The closing ceremony of the fifth Palestine Festival of Literature (aka Palfest) was overshadowed by politics as writers who returned from a trip to the Gaza Strip gave their testimony on the situation there and described Hamas’s “repressive rule.”
At the Palfest closing ceremony, which was held in Cairo on Friday at the Rawabet Theatre, writer Ahdaf Soueif presented the Egyptian and Arab guest writers, including Khaled El-Khamisi, Sahar El-Mougy, poet Amin Haddad, Tunisian writer Khaled Najjar and Palestinian Poet Tariq Hamdan.
“We’re holding the closing ceremony here in Cairo, not Gaza, for two reasons: firstly, we wanted you to share this event with us and, secondly, we wanted to underline the importance of reviving the Egyptian-Palestinian relations,” Soueif explained.
During the past four editions of the Palfest, no Egyptian or Arab writers were among the members of the delegation that visits Gaza. Delegates were mostly European and American writers, who would have less trouble entering Gaza than their Egyptian colleagues. Not only would Egyptians struggle to pass the Egyptian-Palestinian border, but they may need an Israeli visa, which would be prejudicial against them because intelligence agencies at home would suspect them of spying. But after the January 25 Revolution, there has been a stark change, with most of the writers in the delegation coming from Egypt and other Arab countries.
“The past Palfests used to be held in the West Bank, but this time we decided to hold it in Gaza to stress the new reality in Egypt,” Soueif said, referring to the Mubarak regime’s role supporting the Gaza blockade.
Palfest mainly consists of three activities: first, literary and creative writing workshops in Palestinian schools and universities; second, sightseeing; third, cultural discussions and concerts in the evening.
Fierce blockade, Egyptian praise
The people of Gaza are living in inhumane conditions due to the blockade imposed by Israeli authorities. Officially, Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it imposed a road and naval blockade since Hamas was voted into power in 2006. According to many Palestinians at the event, Gaza is still under occupation.
“The main feeling you get while in Gaza is anger, and there are many reasons there for that. The situation there is atrocious; the blockade is everywhere, and this creates chaos that inevitably leads to fear,” Khaled El-Khamisi said.
The people of Gaza are angry not only towards Israel, but also towards Egypt and — more significantly — Hamas.
”The approach of Egyptian authorities towards Gaza is despicable. We’re following the American and Israeli agendas by helping to blockade Gaza. This should change in post-revolution Egypt. We should decisively boycott Israel and open all the crossings at the Gaza border,” El-Khamisi asserted.
Most of the writers who visited Gaza had one opinion with respect to cultural activities in Gaza: “deplorable.” They say the aim appears to be to erase the Palestinian character and culture, which gave the world thinkers and poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said.
Professor of English Literature Sahar El-Mougy said that there’s a deplorable condition of cultural hunger. There aren’t even cinemas, libraries, or shops that sell books on the arts, philosophy or literature. The only available books are those on Islamic Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) and Fiqh (thinking).
“There’s a conspiracy against the Palestinian character, to destroy its beauty. Hamas is erasing Palestinian culture, replacing it with an extremist version of Islam. They don’t even allow men and women to be in the same place!” El-Mougy objected.
“But through all this, and despite the security and intelligence, who we saw everywhere in Gaza, students we met have the spirit of resistance — not against Israel this time, but against the repressive practices of Hamas.”
“When we started writing workshops with young girls in schools, they first wrote about resistance against Israel,” said El-Mougy. “But when we showed them that writing could also express your inner feelings, the results were magnificent. Girls started to realise that writing is also about the self.”
El-Mougy says that Hamas, the resistance movement against occupation, became itself a movement of repression. “Hamas stands between Palestinians and life.”
Palestinians attending the event were impelled to participate in discussions about Hamas violations in Gaza after observations form the delegation overshadowed other talks in the ceremony.
Some argued that blaming Hamas for the conditions in Gaza wrongfully lifted some of the guilt off Israel, the main enforcers of the Gaza blockade.
The 15 March protests to end the Fatah-Hamas division were discussed too. Some saw it as a revolution; others thought it was just a mistake and the right option would be to topple both from power, since neither work for the sake of the people.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Ahdaf Soueif declared that Palfest is still boycotting Israel at all levels and won’t change its mind anytime soon.