Tomorrow I’ll be flying to Jordan to go to PalFest. I am really looking forward to joining the Palestine Festival of Literature caravan: I’m sure it will be a fascinating trip even if I expect things to not always be easy.
Three years ago I spent a month in Israel. During that stay I spent a morning with someone from B’tselem, an Israeli NGO, following the Wall on the Israeli side. It was not much but already, I found it a pretty shocking experience. I particularly remember the house that had been surrounded by the fence on three sides, making it totally uninhabitable. I also went to Bethlehem and was given a tour by Walid, former Arafat bodyguard and a bodybuilder, three times Mr Palestine. Matt Rees had given me his contact and I was delighted this year, at JBW, to hear Jake Wallis Simons devote his true tale to him. Getting there by taxi from Jerusalem we’d had to drive up a highway and then retrace our way, with no signs I could see, to then drive into the city. It’s only on the way back, when we walked through the checkpoint that I realised how close it actually was. These two experiences were enlightening in many ways and made me want to see more. Both are really easy to have and I highly recommend them.
The PalFest trip will be different. We will be travelling all around the West Bank: Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Nablous, Hebron because it’s easier for a bunch of foreigners to travel than it is for ordinary Palestinians. Not being a writer, I will be mostly an observer. I’ve been asked to give two workshops on translation (I used to be a literary translator) to students at Bir Zeit and I’m really looking forward to this. Translation is all about putting yourself in someonelse’s shoes, reading the other’s experience from the inside. For most of us, it is an innocuous experience but it can of course be a political act. Do read this very interesting article on translation from Arabic to Hebrew and Hebrew to Arabic by Olivia Snaje.
In preparation for the trip, I have also been reading Ghada Karmi’s moving memoir In Search of Fatima. Her story covers the same period as Amos Oz’ Tale of Love and Darkness but obviously from a totally different point of view. Both narratives are parallel and can never meet, both co-exist and seem mutually self-exclusive. At the same time, once Ghada describes her life in England and particularly her mother who never learnt English, I’m reminded of so many books by Jewish writers from the Arab world or Eastern Europe who tell similar experiences of heart-breaking exile. I’ve read other books by Palestinian writers or about the Palestinian experience, some of which have made me profoundly uncomfortable, but I feel it’s my duty not as director of JBW but as human being to try and understand. And from understanding necessarily comes sympathising, at least this is what good fiction does to me.
My main question in going onto that trip is how literature can help rebuild the bridge that politicians have destroyed. The question now is not to discuss what happened then and why. I will not get into historical discussions. What matters is now and how to move forward. I know that I will encounter many people who are in favour of the boycott of everything Israeli, something I cannot accept, particularly from intellectuals. I might be naive or too much of an idealist, I don’t know yet what I will think in a few days time. You may not be as curious about it as I am, but if you are, do accompany me on this journey and I’ll try to blog as truthfully as possible about my stay in the West Bank and then in Israel.