On the fourth day of the Palestinian Festival of Literature, we cross the Green Line, the Israeli border established after the 1948 war, and enter Haifa, which slopes down to the sea. The city is the object of particular yearning in the land-locked Palestinian imagination. Most of its Palestinian population fled when the fighting broke out, and was not allowed to return. In Ghassan Kanafani’s classic novella, Return to Haifa, a Palestinian couple caught up in a panicked exodus is forced to escape by boat and leave their newborn child behind. They return twenty years later to find that Khaldoun has been adopted by an Israeli family living in their house. Now their son’s name is Dov, and he is a soldier in the Israeli army. (Kanafani was a founding member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was assassinated by the Mossad in a car bomb in Beirut in 1972.)
Tonight the readings and discussion at the Square Theatre in Haifa are about homecoming. Michael Ondaatje, who spent the first eleven years of his life in Sri Lanka, reads from his novel Anil’s Ghost, about a Sri-Lankan forensic anthropologist who returns home after fifteen years abroad. Teju Cole, who lives in Brooklyn and is working on a book about Lagos, reads from his first novel, Every Day Is For the Thief. His family’s house in Nigeria strikes him as huge after years in cramped Western apartments, “a prince in exile.” He tells the audience that he and the other authors have had “to place our idea of home and whatever troubles we have with it side by side with yours. It has been humbling.” The other panelist is Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani-British author who has written extensively about Karachi. Shamsie describes her grandparents moving to Pakistan after Partition: One set left under the threat of violence, another by choice. But “when they made the choice they had no idea what the choice they were making entailed.” She reads from A God in Every Stone, set in the border town of Peshawar in the early twentieth century—a place that was as foreign to her as any other, she says. The participants discuss what Ondaatje describes as “the guilt and the responsibility” of writing of a distant home. Perhaps, Cole suggests, literature is an act of “writing back” in response to the legal paperwork that forcibly defines who we are.
The eighty-six-year-old Palestinian poet and educator Hanna Abul Hanna concludes the evening with an appeal to the foreign writers: “Your discussion was about home and country…. We have been refugees for more than sixty years, still dreaming of going home. We would like you to tell our story, and think of ways of publishing our literature into English and other languages so our voice might reach the world.”
The daily life of Palestinians is constrained by an intricate complex of physical and bureaucratic barriers. Nowhere are the divisions and inequalities more dramatic than in Hebron. In 1994, after a far-right Israeli named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque that surrounds the patriarch Abraham’s tomb and killed twenty-nine Palestinians, the holy site was divided into a mosque and a synagogue. Muslims and Jews look at the same tomb from separate barred windows, bullet-proof partitions between them. Four hundred ultra-Orthodox settlers live in the city proper, alongside nearly 200,000 Palestinians. To accommodate and protect them, the government has shut down the main commercial thoroughfare, putting thousands of people out of work. Billboards explain that the street was closed due to the violence of the Second Intifada. Fifteen years on, settlers harass Palestinians, throwing bleach on the wares of shops and attacking children on their way to school. While we holders of foreign passports make our way past checkpoints down the ghostly street, Palestinians must take a much longer and more circuitous route to get from one side of the city to the other.
In a place this segregated, one is forced take sides. (The Jewish or the Muslim entrance? The settler road or the one open to Palestinians?) By the end of the week everyone at Palfest is overwhelmed, not just by the touring schedule and the flow of dispiriting details, but by the constant effort of positioning oneself—one’s work, one’s words—in relation to this terrible, lopsided fight.
If the Palestinian diaspora writers in our midst cannot escape the question of their homeland, for others it is an affinity. The poet Ed Pavlić can remember seeing Yasser Arafat on television in the 1970s saying “We are not rats.” It made sense to him, he says, growing up on the south side of Chicago. When the narrator of Teju Cole’s Open City discusses Israel and Palestine in a café in Brussels with a polyglot Moroccan, he is curious, then impatient, “the skein of the argument . . . beginning to feel like futility piled on futility.”
We reach Nablus, a city that sent out suicide bombers during the Second Intifada, and was bombed and bulldozed and put under 24-hour curfews. Today it is bustling and friendly; posters of young “martyrs” still hang in profusion. Sapphire tells an audience here that she has been asked by younger African-American friends to “represent.” She reads “There It Is,” from Jayne Cortez’s 1982 collection, Firespitter:
“My friend/they don’t care/if you’re an individualist/if you’re a leftist a rightist/a shithead or a snake/They will try to exploit you/absorb you confine you/disconnect you isolate you/and kill you/And you will disappear into your own rage/into your own insanity/into your own poverty/into a word a phrase a slogan a cartoon/and then ashes.”
In the hills outside Ramallah, we scramble up the ancient terraced plots to follow author and legal activist Raja Shehadeh to a qasr, a traditional Palestinian stone shelter. This countryside was once full of grapevines and fruit trees, but the vineyards were destroyed by a blight in the 1950s, and now only the hardy olive trees survive. In Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, Shehadeh chronicles the gradual division and defacement of the Biblical countryside (he spent decades in court fighting largely losing battles for the rights of Palestinian landowners). His uncles, and even he, as a young man, used to be able to go on a sahra—an open-ended ramble, “a drug-free high, Palestinian-style,” all the way down to the coastal plane. But the large settlements that Israel continues to build around and between Palestinian cities, in violation of international law (Prime Minister Netanyahu has just announced the construction of 1,500 new units) have made that freedom of movement—and the freedom to imagine a Palestinian state here one day—impossible. Shehadeh’s book is an elegy to all the walks he can no longer take.
For images from the festival, see the Palfest 2014 flickr page.