Middle East Monitor hosted a pre-launch evening for the Palestine Book Awards in London last night, to give members of the public an opportunity to meet the authors of the books shortlisted for this year’s prestigious prize.
Professor Eugene Rogan, director of Oxford University’s Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, and Dr Dina Matar of the Centre for Global Media and Communications at SOAS moderated a lively discussion amongst a packed audience at the P21 Gallery.
The pre-launch evening, a fixture in the MEMO event calendar, hosted eight of the nine authors shortlisted for this year’s award: Ibtisam Barakat, Ahlam Bsharat, Björn Brenner, Ella Shohat, Ilan Pappé, Samia Halaby, Laila Parsons, Petter Bauck and Mohammed Omer.
Haifa Zangana, Head Judge at this year’s Awards, welcomed the audience and authors to the event, before handing over to Rogan who expressed how the awards, now in their sixth year, represented a source of hope in times where news surrounding Palestine often seemed hopeless.
He turned first to Laila Parsons, the author of “The Commander: Fawzi Al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence 1914-1948”, to ask how she researched nationalist military officer Al-Qawuqji for her book. Parsons spoke of how she gained access to the commander’s personal archives and how she aimed to document anti-colonial resistance prior to 1948. Whilst she agrees that her biography is a sympathetic towards the Al-Qawuqji, she criticised his inability to admit his political and military mistakes.
Matar then called upon Sami Halaby, the author of “Drawing the Kafr Qasem Massacre” to explain her journey in creating a book with such emotive images, but also critical analysis of the historical incident. Halaby spoke of the different kinds of audiences who she envisioned during her work, looking first at those who she described as imperialists who wanted her work to be strictly Palestinian but constrained within public opinion.
“There are other people who are the Arab bureaucrats who want a little Palestinian art to hang on the wall. Then there are the real fighters, the revolutionaries who want you to be on their side, and I want to be on their side,” Halaby explained.
When elaborating on her inspiration for the book, she powerfully reminded the audience that whilst her drawings were not scenes of horrific gore, they made the reader envisage what it would be to stand in front of those killed in Kafr Qasem.
“I wanted you to look at the face of someone dying two seconds before their death, and read their names,” she concluded.
Continuing to look at the reinterpretation of well-known phenomena, Ella Shohat, the author of “On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements”, spoke of how the theme of her book was the issue of refugee rights. She wanted to explain the identity of the Arab Jew without the inherent bias Israel applies by removing the rights of Palestinians.
“I have been attacked for claiming to be an Arab Jew. People see them as mutually exclusive because people see Judaism as an ethno-national identity because of Israel,” she clarified. “I want to take back part of my history that was denied me in the partition of Palestine.”
Professor Ilan Pappe was next introduced, with Rogan joking that his latest book, “The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories”, is likely to make Pappe even less popular in Israel than he already is, due to his strong support for the Palestinian cause.
Pappe spoke of the essence of the Zionist agenda as a settler colonialist project, making reference to the way in which Israelis consider themselves the indigenous people of the land and thereby de-indigenise the Palestinian people. He spoke of how Israel’s ultimate desire is to remove all Arabs from the region, hence the early government’s focus on deportations and denying Palestinians the right of return. The prison model described in his book is part of that ongoing process, he concluded.
The author of “Gaza under Hamas: From Islamic Democracy to Islamist Governance”, Bjorn Brenner, then spoke of how he acquired his research in an area which is not typically covered by European writers. Brenner has made continual trips to Gaza since 2009, staying with families in the Strip and told the audience that he had made numerous friends in the Al-Qassam Brigades. Whilst he argues in the book that Hamas is an extremely flexible political actor, Brenner said that he had few hopes for the reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, due to how little had been decided despite numerous meetings in recent weeks.
The theme of reconciliation was continued by Mohammed Omar and Petter Bauck, the authors of the “The Oslo Accords: A Critical Assessment”, who spoke of how the alleged peace process had achieved nothing with Palestinians still facing occupation.
“What happened in the Oslo Accords in my view is that the Palestinians took over the administration of the occupation,” said Bauck, provoking a harsh image of how little has changed since the war of 1967.
Turning to the only fictional book on the list, Ahlam Bsharat was asked what her objective was in writing “Code name: Butterfly”, which tells the story of a Palestinian teenager living under military occupation. Bsharat spoke of her desire to define not only herself, but also the struggles of all Palestinian children who are thrust into the centre of the brutal conflict.
Ibtisam Barakat’s work “Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine”, also focused on growing up in Palestine, but depicted her own experiences as a teenager. She became emotional recollecting her feelings during her childhood and reflected on how she only healed from her personal history after expressing it in her writing. The audience applauded her courage in telling her story.
The evening ended on a high, with the authors swamped by readers angling for autographs on their newly purchased books.
The panel discussion highlighted the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people and gave people an insight into the deeper issues and histories that are often behind the news stories read every day on the region.
The event precedes the Palestine Book Awards which will be held in London tonight. The winners from the shortlisted authors will be announced during the ceremony. To find out who won follow the live blog here.