Ever since its inauguration in 2008, the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) has faced multiple challenges, while it struggles to "break the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation."
Founded by the internationally bestselling Egyptian author, Ahdaf Soueif, every year, writers, journalists, poets, and activists from various countries around the world arrive to participate in workshops and free public performances throughout Ramallah, Gaza, Nablus, Haifa, Jerusalem and other places. They aim to tell their stories to a wide audience and open their eyes to the challenges lived everyday by the Palestinians living under multiple sieges.
Acclaimed authors and journalists from the US, UK, and around the Arab world shared their stories in the Guardian, New York Times, The Economist, The Observer, The New Yorker and multiple other major newspapers and news agencies.
The programme runs for six days, from 23 May until 31 May, in partnership with a large number of organisations, including the British Council, Arts Council England, and Arab Culture Association in addition to a number of private firms, publishing houses, universities, and culture centres. Events range between poetry and prose reading, discussions, performances, and this year's addition – a writing workshop.
In its first event in 2009, visitors told stories about their trip from Amman through the Allenby Bridge. Instead of holding the opening event at the Palestinian National Theatre, it was changed to the French Cultural Centre after Israeli forces asked people out.
2011 was not any less challenging, and again, last-minute changes had to be managed every time the Israeli police showed up to indicate the event cannot happen at the African Community Centre.
2012 challenges were a bit different. PalFest closing event in Gaza was denied and guests were asked to leave for failing to obtain the necessary approvals before the event, this time it was halted by Hamas forces. However, the closing event took place in Cairo days later and included the Egyptian writers and journalists who participated for the first time in the event.
Amr Ezzat, a blogger and political activist, who participated in the past year’s term of PalFest, told Ahram Online that his experience of the festival was very nice as he was able to communicate with different people at the Palestinian universities, NGOs, and Hamas supporters too.
"I had the chance to meet new people, speak at open discussion panels, meet with activists and exchange ideas on politics, culture and music; moreover, I had the chance to visit the smuggling tunnels that crosses under the Egyptian-Palestinian borders," Ezzat said.
What was remarkable for Ezzat is the great hospitality of the Palestinians, they were very happy and glad that people came from Egypt to speak to them and exchange ideas.
The areas they visited seemed to lack any cultural activity; this is why people were very happy to witness such an event, according to Ezzat.
The sixth year’s version involves another diverse delegation from around the world, including a couple of Egyptians – Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Egyptian activist and blogger, and Lina Attallah, journalist. Acclaimed guests include novelist China Miéville, journalist Jeremy Harding and writer Susan Abulhawa. Musicians and artists from many countries are also joining for performances around Palestine.
Ahdaf Soeuif told Ahram Online that this year’s version was planned to take place at the same time in all of historic Palestine. One group is going to Gaza; the other group will head to the Occupied Territories and Haifa. There also will be a live address from a PalFest participant in Gaza to a PalFest event in Jerusalem and from a PalFest participant in Ramallah to a PalFest event in Haifa.
The imposed boundaries by the occupation are completely ignored by the festival organisers, Soueif asserted to Ahram Online, adding "The festival, like Palestinian culture ignores imposed boundaries."
For Soueif, the PalFest is working in a cumulative way; thus, it is not possible to know exactly what the impact of the PalFest will be.
She recounted the impact on the festival participants over the years, which were huge as a British novelist who came to PalFest in 2011 went home and tore up the draft of his novel and started again. A British theatrical company who participated in PalFest 2010 is staging a joint production with a theatre group in Nablus now. "PalFest just sows the seeds and waits," Soueif added.