Over the past decade or so, literary festivals have gone global. From Jaipur to Cartagena to Kingston (Jamaica, not upon Thames), there are an abundance of different live literary experiences to enjoy around the seasonal clock. Writers can easily spend two dozen weekends a year on panels, reading, discussing and promoting new books.
But if the principal purpose of your average literary festival is to generate buzz, sales and author profile, what is the modus operandi of PalFest, surely one of the most obscure yet vital gatherings of writers, readers and activists on the planet? Each year in May, two dozen writers, activists and publishers are invited by the festival’s founders, Omar Robert Hamilton and his mother, the Booker-shortlisted writer Ahdaf Soueif, to visit Palestine to experience the culture of a land blighted by violence and injustice, and with little exposure to culture internationally. Omar, whose own début novel The City Always Wins will be published by Faber in 2017 (I should declare an interest), said: “We established the festival in 2008 and the intention was twofold: firstly, to help break the siege being imposed on cultural life in Palestine by the Israeli occupation. And secondly, to bring artists and authors who, through the simple act of travelling through the landscape, would see the physical reality of what Israel’s continuing colonisation of Palestine means.”
Previous years’ festivals have been attended by Alice Walker, Teju Cole, Michael Ondaatje and Henning Mankell. This year’s participants included J M Coetzee, Colum McCann, Man Booker-longlisted author Laila Lalami, Jack Shenker, (author of Allen Lane-published The Egyptians: A Radical Story), poet Remi Kanazi and Sarah McNally, who owns McNally Jackson, the great Soho-based bookstore in Manhattan. After flying into Amman, Jordan, we each made our introductions on the bus that would be our home for the next week on our odyssey around Palestine.
We had been warned the passage into Israel at the Allenby border could be an awkward and intimidating experience. Part of the PalFest “experience” is immersive. In so far as possible, participants experience the situation, its tensions and attendant dangers, as the Palestinians might. Hence why we flew into Amman rather than Tel Aviv. We were advised not to present ourselves as a “group” but the sham of this pretence was soon exposed when I found myself presenting a letter of support from the British Council to passport control alongside another writer showing the same accreditation. We were detained for four hours and questioned regarding the intentions of our visit. Whether we would be visiting the West Bank seemed to be the main preoccupation of the Israeli border guards. The main purpose of the exercise seemed to be purely intimidation born out of fear that by visiting “the occupied territories” as a group of liberal Westerners, we would return sympathetic to the Palestinian “cause”.
The bulk of the group were eventually allowed entry. Two writers were not so fortunate. Ahmed Masoud, a writer and director who grew up in Gaza but is a British citizen, was one of those denied entry and he returned to Britain two days later, disappointed and no doubt a little traumatised. This was the first in a series of unsettling and dramatic experiences which any individual participating in PalFest should be prepared for.
Our first stop was Ramallah, a relatively wealthy city which has the appearance of a bourgeois Mediterranean town. It has become the de facto capital of Palestine (a supposed “progression” that is actively supported by the Israeli state) and it has the feel and artificial appearance of a “bubble” when compared to the other cities in the West Bank we visited, especially Hebron. The first evening’s readings took place before about 200 people (the festival is free and open to the public). Two exceptional, emotive poets (Jehan Bseiso and Ghiath al Madhoun) read in Arabic, followed by American writer Barry Lopez, who spoke and read about genocides committed against Native American Indians. It was the first of many moments at PalFest when parallels between cultures, nations and indigenous groups would echo across continents.
From Ramallah we made the easy and short trip to Jerusalem and from there into the three-day heart of the trip, visiting Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron. Each evening in a different city we gathered for a 90-minute event delivered in English and Arabic. Very few international writers make it to Palestine and there is a makeshift cultural infrastructure there for those who do. When I asked Omar about the conditions of bookselling in the Palestinian territories, he said:“It is easy to find good Arabic books but there are several challenges for the reader of international fiction. Firstly, the restrictions of movement make buying specific things difficult. The best bookshops are in Jerusalem but the ‘Wall’ keeps Palestinians in the West Bank from accessing them easily. Shipments are often interrupted and intercepted at customs. Import taxes are incredibly high so it would not be unusual to be paying twice the book’s cover price. Books that make it to the market in the West Bank then often have the Palestinian Authority’s taxes added to them also, driving the price up further.” PalFest encourages the two dozen or so participants each year to bring books to sell at a mobile bookstall. Its modesty is a refreshing reminder of the great achievement of this festival and the courage it takes on the part of Omar, his wife Yasmin and Ahdaf to return year after year on meagre resources.
My own memories of PalFest are vividly and inextricably connected to a troubled nation, pathetically referred to as “the occupied territories”. The great gift of literature is its ability to transcend prejudice, apartheid, hatred, fear and random violence, and to show that solidarity and shared experience can promote hope in the most desperate of situations. I returned to the UK having experienced something unique, before making my way from Heathrow to quite a different literary festival, in Hay-on-Wye.
Lee Brackstone is creative director at Faber social.