“Art is a hammer to shape reality”: PalFest breaks the siege of Gaza

23 May 2012

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Palestinians enjoy a concert featuring musicians from Gaza and Egypt as part of the Palestinian Festival of Literature.

(Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

Amid the focus on the economic hardships caused by Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, it has been easy for many to overlook the fact that the territory’s 1.6 million people have been kept under a cultural siege as well.

This is ironic because much international debate has emphasized the rights and wrongs of cultural boycott of Israel in the context of the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

For years, the Palestine Festival of Literature — PalFest — has been trying to break this siege.

PalFest began in 2008 in the West Bank, and tried its best to come to Gaza in 2009 with the clear objective of connecting international writers with Palestinian writers and audiences in Gaza. However, Israeli occupation forces denied organizers entry permits through the Erez crossing in the north of the Gaza Strip. In 2010, PalFest organizers tried again to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing — along the Strip’s border with Egypt — but were also denied entry by the regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011.

Undeterred

Academics, intellectuals and students had eagerly followed the news of whether or not the authors invited by PalFest would be allowed into Gaza this year. Undeterred by the disappointing denial, some authors last year were able to take part via video conference (see video of Haidar Eid’s 2010 introduction).

On 5 May this year, some 14 months after the Egyptian revolution began, we were finally able to welcome PalFest — and an impressive group of writers, artists, bloggers and social activists — to Gaza.

This would scarcely have been possible without the uprisings in the Arab world. This gathering demonstrates that despite the Palestinian cause being hijacked by dictatorships for many years, it continues to bring Arabs together as well and helps foster a re-emergent sense of pan-Arabism.

Not without a struggle

Egyptian novelist and PalFest founder Ahdaf Soueif, wrote in the independent daily al-Shorouk about the motivations behind the festival: “Civil society brings to life the conscience of the world, travelling by sea and air to express solidarity with our brothers in Gaza … the world asks: Will the Egyptian revolution, the awakening of Egypt, change the circumstances under which Palestine lives?” (“Palestine Literature Festival,” 2 May 2012 [Arabic])

And although PalFest did finally come to Gaza this year, it wasn’t without a struggle. It is well known that the Egyptian government has contributed to the Israeli-engineered siege on Gaza. In spite of bureaucracy, restrictions and delays from the Egyptian foreign ministry to issue entry permits for the 43 writers, PalFest participants were so determined that they undertook a media campaign until the permits were granted.

A joyful, but delayed welcome

On 5 May at 2pm, and after thorough preparations inside and outside Gaza for the upcoming events, six BDS activists were on the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and the guests were on the Egyptian side.

But the hours passed and the sky began to darken. PalFest producer Omar Hamilton called. “Things are fine with most of us, but still there are issues with some of the participants’ papers!”

It was Alaa Abed El-Fattah, his wife Manal and their infant son Khaled who were sent back, but not for long as they joined the group the next day.

Only at 7pm, ululations and chants rolled through the place where the hosts were standing when they saw the bus approaching.

Healing wounds not breaking legs

“Culture, art and academia contribute directly to shaping the individual and collective consciousness,” said Dr. Haidar Eid, PalFest’s partner in Gaza and a professor at al-Aqsa University, at a press conference and welcoming ceremony at Rafah as soon as the guests crossed.

Eid, active with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PACBI), spoke about the growth of BDS campaigns around the globe that aim to pressure Israel to end its policies of apartheid, colonization, abuses of human rights and regular violations of international law.

Solidarity with the Palestinian people through BDS is one of the key unarmed forms of resistance, he said. “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” Eid said, quoting Bertolt Brecht.

Eid also recalled the words of Mubarak’s last foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who once promised to “break the legs” of Palestinians if they dared “breach Egypt’s national security.” This time, “our brothers and sisters from Egypt are coming to kiss the feet of Gaza children, to heal the wounds created by the dictator’s regime,” Eid said.

Literature, Poetry and Music

Over the next four days, PalFest participants fanned out across Gaza, conducting writing and translation workshops in coordination with four universities and five public schools. At a creative writing workshop at Gaza University, for example, Egyptian novelist and Cairo University lecturer Sahar El-Mougy, shared her own literary experience with students. Similarly, Ahdaf Soueif, Khaled El- Khameissy and Tariq Hamdan had deeply engaged discussions with Al-Aqsa University students.

A public concert at Gaza City’s Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Centre brought together Palestinian and Egyptian musicians. The event was opened by Palestinian singer Muhammad Akeila performing “Mawtini” (My Homeland), and Egyptian revolutionary band Eskenderalla performed “Ya Filastinia” (Oh Palestinians).

Poet Amin Haddad recited the words of his father, poet Fouad Haddad, the legendary dean of vernacular 20th Century Egyptian poetry:

Sow the land with resistance

Spread the seeds everywhere

Where there is darkness, it brings light

When imprisoned, it breaks the wall

Be the first …

Be the first Only blood is honest

From the times of emigrant home

To the day of victorious home

Sow the land with resistance.

Performed with artistic sensibility and thoroughness, the concert was closed with a joint Palestinian-Egyptian song. “Build your palaces on our fields and orchards, from the efforts of our hard-working hands,” implored the song, a masterpiece written by Ahmad Fouad Nigm and performed by Sheikh Imam Issa in the 1970s.

Backing BDS

For the first time, PalFest’s organizers made their support for the BDS movement crystal clear. “PalFest has endorsed the 2004 Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. PalFest 2012 stands against the siege of Gaza; it is committed to re-invigorating cultural ties between Arab countries, ties that have been eroded for too long,” the festival said in a 29 April statement (“The 2012 Palestine Festival of Literature”).

This support was cemented during PalFest with meetings between organizers, writers and BDS activists in Gaza. All the discussions emphasized that BDS is a rights-based movement, that seeks to uphold the fundamental and universally-recognized rights of the Palestinian people: an end to military occupation and colonization; full rights for Palestinians citizens of Israel, and respect for the rights of refugees, including the right to return.

Authors participating in PalFest stressed the history of anti-normalization in the Arab world and mainly in Egypt as they promised to work on establishing the Egyptian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Others proposed efforts to end the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ), an economic and trade agreement that Egypt signed with Israel in 2004, which mainly functioned to remove the Arab taboo against conducting business openly with Israel.

Closed down by the police

The final night of PalFest at Dar al-Basha, a historic house in Gaza City, was shut down by the police — an incident for which the police chief later apologized verbally, although no written statement has yet been issued (“#PalFestGaza shut down by police, then receives official apology,” PalFest press release, 10 May 2012).

The repression did not dampen spirits. Participants and the audience left together for the Al-Quds hotel, and chanting “let’s continue,” they made sure the festival went on. It was an unforgettable night of poetry from Amin Haddad, Tariq Hamdan and music from the talented artist and oud player Hazem Shaheen.

Between darkness and light

In Gaza, the only breath of fresh air you can have is when you look at the sea. On my way home on the last evening, and as the taxi was moving along the coastline in the night, one might be shocked to see for the first time the ominous prison-like floodlights shining in the sea, or as Omar Hamilton accurately put it, “a perfect unmovable line of lights that cuts short the horizon, erases the possibility of the unknown.”

On land, by contrast, all of Gaza was drowning in a sea of darkness, with queues of cars and motorbikes waiting for the fuel supply to run. Each time I came to the festival, until that moment, cars were waiting in an interminable line.

The contrast is really overwhelming. Sitting beside the taxi driver, an agitated and tense passenger angrily talked about the lack of electricity and abruptly lamented the loss of his father and house in Israel’s winter 2008-2009 attack on Gaza.

He seemed traumatized; it didn’t seem usual to hear at that time of the night a story from the days of Operation Cast Lead. He was recalling an event that took place three years ago, as if it took place just hours before.

It was a reminder that returning to the usual rhythm of Gaza life after the unusual and exciting experience with PalFest is really strange and difficult. Nevertheless, times are changing and the global BDS movement is helping to empower us and our supporters with effective moral choices to end the injustices we live through.

This is why PalFest in Gaza was so important. In the face of so many obstacles, it was a celebration of the power of culture in the face of the culture of power.

Ayah Bashir is a recent MA graduate in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her first degree was in English language and Literature. She is currently a member of the Gaza-based BDS organizing committee and also PalFest coordinator in Gaza.