The Challenges of Blogging PalFest

Photo from Mai Saad ‏ @maisaad4.

International attendees of the 2012 Palestine Festival of Literature returned to Cairo, made their report about the fest, and have since gone back to their homes and lives in Cairo and elsewhere.

Blogs and videos about the festival didn’t so much happen during the Fest — there were challenges of connectivity, electricity, and time — but they continue to trickle out. British-Sudanese author Jamal Mahjoub’s post has appeared on PalFest’s website, in which he writes:

“On our way back from Rafah we pass by the remains of Yasser Arafat Airport. Once a symbol of progress being made along the road to Palestinian statehood the opening in 1998 was a fanfare event attended by people like Bill Clinton. Three years later it was bombed by the IDF and the runways bulldozed. The ruins remain a testimony to that failed dream. The local coordinators are nervous as we wander around. In the distance the Israeli watchtowers can be seen.”

 Author Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar has blogged about the fest on her site@NalanSarraj blogged the opening of PalFest and its unfortunate closing, apologizing, “I want to apologize for the Palfest crew, but its not my fault my government authority forgot how to love Palestine. I still do, and that’s why I am writing this.”

British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh’s first PalFest blog has appeared on the English PEN website, with a second hopefully appearing today, and a third yet to come. When I spoke to Dabbagh last Friday, she said that blogging PalFest was not as straightforward as she’d imagined.

“There’s just so much to absorb at Palfest. There’s the nature of going in a group, in a delegation and the internal dynamics of that as well as the very full schedule with the universities and meeting with the students, while at the same time you are trying to absorb what’s going on in the country, in Gaza itself, which is so multifaceted and complex.  Everybody’s giving you accounts, and some differ from others and you’re trying to put it together and figure out where the sources are coming from and what motivation they might have to differ from each other. There is a sense with the older generation in Gaza that they are all trying to look behind you to find out your agenda, and you start trying to act in the same way. I was also trying to pick up and record a sense of place, the buildings, landscapes, the way people responded to each other. Trying to summarize it down for a blog, in a way that’s not just another political blog presents challenges.  I am trying to write about the world of literature in Palestine and the nature of the Festival –, but it’s difficult to talk about literature there without explaining the very specific context of it.

“I thought writing a 600, 800 word blog would be easy. But less being more is hard when you’ve got so much you want to say.”

Most of my conversation with Dabbagh was about her own creative writing — and will come later. But in the beginning, we briefly discussed PalFest. No reason to hold onto that, I think.

About the final night:

“The final night was a concert in the Al Basha house, and we had three speakers. And then a girl, one of the students stood up to give a poem, which was basically a poem of thanks to us, and she was so enthusiastic about the festival  — just ecstatic – as were a lot of the students …

“To be getting new books in, to be getting new books into Gaza was very exciting. One person said to me the worst, worst thing about being in Gaza is not being able to get the books they want. Which considering that they have no electricity and no fuel is a really moving statement.  A lot of the students were talking about reading by candlelight at night. They wait for the electricity, which they get for eight hours of day, for the Internet. And then at night, they just read.

Reading by candlelight:

“And you’d see sheesha cafes, which were these huge spaces, with tiled walls – with just little candles stuck along the back row, and coals glowing in the dark as men smoke in the dark . The blackout is so absolute when it happens, it really transforms the city. There’s a line in my novel Out of It about being driven back into the Middle Ages. And you do get that feeling; people were reverting to donkeys and horses because there’s no fuel.

“All the petrol stations are closed. They have ropes in front of them with one guy sitting there. And when the fuel comes in, even before it’s arrived, people hear about it. Forty-five minutes before, there’s a scurry and the whole place becomes jammed up, cars back up everywhere, even if it’s just a vague rumor that fuel may be coming. And then the queues go on all day, just all day.

“It’s so dark. One student who’s just done her Master’s at LSE was saying that you go home and you can’t even see. She couldn’t even see the approach to Deir al-Balah, she didn’t even know what was happening. It was just when the car headlights shone on her building did she realize she was there.

“There’s this new development too, which is that the Israelis have put lights in the sea, like flood lights, to keep the fishermen back. Because they’ve put a new three-mile border so that the fishermen can’t go out and get the fish that they used to be able to get (like sardines). So there is a situation where the population of Gaza are in this siuation where they are only lit to be attacked.

“We had readings in the dark, in universities, when the lights would go off. People reading poetry with their mobile phones  to audiences. There’s this funny thing of people just cheering when the lights go out. Yay! You know, there’s this amazing buoyancy of spirit.

“There was so much there that just made me absolutely despair. And yet there was so much which made me feel so invigorated. The way that people can respond to this crisis.”

Back to the last night:

“Anyway, so on the last night, we were in the old El Basha house that’s been partially restored. We were down in a pit with an arched recess for a stage and on our right-hand side, there were steps going up to the exit. A girl was giving a reading very enthusiastically, very confidently, very well while a crowd was gathering on the stairs, who were security.

“Now, we had security in our hotel the whole time, guys in suits everywhere. One of them came in in plain clothes, and somebody said to a friend of mine at the back, immediately, that guy, he’s with Hamas, and he’s security, he’s plainclothes Hamas. I don’t know how she knew.

“And then in a flash something happened across from me, and then the man in short sleeves went and just snatched this girl’s mobile phone. The girl was just left sitting there trembling. And then there was like this announcement that we don’t want anybody to film security here. And then there was sort of like this eruption, a lot of people got very angry and were shouting. And one of the poets – I don’t know, is such a calm, mild guy – he got up and he just screamed at them. He said, ‘You’re doing this for Palestine,’ like shame on you, like how could you be doing this?

“And it really kind of tore me apart, just the whole scene. …

“Then we decided to continue. Ahdaf moved it inside away from the stage and we started trying with some more poetry, and then the message came through, through people that actually this wasn’t going to happen. We were not going to be able to continue in the same place.

“After another lot of demonstrating we went out, got back on the coach, went back to the hotel, and we continued on the ffith floor of the hotel. Later that night, we had a delegation from the government come in and apologize to our organizers. They were very, very sorry, it was a mistake. And then they came again the next day, even higher up officials, saying they were sorry, they hadn’t meant this to happen, it was a misunderstanding, these people were acting alone.

“The main concern of all of us was the girls, and the other people who lived there. Because we were all being filmed by security, they stood on the top of the stairs with mobiles, filming us. … And people are so vulnerable, you know. There’s just so much security, so many informants. … You get this feeling of a very snooped on society.

On the audiences:

“All of the events were very well-attended, definitely, and they had very switched-on, attentive audiences. I gave a talk at the Islamic University … with Jamal Mahjoub and Amr Ezzat … And it was pretty much packed. Possibly as much as 90 percent female attendees. And a lot of questions, very probative, inquisitive. They really ranged in terms of the types of things we were asked about. The first question I got about my book, was, ‘You’re a British-Palestinian writer and you’ve written a novel which is quite political. Do we have to, as Palestinian writers, write about politics? Why should we have to do this?’

“It’s something that I constantly debate with myself about. I basically replied to her that no, I don’t think that was the case at all. My second novel is not about Palestine; I don’t think people should feel locked into political writing, but it’s very difficult to talk about anything in people’s life there without touching on politics, because it intrudes on everything. It’s pervasive.

“There were also questions about the boycott, we were asked if we were supporting the boycott there…individually, and as a group. We were also asked what we think of the Khader Adnan campaign, what did we think of the prisoners’ strike and the sit-in, which we went to, some of us went every day to see how that was going. And then just general advice for writers, the kind of thing which you’d get universally from aspiring writers (writing about a child’s perspective, how to get published). There was also a question about whether revolutionary writings go stale, as such.
“We had a couple of girls at the Islamic University who read poems and short stories, one of which was particularly unforced and beautiful. A lot of the students were actually engineering students, computing students, they weren’t necessarily literature students, so it wasn’t something they were forced to attend.  Some of them, because we were there all morning, were coming in and out, going to other lectures and coming back.

“It was very well-attended, definitely. There was a huge amount of enthusiasm and a great desire to get more books and to have greater and more effective communication with the outside world.

“Even after the event on Thursday happened at Dar El Basha, we went back to the hotel, and I guess of everybody in the group, I’m probably the least familiar with being in situations like that, I felt quite shaken by it, I just had not seen it coming at all, but … it was just like right, let’s be constructive. We’re all together now, so let’s talk about what we can do with our blogs. Let’s talk about whether we can set up a competition for bloggers, and how we can do it, and you can help us do it, and what advice you can give us. Let’s not waste time and make the best of you being here.

“I was really impressed by this attitude of moving on immediately, straight on, let’s move on, let’s be positive about this. And again, when the lights went out when the oud was being played and everybody cheered. I loved the spirit of it, it’s like, this is part of our reality, it’s not great, but we’re going to find something positive in it no matter what…”

Video from Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, Selma Dabbagh beginning at 2:58, speaking before the final-night shutdown:

Today is also Nakba Day, which you can follow on Twitter at #Nakba.