Imagining Palestine through PalFest

Closing night of PalFest 2013 at Gaza City’s Dar al-Basha.

Ali Abunimah

There is something inherently unsettling about literature. Or, perhaps, it is this exquisite blend of poetry, music and the natural presence of an ancient minaret peering into the sky behind a limestone wall that got me.  

But there also was an unnatural, longed-for component. I stood at some distance, my shirt ruffled, hair sticking to my forehead, and gazed over the crowds that had gathered in the courtyard of an 800-year-old Ottoman-style structure in Gaza’s Old City now known as Dar al-Basha for the closing night’s festivities of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest)

I had done this at various times for four days; the distance; the gaze. For I had to bring myself to the realization that, in fact, Ali Abunimah, Susan Abulhawa, Lina Atallah and Nora Younis were really in Gaza.

They did not seem to realize this either. They all were too overwhelmed by the fact that they were actually here to also grasp the significance of their very presence.

Finally feeling at home in Gaza

Gaza, the boring, densely-populated and clichéd enclave that I have cursed countless times in my life and blamed for every misfortune, suddenly looked and tasted different. My sense of dislocation, fragmentation and ultimate discontent that followed was suddenly consolidated and reconciled. I still feel fizzy.

I take a moment and try to paint a picture of home.

But Ayman Abou Abdou struck the chords of his oud. Reem Anber, sitting cross-legged and charismatically clinging to her oud instrument, winked to Mousa Tawfiq who gave her a knowing smile before they too evoked the notes of a song we quickly figured was Marcel Khalife’s.

Melodies wafted outward and flew over the packed courtyard of Dar al-Basha as the sun cast a magnificent carpet of light over the antique walls of the Dar. Unfamiliar with the sudden vividness that had engulfed the neighborhood, people living nearby swarmed through the rusty entrance and stood their ground there or sat on the stairs until it was impossible to go into or out of the door without having to push our way through them.

For the past few days, I have been trying to make sense of this unforeseen identification with and appreciation of Gaza, of why I had repeatedly said “it doesn’t feel like I am in Gaza anymore” all throughout the events of PalFest which had brought Ali, Susan, Lina and Nora to spend five days here. What was Gaza before they came and what is it now?

Making the borders disappear

For five days, Gaza has been a hub of music, art and endless conversations; elements we hardly experience in the same intensity as we tread on in the fight for daily survival and preoccupation with politics. To me, Gaza was no longer strictly Gaza. For the first time in many years, I was able to be at ease with myself and surroundings. The internal suffocation, resentment and refusal to identify myself with Gaza or even accept it as part of Palestine faded in the magic of literature.

PalFest took place across all of Palestine; in Jerusalem, Haifa, Gaza and Ramallah. It was happening in Palestine as it exists in our minds, literature and oral history. The concrete walls and surveillance machines that slice us up into “territories” with designations such as “extremist” or “pacified” or “A,” “B” or “C” seemed to have disappeared.

Yet, PalFest participants had to cross checkpoints, to go around settlements, and use different entry points to Palestine; some came to Gaza through the Rafah Crossing, others to the West Bank through Jordan. Neither group met the other nor could we, for instance, partake in the events in Haifa. But I was able to surpass all this. I could no longer feel the agony.  

“Imagination is important for us”

That literature has often been criticized for creating fantasies and seducing readers into them is no wonder. That I was able look beyond the three-nautical-mile limit west of Gaza — beyond the menacing Israeli watchtowers, walls and barbed wire in the north and east, beyond the Rafah crossing, or the fence in the south, and finally see myself as a Palestinian — was a literary experience triggered by the limitless spaces of literature, of music and boundless, thought-provoking discussions.

Susan Abulhawa made all this easier to understand and deal with. She thought that Palestinians need to transcend the immediate reality and imagine what is now beyond our reach. “Imagination,” she told me one afternoon, “is important for us; we need to imagine and pursue what we imagine.”

Palestine as a personal experience is virtually absent especially among the generations that did not live through the Nakba. Although talking about return is widespread, imagining it as an actual reality is rarely, if ever, discussed. Jerusalem is always glorified and claimed, but there barely is anything personal about it.

Edward Said was of the opinion that the personal is political. But what if the personal itself is lacking? If the political is too far away for us to fully engage in? Here comes the role of and power of narrative.

The short hot-tempered Miss Hedaya of the Dar al-Tifl orphanage in Jerusalem, who herself had been adopted by Hind Husseini (who founded the orphanage in 1948 originally for children who survived the Deir Yassin massacre), came to life one lunch as Susie narrated her memories of the time she spent there as an adolescent.

The “cooked” cockroaches in the meals and strict rules all felt very close and, suddenly, there was something personally compelling about Dar al-Tifl.

Susie’s narration provoked images of and reactions to how it felt and sounded like there. Dar al-Tifl was transformed from a general story about its founding after Deir Yassin into living characters with their own personal stories and individual differences. We could no longer be an audience watching from afar but were mentally and emotionally immersed in the experience. “To feel deeply about a situation is to live that situation,” Susie told us in one of the workshops.

The Palestine Festival of Literature was very much about feeling and thinking deeply about Palestine, about ourselves, and surroundings in the context of home from a literary rather than a rigid political eye. Every workshop was attended by a significant number of the young and old. Every night, Marna House, the hotel where Ali, Susie, Lina and Nora stayed, buzzed with chit-chat and conversation. Musicians brought their instruments and played until theirs was the most popular corner. No one left until it was late and everyone wanted to sleep.