PalFest, the Palestine Festival of Literature took place on the same week as the International Festival of Writers in Jerusalem, yet there was a conscious and total separation between the two festivals. And, at each, the relationship between literature and politics was markedly different. One one side of the wall, Geoff Dyer, Adam Foulds, Nancy Kricorian amongst other writers gave readings in different venues each night taking turns to blog about both their experiences in the West Bank, uploading videos on YouTube of their travels and attempted travels (necessarily punctuated with the laborious process of the checkpoints). On the other side Paul Auster and David Grossman discussed the political situation in the region, and when they returned to the more literary topic of a narrative voice, the audience clapped in relief.
The evening I attended at PalFest was in Ramallah and took place the beautiful courtyard outside the office of poet Mahmoud Darwish. The readings were wide ranging; Geoff Dyer sensitively relayed a story about the etiquette of queuing (something this audience was very familiar with). Nancy Kricorian read from her powerful and beautifully written novel, Zabelle, a story of her Armenian Grandmother fleeing the Turks. Adam Foulds’ reading was a more disturbing choice, an excerpt from his narrative poem, ‘The Broken Word’, a fictional account of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. The excerpt described a massacre and the rape of a young girl. It seemed arbitrary and gratuitous and for an evening made up almost entirely of readings, a strange offering. Finally, Palestinian writer Mahmoud Shuqeir lightened the tone with a story of bringing Michael Jackson, Naomi Campbell and Donald Rumsfeld to Ramallah; a complicated tale of dogs and poisoned food which results in a trip to Guantanamo for his uncle.
“The theft of language is one of the most lasting forms of violence” affirms Arundhati Roy in a recorded message, reinforcing how necessary this festival is. She was unable to attend the festival and so instead sent a video. Phillip Pullman also sent a message of support for the festival (you can see this one online) wishing success for this year and for ‘as long as the festival needs to exist’. There is a distinction between a festival that simply exists and one that needs to exist. This one clearly falls into the second category and there is an understandable sense of urgency in the activism surrounding the festival. Presumably, the graduation is, one day, a context which would allow the festival to concentrate on its writing, and to feature more homegrown Arabic-language writers. In some ways it seems like a puzzling concept, a group of writers who are predominantly English speakers tour round the West Bank giving readings from books in English, many of the books have not yet been translated into Arabic.
I returned to the other festival in Jerusalem to hear Nicole Krauss in conversation with Ahron Appelfeld. Their admiration for each other’s writing was clear. Appelfeld asked, ‘Why are you a Jewish writer?’ Perhaps he feels that, as an Israeli writer whose childhood was the Holocaust he has no choice. Krauss, however could choose otherwise. She explained that although she feels American, the U.S. is too large to actually represent anything other than a very specific part. And this is the part that she knows. Her forthcoming novel, Great House (which is due out in the UK in next February) focuses on Yochanan Ben Zakkai and the reconstruction of Judaism after the destruction of the second temple.
She admitted that all the praise from Appelfeld on the specifically Jewish quality of her writing would haunt her if she would consider a departure from this focus in her future work. She and Safran Foer are about to move to Jerusalem for a few months so the departure doesn’t seem imminent.
“I have another question,” said Krauss. “I once heard one of my favorite directors, Krzysztof Kieslowski, speaking after the fall of Communism. He didn’t want to make films any more, he wanted to quit. Under Communism he had a direct communication with the audience, they understood the symbols, every gesture. In Israel you have an audience that understands your subtext, the secrets within the language. I wonder what it’s like to write for an audience like that?”
“When I came to Israel,” Appelfeld recalled, “I didn’t speak Hebrew. I began at the kibbutz, working in the field, learning Hebrew. I wanted to create a home, a space for me, so I began to write. When I was 26 I came to a publisher with a collection of short stories about my coming to Israel, being alien in this hot country, about not understanding what it is, about the longing to go back to the forests, even to the ghetto. A publisher looked at me – you want to publish these decadent stories? What kind of fantasies are these? You should write about real life—kibbutz, army, not about people who have lost their homes.”
“In the 1950s socialist realism was very strong. It was a very ideological country. You served the country, so you should write socialist realism, not about your experience. Individuality was not a value. But literature is individuality.”
This brought the previous evening in Ramallah. The experience of writing and the act of reading may be solitary pursuits, but a literary festival is a public expression of these. It is at these forums when the relationship between literature and a national ideology comes to the fore and it is telling that the politics overwhelmed the literature at Palfest whilst at the Israeli festival, solely fiction writers were featured, and politics awkwardly emerged in the silences, and when they did, it was not necessarily what the audiences wanted to hear.