Ahdaf Soueif on the Origins of PalFest

The Palestinian Festival of Literature kicks off May 1 at the Palestinian National Theater in Jerusalem; it will continue through May 6, and makes its way through Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah.

But PalFest is not an ordinary literary festival; this festival contends with checkpoints, soldiers, and shutdowns. Authors are not there to connect with publishers or to plump up their resumes, but to see and potentially help Palestinians, particularly young Palestinian artists and writers.

Author Carmen Callil, who first attended PalFest in 2009, will be going again this year. Pulse magazine asked her why she initially decided to go:

[I went] [b]ecause I wanted to see for myself what I had read about Palestine and the injustices under which it was said to labour. I had written a book about the persecution of the Jews of France during the Second World War, and their despatch from France to the Nazi death camps. As I researched and wrote this book, over many years, I became increasingly disturbed by what the State of Israel (I do not consider this state to be synonymous with Jewish people) was said to be doing to occupied Palestine. There were historical similarities which disturbed me. I wanted to see the situation for myself.

This will be PalFest’s third year in operation. The festival was the brainchild of Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif, who spoke at the American University in Cairo (AUC) earlier this week.

During her AUC lecture, Souief talked about the need for not just a literal translation, but a cultural translation that brings to life the translated culture. She highlighted a passage from her novel A Map of Love wherein Anna Winterbourne talks about stating Egypt’s case—the case for independence—to a British audience, not just in English, but in proper British idiom.

PalFest seemed to stem from a similar desire, to state the Palestinians’ case in vivid, persuasive English. Souief said PalFest had stemmed from a series of articles she’d done for The Guardian. She explained:

The thing with Palfest is that you could see it progress from me going there and writing in a way that I hope represents Palestinian reality, in other words just by allowing Palestinian characters to come alive on the page, and then to me thinking, well I wish—I wish there were more people to see this or…and eventually coming up with the idea of actually taking people to go see it. To be able themselves to describe it and talk about it and so on.

So definitely the motivation of PalFest is to allow people to see each other.

PalFest kicks off tomorrow; you can follow more about events from authors’ blogs, which will be posted on the PalFest website.

Interestingly, the (just slightly ritzier) Jerusalem International Writers Festival will be taking place at nearly the same time. Their website has information in Hebrew; it has not, so far as I can tell, been translated into Arabic or English. But if you like, Ha’aretz has a piece in English.