PalFest; Celebrating Literature or Political Kitsch

PalFestAshraf Zaghal 
I am not sure if the organizers of “the Palestine Festival of Literature-PalFest” are cognizant of the chronology of Modern Palestinian Literature and the dialectics between the aesthetic and the political throughout the recent history of the Palestinian written word. I am not sure either if they could clearly differentiate between culture and literature, literary text and political narrative or between literature as an act in space and time and literature as an archival image from past memories.
According to the festival’s website and under the “About Us” tab, the organizers note:

The Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) was established in 2008 with the aim of showcasing and supporting cultural life in Palestine, breaking the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation and strengthening cultural links between Palestine and the rest of the world.

That is an utterly confusing statement since we are not in the 1960s where publishing and reaching out were almost impossible, and where a brilliant critic and writer such as Ghassan Kanafani was needed to show some of our best writers and poets the way to convey their aesthetic and political message to the world. Moreover, we have not just been discovered by the fellow sailors of Marco Polo, or have we?.
Palestinian literature is alive and kicking not because of festivals, visitors, or politically-driven translations, but thanks to a prolonged history of writing and feedback from readers and critics. A history with three key phases:
1. In the late 1960s, Mahmoud Darwish and his contemporary poets were hailed as the newly discovered generation of Arab poets and writers who had brilliantly expressed national and existential struggle under Israeli occupation. More specifically, and through a well-received anthology titled “Resistance Literature in Occupied Palestine”, the new generation of poets was introduced by Ghassan Kanafani to the Arab world, paving the ground to a politically-committed literary genre that has persisted for decades. The common theme of “Resistance Literature” was a strong affection and sense of loss and longing for a lost homeland.
From that point on, Mahmoud Darwish was asked to recite poetry of resistance everywhere he went, however, he always refused to recite his old public-driven poems that do not show the progress in content and form in his creative work. Or, as Asaad Abu Khalil put it:

“Here was the most widely read Arab poet or writer, and yet he was able to insulate himself from Arab public expectations. This should count as a commendable act of courage by an intellectual. His readers wanted him to continue to write and read his poem “Write down, I am an Arab,” and other poems like it, but he refused. He did not want to succumb. Darwish took his poetry, but not himself, extremely seriously, and would express frustrations that his admirers did not understand that. In public reading events, he always preferred reading his latest production, and would get upset when people only wanted to hear his early political (and direct) poetry. Palestine was always woven into his poetry, but the act of reading required more work on the part of the reader”.

2. In the 1980s and with the advancement of prose poetry as an autonomous vehicle of expression in the Arab literary scene, Palestinian poets including Zakaria Mohammed and Ghassan Zaqtan used direct narrative and ordinary chatter as opposed to highly rhetorical prosodic structures. Zakaria and Ghassan emerged with the “Prose Poem” as a structural tool and with their unique sensitivities to propose a new Palestinian poem that could compete artistically and aesthetically in the international scene.


3. By the late 1990s, following Oslo Agreement and the return of many Palestinian writers and poets from exile to the remaining possible space of historical Palestine, a new generation of writers -who interacted with the new comers- emerged. The new generation deviated from (or subtly touched on) the rusty politically-driven scene and its structure and lexicon, and derived their own pathways while keeping the Palestinian question in the heart. Those included the poets Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Anas Alaili, Bachir Shalash, Ghada Shafai and Ashraf Zaghal and the novelists and short story writers Akram Musallam, Raji Bathish, and Adania Shibli.
The key phases of Modern Palestinian Literature presented above show critical arrows within the domain of Palestinian literature that has included questions and trials, investigations into the interplay between politics and aesthetics, and dynamic undertakings for the advancement of Palestinian literature.
The 2014 festival’s programme which is running from May 31st until June 5th raises major issues. One of these issues is the sparse input from Palestinian scholars and critics in regard to sensitive topics such as contemporary feminist writings and writings about lost homeland. The festival enjoys loads of journalists but lacks profound input from critics and people with relevant critical theory education; who could tackle important subjects such as diaspora and feminist writings with rigor and depth. Does Palestine have those?. Does Palestine have educated scholars and critics who can give their two cents in regard to such topics?. YES. But the question is: where are they?. Isn’t intriguing that a festival with such a powerful name “the Palestine Festival of Literature” has no access to those talents?. Or is it because we do not want to shock our visitors that we know too much?. Is that it?.
Another issue is the representation of Palestinian poetry. Is Najwan Darwish the only Palestinian poet who could represent the form and content of our national poetry Power House?. I looked at the festival’s programme and I could not believe my eyes: the whole poetry “showcasing and supporting cultural life” activity comprises two events: the first is reading with no music by Najwan Darwish, and the second is reading with music by Najwan Darwish … What a farce!. Where are the Palestinian poets?. Again, this is “the Palestine Festival of Literature”. I have never met Najwan, but I could theorize that no matter how brilliant he is, there is no way he could represent the nation’s poetry scene by himself. What I know about Najwan (who is also the Literature Advisor to the festival) is that he published one poetry book in Arabic, that he has been translated into French and English, and that he practices journalism. Honestly, this is a normal if not a mediocre resume for some writer to occupy the only two stages that represent Palestinian poetry at the “the Palestine Festival of Literature”.
More major issues; the festival through its program and mission statement tends to follow strategic self-orientalizing schemes:
Dear foreign writer, come visit Palestine and see how miserable we are. Look at the check points, come see how sweaty we get when we go through them. Come hear our politically-committed literature and melodramatic singing. We will be sincere to your imagination and archival images, everything they told you about our dramatic art and our flowery language is true, and we are never critical about it. We are actually re-inventing the Palestinian literature wheel; we are going back to the 1960s in order to repeat the coming of the super journalist savior, who will introduce Palestinian literature to the whole world this time … alas, the super journalist has a superior vision of himself this time though, and he would pick and choose using a ladder pointing down from his “advisory” stage.
Sadly, the Palestine Festival of Literature does not represent faithfully the Palestinian literature, and its deliverables could not be taken seriously: mediocre input – mediocre output. It is great to see big names such as Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding in the festival, but not in this format, not in the name of Palestine and its literature, and not within this miserable spectacle of nothingness.
The politically-driven festival may raise a good point about the duty of political commitment to the cause or the responsibility of conviction. However, isn’t a bit out of place for this appropriation?. We did ask these questions before and we are advancing. Again, we are not in the 1960s anymore. Palestinian literature has progressed immensely since the 1980s. It has progressed by two generations that seem to be swallowed by PalFest’s time machine. Both generations did not suggest a lack of conviction, but plurality of voices, more than absolutes. And, that is “a token of the democratic nature of aesthetics and politics” according to the French Philosopher Jacques Rancière.
You can always entertain the masses. This is not an issue. The issue is that in order to be faithful to the semantics of the festival’s name you need to be faithful to artistic truth and representation. Sadly, Ahdaf Soueif, the Founding Chair of the festival and the author of the brilliant “The Map of Love” has known the map by heart but missed the territory. I hope that the organizers of the festival re-think the name of the festival and revise their mission statement and the Guest List, otherwise, the festival will always be a political kitsch festival as opposed to a literary festival.