This year's Palestine Festival of Literature, the fifth, was a marked break from the past.
Previous PalFests have approached from the West, and many Anglophone authors have been their guests. During a lecture at the American University in Cairo two years ago, British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who founded the festival, talked about its origins:
"The thing with PalFest is that you could see it progress from me going there and writing in a way that I hope represents Palestinian reality, in other words just by allowing Palestinian characters to come alive on the page, and then to me thinking, well I wish—I wish there were more people to see this or…and eventually coming up with the idea of actually taking people to go see it. To be able themselves to describe it and talk about it and so on.
"So definitely the motivation of PalFest is to allow people to see each other."
In the early years of the festival, these encounters were largely between Palestinians in the West Bank and English-writing authors.
But the 2012 festival came up from the south – from Egypt – and was the first to be held in Gaza. Although there were several Anglophone authors, such as Jamal Mahjoub and Selma Dabbagh, there were also a number of Egyptian bloggers, journalists, poets, and novelists who write in Arabic.
The change marked hopes for a new relationship between Palestinian and Egyptian writers and readers. British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh said, in an interview, that the audiences were highly engaged:
“All of the events were very well-attended, definitely, and they had very switched-on, attentive audiences. I gave a talk at the Islamic University … with Jamal Mahjoub and Amr Ezzat … And it was pretty much packed. Possibly as much as 90 percent female attendees. And a lot of questions, very probative, inquisitive. They really ranged in terms of the types of things we were asked about. The first question I got about my book, was, ‘You’re a British-Palestinian writer and you’ve written a novel which is quite political. Do we have to, as Palestinian writers, write about politics? Why should we have to do this?’
“It’s something that I constantly debate with myself about. I basically replied to her that no, I don’t think that was the case at all. My second novel is not about Palestine; I don’t think people should feel locked into political writing, but it’s very difficult to talk about anything in people’s life there without touching on politics, because it intrudes on everything. It’s pervasive.
“There were also questions about the boycott, we were asked if we were supporting the boycott there…individually, and as a group. We were also asked what we think of the Khader Adnan campaign, what did we think of the prisoners’ strike and the sit-in, which we went to, some of us went every day to see how that was going. And then just general advice for writers, the kind of thing which you’d get universally from aspiring writers (writing about a child’s perspective, how to get published). There was also a question about whether revolutionary writings go stale, as such.
“We had a couple of girls at the Islamic University who read poems and short stories, one of which was particularly unforced and beautiful. A lot of the students were actually engineering students, computing students, they weren’t necessarily literature students, so it wasn’t something they were forced to attend. Some of them, because we were there all morning, were coming in and out, going to other lectures and coming back.
“It was very well-attended, definitely. There was a huge amount of enthusiasm and a great desire to get more books and to have greater and more effective communication with the outside world."
Unfortunately, the fest did not end on a positive note, as the final night's event was shut down by local police and had to continue in festival guests' hotel. The chief of police later apologized.
A closing event was held in Cairo May 12, Soueif said, " to underline the importance of reviving the Egyptian-Palestinian relations."