In this impeccable collection of writings, perceptions and understandings about Palestine and Palestinians reinforce the importance of authentic trajectories. “This is not a border: reportage and reflections from the Palestine festival of literature” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) brings together diverse voices which reminisce and, at times, force remembrance upon the reader to awaken a consciousness that needs to be permanently alert. As Palestine diminishes further, initiatives to remember and, as a result, protect rights and identity, become imperative.
In the introduction, novelist Ahdaf Soueif explains how “Palfest” sought to overcome the gap between culture and inaccessibility, while at the same time ensuring that Palestinian life is experienced, rather than the semblance of privilege awarded to travellers by Israel at its discretion. Living the experience of Palestinians at checkpoints, witnessing settler violence and militarisation, as well as the physical incarceration of territory as a consequence of colonial expansion, served to highlight the Palestinian plight, as writers attempted to remove obstacles for Palestinians by making themselves available through travelling.
From poetry to detailed reflections and travel writing, the writers included in this anthology have bequeathed an awareness of Palestine that one can traverse through the senses. There is an urgency which is captured by Mahmoud Darwish who states, “Everything – even the landscape – is temporary and vulnerable.” The transience is a contradiction; a consequence of colonisation. It is not just the existence of Israel that renders the landscape temporary; the entire charade of negotiations, as Darwish points out, also contributes to the situation. In his astute manner, he notes the irony in the diplomatic jargon of the “peace process” which is a euphemism for settler violence and colonial expansion.
Sometimes, writers impart their personal recollections of people and places, noting that each individual story is also an extended metaphor of all the fragments that are Palestine. In each fragment, there is a possibility of unification, yet behind that possibility looms the entire establishment that supports Israeli colonisation. There is murder at the hands of Israeli soldiers and a witness to the atrocity. There is also the inheritance of the Palestinian right of return, a right which has so far been thwarted by Israel and the international community through settlement expansion and non-binding resolutions respectively. As Mercedes Kemp describes in her reflections, however, in the heart there is no impediment: “If not us [to return], our children will,” states a woman resiliently.
The connection to land and the right of return is evoked beautifully by Susan Abulhawa, who narrates her family origins in Palestine while allowing the reader to embark upon a journey through language replete with imagery, particularly evocative in the inherent sense of belonging: “Palestine is the body of all our stories, the place where we begin and return.” By way of contrast, Yasmine el-Rifae states that, “In Palestine, Israel is everywhere,” as she ponders the political violence that is evident in landscape and trauma. There is an absence that is made all the more visible; as Israel expands, the importance of Palestine reaches an equivalence in the necessity of representation.
Several authors reference the Allenby Border Crossing to and from Jordan, and checkpoints as a focal point of enforced humiliation, while reflecting on the repression as a daily violation that has become normalised by the international community’s acceptance of Israel’s “security concern” rhetoric. Adam Foulds describes the frustration of unnecessary delays: “I remember sitting there with the word ‘wasting’ dilating in my mind; wasting time, wasting away, a terrible waste, the waste places.” Suad Amiry notes that the Allenby crossing has become the most expensive “for one of the poorest populations”.
It is also clear that for the participating writers in the festival, Hebron provided insight into the dynamics of Israel’s state and settler violence. Ru Freeman’s vivid descriptions combine the sociological and psychological toll of Palestinians experiencing settler entitlement and domination. Freeman describes succinctly the Israeli impositions, including the renaming of streets to obliterate Palestinian identity: “New plaque on renamed streets announce fictions that permit desecration.” The description is relevant in all aspects of Palestinian life: Palestinians living a normal life have become an aberration while normalising violence against Palestinians is no longer a concern to the international community.
William Sutcliffe further expounds upon the awareness which changes upon witnessing Hebron – he states that the first draft of his novel was completely discarded as a result of understanding, not only through the confines of rationality but also through emotion. His input in the collection commences with a quote by Arnold Bennet: “There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of the truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours.” With regard to Palestine, Sutcliffe argues, the same dynamics apply. The understanding of the complexities as a result of Israel’s presence in Palestine require emotion; any failure to achieve this elevated understanding will only provide additional ambiguities, which are already rampant in how Palestine has been discarded by the international community.
As mainstream media continues to elevate Israeli supremacy, there is an urgency about defining what happened, and what continues to happen to Palestine and Palestinians. Ed Pavlic comments that, “There is absolutely no parity in the legal, military and social contests between Israeli power and Palestinian struggle.” He adds that close scrutiny of Israeli violations would force introspection upon the US, something that it is loath to do, given its role in promoting and financing violence.
Recognising the repercussions of the blockade on Gaza is also pondered in this collection. Victoria Brittain insists that life in Gaza is lived “in an intellectual and psychological stranglehold.” This observation can be applied to all Palestinians in all of historic Palestine. The perversion of allowing colonialism to flourish has created a macabre metaphor on two levels, the people and the land. For Palestinians, the avenues for self-expression, let alone politics, are throttled, in the same manner as the land now bears permanent scars of Israel’s existence. As Raja Shehadeh explains, “There are few areas in the world where they have scribbled more avidly than on these hills.”
This collection of writing is guaranteed to evoke a determined consciousness to evaluate Palestine, away from the trappings of Israel, mainstream media and the international community. The writers have managed to combine language and emotion in a way that sears one’s heart, while calling for collective indignation against the violence and humiliation that Palestinians face daily.