Robin Yassin-Kassab

Visit Palestine

with 9 comments

Palestine 121

Click here to see my photo album of people.

Click here to see my photo album of walls.

Click here to see my photo album of al-Khalil/ Hebron.

Click here to see my photo album of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Please read the captions.

I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.

They will stand up, even if I can’t tell how they possibly can. What I saw in Palestine confirmed me in my belief that a two-state solution is impossible, but also made me very pessimistic about the only real solution, the one-state solution – such is the level of Zionist hatred and arrogance, so deeply entrenched is Zionist settlement on the landscape and Zionist assumptions in the minds of Israeli Jews.

There was inspiration and conversation. There were great meals. At one I harangued Mahmoud Abbas’s chief of staff (Rafik Husseini took it like the gentleman he clearly is), and at another I was talking to the heroic Mordechai Vanunu. There was a walk in the beautiful, Zionist-vandalised hills outside Ramallah, in a thin gap of olive trees between the thick scars of occupation. There was even dancing. But there was weeping too. For me, two afternoons of weeping, in the Aida camp in Bethlehem and in the old city of Hebron/ al-Khalil. And I’m not such a weepy person. I will write about all of this in the coming weeks.

What I can tell you in brief is that the tragedy is much worse than we imagine. I didn’t learn anything new in terms of the facts. I’d already seen videos of the brutal settlers of Hebron. I knew already that most Palestinian children need psychological treatment because their homes are fired on from snipers in the panopticon towers which shadow villages and camp alleyways, because they’ve had their front doors kicked in at night and seen their fathers beaten and dragged away. But to see it with your own eyes, to experience the humiliation of the checkpoints and the walls yourself, to be held for five hours at the border, to breathe the air of oppression – this is very different from what my happy imagination could produce.

I’ve been fascinated by Palestine for 25 years. My aunt’s house in Beirut was destroyed by Zionist planes. I have a Palestinian brother-in-law, and I don’t know how many wonderful Palestinian friends. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve listened to music, I’ve watched films, I’ve written about it. But this was my first visit. I always said I wouldn’t go unless I had a real reason to go, unless I would be doing some good. Plus as a Syrian (although my only passport is British) I’m not allowed to go. Yet I think I was wrong to wait so long. The Palestinians need our solidarity, and we need to see what is being done on the eastern Mediterranean with the support of our media, governments and money. Therefore I would advise everybody to visit Palestine. Not only because it is worthy to do so, but also because visiting Palestine is a fascinating, inspiring, unforgettable experience.

There are organisations which can arrange tours of West Bank towns and meetings with Palestinian NGOs, teachers, and ordinary people. Organisations suggested to me by American Christians in Hebron include Jeff Halper’s Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Friends of Sabeel, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’m sure there are many more.

The first and last nights of the Festival were supposed to have happened at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, but on both occasions heavily armed Israelis closed the theatre and forced people out. Here’s the Guardian report on the the first night, and here’s Karl Sabbagh’s letter to the Guardian:

I was at the opening of the Palestine literary festival in Jerusalem on Saturday night, when heavily armed police pushed their way into the midst of talks by Michael Palin, Deborah Moggach, and Henning Mankell, along with many of their readers from Palestine, Israel and elsewhere. The police had come to close the festival down, and in another PR debacle of the type for which Israel is becoming famous, their clumsy actions drew far more attention to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians than if they’d allowed the event to continue.

The sight of the expelled participants and audience as we filed down East Jerusalem’s main street, some people carrying dishes of canapes, to the new and hastily organised venue at the French Cultural Institute might have seemed merely odd or amusing. In fact, it was a vivid reminder of Israel’s fear of anything which might suggest that Palestinians are as cultured, civilised and deserving of respect as their Israeli neighbours.

Karl Sabbagh.

Much more to come.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 1, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Posted in Culture, Palestine

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9 Responses

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  1. Thank you very much Qunfuz. This is a very meaningful testimonial, I look forward to your more detailed post about the individual participants.



    June 2, 2009 at 12:37 am

  2. i envy u.

    “advice everyone to visit Palastine’?
    and how is that possible?

    waiting for the photos and the rest of the trip.



    June 2, 2009 at 5:35 am

  3. A wonderfully vivid appetizer, thanks for this. I look forward to reading more.


    June 2, 2009 at 8:36 am

  4. Hey Robin! Nicely written post. I looked for your reply to that angry girl on her blog, but I couldn’t find it. By the way, Dad’s name is MG Vassanji.



    June 2, 2009 at 12:32 pm

  5. Sorry Anil, I’ve corrected his name now. Here’s Marcy blog post: http://bodyontheline.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/what-is-a-palestinian-festival-of-literature/


    June 2, 2009 at 12:51 pm

  6. and here’s my response:
    Marcy – I understand your anger at Zionism, but I fear you are misfiring here. Part of this has to do with understanding how literature as opposed to political activism works. You can’t demand an immediate response from a novelist as to how they are going to use the experience of visiting Palestine or what they are going to do to help, because experience takes time and transformation before it becomes literature. Discussing culture and literature is not the same as making a political speech. I do both, I know both are important, and I know they are very different. And what would be the point of making a political speech to a Palestinian audience?

    To an extent, of course part of our reason for being there was simply to do a literature festival in palestine. What’s wrong with that? Palestinians told me that it gave them a breath of normality that helped them to survive. If you live in London or Tel Aviv you can go out for an evening and hear someone telling funny stories and relax. Why shouldn’t you be able to do that in Palestine? Michael Palin didn’t directly address politics, but the Palestinians I spoke to were delighted that he had come and seen the situation, and that they had had a chance to hear him speak.

    Is it really true that the journalists travelling with us were stopped by Ahdaf from visiting the camp, or is it just a rumour? I know that Ahdaf is very concerned to get as much media coverage as possible. Ahdaf, by the way, is a tireless campaigner for Palestine, who has written essays and articles, who organises Palfest unpaid, who has translated and promoted Palestinian writers in the West.

    Of course I agree there should be a response from the writers, and I’m sure it will come, from everybody who participated, in the medium and long term in their fiction, and in some cases more immediately, in journalism.

    Henning Mankel’s comment may have been rude. I didn’t hear it myself. But I was with him in the Aida youth club, where he asked pertinent questions, took notes, and was obviously very moved. He left because he was exhausted. On our first night, when we were closed down, he alerted his contacts in the Swedish media. Sweden was therefore the country where the closure was best reported.

    Claire Messud feels passionately about Palestine. She is writing a piece on the festival for Newsweek. Probably her piece wont be as radical as a piece you or I might write, but still, she’s clearly an ally. A very major, very well-known writer who sympathises with Palestine. I wonder who it helps to sneer at her?

    The Bethlehem event most certainly did have translation. I could see and hear the translator while I was on stage, and had been consulted beforehand about what I would read if I had time. You needed headphones to hear. Also, when we did do readings from our work, we were careful to read from excerpts that had been translated into Arabic in the festival book which was available free of charge at the venues.

    I was pleased to do workshops with students at Bir Zeit and in the poorer al-Khalil university, so we did meet non-elite Palestinians.

    The criteria for selecting a writer is certainly not ‘whether or not they are famous’. I am not famous, yet I was selected. I know a couple of writers who are more famous than me, one who is very famous, who want to go but have not yet been asked.

    Several of the writers had extensive experience of battling apartheid in south africa, and many of those who had not been to palestine before are very knowledgable indeed about the issues. Having spent a week with these people, I must say I don’t recognise them from your description. I worry that misdirected anger is making you pick fights with your allies. This reminds me of a classic mistake of infantile leftism, which squanders energy insisting on ideological purity, and which ends up creating irrelevant groupuscules when we need the widest possible alliance to fight the huge forces ranged against us.


    June 2, 2009 at 12:51 pm

  7. ah, Amniyeh… If you have a Syrian, Lebanese or Iranian passport, it is of course quite impossible to get in. I was held at the border for five hours because I have a Syrian name, despite my British passport. People with Western passports but with viasa from the above countries will also likely be turned away.


    June 2, 2009 at 7:46 pm

  8. yeah i know.
    but i wanna ask, after you have entered Palastine, are you allowed to enter syria with the same passport showing that you've been there?


    June 4, 2009 at 5:08 am

  9. The answer, Amniyeh, is no, you can't. The Israelis will put a visa on a separate piece of paper which you can remove later, unless they feel like being difficult. The safest thing is to get a new passport before you visit Syria. I have heard a story about a Syrian with a Spanish passport. When they asked her in Damascus airport if she'd been to occupied Palestine she said yes. They questioned her for 20 minutes until she lost her temper with them: "I went to help our brothers and sisters in Palestine! What do you think I did there? Am I not an Arab?" They apologised and let her enter Syria. So who knows?


    June 4, 2009 at 12:14 pm

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