A Celebration, A New Film: PalFest at 5

Last week, PalFest — the Palestine Festival of Literature — celebrated its fifth birthday. ArabLit contributor Amira Abd El-Khalek was there. 

By Amira Abd El-Khalek

Ahdaf Soueif

In a small reception at the Free Word Centre in London on Dec. 5, an audience of authors, publishers, editors, partners, filmmakers, performers, and Palfestians celebrated the fifth birthday of the Palestinian Festival of Literature. PalFest has become one of the most recent associates of Free Word, promoting literature, culture, resistance, knowledge, and free thinking.

In her opening speech, PalFest founder and chair Ahdaf Soueif thanked everyone for their efforts to support, sustain, and participate in PalFest; though, she added, “no thanks are due because we’re all in this together.” She talked about the success of PalFest: the experiences, the workshops, and all the collaborative work that emerges out of love and commitment.

The premier of the short film PalFest/Gaza 2012 was screened twice. It gave the audience a glimpse of the festival and the effect it has on those who participate both from within Palestine and without. As Bloomsbury Group Editor-in-chief Alexandra Pringle said: Before participating in Palfest 2009, she knew what she knew about Palestine, but not what she felt.

Alexandra Pringle
Alexandra Pringle

All the speakers talked about how PalFest was unique and different from other literary festivals, as this was one that changed your life. You emerged from it a different person, where expectations were shattered and assumptions were questioned. Speakers talked about why PalFest was so important, equally as important as the food, medicine, and supplies that are brought into Gaza. This is a festival that honours Palestinian culture and addresses its people’s creative needs.

Publisher, writer, and critic Carmen Calil read from the diary entries she wrote during PalFest 2009.  She talked about the obsessive nitpicking and labeling of the occupier as seen in the permits, badges, licenses, and car plates. She talked of the control over water, over borders, and the endless waiting that Palestinians go through every single day; a daily routine where “torment is the ambition.”

Alexandra Pringle talked about forthcoming Bloomsbury books and how, after returning from PalFest, she felt that she wanted to publish everything she possibly could in a creative way. Jeremy Harding read a humorous and touching piece written by a student of one of his editing and writing workshops. The text was about her grandmother and her knowledge and use of proverbs.

Rafeef Ziadeh
Rafeef Ziadeh

PalFest is non-political, yet after the recent escalation of violence in Gaza, Soueif felt compelled to mention the non-violent boycott movement in solidarity with Palestine as a response to Israeli apartheid and occupation. She also mentioned that where PalFest is an event that happens once a year, Gaza is in need of more frequent events and workshops. The creativity that emerged from the workshops and the amount of violence and resistance in the Strip makes PalFest and similar events a welcome change to the debilitating routine to which its people have become accustomed.

Two stunning poetry performances captivated the audience that evening: Rafeef Ziadeh’s “We Teach Life, Sir” and Remi Kanazi’s “Normalise This!” There was also music and typical mezzas from the region. It was indeed a memorable evening which needs to be repeated to remind us all of the creative power of literature, art, and culture.

The new film, released Dec. 5:

Also (from the editor): 

An interview with Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan on Electronic Intifada where he discusses, among other things, the challenges of publishing in Palestine.

Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.