Palestine Festival of Literature: Preaching to the Choir?

Fatin Abdal-Sabur attended the final event of this year’s Palestine Festival of Literature. She reflects on this and the previous fest:

By Fatin Abdal-Sabur

tumblr_static_avv7ccv5r688k44co88wcwc08As I looked around the crowd at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center on June 5, it seemed that there were slightly more foreigners than Arabs, and I don’t think anyone would deny that the festival attracts a mostly foreign or foreign-interested crowd. Taking in the scene, I heard Arabic and English being spoken. I also saw some more everyday-looking Palestinians, interested and attentive couples, the women’s heads covered by a hijab, although some of these couples left before the reading was over.

However, I also think the festival has a large potential to attract a more wide-ranging audience. The festival program, for example, contained a collection of the participants’ writing, most of which was in Arabic.

Although I have only lived in Ramallah for a year and half, the Palestine Festival of Literature has been a highlight of my time here, so it was exciting to see the talented Teju Cole, as well as participants Sapphire and Michael Ondaatje enjoying the reading as audience members. Before he started reading, Teju Cole mentioned the “extraordinary and sad honor” of being in Palestine and witnessing what goes on here. Janne Teller also expressed her mixed feelings — happy to be in Palestine, yet sad that as a visitor she had more privilege that the local population.

Despite being in Palestine for only a short time, I have received quite an education in the Occupation. Even so, any mention of it at the event was like a hiccup, something that snapped me back into reality, snatched me from the fog of being in the presence of such talented writers. At these moments, my feelings were also mixed and a question ran through my mind: Am I supposed to be happy or sad right now?

I’m not averse to referring explicitly to the Occupation. It surely is not something one can avoid referencing here. However, I felt like the handling of it, by the authors themselves and the festival as a whole, was a bit heavy-handed. On the one hand, the American and European participants most likely had never been to Palestine before. Even Janne Teller mentioned that although she had followed the conflict for years, she did not truly understand it until visiting Palestine itself. I’m sure the authors have been deeply moved by the time here.

The authors went even further, drafting a formal response to current political events in Palestine: In response to the unity government formed between Fatah and Hamas, Benjamin Netanyahu has announced his intention to build 1500 new settlements. The statement, posted to the festival’s Facebook page on June 9 and published in The Guardian on June 12, focuses on three main points: The building of new settlements would be unjust; it goes against international law; the authors stand in solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In light of this statement, I cannot help but think that the festival has an agenda: to show Palestinians and the world that some very famous writers support Palestine and to spread the message of BDS internationally.

The Palestine Festival of Literature does indeed make a great vehicle to support BDS; I just wish its attitude toward the Occupation, as expressed by this year’s participants, had been a bit more nuanced. The statement also points out: “This is particularly unfortunate at a moment when the Palestinians have formed a unity government that has been recognized by the international community.” But what about a response to the beatings of journalists who have spoken out against Mahmoud Abbas and his unity government?

And now I am left wondering: Who is the target audience of the festival? Who are they trying to reach and influence? And what are these disparate groups supposed to take away, both locals and foreigners who are quite familiar with the Occupation and people who have never witnessed it before? This year’s Palestine Festival of Literature was a stimulating literary and cultural event. Politically, however, there was too much preaching to the choir.

unnamedFatin Abdal-Sabur studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh and TESOL at the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont. She teaches English in Ramallah.