This week I’ve joined the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) in Gaza, known also as Gaza City, one of the most populated cities in Palestine. I came along the trip after helping to organize creative writing workshops which are a small part of the larger activities that comprise the festival activities. Festivals are important because they bring authors and readers together in social spaces to talk about ideas, writing, and books. Most cases, like the Emirates Festival or Hay Festival (in the UK) the readers come to the authors. In the case of PalFest, the festival takes authors to readers in areas like the West Bank or this year, for the first time in Gaza, because of the limitations on their mobility.
The first day we were with university students at Al Aqsa University and during the two hour session, the power kept going off and on. Undeterred one of the authors with us, Tarek Hamdan, a poet, read by the light of a mobile phone. Over fifty female students listened in rapt attention. It’s hard for me to imagine my students in Qatar (or the U.S.) listening with the same level of respect and passion as the lights (and ceiling fans cooling the room) went off and on.
Even in the writing of this blog entry the power cut off, and the internet signal was interrupted.
This ordinary detail is an example of what it’s like to live here, a city under tight control, bordered by Egypt and Israel, both states which control what’s allowed into and out of the Gaza Strip. No construction equipment. Limited petrol so that the bus the forty of us festival-ees travel around town in gets stares (and smiles). Rationed electricity.
It’s not surprising that the political mindset is ingrained into the fabric of people’s lives here: students write about it, talk about it: During the question and answer yesterday most audience members were tuned into how the recent Egyptian revolution was going to help the Palestinian cause for a homeland.
But when you look past the surface of the Arab-Israeli rhetoric you see men, women, girls, boys, trying to live their lives. A truck roved the neighborhood last night full of young men standing up in the back, music blasting. Boys celebrating a wedding someone said. A mother picks up her child from
nursery in a van; school children in uniforms walk home.
We eat our lunch on the beach as the sonic boom of patrolling jets goes by overhead. This is what it means to live under constant surveillance. We’re here to talk to them about literature as a way of cross boundaries. But they’re teaching us about perseverance.