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Radio: Palestine Festival of Literature * Interview With Ahdaf Soueif

Palestine Festival of Literature *

Interview With Ahdaf Soueif

By Emmy Abdul Alim

IOL Staff

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From 23-28 May 2009 across the Palestinian territories 17 internationally acclaimed authors, editors and publishing heavyweights will travel daily from checkpoint to checkpoint - from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Jenin to Birzeit to Bethlehem to al-Khalil/Hebron - to bring the Palestine Festival of Literature to the people of Palestine.

The likes of authors Ahdaf Soueif, Michael Palin, Jamal Mahjoub, Nathalie Handal, Henning Mankell (accompanied by wife Eva Bergman, daughter of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman), and Alexandra Pringle (Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury Publishing) will travel through the Palestinian territories to take this literary festival to the people of Palestine, as Palestinians themselves cannot travel freely.

Speaking to IOL Radio, Ahdaf Soueif says of the Palestinian cause and the festival, “This festival is one of a million things that are being done. What is really happening is that civil society across the world is shouldering the responsibility of the Palestinian issue. I think it has now become a global issue, and the festival is part of it.”

In the festival’s press release, author Andrew O’Hagan, who was involved in the 2008 festival said, “I had come as one of the writers attending the first ever Palestine Festival of Literature. Thousands of people turned out: they wanted to believe that Palestine is not just a cause but also a culture and a country, a place not simply for stone-throwing but for ideas and modernity.”

Ahdaf Soueif added, “We found that Palestinian cities – even in the extraordinarily cruel circumstances in which they find themselves – manage to produce brilliant art and top class education.”

At last year’s festival, two musicians from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music could not get pass the checkpoints from Birzeit to Jerusalem to attend and play at their performance. This was a shock to the visiting authors, but accepted as a fact of life by the Palestinians. The performance went on, and the cellist took pains to include his colleague’s missing oud melodies.

Click here to listen to the radio show with Ahdaf Soueif.
Rania Elias, Director of Yabous Productions, who with the British Council is co-presenting this year’s festival, said, “Palestinian life is jailed behind barriers, held up at checkpoints, but it insists on being part of the wider world; this is why the Palestine International Festival of Literature enjoyed packed houses last year.”


According to Soueif, last year’s festival was very energetically and enthusiastically received, with students attending the workshops “asking for more homework”, and Roddy Doyle’s books selling out in three days, when Roddy Doyle was unknown to them prior to the

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Click here to listen to the radio show with Ahdaf Soueif.

Ahdaf Soueif spoke of her main drive to round up her friends, who are all important literary figures, to make the festival a reality, “We believe that the situation is so flagrant and the justice of the Palestinian cause is so obvious. If you just bring people in and expose them to it, and meet Palestinians and interact with students, and do the whole festival for a week, then they will be affected. From last year’s experience we felt that people were affected indeed.” She continued, “These people are all writers and authors. This is going to show in their work.”

She has no delusions of the festival changing the situation within Palestine anytime soon, saying, “You’re aiming for a longer term. You’re aiming that, in a few years time there will be serious novels and plays and films that represent the situation and that become classics.” How do you translate this into actions to change perception? “With our festival you cannot draw a straight line. I believe that the situation is so clear and the justice of the Palestinian cause so evident that it has an effect and people leave changed. It’s a life-altering moment.”

The festival was keen on travelling to Gaza but was advised against it, reminding us of the atrocities of the most recent incursions from December 2008 to January 2009, and the continuing illegal Israeli blockade on Gaza that has been going on for more than two years now. Ahdaf Soueif and the Palestine Festival of Literature are determined to show Palestinians continuing support, to open young Palestinian eyes to other cultures and life experiences, to impart skills and knowledge. In exchange, the international guests will doubtlessly leave with lasting imprints of the life and spirit of struggling Palestinians hungry to break down barriers and to reclaim their rightful place on the international stage.

“Everybody has a role to play. My friends and I, we are literary people, and so this is where our competence would be.” As Palestinians the world over commemorate the 61st year of the Nakba, the day of catastrophe in 1948 that saw the mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their cities and villages, massacres of civilians, and the razing to the ground of hundreds of Palestinian villages towards the establishment of the state of Israel, Ahdaf Soueif and her friends remind us of the late great Edward Said’s call “to reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power”.

* The Palestine Festival of Literature will take place across Palestine from 23-28 May 2009. For more information please visit their website www.palfest.org. You can also follow PalFest on twitter and on their facebook group. Authors blogs will start together with the festival.

Emmy Abdul Alim is producer and presenter with IslamOnline.net's radio. Currently based in Cairo, she has lived and worked in her native Singapore, as well as in London and the Netherlands. Emmy received degrees in English & European Studies (National University of Singapore) and Arabic & Islamic Studies (School of Oriental and African Studies, London). She can be reached via artculture@iolteam.com
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