Finally, on our way to Jerusalem, the first stop of Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). There are some twenty of us mainly from the UK, persons engaged in literature, writing, publishing, and teaching. We’re young and old; white and black; from the US, UK, Pakistan, and beyond; speakers of smooth-English as well as its accented variations. Pal Fest activities will include writing workshops, readings, panel discussions, and meetings with local individuals and organizations. The venues will be diverse, as well: refugee camps, community centers, open air cafés, classrooms, cultural sites, and homes. But most of all, we will be on the road, crisscrossing the checkpoint-checkered landscape of Palestine. The aim is to take literature to the Palestinians--besieged, isolated, cut off from the world. The festival begins and concludes in Jerusalem.
The passage from Amman has taken some seven hours. The route and its phases are pretty standard for those among us who have done this journey before. Yet crossing into Palestine is always fraught with unpredictability, which is the other face of occupation.
We began with a bus ride from Amman, the Jordanian capital, to the King Hussein (formerly Allenby) Bridge. After the passport checks on the Jordanian side of the border, which took about two hours, another bus took us across the bridge.
On the Israeli side, the whole process began again and on a grander scale, the passport and luggage checks, the questionings enhanced by the technology of occupation and the personnel who man these sites. Most of us were cleared, save for three young men (dark-haired, with Muslim names) who were taken in for further questioning. The whole process for the young men lasted about four hours while the rest of us settled down for the long haul. Soon that sense of low-grade tension set in. We waited, the building began to turn quiet and inert, as the staff prepared to leave for the Passover observances, the tomb-like silence of the place intermittently broken by the broom of an older woman, sweeping the floors, a limp at her foot.
When the young men are finally cleared, we cheer and board a mini-bus for the short ride to the Old City. The approach to Jerusalem displays the vast changes the landscape has undergone over the past decade or so, when I was in Palestine last. The change is blatant and three-pronged: the settlements, the demographic engineering, and the Wall. All three mechanisms of occupation are present all the time, most acutely in and around Jerusalem, but also to a lesser degree throughout the West Bank.
The rolling hills surrounding Jerusalem, their curvatures, have been superimposed by an ever-expanding grid of settlement blocks. And this uneasy cohabitation of settlement blocks atop gentle hills has been accompanied by an intensified policy that aims to slowly empty East Jerusalem of its Arab population. More and more Jerusalemite Arabs, with deep roots in the city, have been designated as mere “residents.” Many have faced evictions; homes have been demolished; deportation orders have been handed out.
We enter the Old City on foot through Damascus Gate, whose middle section is covered for renovations. We walk hurriedly through the mazes and noise of the alleys, through the dizzying offerings of its vendors, to the African Community Center, negotiating and then crossing a military barricade right there at the turn of the street.
After an eight-minute musical interlude of Arabic singing on the oud, the first panel begins: "Speaking with Many Voices: Writing for a Globalized Audience." It is an animated debate about language, about the dominance (or seeming dominance of English), about the autonomy of literature. The cohabitation of English, the lingua franca of the globalized world and the shared language of Pal Fest participants, with Arabic will persist throughout the festival.
It is a huge turnout, sustained by the beautiful surroundings and the hum of languages. Later, we walk out of the Old City, and into the Jerusalem night. The air becomes a little colder, but only slightly; the trees begin to rustle; and the streets dim, revealing the hurried pedestrians. The vendors have packed their kiosks and baskets, and the city is ready for the night.
A late dinner at a local restaurant, complete with a terrific band and great food, including that delectable Palestinian lemonade with lots of crushed mint, ends our first day. It is a wonderful atmosphere, and from our table we are delighted several times over by a gentleman from the other table who springs up to his feet every twenty minutes or so to dance to the music.
He is, I find out later, Munther Fahmi, the owner of The Bookshop, at the legendary American Colony Hotel just outside the walls of the Old City; Fahmi is under orders of deportation. He is also a great dancer, tall and elegant and at ease with himself, but more than that there is something deeply emblematic about him even before I find out about his particular circumstances, his uncertain future. He gets up and dances, despite all the difficulties, the checkpoint, the redrawing of the city`s very face, the demolition orders, the eviction notices.
In 2002, Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon declared that “the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.” This first evening, for all its middle class glitter and chatter, is a response to Ayalon’s line of thinking and cuts across class lines. During the next five days, we will see its manifestations and variations among all sectors of Palestinian society, especially young people.
Every visit to Jerusalem also brings home what is unchanging here, what is above and beyond the battles between the occupied and the occupier. On higher elevations, the air is so light, the wind so gentle, the sun so near that you wonder if paradise was created here, on this spot. Paradise, and its other—the crude military presence at its every corner, the omni-presence of the Wall at its edges, the deep wounds of a divided city. And underneath all this, the battles fought and lost, the claims, the interpretations. Jerusalem is a place in delirium, of madness, but also of tenacity, and doggedness.
The lightness of the air hangs on as we head out of Jerusalem, north toward Nablus and beyond. The settlements hover over the city from above. On the ground, a dizzying web of roads cuts and splices and fractures the continuity between Jerusalem and the West Bank. The elaborate system of roads also means that in many places, there are restrictions as to which roads Palestinians can or cannot use.
As we head out from Nablus, the landscape changes, its beauty is so pure it breaks the heart, its curvatures so indifferent to the battles roiling close by it makes you wonder, for a split second, what all the fuss is about. Until you hit the first military checkpoint where the West Bank and “the‘48” intersect!
People have told us that at one point there were more than 400 checkpoints across the West Bank. Some of these have been abandoned, a tattered Israeli flag the only remaining emblem. Others are half-manned, with a couple of soldiers keeping a nervous vigil on things. Others still, around Jerusalem and strategic points beyond are fully operational as we soon find out when we try to head into the ’48, to Nazareth.
But at this particular checkpoint, intersection has nothing to do with polite cohabitation. This checkpoint is fully operational, and in the grip of a massive traffic jam this afternoon. Many of the passengers have disembarked and are ambling about—children, old folk, vendors, mothers, students; people in wheel-chairs, on crutches. They are waiting; they are patient, or appear to be. They’re used to all this; they seem to know things we don’t know: the honking and the dust and the crowds, the sniffing dogs and the uzi submachine guns, the clenched teeth and averted eyes. It’s a standoff: the Palestinians on one side and the Israeli operators of the checkpoint on the other. The latter are mono-syllabic in their commands, loud beyond necessity, eyeing the crowds with narrowed eyes of contempt, the heat intensifying things in a place already saturated with the weight of history, the persistence of the conflict. They are also very young, these check-point personnel.
Our passage through this checkpoint takes several hours, as one of our colleagues is detained for taking photographs. We disembark the bus, join the long lines. Our passports are checked, our bags put through security; stuff falls out; things are lost; people lose their nerve. It’s a mess! Some of our passports are returned quickly; others’ (dark-skinned, remember? Strange names, remember?) take longer.
Our colleague is finally cleared, and we head to Nazareth, the largest Christian Palestinian town in Israel. The evening is devoted to a panel discussion titled “The Expanding Centre—The Palestinian Effect,” at the Arab Cultural Association, followed by a poetry reading by the young Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish who writes an Arabic which is as fresh as it is at times irreverent. There’s a lot of talk about translating from Arabic to English, and understandably so. For a people whose voices are muted or half-heard, this second function of translation seems less important, less urgent. But translation into the mother language is also essential; it keeps the language alert, open, flexible to new experiences, concepts, possibilities. I think about raising the issue, but don’t.
During the last 36 hours, we have managed to cover the three main landscapes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: We arrived in Jerusalem, headed north to the West Bank to Nablus for a brief hotel check-in, and then into the ‘48 to Nazareth.
Nazareth: here we are, in the center of the town: The bells of the main church are tolling, and there is a choir singing in the open air in Arabic, all this in preparation for Palm Sunday. But the most stunning thing about Nazareth is its elevated location where it receives the wind from the Mediterranean, tinged as it is with a hint of humidity. The wind, soothing and sonorous, persists through the trek up and down this ancient town of cobblestone alleys and roads, along weathered but beautiful facades, and amidst an Arab-Israeli population that navigates the narrow straits of the ’48 with that same quiet, unrelenting steadfastness evident everywhere.
But these three landscapes, despite their variations, form a continuous whole, a seamless mesh of wild beauty, hovering at the edge of something far darker, but not quite, not quite. There are places in the world where even the most godless can get down on her knees and pray, or at least talk to a god; these hills and gorges are such places where you can, I imagine, literally converse with the unknown, curse fate, lament your station in life, maddened by life’s poundings and injuries. Sometimes you can also weep with gratitude. And when you are finished, you can stand up and feel the strength of something unspeakable, something which pushes you up and on, something which brings back into your memory the dance of a man threatened by deportation orders; or the steadfast posture of an old, toothless farmer handing his passport to the armed Israeli teenager at the check-point you just left.
On my third day in Palestine, I conduct my first workshop in Nablus, at al-Najah University, a sprawling campus with a stunning view of the landscape. Nablus is a busy town whose long history of revolt is bracketed by the Samaritans’ uprising during the Byzantine Empire’s reign and the Second Palestinian Intifada which began in 2000. The campus too has had its share of political activism and closures.
Nothing that I have experienced so far compares to my first encounter with the students of al-Najah, nothing in terms of the openness with which they are present for a ninety-minute seminar on translation, from Arabic to English. I will conduct four workshops in Palestine (at al-Najah, al-Khalil, Bir Zeit, and Al-Quds Universities), and all will be good, but this one on translation will end up being the most memorable although it’s the first time in my life that I am doing a workshop on translation.
If everything here matters and matters deeply, then what better place than the university for this attitude to take root, to grow? Language matters, words matter here, and although these fifty students at al-Najah are not as skilled with English as they are with the Arabic text, they seem to know that education is both means and ends; and that to learn is to establish a conversation with the unknown or the half-known, which they do skillfully and with great cooperative discipline.
Their minds wander around the six lines from Mahmoud Darwish which will be the core of our work together, asking it questions, imagining its situation, appreciating the way Darwish’s lines open themselves onto another language, how these lines absorb new meanings while holding their ground, keeping vigil over the meaning of the mother tongue.
We begin with a simple task: Translate these six lines into English. They do. Then, we contextualize the translations by comparing theirs to three other published translations (including my own, with my co-translator Christopher Millis). This kind of lineage between the several versions propels our discussion about the “knots” that demand an interpretive unraveling. We gather our discussion of the various versions of Darwish’s lines into three problematic areas: the verb (English is a verb-driven language; Arabic less so); punctuation (English is heavy on punctuation; Arabic is less so which is one reason why ellipsis abound in Arabic poetry); and vocabulary which re-imagines, recasts the original word into the language of passage. For example, bounty or fertility? Moistness or humidity?
The discussion is animated, exciting even. Translation is imbued with the flutter of the heart and the mind because it is a kind of no-man’s land, a conversation between two languages and two cultures, a finally a passage from one realm into another, from one set of codes and meanings to another. And my students, for all the difficulties of their daily lives, understand something profound about this passage though they are often prohibited from visiting a nearby town or village, though their lives are hemmed in by all sorts of interdicts. And as we begin to wrap things up, someone says, “These lines are about a becoming, about a transformation of some sort.” We have reached the sorrowful, lovely heart of our work together; we have arrived at the heart of the poem, knowing that all arrivals are tentative, illusive.
At Sheikh Qassem Café, in the evening, in gardens whose intoxicating fragrance hangs in the air and hovers around the lamps, there is another panel titled “Onwards, together: Orientalism after the Revolutions,” which is followed by the terrific hip hop of Mark Gonzales in English and the poetry in Arabic of Asmaa Azaizeh. Although so much of our workday is in English, at the end of it all, when darkness falls, in this weathered site, we return to Arabic, the language of this place, the keeper of its tensions and beauties.
Every place here—from the checkpoints, to the classrooms, to the streets, to the cultural centers—is a mixture of two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, everything matters here, and matters deeply for the entire population. Every action has a large semantic sphere because every action is carried out with an intensity that characterizes all modes of resistance.
On the other hand, there is an ease that is hard to grasp though you see it everywhere, from the warm welcome of the shopkeepers, to the hotel staff, to the inhabitants of noisy Palestinian towns teeming with activity. It is the ease of those who know the land, who know its blessings and curses, who are its intimates, who know, above all, that underneath the checkpoints and the bureaucracy and technology, underneath the daily difficulties of life and the omnipresence of the Wall, is a strange simmer of tenderness and resilience.
In Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority and its bureaucracy, it is not so much resistance that strikes you but rather how different this city is from all the others we have visited so far. And if you’re looking at things from the vantage point of the Movenpick Hotel, a sprawling, opulent structure built no doubt for the elites (Palestinian and international), Ramallah seems headed for good times, the real estate mainly. Nablus and al-Khalil may be off the visitor’s map, but Ramallah attracts the local elites, the internationals, the journalists, the NGO-types, the well-to-do diaspora Palestinians returning to check things out, see if they can settle here, the place their parents and grandparents had to leave.
Ramallah is casual, laid-back, almost normal--or allowed to be all these things. But Ramallah is also the site of important Palestinian cultural institutions, projects, and individuals. Near Ramallah is Bir Zeit University which, like al-Najah in Nablus, has played an important political role in Palestinian life. In the morning, I meet with teachers of writing at Bir Zeit; our discussion revolves around breaking the barriers between “creative writing” and “academic writing;” about the centrality of narrative in all writing; about structure as generated by content rather than the other way around.
In the evening, there’s a huge turnout at a concert at the historic Friends’ School for Boys, dedicated to Kamal Nasir, Palestinian poet and national leader assassinated by Israel in 1973 in Beirut. The next evening, at the Sakakini Cultural Center, a manor in the traditional Palestinian architectural style, a panel discussion titled “Writing Auto/Biography: Palestine and Beyond” takes place, followed by readings from a translation into Arabic of John Berger’s From A. to X: A Novel in Letters, some of whose entries, we are told by Tania Nasir who is co-translator and the evening’s reader, were inspired by Berger’s several extended stays in Palestine.
Away from the buzz and hum of the Movenpick, where the rest of our group is staying, I am at the home of my friend, the sculptor and installation artist Vera Tamari. The intensity of the afternoon we spent touring Bethlehem gives way to hours of conversation, tea, the hours enhanced by nicotine and laughter.
Vera and I met more than four decades ago, in Beirut, in college. Since then our lives have taken divergent trajectories, different twists and turns: she, anchored in an ancestral landscape she loves beyond words, turning the materials of her life into stunning works of art. At times her work laughs in the face of the occupier’s folly, at other times its beauty makes you weep so powerful is its import. I, here, again, in Ramallah, as a visitor, a passer-by whose sense of home is ever-shifting, who will leave in less than two days, the bitter taste of many departures in my mouth, carrying the visitor’s guilt lightly at my fingertips, but carrying it still. For those two nights, though, we delight in each other’s presence.
Across the West Bank, there’s no escaping the Wall, everywhere, at all times, how it has divided the landscape, has divided Palestinian families, has divided people from themselves. Our group “saw” the Wall’s violent, convulsive course through the windows of our bus, the extraordinary skill of our driver, Abu Mustapha, as he navigated the narrow streets of Bethlehem and its environs, and with the assistance of Reverend Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran minister and native of Bethlehem, who directs the Diyar Consortium, an impressive complex which houses an institution of higher learning, a wellness center, a conference site, and community outreach programs.
The Wall is ever-present, winding its way from the North to the South of the West Bank, circling Jerusalem, then heading south gathering around it stories and tales about the ensuing dispossession, break-up of families and neighborhoods, shredding of the landscape, tearing of the homes into two.
Palestinians have been so intimate with the occupation that they are often able to circumvent it, deride it, resist it. Sometimes they can even transcend it. But the Wall is another story—unrelenting and visible. Its afterlife lodges itself in your memory, and will stay there for a long, long time.
On the bus this afternoon, after absorbing the horrors of what the wall had done (if such a sight can be absorbed), the only response is to evoke the image of doom. What you see will make you weep, will make you curse the folly of it all–wrong, stupid and brutal. It’s a stalemate, of course, but it’s too easy and dishonest actually, to say, “This is all too complicated.” It is not, and the suggestion of complicatedness is, in the end, a cop-out. In this tortured landscape, even from a distance, things look pretty simple–things as they are, and their resolution.
After a morning workshop at al-Khalil (Hebron) University on writing narrative, we head out to the Old City, to the Ibrahimi Mosque. At the turnstile separating us from the mosque, a young Israeli soldier from an elevated position behind barbed wires tells us that only Jews can be allowed into the Ibrahimi Mosque today. As our group’s representative tries to negotiate our passage, we see the Jewish settlers coming out of the mosque fully protected by the armed soldiers. It is to no avail; we cannot visit the mosque today. Instead, we make our way to the headquarters of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee where we are met by Walid Abul-Halawa.
What we hear from Abul-Halawa is sheer heartache laced with hope. He does not mince his words, chooses them carefully, interjects humor in accounts of the confrontations between the 400 or so settlers and the local villagers. He tells us, for instance, of the “arrest of the donkey.” Apparently, when the Palestinians could not bring building materials through a narrow street, they decided to use the services of a strong donkey or two, who were arrested and hand-and-feet-cuffed as soon as they arrived on the scene! But his humor cannot mitigate the sense of outrage that his account arouses: the Usama School closure, the demolition of centuries-old buildings to widen the streets so that the cars of the settlers can pass through, the closing off the main thoroughfare of Shuhada Street to Palestinians, to throwing human waste and trash on the Palestinian streets.
Al-Khalil is the extreme point of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because the settlers live among the local population. Abul-Halawa distinguishes between Jews who came to al-Khalil from Spain during the Ottoman period, and these newcomers. His battle is with the latter, he says, whose only job in the world, he says, is “to make life impossible for the Palestinians.”
In no other place in the West Bank does this situation exist; most settlements are on elevated positions, separated from the local population. But in al-Khalil, things are ugly. And yet the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee doggedly rebuilds the homes from which Palestinians have been driven out, rehabilitates them, makes them live again, makes them an integral part of the landscape of Palestine. And because the work of the Committee speaks for itself in beautifully (and ingenuously) restored homes, Abul-Halawa speaks calmly, and generously, and from a sense of vision which, in the end, is more practical than all the rhetoric of the politicians and pundits.
A line connects the work of Abul-Halawa to that of Reverend Mitri Raheb in Bethlehem, and other places and projects which are extended gestures of hope against the sense of doom that can corrode life here. There are, to be sure, other such projects all across the West Bank, as well as in Israel. In the wake of the “Arab spring,” these sparks of light have, it appears, been infused with new energy. Of course, such projects are no match to the occupation’s unrelenting churning of ever new and more sophisticated methods of subjugation; they may not be able to stem the onslaught. But they can slow it down to a speed that allows for people to organize, for the cracks to become unsustainable.
Tear gas has an acrid, corrosive taste. Onions are the antidotes which are most commonly used here. You hold the onion close to your nostrils and inhale. If you’re lucky and there’s a grocery store nearby, the shopkeeper will pour a small amount of cologne in your hand which you can take up to your nostrils.
Tonight--the concluding event for Pal Fest in Silwan, a southern suburb of Jerusalem with a population of 55,000. According to the Alternative Information Center, “since the Israeli military occupation in 1967, when the village was annexed to the Jerusalem Municipality, the area has been a major target of the Israeli government and religious settler organizations. Residents of the Silwan have lived in a long-standing state of uncertainty since the late 1970s, when the Jerusalem Municipality approved a plan which labeled much of their Al Bustan neighbourhood as green space.” Since 1991, says AIC, more than 40 Palestinian homes have been taken by force by Jewish settlers.
At Silwan, as we were getting ready to walk up the hill to the tent, tear gas being released in the air by the Israeli police on a nearby hilltop; there were reports of stone throwing settlers taunting the crowd. The intention was to disperse the youths who were gathered around the Silwan solidarity tent to listen to poetry and music and to say goodbye to the participants in the festival. But tenacity and sheer will power is often apparent here, and after the soldiers and settlers’ stones dispersed the crowd, people began walking back to the tent. We too. And after a short program of testimonials and poems from the festival participants, the Palestinian hip hop group DAM peaked the evening with some great music mostly in Arabic, except for one devil of a number about a Palestinian young man’s chance encounter with an Israeli woman in an elevator. (She was thinking 69; I was thinking 67). The piece was in three languages–Arabic, English, and Hebrew– with puns and refrains carrying the crowd into laughter and frenzy.
Next morning, at dawn, Jerusalem wakes up slowly. We began here, entering the city through Damascus Gate. This morning, the air is crisp, cool, the city quiet, sedated almost. Our mini-bus zigzags through the narrow paths and out of the city.
We are on our way to where we came from, to the crossing, and then the bridge, and then the passages to Amman and beyond—for me, to Boston where, I imagine, the rain has covered the city with a sheen of light, where the Charles is receding, allowing spring and bloom to come forth.
For now, though, this road ahead of us, this place--for all its dust and grime and bumps.