PalFest: Across the great divide

Selma Dabbagh • 11 May 2012

"Welcome to Palestine" reads the sign - an irony not lost on author Selma Dabbagh and her fellow PalFest travellers as they finally attain their goal.
Up to two days before we leave we are not sure if we will get in, as permission has not been granted by the Egyptian authorities for their nationals to travel. There is mention, without any detail (steps and mud? possible collapse or attack?) of tunnels. A media campaign is launched, postponed by a day because of violence outside the Ministry of Defence in Cairo. But then, "Yay!", communicates the jubilance Tweeted and Facebooked from Cairo and Gaza, we get the OK and we are off.

Slowly off: seven hours to the border and four sitting at it (electrocutory-sounding buzzers going off with semi-official shouters calling out names, a man in a white uniform yelling from a desk stranded at the side). An oud player from Cairo from the revolutionary band Eskandarella starts strumming softly from one of the moulded plastic seats, next to the wheelchair-bound women, and the waiting, smoking, pacing crowd that we have become, and the holding station of the Rafah border crossing is momentarily transformed. It is as if a network of vivid magical circuitry runs now throughout that large, unloved space: a communication of something deep and connective that we feel for a transient moment, until it stops. The oud player must put the instrument away. He is not to get through the border. He and one other Egyptian, a blogger, are to be returned to Arish because they do not have the papers to show that they are exempt from conscription. Fruitless negotiations: logic on our side, rules on theirs.

We move on without those who are to follow the next day.

The swinging coach lurches and it's a "Welcome to Palestine" sign and we all cheer even though we are not so dim that we don't know there is a sad, ironic disappointment in this proclamation. But it is a sign that was fought for, a forbidden word that is now writ high. I, for one, was once harassed and sent back to Cairo after seven hours with Israeli security because they found a Palestinian flag the size of a Smartie in my bag, back in the days when that alone was a statutory offence.

Officials await us at the border, fruit juice with bits in it, references to the struggles of Mandela, celebration of the fact that this is the first delegation of that size from the new Egypt, national PR and emotion. Hard seats and handshakes.

And then, Gaza.

By now it is dark: dark in a deep, soft way that makes the sky and the moon, full within it, appear like a felt collage. We pass an abandoned missile-struck building, grinning toothlessly out to sea, and then it is a meditative journey up the coast, where much of the land is agricultural, or fallow, with breeze from the sea catching in rushes and billowing in the walls of greenhouses shaped like modernist oriental tents, made of a translucent fabric glowing from within. I feel as though we have snuck into a secret garden, a forbidden city.

We must be driving through the least densely populated part of the most densely populated strip of land in the world, as it takes some time before we see signs of habitation, but they come with rows of shops: solitary boys manning large desks in furniture showrooms, motorbikes parked up against walls, tractors in fields, umbrellas on fruit stands and paintings of Mickey Mouse on nursery walls. "It's like Egypt," says one of the Egyptian writers, which is as it should be, since the countries neighbour each other, the shops, cafes, children are the same. Marriages with bands beeping through the streets take place, women lift their skirts to paddle in the sea and men sit under trees seduced by the moon.

The global porthole for viewing Gaza is the news media and it shows us a place that exists only in times of crisis: at the moment of a missile strike, at times of political unrest and violence, depicting inhabitants as victims of attacks, as though this is a population brought up to suffer, rather than people who are desperate to just get on and do stuff like everyone else.

And this, to my mind, is where the fiction writer comes in: to introduce lives, relationships, aspirations beyond and against political events, or even in the complete absence of political events, to introduce a different truth, to say, there were people here first, before the violence of the missile, of the gun battle, before men were taken away to prisons and never seen again. Feel who we were loving, what we were hoping for, look at what we were doing and building before all this came, while this came, despite the fact that these horrors came, intruded and tried to muck it all up.

This piece is from PEN Atlas, the new project from the English PEN, which aims to encourage international literature in the UK. Every Thursday, it posts literary despatches from around the world, showcasing the very best international writers, aiming to bring new insights into the rich literary landscape that may be found beyond the English language. All content is commissioned and edited by Tasja Dorkofikis.

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer based in London. She is the author of a novel,
Out of It (Bloomsbury, 2011). Her short stories are mainly set in the contemporary Middle East. Recurring themes in her work are idealism (however futile), political engagement (or lack thereof) and the impact of social conformity on individuals. In 2004 and 2005 she was selected as a Finalist for the Fish International Short Story Prize and was English PEN's nominee for International PEN's David TK Wong Prize in 2005. Fish also nominated her for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. Her work has appeared in International PEN's Context: The Middle East magazine, Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women and NW15: An Anthology of New Writing. Some of her short stories, reviews of her work and interviews about her are available on her website. Dabbagh is currently working on a second novel and a feature film with the director Azza el Hassan.