I would like to make clear that this blog is about my impressions of a trip with PalFest. Like all the blogs on the JBW website, it only expresses the view of its author and not necessarily of Jewish Book Week. I am not writing here as the director of Jewish Book Week but simply as myself, Geraldine D’Amico. I just think people interested in JBW might also be interested in this account. If you do read it, it is -I hope- because like me you would like to find out what’s happening in the West Bank. I am trying to just be an observer, to report what I see.
On our second day, we left Jerusalem at 10 am for Nablus. Driving into the West Bank is no problem. The town was cut off for years by checkpoints but not any more. After quickly checking in at the hotel, we were taken on a walking tour of the bustling old city, teeming with shoppers. Our guides took us first to the soap factory and then to eat knafa (delicious, sweet and a million calories a gram but who cares). One of them was from Jenin, an English teacher who hated teaching but loved translating with a passion. He told me how he dreamt of moving to the old town but how difficult it would be. When I jokingly told him he should marry a girl who lives there, he made it clear he’d spent enough time with Westerners to decide he was in no hurry to settle down.
We had to leave early to go to Nazareth, ie through the checkpoint into Israel. The road was beautiful, a gift from the American people to the Palestinian people (USAID), winding through hills covered in a luxuriant green carpet dotted with wild flowers as described by Raja Shehadeh in his Palestinian Walks. I wish we had time for one such walk. The landscape reminded me at times of Tuscany with its olive trees and cypresses. There were not as many settlements as in the morning between Jerusalem and Nablus. These are immedialetely recognisable, sitting on top of the hills with their red roofs, white water tanks and fences, like some incongruous boring suburbs transported in the middle of nowhere.
We thought at first that the crossing would be no problem. We were actually given priority over the long queue of Palestinian cars, something that’s not supposed to happen in the spirit of this trip. But the Israeli border guards saw our photographer at work (not very clever, I know) and we got the full treatment: we all had to get off, put our belongings through the x-ray machine, and wait of course. Our photographer being Turkish was given a harder time and him together with Omar who organises the tour were detained. Adhaf Soueif stayed with them and hearing the Israelis saying they’d keep them for 2 hours we were sent on our way. This was just an exercise in control as they had already checked our luggage and searched the bus. Not the best PR exercise sadly with a bus full of writers from the UK and US who are going to write about what they see.We went ahead to Nazareth where we visited the ugliest church I’ve ever seen in my life, a humongous structure on three levels built in concrete, with deep at its core, Mary’s cave… The church was full of pilgrims from India and other places attending Mass in Arabic and apparently oblivious to their appalling surroundings. Apparently it was built by an Italian architect and commissioned by the Vatican (sigh of relief, this eyesore is not Israel’s fault) but even at the height of the 50s craze for concrete, I don’t understand how anyone could have authorised that thing.
We then went to a spice shop which has been operated by the same Christian family for more than 100 years, now threatened of eviction by the Catholic Church!!! (Another very sad sigh of relief on my part). Mind bogling!
We had an event in the evening at the Arabic Culture Centre. It was the first time PalFest was crossing into Israel to bring the festival to Arab-Israelis and we received a very warm welcome. During the dinner which had been laid out by the Centre, I had a conversation with Ghada Karmi who wanted to know if the trip was making me uncomfortable. Not really because everybody in the group is very nice and friendly and that I’m not discovering the situation from scratch. I’m disappointed by what I see (the settlements, making people’s lives uselessly complicated), angry even, more than uncomfortable. But I decided once joining this trip that I would be honest. So I told Ghada that her vision of the two state solution as only a short term solution on the way to one Palestinian state where Jews, Arabs and Christians will live happily together, is definitely not one I can share. Israel is there to stay but not the situation as it is.
The evening event was most interesting. It was about the way Palestine was perceived in the world. Ghada talked about her own experience growing up in London: how Palestine had utterly disappeared in the 50s, how it reappeared but only to be equated with violent terrorists and how, today, there has been a total shift she puts down to the war in Gaza. Ursula Owen, founder of Virago, made the parallel with the feminist fight and how women finally managed to get their voices heard.
What was most interesting to me was the atmosphere and the discussion. The audience, men and women of all ages, writers and students, wanted to engage in the conversation, not necessarily waiting for their turn to speak. There was a particularly impressive lady – a writer, poet, lecturer and translator – who kept expressing her opinions forcefully. She would not have been out of place at JBW… One of the speakers was just too choked up to talk, still under the shock of the horrible murder of Juliano Mer Khamis , the founder of the Freedom theatre in Jenin. He started saying how Palestinians had no hope anymore but the audience disagreed loudly and he left.
What fascinated me was how the discussion turned to Holocaust literature and how Palestinians could learn from Jews. Adhaf shut up the man who started saying that the Balfour declaration was the cause of the Holocaust. At first it was mostly men talking but after a while, young women started expressing their views. One bright girl who had obviously been irritated but a lot of the defeatist comments said how Palestinians living in Israel had to learn from their experience and turn it to their advantage. Then another young woman told how she had joined an English creative writing course at Haifa University. The first assignment was to write about her arrival to Israel so she wrote about the arrival of Israel into Palestine which did not go down too well, particularly with the other students who were mostly recent immigrants from Russia, etc… She still passed her course with 96% and is certainly a writer I’m looking forward to reading. She will write in English because as she put it “she thinks in English but feels in Arabic”. She demanded the right to not write her grandparents’ story but her own. I had a chat with her afterwards and asked her if she really thought the Jews wrote about the Holocaust to defend the existence of Israel and she said, of course not, but that’s how these books are used. I was delighted to find out that she was a fan of Sayed Kashua. On the way out we were each given a book listing all the Palestinians villages destroyed in Israel.
I spent the journey back to Nablus talking to Taline Voskeritchian, an essayist and translator born in Bethlehem but living in Boston. She told me how her father survived the Armenian genocide as a toddler but then had to leave Jerusalem in 48, making her feel the double loss as Armenian and Palestinian. She was very surprised that I did not know Christians has also been forced to go and lost their homes. Thankfully Taline is one of the people on the trip who also has a wonderful sense of humour and will look for any possible opportunity for a good laugh.