall that divides the city of Bethlehem, making our way to Aida refugee camp, where we are hosted by Abdel Fattah Abu Srour, founder of cultural community center Rowwad (The Pioneers).

Standing on top of the building, Abu Srour tells us about the establishment of the camp and about how he has been forced to live apart from the rest of his family, who reside in Jerusalem, 15 km away. After mentioning the word “apartheid” publicly in a welcome speech during a papal visit to Bethlehem in 2014, Abu Srour’s permit to stay with his family was revoked by the Israeli authority. By accepting the harsh reality of being forced to live apart, but insisting on his right to live in Jerusalem and by working with children in the center on what he calls “beautiful resistance,” he tries to defy the occupation. “By being here, I resist,” he says.

In the morning of the next day, we stand in between the steel barriers of the main checkpoint that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem. It is here that Abu Srour is turned back whenever he tries to visit his family. Non-Palestinians, on the other hand, are told to “visit Israel” by cheerful posters on the inner walls of the labyrinth that makes up the checkpoint. It is us, the foreign passport holders, they are talking to, exclusively. Apartheid.

Back in Ramallah, on day six of the festival, we are taken on a hike through the hills surrounding the city by human rights activist Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks, Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2008). As we climb the crumbling terraces and zigzag through the olive trees, Shehadeh points out how construction is slowly encroaching on the natural landscape. There are the rigid unnatural patterns of Jewish-only settlements, but also, over the last couple of years, the city and its outskirts have expanded considerably. The outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority triggered a wave of migration into the city, turning Ramallah from a village into the quasi-capital of an impossible state.

On the last night, as the sun sets behind the hills of the city and the wind picks up, American novelist and poet Richard Ford speaks with a deep and fragile voice about the power of the arts in reaching audiences. He recites poems by his late friend, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The first lines, in which the pen is compared to a gun, lingers in my mind.

The significance of PalFest, to me, lies in its casual connection of art and resistance. It uses literature as a pretext for crossing borders of steel and barbed wire that would otherwise stay distant. It opposes hatred with beauty, aggression with solidarity and confronts occupation with perseverance and the celebration of memory. In the face of ongoing injustice, these might eventually be the most effective weapons at our disposal.

Dirk Wanrooij 

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