The liberated space of Palestine Writes 

Nicki Kattoura

Mondoweiss  /  September 28, 2023

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival was a liberated space for Palestinians to speak and dream freely. It was an unequivocal display of love for a land and her people, their history and their future.

During the second Palestine Writes Festival this past weekend in Philadelphia, two floors of Irvine Hall, a rotunda-shaped building on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, were crowded with vendors selling keffiyehs, embroidered dresses, and bags, notebooks, shirts, jewelry, and olive oil among other things. Of course, a vast selection of books, in both Arabic and English, were piled high on tables and available for perusal and purchase. The selection was diverse in genre, from memoirs, poetry, and children’s stories to essays, novels, and translations. A singular hallway was lined with rooms that were packed with audiences rapt in silence as they witnessed, in both Arabic and English, discussions, interviews, panels, lectures, and readings. 

While the subject matter was vast and the speakers were from all around the world, a singular undercurrent existed that bound all of Irvine Hall together: a deep love for Palestine and an unshaken commitment to her freedom. 

Despite the event being met with the all-too-familiar racist, Zionist backlash in the form of false accusations of antisemitism, Palestine Writes was a beautifully moving success. Setting out to celebrate anticolonial, cultural resistance, and the long, rich, multi-faceted history of Palestine, the festival delivered a forum to confront, in the words of Edward Said, the “culture of power with the power of culture.”

In her opening remarks Executive Director, Susan Abulhawa, described this weekend as a way “to help see, hear, enjoy, and appreciate the indigenous heritage of one of the most fabled and tortured places on earth.” Indeed, with over 1,400 attendees coming from Palestine and the diaspora and one hundred speakers and cultural producers working in every medium, the three-day festival elevated the immense cultural contributions coming from the small strip of land nestled between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. 

One of the most striking aspects of the weekend was the almost immediate sense of kinship between all festival-goers. Whether illegal Israeli checkpoints, an apartheid wall that separates historic Palestine, or forced, violent displacement from our homeland, fragmentation and separation have seemingly become intrinsic to Palestinian identity. Yet, contrary to this shared trauma, those in attendance—most of whom were Palestinian—came together and forged deep connections making every introduction feel like a long-awaited reunion. 

In the middle of Irvine Hall, organizers displayed a map of Palestine. 29 feet in height and 10 feet in width, the map was populated with the original names of Palestinian villages. Children and adults crowded around it, pointing to which village they were from, finding others from the same place, and exchanging last names in the hopes that there was perhaps some shared ancestry or imagining what life in those small communities would have looked like before Israel. Unlike the oft-cited David Ben-Gurion quote that falsely assumed the “old will die and the young will forget,” Palestine Writes was a ritual of remembrance and a preservation of a beautiful history that is often victim to Zionist erasure.

During the weekend, I was deeply moved by the sacredness of gathering this many of us in one space. Not only because, as someone who has never been to Palestine, it was the first time I was around this many Palestinians, but also because it was a place for all of us to engage each other and confront the politics, strategies, and means through which we would achieve our liberation.

Beyond just preserving narrative histories of our stolen homeland, Palestine Writes represented a free and organic exchange of ideas that emerged out of our shared goal of Palestinian freedom. The generative nature of the event, building an intellectual community around Palestinians and accomplices, represented a profound act of resistance. Whether it was a panel on the history and significance of tatreez and Palestinian embroidery, a lecture on the production and distribution of prison literature, a colloquium on the necessity of anticolonial solidarity within the global south, or reflections on the revolutionary writings and contributions of Ghassan Kanafani, every event took seriously not just the possibility but also the necessity of a free Palestine. 

Palestine Writes, therefore, demonstrated the people’s ongoing refusal to be turned into static subjects of the military occupation and instead became a space in which we could reclaim our agency as creative, militant, knowledge-producing forces for Palestinian freedom.

In his essay on the role of culture in Palestinian liberation, Mohammed El-Kurd questions how cultural workers, specifically those with “mobility and access…can transcend symbolic identitarian gestures.” And while there isn’t a singular answer to this question, quoting Basel al-Araj, el-Kurd reiterates that to be “an intellectual is to be engaged” (the Arabic word for “engaged” here has a much more militant connotation). Perhaps this is what made Palestine Writes such a crucial political event.

El-Kurd writes, “collective struggle should be informed by the collective” and “without criticism or challenge, the dialectical relationship between the artist and the ‘street’ cannot be maintained or interrogated.” Palestine Writes revolved around engaged intellectuals, writers, and cultural producers—those whose artistic practices are only a means for liberating Palestine—often running parallel to other forms of organizing. With over one thousand Palestinians present, ideas around our identity, oppression, and strategies against occupation were exchanged, debated, critiqued, reshaped, and rearticulated. It is precisely this engagement and the space we took to foster and tend to the Palestinian-led liberation movement that made Palestine Writes so powerful and what made it such a threat to Israel and its Zionist supporters. 

In August 1967, Israel illegitimately institutionalized Military Order 101, denying Palestinians the right to free assembly by criminalizing unpermitted political gatherings of more than ten people. Unsurprisingly, Israeli-issued permits for protests against Israel are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. 56 years later, and still Palestinians cannot gather, cannot raise their flag, and are criminalized for any way they choose to struggle. Although this order only applies in the occupied territory, the backlash to the festival represents how these strictures are often enforced against Palestinians worldwide—those of us who struggle to find the space and opportunity for political community. Palestine Writes was a threat to Zionists just by virtue of uncompromisingly gathering Palestinians from all around the world to talk about our shared condition and freedom dreams.

The festival provided a liberated space for Palestinians to speak freely on their condition. No time was wasted on defending our humanity and right to live with dignity, and no one (during the conference at least) had to apologize or be held to account for fabricated accusations of antisemitism from Zionist discontents. Coming into the space together with a shared understanding of the crises that face us allowed us to reflect on where the movement stands, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and where it goes from here.

A gathering of Palestinians as intimate as this one doesn’t come often. Elders and ‘48 survivors, academics and intellectuals, young activists and thinkers, children and siblings, filmmakers and journalists and artists and poets and writers and tailors and cultural producers of all kinds congregating, collaborating, and connecting was a powerful show of solidarity and a culmination of a long, arduous, continuing struggle against Israeli occupation. 

While Zionists may be convinced that the festival was designed to spew hate, anyone in attendance would know that it was unequivocally one of the most beautiful displays of love, not just for a land and her history, but for her people and their future. 

Nicki Kattoura is a Palestinian writer and editor based in Philadelphia