Palestine is not the first thing that comes to mind when you mention festivals and literature, but behind the difficulties of occupation, the checkpoints, and the concrete walls, Palestine enjoys a rich literary heritage and a vibrant, contemporary landscape.
PalFest, the nickname of the Palestine Festival of Literature, an annual travelling cultural roadshow touring around Palestine, is evidence of the active cultural voice within Palestine, a voice that exists within boundaries, borders and checkpoints.
The festival (May 4–9 2012) has come to play both a significant cultural and educational role by connecting international, award-winning authors to Palestinian authors and audiences. In a country where booksellers, writers, and readers all face constraints when trying to access one another, the PalFest organisers believe they have a critical role in building both artistic and cultural bridges.
“PalFest differs from other literature festivals, as the ‘norms’ of international literature festivals are disrupted by the overwhelming presence of the Israeli military,” explains the festival’s founding team, which includes award-winning Egyptian novelist, Adhaf Souief. The festival has been criticised in the past for its English-language focus, but the organisers said that efforts are being made to translate excerpts of visiting authors’ works into Arabic.
Illustrating the challenges and successes of the festival, Reema Fadda, a PalFest staff member explained that, “despite the Israeli forces’ attempt at closing down venues, and preventing books from entering Palestinian cities and universities, the festival has nonetheless managed to bring books into Palestine,” She added that the festival has succeeded in providing books to Palestinian refugee camps, in addition to facilitating many creative writing and reading workshops for children and adults.
Those who participate in the festival usually travel to different Palestinian cities and audiences, in order to counteract the limitations put in place by the Israeli occupation. It also gives the international authors an opportunity to witness first-hand the effects of the Israeli occupation on the lives of Palestinians.
American writer Nancy Kricorian argues that not only do authors exchange their ideas with the audience, but the speakers themselves start to question some of their ideas as well.
“I was fascinated to meet with the Palestinian and Palestinian-American writers during PalFest tour. We talked a lot about the ways that this community experience has shaped our identities and our work,” she said.
Those who participate in the weeklong festival often lead week-long creative-writing workshops, host e-workshops with students in Gaza, or set up online book-groups between reading groups in Palestine and the wider international community.
Bidisha, a well-known feminist thinker, was one of the British writers who participated in PalFest in May 2011. Talking about her singular greatest memory of the PalFest experience, she remembers, “teaching a group of thirteen and fourteen year olds at the refugee camp at Balata. These young people were unlike any children I'd ever met in a long career of teaching.
What they had to say was shocking for its despair and its directness. [A] young boy wrote a piece that I will never forget, describing a family death from a bombing carried out by the army. He called the piece “The Assassination of Childhood”. This title became the title of my book's chapter on Balata.”
Bidisha’s outreach work at the refugee camp at Balata and workshops at the University of Birzeit culminated in a book called, “Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path through Palestine”.
By sharing and reading books, blogs, and newspaper articles, as well as supporting new writers, PalFest hopes to make the work of the festival sustainable, even after all the speakers and the visitors returned home.