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I sat holding my breath in a comfy chair in my friend’s living room. Married to a local (like me), she’s lived in Palestine for a million years under the high ceilings of an old, traditional Ramallah home. It was my favorite night of the week – Wednesday. The Writers’ Circle, a group I instigated under the auspices of the Palestine Writing Workshop, was listening to a stunning young Palestinian read her excerpt. It was about the day when her family, after years of suffering exile as “absentees,” returned to Palestine. A cliché, but true nonetheless: you could have heard a pin drop.
For me, this is the literary scene in Palestine – people writing, people reading, awareness growing, and community deepening.
Looking beyond my narrow experience, it does seem that the literary scene in Palestine, like everything Palestinian, fights against fragmentation by geography and politics. And, like everything Palestinian, the same geography and politics that divide also bind people to the place, to one another, and to literature. The literary scene may be sorely under-developed in relation to its potential, but it is vibrant in its own way.
Political Context, Political Content
“There is an intensity here,” one writer told me, “and the literary scene is certainly affected.” The ongoing reality of occupation, colonization, and dispossession gives everything a political significance.
According to Walid Abubaker, prominent novelist, critic and publisher, writers have always been essential to the national movement and the national movement has always been central in Palestinian literature. Since the 1970s, writers have been organized under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Sophie DeWitt, founder and director of the Palestine Writing Workshop, agrees that politics shape the context for Palestinian writing, and often constitute the topic as well. (I myself have wondered if Palestinians write beyond two genres: political non-fiction and political fiction.) I asked Sophie if open wounds hold Palestinian writers back or push them forward, she said, “perhaps both.” Walid is more definite. He says that the golden age of Palestinian literature was in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the Oslo Accords, he laments, refugees and members of the Palestinian diaspora produce better quality than those inside. “If you feel you’ve lost your dream, how can you write?” But a recent profile of four local authors presents a more hopeful view.
The centrality of political themes in Palestinian writing is not only a function of writers’ experiences but also of readers’ needs. I saw it in a dear friend’s eyes and heard it in the tremble of her voice as she talked about the importance of Sahar Khalifeh in her life. I can picture my friend holding Wild Thorns and inhaling; the words oxygenating her cells, steeling her against the harsh reality. I like to imagine that Sahar is nourished in kind by her readers, and especially the Palestinian ones who, in addition to admiration, offer affirmation.
The Politics of Language
Many Palestinians speak English, certainly among the elite, but not all Palestinians are fluent in Arabic. Therefore, language realities and language politics are an important consideration in local literary activities.
“Even if all the participants in an event speak English, it’s still a political compromise to run the event in English,” Sophie says. “On the other hand, many are making a conscious choice to write in English in order to bear witness.” Some of those books, like Mornings in Jenin, are later translated back into Arabic.
“Writing in other languages, and translation of Arabic texts into other languages, have shown that ours are humanistic experiences that cross national boundaries,” says Renad Qubbaj, Director of Tamer Institute for Community Education. “Brilliant writers like Mahmoud Darwish talk about our local experience in a way that touches everyone. His contribution is greater than merely national. And at the same time, worldwide interest in Palestine has helped propel Palestinian writers onto the world stage.”
Renad notes that Salma al-Jayussi in London, Ibrahim Nasrallah in Jordan, and Ibtisam Barakat in the United States have built international reputations by writing about Palestinian themes. Walid agrees that Palestinian literature in English is important, if only because distribution is so much greater. “We print 1000 copies of a novel in Arabic and it takes 5 years to distribute, even if we give them away for free.”
Literacy Rates are Not the Same as Literary Appreciation
Does this mean, then, that Palestine is not a nation of readers? Many people are asking this question. Renad says: “We are devastated when people say Arabs don’t read. So we did our own study, which is available in Arabic on Tamer’s website. We found the situation in Palestine is not quite that bad.” She explains: “Literacy has always been considered an aspect of resistance to occupation and a means of resilience. Our literacy rates are among the highest in Arab world, but achievement test scores are lower calling into question the quality of education.”
“We need to develop a value for reading in Palestine,” says Sophie. “Even in university, students read photocopies of books. They don’t know the smell of a public library or how precious it is to build a personal library at home.” That’s why Palestine Writing Workshop has a reading room that is not only a physical space to read, but also a refuge to sit and think and be among books.”
In fact, many NGOs run reading events, organize workshops for writers, host lectures, sponsor contests, etc. But some are critical of the “NGO-ization” of reading and writing. They say it risks prioritizing numbers of participants over substance and quality. “Many people claim to be involved, but,” Walid asks, “do they buy books? Do they read? Do they write? Do they publish?”
The Broken Ecosystem: Reader-Writer-Publisher
Renad points out that there are many diverse sources available, including books, social media, videos, and more. “What we need are promoters that connect the writers with the readers.” In a healthy economy, publishers play this role, but in Palestine, publishing isn’t profitable. “It’s even worse in Gaza,” Renad explains.
“From 2007-2011, the Israelis didn’t allow books into Gaza. They weren’t considered ‘essential.’ Now they do allow books in, but it’s very expensive to transport them. One solution is to reprint books inside Gaza, but the quality can be poor, and this affects interest.”
Moreover, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education don’t do as much as they should. As a result, most books are produced by NGOs with donations, often from international donors, which is not sustainable.
Mahmoud Muna of the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem agrees that there is a large and growing community of writers and a smaller but growing community of readers. “One problem is that they aren’t connected,” he explains. The Educational Bookshop tries to address this by organizing events that bring people together around literature. For English readers, there are book launches, author discussions, and film showings. For Arabic readers they have a monthly event organized around authors, not specific books, so that readers get excited about authors and about reading and discussing books. Usually a well-known critic is featured and that draws a crowd, though never as large as for English books.
“Like publishers, authors also don’t make enough money to be able to devote their time to writing,” debut novelist Aref Husseini points out. “That’s why writers need more support.” He believes that reading and writing events are good for involving amateurs in literature, and there are venues for them to publish such as Filistin Ashabab. But there is a dearth of help for talented writers who want to polish their craft so they can advance to the professional ranks. The Palestinian Cultural Forum is a new NGO that seeks to fill that void with the support of local publisher Dar Al-Shorok. Literary actors in Palestine seek to build what Sophie DeWitt calls a “creative economy.”
No Shortage of Literary Activity
Even in Jerusalem, where I live, there is a lot going on — despite the fact that West Bank and Gaza participants are prevented entry by military checkpoints. In addition to events at the Educational Bookshop, there are book launches and readings at the American Colony Bookshop and related events at the Press Club and theaters. Authors from around the world come to offer workshops, and books and films are distributed through schools and community libraries.
In May, the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) brings the literary community together in writing workshops, radio journalism training, children’s storytelling, panel lectures, blogging courses, and more that take place in Gaza and the West Bank– enough to keep anyone busy full time just learning about and producing literature. There is, unfortunately, a paucity of activity in the outlying and hard to reach areas.
Regardless of all the challenges, writers will write. They write because they can’t help themselves. Writing is what writers do. Aref says, “I wrote Kafir Sabt because it was a story that had to be written.” Some talented writers may not be able to make the sacrifices that Aref made in order to write his novel. But perhaps over time our collective efforts will enable us to build a literary scene in Palestine that maximizes opportunities for local writers to develop skills, gain recognition, and compete for readership worldwide.
In some places the literary scene might be an enhancement. Here in Palestine it is bread itself — common, coarse, and salty. Writers train and practice and strive to weave words into stories that are uniquely Palestinian, and in doing so, make their experiences universal. For me, it was reading Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun more than twenty years ago. How could anyone read it and not get involved?