Imagination has no substitute: reflections on PalFest in Gaza

Boy walks past destroyed building exposing mural of Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Though Gaza is only an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, the two ancient cities are as far apart as earth and moon.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler

The Palestine Literature Festival, affectionately known as PalFest, is something of a miracle. That shouldn’t be surprising, because Palestine has always been a place of miracles. In these times, I think we would do well to remember that.

I was lucky enough to participate in PalFest this year and I returned after six incredible days, having experienced, thought and felt so much in a short period of time. Although I blogged daily from the trip, there is so much more to unpack here, however disjointed it might be.

I was part of the Gaza portion of PalFest. It has to be that way — divided, I mean — because even though Gaza is only an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, these two ancient cities are as far apart as earth and moon.

Such is the terrible genius of Israel. The way it colonized the land, separated Palestinians from each other, and squeezed us out or into isolated cantons to create our own psychological barriers between each other.

Such is Israel’s hope of destroying a unified Palestinian identity.

Until the creation of Israel a mere six decades ago, roads were carved over thousands of years by travelers moving between Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem, Haifa, Baghdad, Gaza, Cairo, Marrakesh, Algiers, Addis Ababa. Now, under Israeli rule, and for the first time in the history of that region, the indigenous population of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and Gaza, is barred from leaving the enclaves identified on their ID cards and color-coded license plates.


Meanwhile, native Palestinian Christians and Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza are forbidden free access to their holy places in Jerusalem. Such has been Israel’s “peace process.”

Israel’s draconian restrictions on Palestinian movement means that a traditional literature festival, where consumers of culture flock to a centralized location, would be impossible, since most natives in the area cannot traverse more than a few miles without running into one of a host of Israeli measures meant to ghettoize Palestinians, including a twenty-foot concrete wall, checkpoints, Jewish-only colonies, Israeli-only roads, electrified fences, tanks, sniper towers, soldiers, or Jewish settlers from Brooklyn armed to the teeth.

So, instead of a single location that most Palestinians couldn’t get to if they wanted to attend, PalFest travels to Palestinians. It’s a high-caliber literary festival that brings writers and thinkers from around the world, puts them on a bus that travels from one Palestinian city to another, breaking down a state-sponsored system of imposed isolation and ignorance. With aplomb, style, literature, song, poetry, love and defiance, PalFest is carving new paths across the land, where we can all, once again, travel to each other, as we’ve always done, even if now only in our imagination and hearts.

Future of struggle

And that’s no small thing. No small thing at all. Because imagination and heart are where all things begin, including liberation. That is something I tried to stress while I was in Gaza. One must imagine liberation as we fight for it. Although this seems obvious, I found that it is more difficult than it sounds.

There was an evening when 25 or 30 young activists from various political and ideological leanings — Fatah, Hamas, Popular Front, Islamists, Marxists, independents — gathered to talk about their differences and the future of our struggle in Gaza. It was a deeply intelligent, committed and orderly exchange.

I admit to being a bit surprised, not because we were in Gaza where political differences can have difficult consequences, but because the well-formed ideas and insights that I heard so eloquently articulated were coming from participants who were nearly half my age. It was impressive to watch.

There came a point, however, when the idea of a unifying structure arose in conversation. It was hypothetical. But I asked them to imagine it and tell me what it would necessarily look and sound like — what would be the endgame and strategy; what would liberation look like through such a lens.

One person said it was futile to imagine what was unlikely to happen and we should go back to talking about the issues at hand. Even in this group of sharp-minded individuals, it was difficult to imagine what was not probable at the moment.


I didn’t say it then, but I will now, that someone in Egypt had the audacity to imagine that people in the street would unseat their pharaoh. Someone in South Africa had to first imagine that 400 of years of white supremacy would disintegrate and the official racism of apartheid would fall to its knees.

Closer to home, a group of European men once imagined that they could start a movement that could steal an entire country, displace an entire ancient indigenous population, and take their place to claim all that Palestinians had built over millennia as the Jewish history of foreigners who arrive daily on the shores of Palestine.

Commitment, intelligence, insight, resistance, weapons, struggle are no substitutes for imagination, which is ultimately the primary, if not only, limiting factor in any endeavor.

There were some new realizations in these discussions, because imagination sometimes takes prodding and dismantling of boundaries we don’t even realize are there. An example of this came up in discussions about forming greater ties with our “natural allies” from Africa and South America. This turned out to be an important ongoing topic during my trip.

Israelis must apologize

In essence, the idea was that we examine what seems to be a Eurocentric discourse with others, even though true solidarity is coming to us from other parts of the world. Another facet of this discussion was reciprocal solidarity with like-minded struggles around the world, because we are empowered when we empower others, and because there is a kind of liberation that can only come from playing a part in the liberation of others.

We spoke, too, of owning our own narrative and taking it back from those who would presume to speak for us and about it. Some topics, like the Nakba, are ours to discuss, argue and disagree about, mourn, feel and narrate. The recent fallout from an Al Jazeera Stream segment on the Nakba was an example I cited, where our deepest wound was made the purview of Israelis on the day we all gather to mourn and remember.

I suggested that we should not form bridges with any Israelis who refuse to acknowledge, and apologize for, the most basic fact of Israel’s existence, which is that it was necessarily created through our demise.

Epic hospitality

The conversations at PalFest were endless, covering the existential, personal, political, social and economic. Always, they were cradled in epic Arab hospitality, where mothers vied with one another to cook meals for tens of strangers and families everywhere welcomed us with warmth that was so humbling and beautiful.

Although the topics I mention here, most of which took place during the workshops and talks I was involved with, may seem disparate, they are in fact united by the common thread of empowerment, of the organic kind that comes from introspection and re-examination of our realities. The empowerment that is born from imagining what does not seem immediately possible; of claiming and owning our own narrative and refusing to engage those who cannot recognize our humanity; of forming and strengthening ties with our brothers and sisters around the world, who are themselves victims of colonial theft, racism and exploitation.

Gaza itself is a metaphor for such empowerment. In this violated, polluted, overcrowded patch of earth, where children too often fall asleep to a lullaby of bombs, breaking glass, falling buildings, sirens, screams and guns, I discovered a Gaza that goes to extraordinary measures to smuggle books, seek culture, knowledge and spiritual growth.

It was a Gaza of activists from warring factions who come together over tea and coffee and brotherhood; of strong women standing up to patriarchy; of an endless stream of young volunteers who spend their days in children’s centers to help ease the burdens from the most vulnerable sectors of their society.

It was a Gaza of young couples, so clearly in love, walking together on the beach, planning their weddings and dreaming of family.

It was a Gaza of laughter and silly jokes, and banal normality under the most abnormal circumstances of a prison statelet.

It was a Gaza of defiance, and an underground network of arteries, however problematic, that circumvent an oppressor’s attempt to impose wholesale caloric restrictions.

I wrote about this Gaza on my blog one night after a lovely evening on the beach with new friends, where we could see, but never reach, the contours of Majdal, a Palestinian city that Israel stole from us. It was great fodder for the imagination, for I could clearly see the Palestine that will someday flourish when Zionism crumbles, as it will surely do someday.

History promises it. It is a Palestine not unlike itself — an inclusive nation of many religions and ethnicities. A proud people of ancient and new traditions. One of enduring culture and agency. One that stretches the globe with intentional and informed solidarity.

This is the world I imagine. I saw it clearly sitting on the sand along the Mediterranean during PalFest, that miracle of a festival that so elegantly removes the barriers that Israel erects to separate Palestinians from each other and from the rest of the world.

Susan Abulhawa is the author of the international bestseller Mornings in Jenin and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine.