A Literary Bust in Jerusalem

The Progressive, July 2009 | Go to article overview

A Literary Bust in Jerusalem


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Stephanie Saldana, an American writer living in Jerusalem, was excited about going to the Palestinian National Theatre on the evening of May 23. The second annual Palestine Festival of Literature was about to open, and distinguished writers from around the world had come to East Jerusalem for the event.

"We arrived, and the place was swarming with the Israeli army, with trucks and huge guns," she wrote in an e-mail to a friend. "I am still in shock. To ban literature?

To ban reading? How is this possible?" The Israeli minister of internal security had ordered the busting of the literature festival, according to The Guardian newspaper. The minister said the event "could not be held because it was a political activity connected to the Palestinian Authority," The Guardian reported.

The Palestine Festival of Literature is supported by, among others, UNESCO and the British Council, which is that country's international organization for cultural relations.

After they were kicked out of the theater, the speakers and some of the audience members regrouped at the French cultural center.

Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif gave this account of the evening.

"I saw ten old friends in the first minute, all the Jerusalem cultural and academic set were there, a lot of internationals, a lot of press," she wrote at palfest.org. "We stood in the early evening light, by the tables laden with books and food and flowers, nibbled at kofta and borek and laughed and chatted and introduced new friends to old.... Then we started moving towards the auditorium and I heard someone say quietly, 'They've come.' I had a moment of unbelief. Surely, even if they were coming to note everything we said and to make a show of strength they still wouldn't come with their weapons at the ready like this? But then there were more of them, and more."

Soueif described the walk to the French cultural center, and the successful resumption of the festival there. "We could have gone on for hours--but we stopped at half past eight. We dispersed; energized, happy, shaking hands, signing books, promising to all meet up again. Today, my friends, we saw the clearest example of our mission," she said, invoking the words of Edward Said. "To confront the culture of power with the power of culture."

Along with Soueif, the writers taking part in the festival this year include: Suad Amiry, Victoria Brittain, Carmen Callil, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal, Jeremy Harding, Rachel Holmes, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Brigid Keenan, Jamal Mahjoub, Henning Mankell, Deborah Moggach, Claire Messud, Michael Palin, Mexandra Pringle, Pru Rowlandson, Raja Shehadeh, and M. G. Vassanji.

Though Israel did not succeed in shutting down the entire festival, which continued in various Palestinian cities for a week, the use of the army to quash a literary event sent a chilling message.

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