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Sombre amongst the Litterati

November 7, 2014 at 3:15 pm

The Palestine Book Awards ceremony organised by Middle East Monitor on 7 November in Paddington took place on an evening of grim news emerging from Jerusalem, with Al-Aqsa under threat from the Temple Mount movement, large scale arrests of Palestinian youths, talk of Israel imposing a military regime on the city and the incident of van ramming. The Palestinian ambassador to London, Manuel Hassassian, set the tone with his forebodings: ‘We are hearing that a law is going to be passed in Knesset to divide Al-Aqsa Mosque… the situation is precarious and [leading to] a religious war… a third Intifada is coming’.

The distinguished poetess Liz Lochead, while reflecting on her visit to the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, wondered how poetry could deal with the tragic realities of camp life. She selected Zuhair Abu Shaib’ s Martyrfrom the publication A Bird is Not a Stone, for a reading:

‘When they found him

he had become an emerald flame’

[…] so they stitched together rose petals for a shroud

and smoothed out the sky to keep him warm

and for a pillow, they lifted down the sun

and laid it beneath his head.’

On receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr Salman Abu Sitta recalled Ben Gurion’s intention in July 1949 to systematically eradicate ‘evidence of the Palestinian people and their cultural and physical landscape’. However, ‘by preserving records of 16,000 villages, 12,000 historical and religious buildings and 60,000 place names… a vocabulary of the social history of Palestine has been preserved’, that would have Israel’s first Prime Minister turning in his grave. Dr Abu Sitta added, ‘when exiled, we took our history with us…one day we will take it back with us’.

There were several other poignant moments. The diminutive Dr Ang Swee Chai described herself with characteristic humility as ‘I am not a writer or scholar but just a medical doctor’. Receiving a Book Award from her was Ali Abunimah for his ‘The Battle for Justice in Palestine‘. The author recounted how it was Dr Swee’s eye-witness reports on the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre, that he heard has a child, which enabled him find his own voice. Also linked to the memory of the bitter episode was the work of Diana Allan, ‘Refugees of Revolution: Experiences of Exile‘. It was a bold choice for the judges to select a work challenging many of the accepted narratives presented by Palestinian advocacy groups. The distinguished Oxford scholar Professor Avi Shlaim, called on to present her award, injected one of the fewer lighter moments to the sombre proceedings by noting Dr Allan’s book was not just academic, because, ‘usually when I mean academic, I mean futile’. He introduced the author as an academic and a political activist, following the footsteps of her mother, Belinda Alan, who too had been much concerned with ensuring justice for Palestinians. Dr Allan described her anthropological and ethnographic research of ‘daily life and survival in Shatila’ in 2002, with subsequent follow-up visits. She called on her audience to recognise the ‘subjectivities’ of the camp dwellers and not view them in one-dimensional terms:

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere are almost always discussed in ideological terms, as if they dwelled entirely within a political realm, as if their aspirations and inner lives lacked the fractured complexities of Western consciousness and identity, and as if their crucial needs were spiritual and ethno-national but not material and economic…

Diana Allan is co-founder of the Nakbah Archive, a history collective that has recorded over 650 video interviews with first generation Palestinian refugees in Lebanon about their recollections of life in Palestine and the events that led to their displacement. Another award recipien in the evening was ‘The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904-1948‘, edited by Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar and translated by Nada Elzeer. The winners have donated their prize money to Defence for Children International Palestine.

A remark by author Ali Abunimah summed up the intolerable situation in Palestine in observing that his recently published book ‘could now no longer be sent to Gaza, because there are now no tunnels; there could not be an e-version, because there is no electricity’. He nevertheless dedicated his work to the readers and writer of Gaza.

The organisers of the Palestine Book Awards, Middle East Monitor, are to be congratulated for encouraging and promoting scholarship and for an annual dinner that has become a congenial meeting point for the many Britons with compassion for the land of Palestine and its people.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.