Middle East Eye / December 3, 2021
Experiencing what Palestinians endure daily changes you forever. That’s why many writers who’ve been to the Palestine Festival of Literature backed her refusal to publish in Israel.
Irish author Sally Rooney recently made the decision not to have her latest novel published by an Israeli publisher. The Normal People author said that she could not “accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people”.
Last month, 70 writers, poets, playwrights, booksellers and publishers, including myself, signed a letter endorsing her decision. It struck me that over a third of those who signed have attended the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). The letter was also signed by PalFest’s co-founders, Ahdaf Soueif and Brigid Keenan.
PalFest was founded in 2008, with patrons including Chinua Achebe, John Berger, Mahmoud Darwish, Seamus Heaney and Harold Pinter. They were later joined by Philip Pullman and Emma Thompson. It was formed “in the hope … that the experience of visiting Palestine with PalFest expands authors’ vocabulary and imagination, that they will draw connections between their own work and the various processes of control ongoing in Palestine”. The number of signatories to the letter is evidence that this has worked.
One of those who signed the letter supporting Rooney was the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan.
He attended PalFest in its first year and wrote in the London Review of Books: “In the week that Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary, I had come as one of the writers attending the first-ever Palestine Festival of Literature… everywhere we went the wall seemed a shadow, a heavy ornament of Israeli aggression and a horrible reminder to those of us who grew up to see the wall come down in Berlin and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Even in those infamous places, merely mentioning the problem did not invite hatred the way trying to say anything at all about Israel does. Discussion lacks traction in a land scarred from end to end with barriers to progress.”
Indignity and brutality
I first went to Palestine with PalFest in May 2009. We crossed over the Allenby Bridge and were kept waiting for eight hours while the Arab writers among us were detained until the last possible moment.
I stood in the sunshine, in a small group including Michael Palin, Deborah Moggach, Rachel Holmes, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Claire Messud, Henning Mankell and others, little realizing that the aggression we were shown was a mild foretaste of what was to come.
That evening, in Jerusalem, we assembled at the Palestinian National Theatre for the opening of the festival. The Israeli army descended with their guns and forced us out. We picked up large platters of food and trooped down the road, into the garden of the French Cultural Institute, where the show went on.
It was a week that changed the lives of every one of us. All we needed was a pair of eyes to see what is there: the indignity and brutality of the checkpoints, the settlers shouting and waving their guns, the wall, the barbed wire, the refugee camps and, in some ways saddest of all, the old city of Hebron.
As Messud wrote: “The agonizing descent into darkness that was our visit to the glorious city of sandstone and carved trellis work, an ancient city was being depleted of its inhabitants.”
A quotidian oppression
I will never forget walking along a shuttered marketplace, once thriving, now empty. Looking up, Israeli flags fluttered from houses taken from Palestinian families. Netting stretched across the street to catch the rocks and garbage hurled from windows onto Palestinian women, men and children walking to market.
But the netting couldn’t catch the urine and faeces that sometimes accompanied the rocks. As Messud said, we were witnessing “a quotidian oppression that must be experienced, even for a few hours, to be believed”.
I returned in 2017 for the 10th anniversary of PalFest, which we marked at Bloomsbury by publishing an anthology, This is Not a Border, edited by Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton. From Amman, we made our way through the King Hussein border crossing, and on by bus to Ramallah, then to Jerusalem, through the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, used daily by tens of thousands of Palestinians who work in Israel.
We emerged waving copies of the This is Not a Border. From there we travelled to Hebron, now an even sadder city than on my first visit, and on to Bethlehem, Haifa and Nablus. Every day we travelled by bus, through checkpoints, to different venues.
Out of the bus windows, we could see the olive trees so necessary to Palestinian life, destroyed by Israeli soldiers. We were taken on a walk through occupied Ramallah by Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh. On that ancient, stolen hillside, one of the writers turned to me and said, “There is little we can do, but you can publish”.
The book was also launched at literary festivals throughout the UK. At the Hay Festival, Soueif was awarded the Hay Medal for Festivals “in solidarity, kinship and deepest admiration” for her work on PalFest.
‘Psychologically and emotionally devastated’
After his experience at PalFest, novelist William Sutcliffe wrote in The Guardian: “I returned from Palestine psychologically and emotionally devastated by what I had seen. Every aspect of the occupation was harsher, more brutal than I had expected.”
Sutcliffe is Jewish, like many other participants, including Adam Foulds, Gillian Slovo, Ben Ehrenreich, Esther Freud, Jillian Edelstein, Geraldine d’Amico, Ursula Owen, Ben Moser and myself. In the New York Times, Foulds said: “You hear so much about the rage, the violent mood… but I have found a language of peace, freedom and justice. The festival is recognition of the independent life of the Palestinian people. Coming through the invisible barrier of fear has actually filled me with hope. I found deep humanity on the other side.”
Publishing about Palestine has been a part of my work as a publisher. In 2020, the Irish writer Colum McCann’s powerful and humane novel Apeirogon was longlisted for the Booker Prize. After reading it, one of my Jewish authors said to me she would never walk down a street in Jerusalem and feel the same way.
Last year, Susan Abulhawa’s novel Against the Loveless World was a winner of a Palestine Book Award. I was Edward Said’s final editor, and this year Timothy Brennan’s biography of Said, Places of Mind, won the Palestine Book Award for biography.
Sally Rooney is not the only author to cause a storm with her support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. In 2019, Kamila Shamsie had the Nelly Sachs prize for literature, awarded to writers promoting “tolerance and reconciliation”, rescinded by the city of Dortmund.
“It is a matter of great sadness to me,” she said, “that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.”
Shamsie, along with Geoff Dyer, Andrew O’Hagan, Eileen Myles, Hanan al-Shaykh, Gillian Slovo, Carmen Callil, China Mieville, Pankaj Mishra, and many other PalFest signatories, had, like me, got on and off buses, struggled through checkpoints, read to audiences in cities and universities through Palestine, and seen, with our own eyes, why it was that Rooney made the decision she did.
And that is why we signed in support of her.
Alexandra Pringle was editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing for 20 years; she is now executive publisher