Bookmarking the blockade | Ahdaf Soueif, Omar Robert Hamilton, Chinua Achebe, Emma Thompson
Bookmarking the blockade

Bookmarking the blockade | Ahdaf Soueif, Omar Robert Hamilton, Chinua Achebe, Emma ThompsonIn a sign of the region’s changing political realities, Egypt gave permits to 37 authors and artists – including Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif – to enter the Gaza Strip via Rafah for the annual Palestine Festival of Literature.

It was the first time in the travelling festival’s five years of existence to make it into the besieged strip, with world-famous authors exposing Palestinians to book readings and cultural events of international standards.

But it was also an excellent opportunity for the committed authors and artists – who had been so far banned by Israel from crossing the West Bank into Gaza – to visit the enclave for the very first time, provoking emotional reactions as they were overwhelmed by the Palestinians’ hospitality.

As usual, Hamas did not miss a chance to shoot itself in the foot by breaking up the final event of a packed five-day programme, only to issue an apology later saying it was an “individual error”. The reality is that the Israeli blockade of Gaza has cut off the 1.6 million Palestinians from the rest of the world, including their leaders who have lost all sense of reality. In closing down the event, Hamas forces behaved just like the Israeli police that have been consistently breaking up PalFest in Jerusalem. Three hours after the incident, Gaza’s police chief apologised and promised to investigate what had happened – a very common line issued whenever Hamas finds itself caught in public embarrassment.

Bookmarking the blockade | Ahdaf Soueif, Omar Robert Hamilton, Chinua Achebe, Emma Thompson

But that is perhaps also part of the great merit of PalFest this year. In bringing the “unusual” to the strip, it has made Palestinians themselves think about their very own intellectual closure as the five-year blockade became normality.

Bookmarking the blockade | Ahdaf Soueif, Omar Robert Hamilton, Chinua Achebe, Emma ThompsonThe free workshops and public events organised over the five-day programme were always brimming with enthusiastic Palestinians, especially young Gazans who crave to feel connected to the outside, including in art and literature.

The hundreds who packed the hall of Gaza City’s main cultural centre to listen to the Egyptian band Eskenderella was testimony to this as an electric mix of longing to be part of a bigger world and the mutual solidarity between the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square and Gaza’s resilient youth overwhelmed the audience and artists.

Endorsing the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, PalFest’s organisers reiterated the festival’s stand against the siege of Gaza and its commitment to re-invigorate cultural ties between Arab countries, “ties that have eroded for too long”.

PalFest Producer, Omar Robert Hamilton said: “Justice for Palestine was among the most urgent demands of the Arab revolutions. In Egypt, Tahrir called for the Rafah crossing to be opened - yet the movement of people and goods remains severely restricted. PalFest has always worked to forge cultural ties and now, more than ever, regional and global partnerships must be used to place justice for Palestine at the centre of the growing global struggle for justice.”

While this year’s bulk of events were organised in Gaza, PalFest kept its presence in the West Bank where British authors Rachel Holmes and Bee Rowlatt led extensive writing workshops in Birzeit and held a literary evening at the Sakakini Centre in Ramallah with Maya Abu el-Hayat, Abd al-Rahim al-Sheikh and Imad Sayrafi.

PalFest is supported by organizations including the UK Arts Council and the British Council. Its patrons including Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, British author Philip Pullman and British actress Emma Thompson.