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Palestine Book Awards nominees come together for a night of literature

Following the welcome speech by Victoria Brittain, Professor Eugene Rogan opened the discussion by asking the authors to speak about themselves and the inspiration for their books.

In a build up to the Palestine Book Awards, MEMO hosted a public event with a number of shortlisted authors yesterday evening.

Professor Eugene Rogan, director of Oxford University’s Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, moderated a lively discussion amongst a packed audience at the P21 Gallery.

The pre-launch evening, which was covered by various media outlets, heard from four of the seven shortlisted authors: Yasir Suleiman, Lorenzo Kamel, Jehan Bseiso, Anaheed Al-Hardan. They were joined by, Professor Karma Nabulsi, a Fellow in Politics at St Edmund Hall, and David Borrington who illustrated one of the shortlisted books.

The pre-launch event, which has become a popular annual fixture in MEMO’s diary, provides an opportunity for the shortlisted authors to discuss their works with the public and offers a chance to meet, ask questions and network with the authors before the final awards ceremony the following day.

Before the main discussion got under way, media agencies were given an opportunity to interview shortlisted authors and the MEMO team.

Following the welcome speech by Victoria Brittain, Professor Eugene Rogan opened the discussion by asking the authors to speak about themselves and the inspiration for their books. Professor Yasir Suleiman, the author of Being Palestinian, began with a deeply moving reflection on the genesis of his book. Speaking about his personal reflection on Palestinian identity in the diaspora, he said that “the book had always been with [me]”.

“Palestine stopped being a place in lived in,” he said “and instead it became a part of me”. Speaking about his son, pictured in the front cover overlooking Jerusalem and his home city Edinburgh, he imagined a Jerusalem, the city of his birth as a Jewish, Muslim and a Christian place.

Suleiman’s beautiful reflections opened up a conversation about Palestinian memory, which became the major theme of the evening’s discussion. Anaheed Al-Hardan, while speaking about her book Palestinians in Syria, spoke about the Nakba as the unifying event for all Palestinians around the world. While stressing that English books on Palestine are invaluable to sharing the Palestinian experience, she spoke about the different ways in which the Nakba is experienced by multiple generations of Palestinians.

“The Nakba,” she said, “became a concept of nationalism.” Al-Hardan noted that “Palestinians began to mobilise memory because their right of return was relegated to final status issue.” In this retelling of the Nakba story she described how memory was a social event and “memory making” was integral to the Palestinian cause. She concluded her opening remarks with comments about why people remember the event the way they do and what that tells us about the Nakba.

The gripped audience were then treated to a poem by Jehan Bseiso, author of I Remember My Name. David Borrington, whose illustrations in the book was also displayed in the room, commented on the inspiration for his artwork and how an English man living in the British countryside was able to capture the mood of the poems so perfectly in his drawings.

Lorenzo Kamel added another dimension to the discussion about memory by speaking about his book, Imperial Perceptions of Palestine: British Influence and Power in Late Ottoman Times. Lorenzo commented on how people adapt their memories to suit their suffering. He explained how “[we] adapt our memories to cope with our fears” and his book makes an attempt to explain the simplification of the Palestinian narrative and the tendency to standardise the other.

Lorenzo believes that the process of naming creates a physical reality. Naming creates new boundaries which Palestinians are trying to escape. In concluding he said: “Names have a concrete reality and like all the movement of liberation, they have to create their own names to overcome the colonial framing of their existence.”

The event was held as a pre-launch for the Palestine Book Awards which will be held in London tonight. The winners from the shortlisted authors will be announced during the ceremony. The event will be live streamed here.

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