Amid the focus on the economic hardships caused by Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, it has been easy for many to overlook the fact that the territory’s 1.6 million people have been kept under a cultural siege as well.
This is ironic because much international debate has emphasized the rights and wrongs of cultural boycott of Israel in the context of the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions(BDS) campaign.
For years, the Palestine Festival of Literature — PalFest — has been trying to break this siege.
PalFest began in 2008 in the West Bank, and tried its best to come to Gaza in 2009 with the clear objective of connecting international writers with Palestinian writers and audiences in Gaza. However, Israeli occupation forces denied organizers entry permits through the Erez crossing in the north of the Gaza Strip. In 2010, PalFest organizers tried again to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing — along the Strip’s border with Egypt — but were also denied entry by the regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011.
Academics, intellectuals and students had eagerly followed the news of whether or not the authors invited by PalFest would be allowed into Gaza this year. Undeterred by the disappointing denial, some authors last year were able to take part via video conference (see video of Haidar Eid’s 2010 introduction).
On 5 May this year, some 14 months after the Egyptian revolution began, we were finally able to welcome PalFest — and an impressive group of writers, artists, bloggers and social activists — to Gaza.
This would scarcely have been possible without the uprisings in the Arab world. This gathering demonstrates that despite the Palestinian cause being hijacked by dictatorships for many years, it continues to bring Arabs together as well and helps foster a re-emergent sense of pan-Arabism.
Not without a struggle
Egyptian novelist and PalFest founder Ahdaf Soueif, wrote in the independent daily al-Shorouk about the motivations behind the festival: “Civil society brings to life the conscience of the world, travelling by sea and air to express solidarity with our brothers in Gaza … the world asks: Will the Egyptian revolution, the awakening of Egypt, change the circumstances under which Palestine lives?” (“Palestine Literature Festival,” 2 May 2012 [Arabic])
And although PalFest did finally come to Gaza this year, it wasn’t without a struggle. It is well known that the Egyptian government has contributed to the Israeli-engineered siege on Gaza. In spite of bureaucracy, restrictions and delays from the Egyptian foreign ministry to issue entry permits for the 43 writers, PalFest participants were so determined that they undertook a media campaign until the permits were granted.
A joyful, but delayed welcome
On 5 May at 2pm, and after thorough preparations inside and outside Gaza for the upcoming events, six BDS activists were on the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and the guests were on the Egyptian side.
But the hours passed and the sky began to darken. PalFest producer Omar Hamilton called. “Things are fine with most of us, but still there are issues with some of the participants’ papers!”
It was Alaa Abed El-Fattah, his wife Manal and their infant son Khaled who were sent back, but not for long as they joined the group the next day.
Only at 7pm, ululations and chants rolled through the place where the hosts were standing when they saw the bus approaching.
Healing wounds not breaking legs
“Culture, art and academia contribute directly to shaping the individual and collective consciousness,” said Dr. Haidar Eid, PalFest’s partner in Gaza and a professor at al-Aqsa University, at a press conference and welcoming ceremony at Rafah as soon as the guests crossed.
Eid, active with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PACBI), spoke about the growth of BDS campaigns around the globe that aim to pressure Israel to end its policies of apartheid, colonization, abuses of human rights and regular violations of international law.
Solidarity with the Palestinian people through BDS is one of the key unarmed forms of resistance, he said. “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” Eid said, quoting Bertolt Brecht.
Eid also recalled the words of Mubarak’s last foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who once promised to “break the legs” of Palestinians if they dared “breach Egypt’s national security.” This time, “our brothers and sisters from Egypt are coming to kiss the feet of Gaza children, to heal the wounds created by the dictator’s regime,” Eid said.