Beyond Violence 

“Scandal for the Soul”: Giving a Voice to Palestinian Suffering Through Literature

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Palfest authors: Michael Ondaatje, Kamila Shamsie and Hanne Vibeke Holst

After spending several months in the West Bank, one quickly learns that the Palestinians are creative and resourceful with a huge thirst for knowledge- so when I heard about Palfest, a travelling literature festival, I was both intrigued and excited. Palfest, or the Palestine Literature Festival as it is also known, has been running annually since 2008. Previous participants read like a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the literary world: Roddy Doyle, William Darymple, Alice Walker and Henning Mankell were just some of the names I instantly recognised. Patrons of the festival include the actress Emma Thompson and the late Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

Apart from the calibre of the artists taking part, the most important thing to note about Palfest is that the literature festival travels around Palestine, as opposed to Palestinians travelling to it. The restrictions on the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are amongst the most well-known human rights abuses carried out by Israel; Palestinians are not permitted to enter Israel, making it almost impossible for travel between the West Bank and Gaza. Inside the West Bank, the road system is a complicated one, with certain roads dedicated to the exclusive use of Israeli settlers, often forcing Palestinians to take much longer routes. When one takes into account the regular appearance of ‘flying’, or temporary, checkpoints and sudden road closures, it is easy to see why a short journey to another town or city can become long and tedious. If a Palestinian in the West Bank is wealthy enough to travel abroad, they must travel to Amman in Jordan and fly from there; they are not allowed to use Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. If an inhabitant of Gaza wants to leave, it is practically impossible; they rarely get permits to enter Israel and Egypt seldom opens their border crossing. These human rights abuses are rarely reported in the media, who choose to focus on acts of violence carried out by Hamas or the corruption of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Very little is said about the restrictions faced by ordinary Palestinians.

The aim of the festival is to create links between international writers and artists and the Palestinian people. Due to the “cultural siege,” i.e. restrictions imposed by Israel both on travel and importing goods into the territories, it is difficult to promote culture and the arts in Palestine- thus the idea of Palfest was born. The festival takes place over several nights in several different cities (this year’s locations were Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Haifa, and Jerusalem, with a separate event in Gaza to follow later this year) and the speakers change every night. If you are lucky enough to go to several of the events you will hear something different every time. The festival travels around to facilitate the people who find it difficult to travel between cities or who cannot afford to travel far. I was able to attend the opening night on 31 May in Ramallah, at which many excellent writers (including Michael Ondaatje, writer of The English Patient) spoke. We sat in the garden of the Khalil Sakakini centre on a warm May night, and through the power of these writers’ words, were transported to Egypt, Pakistan, Germany and other places.

Perhaps two of the most interesting speakers were Hanne Vibeke Holst and Brigid Keenan, who both read pieces about foreign perceptions of the Middle East or the developing world. Brigid Keenan read several comedic extracts from her book about life as an ambassador’s wife who has lived all over the world. She speaks very openly about the trials and tribulations of trying to raise children while constantly moving countries. Closer to home, Hanne Vibeke Holst read two extracts from her novel about a Danish woman living in Germany who is horrified when her daughter brings home a Palestinian boyfriend and later becomes convinced he is a suicide bomber. Her novel was written just after the controversial cartoons of Mohammed were published in Denmark in 2005 and was very much inspired by the events of that time. In the novel, the daughter’s boyfriend turns out to be innocent; Vibeke Holst is more interested in speaking about how we in the West view Middle Easterners and try to portray them as average people instead of the common stereotype of wild-eyed terrorists.

This inaccurate stereotype persists in the West and perhaps this literature festival can do more than give Palestinians contact with the outside world; it can give them a voice. The Western media continues to portray Palestinians in a negative manner, as evidenced in the coverage of the recently kidnapped and murdered Israeli teenage settlers, where it was immediately declared that Hamas was responsible, despite a complete lack of evidence to prove this. There was no suggestion that maybe the three boys had been kidnapped by an Israeli settler; it was just assumed it was Palestinians who were responsible. The retaliatory kidnap and murder of a Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists initially received little media attention though this changed once the gruesome circumstances of his death emerged; the beating of his 15 year old cousin by Israeli police was much more publicised due to the boy being an American citizen. While the world focuses on these events, it continues to ignore reports of human rights abuses, food insecurity and economic deprivation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The stigma of war and violence continues to be firmly attached to the Palestinian people.

So with the media against them, and the general public suffering from ‘reader’s fatigue’ when it comes to hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the media, maybe literature is the medium through which the Palestinian people can tell their stories. All the writers who came to speak were strongly affected by what they witnessed; Michael Ondaaje saidWhat we witnessed in the Palestinian territories - in Hebron, in Jerusalem, in Haifa, and other cities – during our time there with PalFest was an almost complete erasure of human rights – the rights of movement, the rights of ownership of homes and land. The humiliations and limitations of Palestinians were so blunt and evident one cannot believe they still exist in our 21st century, and still continue unimpeded, and unprotested. Teju Cole declared the occupation to be a “Scandal for the soul. Seeing it in person doesn’t complicate things; it confirms the stark injustice”.

Literature will not solve the Palestinians’ problems; foreigners will not suddenly begin to demand international support for the Palestinians because a famous author has told them they should. However, literature can gradually change our beliefs and perceptions; it is a powerful medium as every person’s’ experience of reading a piece of literature is unique to them. Maybe, just maybe, with these famous authors integrating their experiences and messages into their work, Western readers will see a whole new side to the Palestinian people and understand them as ordinary people who just want a basic human right- the right to exist in their own country.


A. Ní Shéamus is a MA International Relations graduate who specialised in the Middle East and has worked in the West Bank. She is currently working in Israel for a human rights NGO.

Written by A.N.S. and published on 14-July-2014

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