PalFest Day 4: The City and the City

PalFest South finished up its run after a final breakfast. For the writers of PalFest North (PFN), Tuesday presented the most intense of psychological shifts:

Shuhada Street, once the commercial centre of Hebron. Now the shops are welded shut and Palestinians are not allowed to walk, drive, or step on most of it.
Shuhada Street, once the commercial centre of Hebron. Now the shops are welded shut and Palestinians are not allowed to walk, drive, or step on most of it. Photo credit: PalFest

Short-story writer and novelist Aamer Hussein said, at a Haifa event packed by nearly 100 listeners, that — following our morning and afternoon experiences — “reading a short story seems like a bit of an anticlimax.”

Hussein, like the rest of the PFN group, began his day in Jerusalem. After that, we traveled to al-Khalil (Hebron), a city that has been reduced to island-like sections by its walls, fences, and 101 checkpoints. Many of the Arab residents’ doors have been welded shut so they can’t access central Shuhada St.; some must use rooftops or windows to go in and out of their homes; and — in the old city — there are many settlers living on the floors directly above the Arab souq. A fence above the souq walkway is littered with newspapers, chip bags, children’s shoes, and chunks of cement thrown down from above. Even to get into the mosque, there is a checkpoint with a gate topped by razor wire.

As David Shulman recently noted in the NYTBR“A visit to Hebron eats into one’s soul.”

There is a city there, and there is a city.

After a very emotional experience in al-Khalil, we drove back through a tense checkpoint situation, grabbed a few things in Jerusalem, and headed out to to a different space entirely. The Haifa event was co-hosted by the city’s Arab Culture Association, and two excellent PFN authors read their work (China Miéville and Aamer Hussein). An excerpt of Miéville’s “The City and the City,” was scheduled to be read. Instead he read from his story “The Foundation.  An Arabic translation was beautifully read by celebrated actor Mohammed Bakri.

The evening in Haifa was — although anti-climactic after al-Khalil — the most organic-feeling of the events thus far, as there was a large audience and most of it was conducted in Arabic. In addition to the two PFN authors, there were also performances by a young poet, a violinist, and a stand-up comedian who lent a slight air of surreality to the evening.

Before we’d gotten to Haifa, on the bus, I spoke with Pakistani writer Aamer Hussein about his decision to come to PalFest and his relationship with Arabic literature, translation, writing, and reading. I asked why he’d decided to come to this year’s festival, and he said:

“I’d always wanted to. The first time I heard about it — [Sudanese-British novelist] Jamal Mahjoub told me about it — and I thought, ‘That’s something I want to do.’ They asked, ‘Would I like to come this year or next year?’ And I thought: I’m not going to wait to 2014.”

“I just said yes without knowing who my fellow travelers would be or anything. I had to take a week’s leave from work in the middle of exams and here I am.”

And here we all are, in the city and the city.

More from Gaza:

@AliAbunimah: “@Abdurahman_Gaza @sjabulhawa We shed tears arriving in Gaza and tears leaving. But now our bond is stronger than ever. We’ll meet again!”