Palestine Writes: on circles, keys, and joy as resistance

Abdelrahman ElGendy

Mondoweiss  /  October 6, 2023

As a former political prisoner in Egypt, and dissident writer in exile, Palestinian culture and literature have inspired and shaped my work. When I attended the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, my heart came full circle.

I faced the stage of Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania, microphone in hand, and asked Palestinian author Ibrahim Nasrallah about using joy as a form of resistance. His response, much like his previous writings, recalibrated my vision as a writer.

In his answer, Ibrahim said something that rang in my ears for hours after: “The job of the writer, sometimes, is to remind people that they have feet still capable of dancing.” 

As I fell back in my seat, I thought: this is the essence of Palestine Writes, too. When one’s very identity aggravates settler colonialism, the mere act of willful being becomes an ultimate form of resistance. 

I landed at Philadelphia International Airport on Friday, September 22, to attend Palestine Writes Literature Festival. As an Egyptian dissident writer in exile and a former political prisoner in Egypt, Palestinian culture and literature have largely inspired and shaped my work. Once I learned about the festival, I registered in a heartbeat. 

With over 1500 attendees, Palestine Writes, North America’s premier event dedicated to celebrating Palestinian writers and heritage, took place at the University of Pennsylvania from September 22-24, 2023. While the festival attracted significant support from Palestine’s allies, it also ignited a flurry of opposition. Critics, such as Congress member Josh Gottheimer and the Zionist Organization of America, accused the festival of endorsing antisemitism, claiming its presence could endanger and alienate Jewish students. Festival advocates, on the other hand, including the progressive Jewish student group Penn Chavurah, argued that such criticisms wrongly equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, and attempt to muffle crucial Palestinian voices. As the festival neared, the University of Pennsylvania, finding itself at the crux of this fervent attack, released a statement distancing itself from the event and denouncing antisemitism. The statement’s wording hinted at a stance on the festival, but stopped short of explicitly taking sides, especially in its references to the freedom to express controversial views and even those “incompatible with our institutional values.”

In the three weeks leading up to Palestine Writes, many grappled with questions surrounding free speech, academic freedom, and the nature of hate speech on college campuses. However, for me, after I landed in Philadelphia and roamed the corridors and halls of Palestine Writes, I was left reflecting on a singular notion: love.

Through the weekend, masses of attendees moved from one session to the next, purchasing kuffiyyahs, embroidered Palestinian thawbs, and other merchandise, their earnest expressions suggesting they had never spent their money better. Poets, authors, visual artists, academics, journalists, and thinkers filled stages and panels. Events spanned from book talks with authors, to hakawati (storytelling) segments, to dabke performances, to discussions about Palestinian authors and discourses, and to historical sessions. My friend’s father, having been exiled for years, told her, “I have never felt so Palestinian.”

In the hallways, people hugged and cried; they embodied a celebration of an exceptional capability of joy. Of bearing the weight of decades-long generational scattering in one hand, and the warm maftoul of Palestinian grandmothers in the other. 

Of dancing, despite. 

I stood before Ibrahim Nasrallah in 58 Cafe at UPenn, clutching an Arabic copy of The Lanterns of the King of Galilee that I’d just bought, and stammered like a child as I shared my story and his pivotal role in my literary journey. For six years in prison, the works of Ibrahim Nasrallah had held me. Lanterns was the first book of his that I read during an intensive period of exploring his writings.

As I penned my thoughts on contraband paper and smuggled the pieces out during visits to precede me into the world, I studied Ibrahim’s craft and let the way he manipulates language and storytelling feed my lines. 

We conversed, my hand remaining in his, and I blinked: I was touching the very fingers that had written the words that gave me solace for years. Ibrahim autographed my book, the very one that had introduced me to his work. I stepped outside the room and gently opened the cover to read:

Dear Abdelrahman ElGendy,

Love to you, always, and lanterns ever lit with hope.

Ibrahim Nasrallah

In my heart, something came full circle. This wasn’t the only circle Palestine Writes watered into wholeness. 

I stared into Abdelrahman Atta’s face under the soft lights in the hallway and threw my arms around him in disbelief. I pulled Atta close and said, “Remember the last time I hugged you? In Tora prison, 2016, before they processed your release.”

I first met Atta in a prison cell in Cairo’s Tora prison in 2015, seven years earlier. Both of us had been arrested as political prisoners following our participation in protests against the 2013 military coup in Egypt. We were also students at the time: Atta was 21, studying Languages and Translation, and had been sentenced to three years. I was 19, studying Mechanical Engineering, with a 15-year sentence looming over me.

Atta possessed a magical voice. His folklore songs and ballads of the revolution became sensations among incarcerated students. The first time he sang in our cell, he took my breath away. 

On nights when stricter guards were on duty, and we couldn’t bribe them to sneak Atta into our cells, he would sing through his cell’s porthole, his lyricism cascading over the entire block. One of his iconic songs, the only English one he performed, was Maher Zain’s Palestine Will Be Free.

At the chorus, we’d all hum along, a gentle buzz across the block.

Palestine, tomorrow, will be free.

When his three-year sentence concluded at the close of 2016, Atta left a saddened student community behind bars but went on to make us proud: graduating from the Faculty of Languages and Translation, pursuing post-graduate studies in Applied Linguistics on a scholarship in the United States, and now teaching Arabic language and culture at the University of Pennsylvania.

For the first time in seven years, we reunited. The melodies of Palestine had first drawn us together, two teenagers in a squalid prison cell. Seven years later, those same lullabies cradled us under the auditorium’s lights.

I patted his back, and in unison, we murmured: I can’t believe this is happening.

All around us, similar encounters unfolded: organizers who had collaborated for years were meeting face-to-face for the first time, diaspora Palestinians connected with their on-ground counterparts who had traveled from besieged Gaza specifically for the festival, and individuals whose lives had been profoundly influenced by artistic works met their inspirations in flesh for the first time.

Circles, circles.

In the Nakba of 1948, over half of the Palestinian population were either expelled or fled from violence. Palestinian mothers, as they hauled their lives on their backs, threaded their house keys and wore them like amulets, the cold metal touch right above their hearts. 75 years have passed since the Nakba, yet the keys to their stolen homes remain, inherited from one generation to the next, bearing a history incessantly erased. The locks these keys were meant to open may no longer exist — a demolished building, perhaps, or a village reduced to ruins. But that’s not the point; that’s never been the point. The key tells a story, a narrative passed down: we’re not from here, and one day, we shall return.

In his novel, A’ras Amena, Ibrahim Nasrallah writes, “Do you know what happens to the stories we don’t write down? They belong to our enemies.”

On Sunday, the festival’s final day, the organizers gathered as many of the attendees’ children as they could find and brought them to the stage; one was as young as four years old. The festival’s host, Amer Zahr, brought his mic to each child. Most had never set foot in Palestine, and some might even be second or third-generation American citizens. A few giggled, while others looked down shyly, but when their lips parted, the words flowed firm and unequivocal: their name, age, and the Palestinian village of their heritage.

As they spoke, their twinkling irises held a promise of circles someday coalescing. The eyes held an abundance, stories they’d never allow to belong to their enemies, narratives first etched by the rusted keys around their great-grandmothers’ necks.

Standing on stage in the closing remarks, Susan Abulhawa’s voice trembled with emotion; she was the founder and executive director of Palestine Writes, the mastermind behind the festival.

“I want to acknowledge the extraordinary hate that surrounded us,” Susan said. “There was so much love in here that we didn’t feel it. We held so much love for each other, for our ancestors, for our future, and for our land.”

As the crowd erupted, tears streaming, I was filled with the same sensations of prison poetry nights: the friction of Atta’s voice and our tender hums against the prison air — carving, being. 

As the weekend drew to a close, the bodies of Palestinians and their allies blended into one, embracing, patting each other. I recalled the words of Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti: “The oppressed lose if, deep within, they fail to hold more beauty than their oppressors.”

In Arabic, we don’t simply say, “read poetry.” We say, yatathawwaqu al shi’r: to taste poetry. We savor its rhythm, bite into its cadence, and relish the very essence of the words.

Palestine Writes allowed us to hold and be held. To bask in Palestinian heritage and words. The love grew so palpable one might have slipped out the tip of their tongue and tasted the poetry in the air. Amid the engulfing hate, with roaming trucks outside displaying digital billboards that demonized the space and its attendees, we let the words make room, be rooms. “Come come, enter,” the words invited. And we entered, and when we entered — it was enough.

Abdelrahman ElGendy, a former six-year political prisoner in Egypt, is an Egyptian writer and journalist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania