Walaa Alqasiya was unusual among the Palestinians of greater Hebron: She had a permit to travel to each of the six cities where the Palestine Festival of Literature recently hosted events. Alqasiya eagerly welcomed the festival. After all, she said, there were no literary events in Hebron: "No. None."
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That's not the case in Ramallah, Birzeit, Jerusalem or Haifa; all of them have active literary communities. But in Hebron, where in some cases Palestinians' front doors have been welded shut to prevent them from accessing the main street, Alqasiya has found herself longing for books.
Yet because of Alqasiya's work with an international organization, Temporary International Presence in Hebron, Alqasiya would be allowed to travel, free of the usual restrictions imposed in the Palestinian territories. She would join an international group of writers as they spent the last week of May touring through the territories with the annual Palestine Festival of Literature. I'd been invited to blog about the event and to host a workshop on blogging for the residents of Birzeit. While a group of mostly Egyptian and Palestinian-American authors toured Gaza, I traveled with a group of mostly U.K.-based authors to Ramallah, Birzeit, Jerusalem, Haifa, Hebron, Akka and Nablus. The festival is held in partnership with the local British Council and Diwan Ghazza, a group of young intellectuals and activists in Gaza.
Despite her passion for literature, Alqasiya didn't make the journey to PalFest's opening night in Ramallah. The trip from Hebron to Ramallah takes about an hour on routes available to foreigners and Israeli citizens. But Hebron's Palestinians are required to go a different route that takes at least two or three times as long.
The length of the trip wasn't the only thing that prevented Alqasiya, who majored in English at Bethlehem University, completed a master's degree at Durham University in the U.K. and wants to pursue a Ph.D. in gender studies from traveling to Ramallah. The last time she went to Ramallah, "The crossing was heartbreaking for me." The large checkpoints, with their ribbed plastic ceilings, resemble industrial farm buildings. The Palestinian residents must walk through narrow cage-like structures. They pass through turnstiles and submit their bags for scanning, along with permits or IDs — and sometimes fingerprints.
When the checkpoints are crowded, people jostle in line, push and are occasionally shouted at by the soldiers. Alqasiya said the elderly, in particular, don't handle it well. "It's really humiliating."
But Alqasiya rode along on the PalFest bus to Haifa, a pretty seaside city in northern Israel. When we arrived, after a short delay at the Beit Jala checkpoint, we dumped our baggage at the hotel and hurried to set up for a reading by novelist China Miéville. A translated excerpt of his story "Foundation" was brilliantly performed by actor Mohammed Bakri. Author Aamer Hussein read from a new short story framed around an arts catalog. These two visiting authors were joined by local performers, making the event feel a bit like a community talent show: There was a recitation by a young Haifa poet; a violin performance; and a slightly surreal comedy act where a comedian joked about how Arabs were always late and pulled out a floppy ventriloquist's dummy he called "Dr. Salim."
Throughout the week, PalFest events were a sometimes-awkward, sometimes-fabulous hybrid of genre, language, medium and style. Some things worked startlingly well, such as when South African novelist Gillian Slovo read aloud from her courtroom drama, "Red Dust," accompanied by a performance on loud, electronic music and vocals. Other things — like the comedian's act — felt out of place.
Alqasiya was delighted to make it to the Haifa event and even more pleased that there was a small book stall in the lobby of al-Midan Theatre. She rushed over to examine the titles. Very few books are available in Hebron, she said, and these are usually religious or instructional titles. "I go to the bookshops, but they suck."
To buy books, Alqasiya has to make the trek out to Ramallah. She can't avoid the checkpoint by ordering them online because "we don't have mail, you know." It's technically possible for Hebron residents to receive mail in Bethlehem, but she said "usually it doesn't arrive."
When PalFest visited Hebron, the mood felt tenser than any other city we visited. But there were efforts to enliven city life. Shops are re-opening in the Old City. Alqasiya said the organization she works for recently started up zumba classes. "We really need a revival of cultural life in Hebron," Alqasiya said. "There is a thirst for culture."
Hebron wasn't the only city on the tour that seemed to be cut off from the world. Even in Jerusalem, which throbs with visitors from around the world, British Council Palestine Director Alan Smart said it was "an isolated city"; it, like the other cities on the tour, was just isolated in a different way.
Chicago-based journalist Ali Abunimah, who was with the festival in Gaza, didn't travel up to Jerusalem for his May 27 talk, as travel between Gaza and the West Bank is exceptionally difficult. But Abunimah recorded a video message that played in Jerusalem, where he talked about "how much we're missing by not being together."
Alqasiya unfortunately couldn't keep traveling with the festival. She wanted to go on to Nablus, but wasn't granted another day off work. In Nablus, she missed the most wonderful-terrible night of the fest, filled with great energy and missed opportunities. Miéville read a powerful performance-poem-like piece, but the translator said he wasn't capable of bringing the dense, vivid imagery into Arabic. An extract of Omar El-Khairy's play "Sour Lips" was staged in Arabic translation, but the selected excerpt didn't fully bring out the work's themes.
But later, the audience of some 200 local residents whistled and cheered when Basel Zayed and the band Turab took the stage. Zayed played a song, "Algeria," that he had composed around a poem by Najwan Darwish. The poem, which probably few in the audience had read in print, delighted them when set to music. Many sang along.
However, Zayed had to quickly re-arrange his set when he got news that Darwish was going to be late. Darwish, who has a collection of poems coming out from New York Review Books next year, was supposed to perform his poetry before the band played them as songs. But he never showed.
Darwish made it to the following night's event in Ramallah. There, he explained: After waiting at checkpoint for 40 minutes, he was turned away. A soldier didn't want to let him through, and Darwish said he didn't have time to wait for someone higher up the chain of command to arrive and sort it out. So Darwish drove off in search of an alternate checkpoint. But he got lost. He couldn't find Nablus on his GPS, he couldn't find signs pointing to the city and walls blocked his view of possible landmarks. He ended up near Tel Aviv, where he got stuck in traffic, and continued driving around for a while longer before, in frustration, he gave up and went home.
Compared to other literary festivals, PalFest is hard on its visiting writers. And yet author Aamer Hussein said, "I don't think any of us could say we regret coming."
M. Lynx Qualey blogs daily in English about Arabic literature. Read her work at arablit.wordpress.com.