On May 14, in a cabin called Babel at Turin Book Fair’s Pavilion 3, Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif and Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoun read excerpts of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, including Would that I Were a Stone.
The audience sat on chairs creatively designed from cartons printed with book covers. The atmosphere bustled just as a book fair should: authors gave talks; publishers held book signings; visitors bought books; coffee and snack sellers sat in the background with timely treats to punctuate all the intellectual consumption.
The reading was one of few encounters with Arabic literature at the fair, considered one of Europe’s major literary events.
“After the book fair decided to withdraw its invitation to Saudi Arabia, which they did after Amnesty International’s campaign on human rights violations, we thought the risk was that the audience of the book fair would associate the whole Arab literary world with the politics of Saudi Arabia,” says Lucia Sorbera, a professor of Arab Studies at Sydney University and one of the consultants who put together the fair’s Arabic program.
“We believe that, in this age, in these times, the nation state does not represent us anymore, with their sectarian policies,” she tells Mada Masr. “But we feel part of a transnational community of intellectuals, artists and activists who believe in social justice and we thought Arab literature is a key example of transnational belonging and cultural resistance against authoritarianism.”
Darwish, she says, is an icon of the whole Arab world, just as Palestine is an icon of resistance.
Next door, in France, the team behind Paris’s Festival Cine-Palestine gears up for their second edition, which opens on May 23 for a full 11 days. This year the festival boasts Palestinian productions, ranging from shorts to feature lengths, fiction to documentary, and classic styles to the more experimental.
In a brief encounter in Paris, Rouba Hassan, the president of the Association du Festival du Film Palestinien, tells Mada Masr that the festival is an attempt to highlight Palestinian cinematic production, showcasing its diversity and opening up space for a new generation of filmmakers to show what they’ve made of contemporary cinema.
Rather than solely embedding itself in the politics of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the festival is described by Hassan as interested in presenting a well-curated cinema program. And, while “you cannot separate it from its historical and social context,” she says, it is not a festival about political militancy, but “artistic militancy.” This is so in the sense of both ensuring the quality of the program and highlighting films that don’t make it to mainstream festivals due to political exclusion.
The festival is largely crowd-funded and has a constant eye on expanding its reach, Hassan says, experimenting with spaces such as independent film houses and progressive academic spaces, as well as attracting publics beyond those already engaged in the Palestinian question.
Documentaries include Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares’ playful Speed Sisters, which focuses on an all-woman race car team in the West Bank to prompt critical conversations about gender roles, and Salim Abu Jabal’s Roshmia, a poetic portrayal of an elderly couple holding on to their countryside cabin in Haifa’s one remaining natural valley.
Nicolas Damuni’s Maqloubeh, which departs from conventional culinary disagreements around how one of the most national and traditional dishes is made, and Ahmad Salah’s autobiographical fiction titled House are two of the shorts on offer.
The festival doesn’t eschew classics either, hosting a Michel Khleifi retrospective, including a screening of his feature length narrative Canticles of the Stone (1991) and a discussion with him. The festival closes with Elia Suleiman’s almost silent tribute to absence, The Time That Remains (2009).
In addition to cities such as Paris and Turin’s efforts to organize cultural programs curated around Palestine as a site of artistic production and a cause that transcends borders and times, the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) brings this energy home.
PalFest’s ninth edition launches on May 21 in Ramallah and Gaza with the stated purpose of breaking the cultural siege imposed on Palestine by the Israeli occupation. For six days, a select group of authors tour Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Haifa and Nablus marshaling a procession of film screenings, panel discussions, literary readings and more.
“One can’t separate literature — and bringing world literature to Palestine — from resisting the occupation and its restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement,” says Yasmin El-Rifae, PalFest’s producer, in an email from Ramallah. “You cannot bring books, writers, artists, films, musicians into Palestine without confronting the checkpoints, tariffs, arbitrary closures and blockades that the occupation has woven into every aspect of daily life here.”
So PalFest is clearly about culture and resistance.
Participating authors this year include novelist and academic J.M. Coetzee, South Africa’s Nobel Laureate, Booker winning Nigerian poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams, acclaimed Egyptian author and PalFest founding chairperson Ahdaf Soueif, and prize-winning Indian author Anjali Joseph.
From Palestine, participating poets include Mahmoud Abu Areesheh (Pungent Words), Amina Abu Safat, Ali Abu Ajamieh (Safar Listens to the Family), Jehan Bseiso (Conversations Continued, forthcoming), Ghiath al-Mahdoum (I Cannot Attend) and Remi Kanazi (Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine). Novelists Ahmad Masoud, (Vanished) and Majd Kayyal (Mr. Matar’s Tragedy), as well as Ahmad Jamil Azem, who runs the International Studies program at Beirzeit University, TV correspondent Asmaa Azaizeh, and MCs Haykal and Julmud from Ramallah will also tour with PalFest.
“While, of course, we choose to be allies in the resistance to the occupation, the truth is that there is no choice,” says Rifae. “You cannot run an international festival in Palestine, and hope to reach a significant audience or show the visitors any part of this incredible place any other way.”