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Palestinian Festival of Literature 2009 Daily Blog

Festival Blog
The daily blog returns for 2009. We'll be writing every evening of the festival to keep you up to date with what's going on.


Today the physical challegnes of a festival that tries to reach so many separated places started to be felt. We set off from Ramallah to Bethlehem just after 10am. At 10.20 we arrived at Qalandia. We queued, in the bus, for an hour. We had told the driver that it was a policy of the festival’s to travel the way that Palestinians are forced to travel. We wanted to go through the checpoint on foot – as Raouf our photographer had had to. But for some reason the driver felt he knew better and drove through. By the time we realised it was too late.

We were, however, still subjected to the “VIP treatment”. The bus was pulled over and we all had to file out, ghet our bags from the hold, and queue up to present them to a young soldier. Then you have to bend down and zip open your shoddy packing and dirty laundry to the world before the soldier waves you away. In charge of us was a young woman who was clearly so bored with her job that one point she looked off to a far away soldier, raised her finger to her head and gently pulled the trigger. When I saw that finger move I think that - for a split second - I prepared for a sniper. But nothing happened, so I presented her my honey badger boxer shorts and headed back to my seat.

One hour on, we move on. Twenty minuters later we went through the Bethlehem checkpoint. This one gets busy at both 5.30 AM and PM with workers queuing to get to and from the fields the Wall divides them from. Right now it was empty. The soldier didn’t even pretend to look at my passport.

In Bethlehem we had a hurried day but we managed to visit the old city quickly before heading to Aida refugee camp. The wall cuts right up against Aida, and we walked to a spot where Palfest authors had taken their photos last year. Now, an outdoor theatre, the Return Theatre, has been built against it. The first outdoor film festivalhad just been held. A paint covered watchtower towers above it, but its there. And its being used.

In the evening there was a panel with Michael Palin, Claire Messud, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Jamal Mahjoub. Jamal’s such a good moderator. He clearly has fun up there and his timing and feel for the audience’s mood is spot on. It was a very good panel.

Michael Palin leaves us tomorrow so Mr. Mankell took control of the room at dinner to say a few words before the group starts to disperse. He was, as always, powerful and to the point. He thanked the organisers, and his fellow writers, and finished saying: “Until Palestine is free; none of us will be free”


Today the group split up. We had timed the festival to arrive just after university exams, but because of the assault on Gaza, schools lost three weeks and all exams dates moved forward. So we found ourselves arriving in Palestine right in the middle of finals. But Birzeit and the Arab-American University in Jenin were insistent that we manage something.

So half the group headed to the Birzeit campus and the other half drove up to Jenin.

The road for Palestinians to Jenin, once a direct, single one that took you through Nablus to the plains of the north, is now a winding track that creeps beneath wider, faster, Israeli-only roads that have been cut through the hills. In two hours we passed through four checkpoints . We were pulled over at one. The bus driver warned us all that we should say we had come from Jerusalem if anyone asked. No one did.

In Jenin, we split again, with Ahdaf, Raja, Suad, Suheir, Jamal and Nathalie going to take workshops at AAUJ while Michael Palin and Henning Mankell headed to the Freedom Theatre. After seeing three sketches from a play the students have in development they ran through a series of workshops. The enthusiasm of the students was genuinely exhilirating at times.

Meanwhile, at Birzeit, a morning panel was held with Abdulrazak Gurnah, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Claire Messud and M G Vassanji before the authors split into small workshop groups. The students had chosen the titles themselves and signed up for the classes that ranged from The Role of Fiction in Creating New Political Realities to Guantanamo After Obama.

In the evening we were in the garden of the Sakakini Centre again. This time without any wind issues. And the place was overflowing with people who had come to see Suheir Hammad and the Edward Said Conservatory’s Sama’. For anyone that has seen Suheir perform before I don’t need to say that she was brilliant. She always is. For anyone that hasn’t – they need to go to our video corner on Connect and see for themselves.


After the drama of yesterday we were well prepared for the potential tranquility of a walk in the Ramallah hills with Raja Shehadeh. We got on the bus and headed through the Wall and Qalandia checkpoint and north to Raja’s house. After a brief introductory talk we took the bus out to middle of a valley – to the start of a walk Raja had chosen that would keep us as out of of sight of the army and the settlements as possible.

The walk was slightly more challenging than people had been expecting – we dropped down into the valley then slowly scrambled up the other side, finally reaching a qasr: a solid16th century stone structure that used to house workers and crops during the summer agricultural months.

We moved back down and through the valley to reach the village where the bus was to pick us up. On reaching the outskirts, we fanned out on to the new tarmac in front of us. But we are quickly called back, behind a barn. An Israeli watchtower looms on the crest of a hill in the distance and we are advised to stay out of its sight.

We had a few problems checking in to the hotel, as seems to happen rather too frequently in Ramallah , but managed it eventually and people headed to the home of Dr. Saleh abd el-jawwad and Islah Jad for drinks in their garden before moving to the Sakakini Centre.

The night’s event was held in the garden of the centre, and though it was a windy at times, it is a wonderful setting. The night passed with an atmosphere of calm and ease that had been so missing in Jerusalem, and as with the combined comedic forces of Michael Palin, Suad Amiry and Carmen Callil it was a night that brought us back to feeling like a literature festival. This night didn’t insist on being dominated by Israel and by occupation. Though they are never far away, just having the choice of when to talk about them felt empowering. Which shows just how totally consuming, mentally, this occupation is.


The team set off for the border from Amman bright and early, having landed at 12.30am the night before.

On arrival at the border, four were held back: Suheir Hammad, Ahmed Ghappour, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Anil Karim Vassanji were kept waiting for a total of five hours (until the border closed) before being allowed in to the country.

The bus arrived in Jerusalem at 5pm, leaving just enough time for a sandwich and a glass of juice before heading out to the Palestinian National Theatre for the opening reception at 6pm.

And at 6.10pm around 15 Israeli soldiers marched in, declared the event over and told everyone to get out. After a few of minutes of protest and confusion the the French Cultural Attaché declared we could move to the French Cultural Insitute – saving the day. And so followed a mass move down the road.

Chairs were hurriedly arranged in the garden of the Institute and a speaker system was set up but we weren’t able to transfer our translation facilities. Which lost us some of our audience. For the first half hour three police vans loitered outside, but they left eventually and left us to get on with the evening. After which it was only really the noise of a passing wedding that interrupted things.
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