Palfest: Taking literature to where shit happens

Selma Dabbagh • 30 May 2012

In a strip of land where there is wholesale deprivation, some miss books more than anything else, writes Selma Dabbagh.
There can be few literature festivals in the world that are as controversial or as difficult to get to for the participants, the audience and the volunteers as the Palestine Festival of Literature. There are also few literary festivals which are as appreciated.

There has been a blockade on Gaza since Hamas were elected in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Tunnels have been built on the Southern border to bypass restrictions put in place by this illegal blockade. As the Gazan joke goes, don't worry, at the end of the tunnel, there is a tunnel.

The types of products we witnessed being "smuggled" through the Rafah borders by the rather pernicious economy that has developed as a result of these unnatural restrictions were truckloads of Tide washing powder and disposable nappies. It is a cruel and arbitrary closure that is causing malnutrition, through restrictions in food supplies, bad housing, through restrictions in the importation of building materials, and death, through banning the importation of essential medicines.

The worst, worst thing about being in Gaza, one student told me, is not being able to get the books we want.

Earlier this month, I was part of a delegation breaking the siege on Gaza by crossing the Egyptian border. We thought at one point that we might have to resort to the tunnels to get in, as the Egyptian authorities held up the permission-granting process for Egyptian participants until the day before our departure date and, even then, it was only through drumming up international media pressure that these permits were granted. We were again stalled at the border trying to get in, this time for over four hours in the hateful carcinogenic capsule that is the Rafah border crossing. In previous years, participants in the West Bank have been strip-searched at checkpoints by the Israelis, tear-gassed at readings, filmed and threatened by settlers, and female writers have been slapped in the face by soldiers.

A sign,"Welcome to Palestine", greets the visitor to Gaza with the emblem of the Palestinian National Authority above it. "FREE GAZA!" demands the graffiti lower down on the opposite wall, and on some levels it feels there is a stand-off going on between the two statements. A shelled-out building staring out to sea then reassures the visitor that they are in the right place.

Night had fallen when we arrived and Gaza for us was velvet darkness, a swollen moon and a gentle sea. On that first drive into Gaza, I thought that the route up from the border was uninhabited and I wrote that I felt as though we had journeyed into a secret garden, a forbidden city. But that was only because I had not realized the extent to which Gaza was being literally blacked out.

Through the combined effect of the Israeli bombing of the power station in 2006 and the blockade, which also inhibits the importation of fuel, electricity is limited to eight hours a day, backed up, if inhabitants can afford it, by generators that are unstable and fume-producing. Most petrol stations stand empty, but queues that can last all day of cars, tractors, motorbikes and pedestrians begin on the basis of a rumour that petrol has finally arrived.

The sea, previously the only unlimited visible expanse for the fenced-in, crowded, predominantly young inhabitants of this strip of land, has recently been lit by Israeli floodlights that illuminate the darkened population at regular intervals, to prevent Palestinian fishermen from fishing the fish they have harvested for generations.

The students we lecture and hold workshops for are as students in an ideal world should be: ballsy and bright. "Why," they ask, "should Palestinian writers only write about politics? How do you write from a child"s perspective? Does revolutionary writing go stale? Why is Gaza so misrepresented?" "Why," one student asks a prominent Egyptian blogger, "did you tweet that you were scared to be visiting Gaza? What were you scared of exactly?"

At night, some cafes are lit by bare candles stuck on white tiles and shisha coals glow in small mounds as men inhale, in silence, in the dark. But our crowds cheer as the lights go out, Ha! It"s done it again! is the tone of it as the power cuts out again, and again, before generators kick in, if they do. Security men stand around in suits with small guns and little work, occupied only with duties of watching and waiting and informing on others who watch wait and inform in defense.

A taxi driver shows us where the Israeli prison was (it was bombed along with thousands of public institutions, factories, farms homes and other buildings during the January 2009 attacks), he spent four years there in the 1970s for not having his ID card with him when stopped by Israeli soldiers. The mother of a prisoner at the sit-in held in solidarity with the hunger-striking prisoners who are protesting against administrative detention, solitary confinement, the lack of family visits and demanding other very, very basic human rights for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, tells me that a letter she sent to her son, who she has been unable to see for eight years, took two years to reach him via the Red Cross.

We meet visual artists, theatre producers, poets, novelists, filmmakers and actresses. We bring a music festival to a room which seems fit to explode with a jerky, moving energy even before the music starts. "I had never been to a music concert before, one girl of 19 says, I had no idea what they were like."

I meet one man who had been trying for seven years to finish his studies in Cairo, but has been denied an exit visa. "The Israelis say I am Hamas," he says, "I say I am not Hamas. They say I am. I say I'm not. What can I do? They are the enemy."

"You have quite a fearsome enemy," I say.

"Yes," he replies, looking up, "As the Americans say, shit happens."

"They will come again, and again," a lawyer tells me, speaking of Israeli F16 strikes of the type that killed over 1,500 inhabitants of Gaza in 2008/9. "We just need one of these prisoners on hunger strike to die and Islamic Jihad will send one tiny rocket [he indicates three quarters of the length of his finger] "and that's it. They are just waiting for an opportunity. And again, and again they will come. And we are here. Waiting."

Selma Dabbagh (right) is a British Palestinian writer of fiction based in London. Her first novel, Out of It (Bloomsbury, 2011), is set in Gaza, London and the Gulf.

Photo: members of PalFest at the Beit Hanoun Crossing