A packed audience hall gathered in London this evening to listen to some of the Palestine Book Award's shortlisted authors discuss their works ahead of the winners' announcement tomorrow evening.
Tonight three of the shortlisted authors: Tareq Baconi, author of "Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance"; Maha Nassar, author of "Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World"; and Reja-e Busailah, author of "In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood".
The evening was chaired by Victoria Brittain and Ibrahim Darwish, two trustees of the Palestine Book Awards. Brittain opened the evening by reflecting on how the Awards are now in their seventh year, adding that when the event started back in 2011 she could not have expected the level of support there has been from publishers, authors and the general public. Brittain discussed how this year's Awards saw over 40 books entered, reflecting that it is encouraging to know that interest in Palestine continues, despite the difficulties Palestinians still face on the ground. "This makes me feel extremely optimistic, despite everything," she said.
First to speak was Tareq Baconi, author of "Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance". Baconi explains that he didn't necessarily set out to study Hamas, but rather that he "decided to start researching Palestine on a whim". "I grew up in Jordan and was engaged in Palestinian activism," he described, adding that "I wanted to learn more about my history and move beyond the stories I grew up with to gain a deeper level of understanding through research, so I started a PhD programme part time."
Baconi happened to be starting his PhD programme in 2006, the year that Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Elections in Gaza. "It felt like the right entry point for someone new to studying Palestine," he told the audience, saying that now, ten years later, his book seeks to understand Hamas in its own words and from its own perspectives". Through interviews, archival research and extensive readings of Hamas' documents, Baconi said that he has tried to explore the grey space that is often excluded from discourse about Gaza. This problem is particularly acute in the West, which only discusses the Strip as an impending humanitarian disaster or a hotbed of terrorism – "all the nuance of the discussion is lost because all the West sees is Hamas," he lamented.
This self-reflection was echoed by Maha Nassar, author of "Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World". Nassar explained that her family are Palestinian refugees from the Nakba of 1948, but after spending years in the Middle East her family relocated to Chicago in the US. "As a result of this I grew up knowing a great deal about the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza," Nassar said: "Yet we never really discussed the Palestinian citizens of Israel, they always seemed to get forgotten."
Nassar has since devoted her research to redressing this balance. Her work "Brothers Apart" explores the creation of transnational interactions between Palestinian citizens of Israel and their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza – then under Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively – as well as with those Palestinians living in the diaspora. She explained that, for her, the most fascinating part of this research was that although the Palestinians living in Israel were not able to travel and physically take part in the discussions of the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, despite this they were actively engaged in the debates taking place in the region at that time.
Perhaps the most moving speech of the night came from Raja-e Busailah, author of "In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood". Unlike Baconi and Nassar's books, Busailah's work is a personal memoir of his early years living in Jerusalem, his experience of the British Mandate and finally the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Raja-e reflected on why we write, saying:
People ask me why I wrote this book, and I say it is just like asking someone why I breathe. We write to express a deep-seated impulse or thought, it something that forces the writer to do everything possible to tell his story. That does not mean that we don't think of the outside world, of course we do, but the real motive is selfish – I have a pressure in myself and in my heart and mind and I call it writing.
Busailah also discussed some of the challenges he has faced as a result of his disability, saying that historically "blindness has been a phenomenon with which the world has had a great deal of problems, because it has been considered a mysterious phenomenon that doesn't always have an explanation."
"It can be a blessing or a curse," he explained, "and the whole book is peppered with this idea and an exploration of how it is to live this experience".
After a vibrant question and answer session from the audience, the authors joined the crowd for refreshments and an informal discussion of their work to round off the evening. Tomorrow the authors will join MEMO once again for the presentation of the 2018 Palestine Book Awards – look out for the winners live on our social media using the hashtag #PBA18.