PalFest Day 3: Steering, Ya3ni

On Monday evening, the PalFest of the South — in Gaza — held their closing-night event at the restored Dar al-Basha house. Meanwhile, the PalFest of the North held its second literary evening in the garden of the British Council in Jerusalem:

PalFest Gaza's closing night.
PalFest Gaza’s closing night.

The Jerusalem event, like the one in Ramallah, was held mainly in English. But there were mirrored Arabic-English readings of both an excerpt from Ibtisam Azem’s سارق النوم  (trans. The Sleep Thief by Sinan Antoon) and of poetry by Tom Warner, trans. Najwan Darwish.

The evening’s highlight was hearing Warner’s earthy, humorous, and compassionate poems in colloquial British, and then seeing them re-built and performed in Arabic. Poet-translator Najwan Darwish seemed to genuinely enjoy his translations, which had to tackle both the dense localisms of Warner’s linguistic landscape — the bailiff, the pub, mushrooming — and the ordinary-fantastic: a fortune-telling dog, a bicycling monkey, the defense of an electrocuted elephant named Topsy.

Darwish rebuilt the poems with new materials, although there was no time given to discussing the translations. When Warner said that he wished he could understand the first poem he read in Arabic, Soueif called out from the audience that it was good.

On a translational note, Darwish only briefly noted that — although the English title of the elephant poem had simply been “Topsy” — he had changed it to “El-Fil El-Topsy” (Topsy the Elephant), seeming to have less confidence in the audience’s understanding that this was a poem in Topsy’s voice. (More about Topsy and his electrocution here.) But throughout, the Arabic and English poems shared a sense of humor and ordinary wonder.

Photo from @ranagaza: "Gaza closing event: Young Palestinian rappers rock the stage."
Photo from @ranagaza: “Gaza closing event: Young Palestinian rappers rock the stage.”

ArabLit contributor Nora Lester Murad said afterwards that, “I really liked hearing Tom’s poems more in Arabic.” And somehow, it was even in the spirit of the thing when Darwish threw in a brief English explanation: “steering wheel, ya3ni.”

It would have been more fruitful to hear the discussion between Ibtisam Azem and Ahdaf Soueif (on “creative documentary”) in Arabic, although perhaps that’s a different festival. Munther Fahmi, who owns a bookshop in the American Colony hotel, noted in an interview that there certainly is room for an Arabic literary festival across historic Palestine. Fahmi said that al-Quds University had hosted one in the late 1980s, “but they didn’t have the funding to make sure it continued.”


A few of Warner’s poems, like “Scabs,” weren’t translated. You can read more of his un-translated work on his website.

An interview with Darwish on The National about his poetry and PalFest. (Never mind the headline that says it’s his first collection; its his first English collection.)

More from Gaza:

Rana Baker has shared some excellent photos over at @RanaGaza


“PalFest of the North” authors spent Monday morning and afternoon on a series of moving, emotionally exhausting meetings and encounters. Various authors’ notes on these can be found at the @PalFest twitter account.