From where I sit - Literature in the wall's shadow

June 11, 2009

Five minutes before the scheduled start of the Palestinian Festival of Literature late last month, armed Israeli police entered the crowded Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem and closed it without explanation.

The participating writers hailed from Palestine, among them Suad Amiry, Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal and Raja Shehadeh, and were joined by authors from the UK, Canada, Egypt, Sweden and the US.

The French Consul, a member of the ejected audience, offered the French Cultural Centre as an alternative venue, and the crowd of writers and participants walked through the Jerusalem streets to the new venue. The event was launched in the garden of the centre, with Israeli police vans parked outside, their sirens wailing.

The next day the festival moved to Ramallah, a mere 16 miles away, but this required negotiating a checkpoint and taking a good long look at the wall dividing Israel and Palestine. We were crossing into the latter so our wait was not as long as those coming the other way.

One of the highlights of our time in Ramallah was a walk in the local hills led by Raja Shehadeh, whose excellent Palestinian Walks - an intimate account of the transformation of the hills - won the Orwell Prize in 2008. The following day, some of the writers went to Birzeit University near Ramallah.

Birzeit started out as a girls' school in the 1920s and has grown into the foremost Palestinian university. Before the wall and travel restrictions, Birzeit recruited students from all over the area, including Arab students from Israel. The checkpoints and the restriction of movement make this impossible now.

I took a workshop with a group of English literature students. Our theme, set for us by the English department, was "Diaspora" - somewhat predictably it may seem, but the students voiced strong opinions. They could not agree whether Palestinians abroad should cling to the narratives of their "Palestinian-ness" or become part of the societies they found themselves in.

I mentioned the Ghassan Kanafani story Returning to Haifa, and discovered that every student in the group of 16 had read it, although it was not on the curriculum. It cheered me to know that the students read things they were not instructed to. The story engaged them deeply, and for the last 20 minutes the class offered an exhilarating analysis of the story's themes that would have done any undergraduate literature class proud.

Later in the week we went to Hebron University, the town where 400 settlers occupy the Old City and are kept company by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. The institution was shut for eight years until 2000. Because of travel restrictions, the student body features only locals, and it worries the university authorities that their students have such a narrow compass. All the female students wore headscarves and the long coats of the religiously observant, although this did not diminish their zest in class.

In other places (in the Aida camp in Bethlehem, for example), we heard the unmistakable pride Palestinians feel about their educational achievements: 100 per cent literacy and the highest number of PhDs per capita in the world. I don't know how accurate these claims are, but after a couple of encounters with local students, I wouldn't be surprised if they were.

The full list of writers can be viewed on the event's website:www.palfest.org/index.html

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