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Palestinian and Sudanese Authors Talk of War and Exile at AUC Cultural Festival

Two award-winning Palestinian and Sudanese authors drew an enthusiastic audience response in their talk about war and exile at the American University in Cairo’s first Tahrir CultureFest.

With war raging in Gaza and Sudan, there was a charged atmosphere in the audience as the writers Ibrahim Nasrallah and Hammour Ziada spoke on a panel called “Echoes of Journeys: Cairo’s Encounter with Khartoum and Ramallah in Literary Narratives”.

 أحاديث الحرب والنزوح تطغى على أول مهرجان ثقافي للجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة
President of the American University, Dr. Ahmed Dalal (University).

Nasrallah, a Palestinian novelist and poet who was brought up in a refugee camp in Jordan, and Ziada, a Sudanese novelist who now works as a journalist in Cairo, described how war and exile influenced their own writing.

“The Palestinian never ceases to yearn for their homeland, despite the world’s barriers preventing their return. … Our connection to our homeland is extraordinary. Nothing can replace the homeland, and words serve as an attempt to internally build it.”

— Ibrahim Nasrallah, a Palestinian novelist and poet

The panel was “one of our standout events,” Khaled Lutfi, founder of Egypt’s Tanmia Publishing House, which helped organise the festival with the AUC Press, told Al-Fanar Media. Many Palestinians and Sudanese who attended talked animatedly with the two authors as they signed books afterwards.

 أحاديث الحرب والنزوح تطغى على أول مهرجان ثقافي للجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة
Ibrahim Nasrallah and Hammour Ziadeh during their participation in a symposium at the American University Cultural Festival (Tanmeyah Library).

The panel was one of dozens of events held during weeklong festival, which ran from 17 to 22 April on AUC’S Tahrir campus. With a focus on Cairo, the festival featured many other panel discussions, plus a book bazaar, poetry recitations, book talks, musical performances, art exhibitions, and a film screening.

Literature as Resistance

In the “Echoes of Journeys” discussion, Nasrallah said: “Every place I’ve lived since my birth in the 1950s has undergone changes. I’ve witnessed how geography shifts. I recall becoming aware of life in tents, and so I continued to construct my homeland in my memory while being away from it.

 أحاديث الحرب والنزوح تطغى على أول مهرجان ثقافي للجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة
Cairo Choir during the opening of the first edition of the American University Cultural Festival (Al-Amaa).

“The Palestinian never ceases to yearn for their homeland, despite the world’s barriers preventing their return,” he continued. “The language spoken by a Palestinian child may be challenging even for the most adept thinkers, as our connection to our homeland is extraordinary. Nothing can replace the homeland, and words serve as an attempt to internally build it.”

Part of the meeting between Ashraf El Ashmawy and Omar Taher within the activities of the American University Cultural Festival (Tanmeyah Library).

Nasrallah compared literature in exile to acts of resistance and particularly praised the novel “Men in the Sun” by the late Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (1936–1972). “This novel is akin to a comprehensive institution within its 100 pages, playing a role unmatched by any Palestinian institution over the past 60 years,” he said.

“I’m uncertain if I’ll ever return to Omdurman. Nevertheless, I am committed to writing about it. I aim to keep the essence of this city alive through my writings until the very last moment they are read.”

Hammour Ziada, a Sudanese novelist who now works as a journalist in Cairo

Kanafani, who was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and his 17-year-old niece were killed by a car bomb in Beirut planted by the Israeli intelligence organisation Mossad.

Nasrallah himself won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018 for his novel “The Second War of the Dog”.

Homesickness in Literature

Ziada discussed the role of homesickness in literary narrative. Speaking of leaving Omdurman, Sudan’s second largest city, ten years ago, he said: “The experience of voluntary political exile always kept alive within me the hope of returning one day. However, circumstances have changed.

“The city no longer exists as it once did, and I’m uncertain if I’ll ever return to Omdurman. Nevertheless, I am committed to writing about it. I aim to keep the essence of this city alive through my writings until the very last moment they are read.”

Ziada, who won the AUC Press’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2014 for his novel “The Longing of the Dervish”, spoke of the necessity of art during times of war and exile. “The more I yearn for my city, the deeper I delve into writing about it. I recall its details and scents, crafting narratives that speak of a Sudanese exile.”

Focus on Cairo

Other panel discussions during the festival included a talk on the role of storytelling and poetry performances in the development of the Arabic novel, featuring the writers Ashraf Ashmawi and Omar Taher, moderated by Omar El Maadawy; a panel on economic inequality in Cairo, with speakers Omar El Shenety of Zilla Capital and the social justice researcher Wael Gamal, moderated by Samar Al-Saadani; and a panel on Cairo’s transformations from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, with speakers Emad Abu Ghazi, a professor in the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University, and the researcher Hassan Hafez, moderated by Abdul-Azim Fahmy, founder of the Cairo Process Initiative.

There was also an art exhibition called “Concrete” showcasing the work of final-year visual arts students at AUC, which focused on. the ongoing changes in the capital and its outskirts. The students used materials resembling construction equipment and walls as a canvas for depicting urban chaos and the students’ personal memories of Cairo’s streets and neighbourhoods. 

Ahmad Dallal, AUC’s president, said he hoped the festival would demonstrate the university’s integral role in the intellectual and cultural landscape of the city’s Tahrir district, and its commitment to the neighbourhood and city.

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