Palestine Festival for Literature Shifts Its Perspective

After a decade of existence, and a one year-hiatus, the Palestine Festival for Literature—a cultural event dedicated to fostering solidarity with Palestine—is back.

Palfest, as it is commonly known, was founded by the Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif in 2008. For a decade, it has brought authors, journalists and scholars every spring to travel through the occupied territories and engage in a packed schedule of events. The festival has worked with over 200 writers, a list that is difficult to summarize, but that includes the poets Mahmoud Darwish and Suheir Hammad, the novelists Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole, writers such as Pankaj Mishra and Raja Shehadeh and reporters such as Jelani Cobb and Molly Crabapple.

I attended in 2014, and wrote about it in a diary published in Bookforum. The festival is a unique and transformative experience, to actually (if very briefly) experience the violent spatial segregation of the occupied territories, the way Palestinians are cut off from the outside world, from their own land and from each other—and to witness so many deep exchanges between visiting writers, their Palestinian counterparts and audiences.

The goals of the festival have been to highlight Palestinian writers; to educate international literary figures about the reality of the occupation; and to give Palestinian audiences, barred from traveling and moving freely, the chance for exchanges with authors from all over the world.

After ten productive years, the organizers decided to take a one-year hiatus and to reflect on new ways in which the festival might pursue its aims.

Hence the recent launch of “Phase Two” of PalFest, which wants to go beyond the premise of writers bearing witness and to work to “foster new writing that clarifies and frames the connections between the colonization of Palestine and the accelerating systems of control and dispossession around the world.”

“Palestine is still not free,” writer and Palfest organizer Omar Robert Hamilton told me on the phone from Cairo, shortly after the last edition, held at the end of April, concluded. But “we all felt like the discourse around Palestine in Europe and America has changed so much in the last ten years—there’s a basic mainstream solidarity with Palestine. So what’s the next stage beyond standing in solidarity? What is the next stage of consciousness, of understanding what’s going on? A key thing is understanding how what’s going on in Palestine isn’t exclusive and isolated and contained within Palestine.” 

The festival has always drawn connections between the struggles against imperialism, colonialism and racism. They are more explicit in this year’s edition, which for the first time was structured around a theme, “Urban Futures: Colonial Space Today,” curated by architect and editor Mahdi Sabbah.

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“One of the clear futures we’re facing is one in which an increasingly small elite controls the last two generations of a dwindling planet’s resources, with a massively expanded police force defending it,” said Hamilton. “And Israel is at the forefront of that—of the development of surveillance algorithms, technology, weapons, the expertise of population control and resource control.” Palfest is built around the understanding that the situation in Palestine is part of “a clear and present danger facing everyone across the planet.”

This year’s program drew parallels between the policing of space in Algeria, Palestine and North America, as well as forms of resistance to state assault, surveillance and segregation. The Mojave poet Natalie Diaz and the Palestinian poet Jehan Bseiso exchanged views on resisting colonial language. The Palestinian feminist scholar Nadera Shelhoub-Kevorkian chaired a discussion on “Colonial Space Today.”

The festival also included participants such as Nick Estes, assistant professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and author of a forthcoming book on the indigenous-led movement centered at Standing Rock to stop the Dakota access pipeline. (Native Americans living near the path of the oil pipeline say it will contaminate water and disrupt sacred burial sites.) Another participant, Léopold Lambert, is an architect and editor in chief of The Funambulist, a print and online magazine dedicated to the politics of space and bodies; articles on Palestine feature regularly in its pages.

The festival’s new orientation, with its focus on knowledge production, is intent on including Palestinian universities and fostering scholarly collaborations. This year’s edition included events at five educational institutions: al-Najah University in Nablus, Birzeit University, Bethlehem University, Hebron University and Dar El Kalima in Bethlehem. Participants have been extended a two-year invitation, so they can return and share work they may have undertaken that is relevant to Palestine.

“We tried to put people in the same room that could potentially be collaborators or be operating in the same sphere,” says Hamilton. Now, “We have to kind of sit back and see.”


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