x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

All roads lead to Palfest

Last word Checkpoint by checkpoint, Robin Yassin-Kassab attends the Palestine Festival of Literature.

Checkpoint by checkpoint, Robin Yassin-Kassab attends the Palestine Festival of Literature. We entered Palestine from the east, crossing the Allenby Bridge over the trickle that remains of the diverted, overused and drought-stricken Jordan river. The Dead Sea glittered in the hollow to our left. Jericho, the world's oldest city, shimmered through heat haze to our right. The site where Jesus was baptised was a stone's throw away. Palestine is most definitely part of Bilad ash Sham, in the same cultural zone as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but it is also definitely like nowhere else on the planet. Suddenly the superlatives were coming thick and fast.

Palestine feels like a continent, one that's been crushed and folded to fit into the narrow strip of fertile land between the river and the sea. The Jordan Valley depression is the lowest point on earth, part of the Rift Valley that stretches from east Africa, and it's as hot as the Gulf. But only a few miles up from the yellowed, cratered desert into the green hills before Jerusalem, the weather is very different. As we left Ramallah a couple of nights later, gusts of fog blew in on an icy wind. If a Palestinian in the West Bank manages to find an unoccupied hilltop, he can look all the way to the forbidden Mediterranean and perhaps pick out the fields of his ancestral village.

I was there as a participant in the second Palestine Festival of Literature, the brainchild of the British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I was delighted and somewhat humbled to be in the company of so many wonderful writers and publishers, among them the Python and world traveller Michael Palin, the best-selling crime novelist Henning Mankel, the Pride and Prejudice screenplay writer Deborah Moggach, and the novelists Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Jamal Mahjoub and Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Because Palestinians have such difficulty moving from one town to another, Palfest moves, as best it can, to its audiences. We travelled between Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin and Hebron. The unpleasant business of the checkpoints - each one harder work than boarding an international flight - made these cities feel almost like separate countries. In Bethlehem I met Sawsan Shomali, a professor of English Literature, who hasn't been allowed to enter Jerusalem, the city of her birth, in 15 years, even though it is walking distance away. It goes without saying that Palfest was unable to reach Gaza, although the authorities there invited us.

One of the week's highlights was hiking with Raja Shehadeh, author of the humane book Palestinian Walks. In an area where Palestinians are forbidden to ramble without a permit, our straggling party wound between ancient olive trees and up a terraced slope to an old qasr; the Arabic word means "palace", but this was a stone summer shelter for the olive-picking families. Still, "palace" didn't seem a misnomer. In the village of Ain Qenya, we saw gardens of figs, prickly pears and mulberries. The matriarch of the first home we came to rushed to fill us a bottle of spring water while her husband rolled me a cigarette of his garden-grown tobacco. If you close your eyes to the omnipresent signs of occupation, life feels close to perfect here, for a few seconds, and the Palestinians become kings of beauty.

But open eyes cannot avoid the fortified settlements claiming every high point and ridge, collectively forming an architecture of intimidation to shadow the valley-huddled Palestinian towns, villages and shanties. Juxtaposed with this reality, Barack Obama's concern to stop further settlement construction appears belated, to say the least. Very little of Palestine remains and what remains is damaged. Instead of making the desert bloom, Zionism has vandalised the hills. The earth is being churned up at great speed by roads started and abandoned, roads closed entirely and others allocated only for settler use. Suad Amiry, the very funny author of Sharon and my Mother-in-Law, talked in Ramallah of becoming lost in her own town after the passage of only a week, such is the constant change imposed on the topography.

In Bethlehem's Aida camp, the giant separation wall loomed over the camp's claustrophobic alleyways. My fellow Palfest participant Jeremy Harding described it well: "To be on the West Bank is to feel like a walking X-ray or a tagged convict, monitored in high places." Aida was in some ways reminiscent of Yarmuk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, where I've spent many happy hours. But the two were fundamentally different; in Aida, bullet holes decorate the buildings.

For our international group of writers, this was an education, and it was tremendously moving, particularly on the day we visited Hebron. Most Palestinian population centres are surrounded by Israeli forces. In Hebron, there are also 400 gun-wielding settlers, themselves guarded by 1,500 soldiers, occupying the historic city centre. After our readings, workshops and a panel discussion at Hebron University, we went to observe the results. We walked through streets of shuttered shops, under a mesh ceiling the Palestinians have put up to protect pedestrians from rubbish thrown by the settlers who live on the upper storeys. People warned us to move quickly, as the settlers sometimes pour urine. We negotiated three checkpoints just to get into the Ibrahimi mosque, where Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in 1994. The delight of any old Arab city is the sensation of freedom it offers - the ability to disappear under arches, around corners, through passageways. But Hebron's freedom has been robbed by iron gates and concrete blocks.

We experienced further obstruction in Jerusalem. At the entrance to the Aqsa mosque compound our passports were collected by Israeli soldiers who told us we couldn't go in because the Muslims didn't want us to. Surreally, even as this excuse was being given, a representative of the Islamic Awqaf - which supposedly has authority over the site - was begging the troops to let us enter. Eventually I managed to slip in through another gate with some other Muslims from our party.

Later I walked through a corner of the Jewish quarter. As this was the Old City, I expected to see Palestinian Jews. Instead I saw ungainly new houses inhabited by Ashkenazis, some armed, who did not look happy. It wasn't Hebron, but it was tense. So there was a great deal of bad news, some of it specific to the festival. Five of us with Arab names, myself included, were held by Israeli security for five hours at the Allenby Bridge crossing. Twice, our events at East Jerusalem's Palestine National Theatre were closed. The opening-night crowd was nosing its way to the seats when a troop of heavily-armed, sunglassed Israeli soldiers muscled in and ordered us out. With guns at our backs we walked down the street to the French Cultural Centre and carried on.

But despite everything, we had a lot of fun. There was music, inspiration and conversation. There were happy audiences and great meals. At one I harangued Mahmoud Abbas's chief of staff, Rafiq Husseini (who took it like the gentleman he clearly is); at another I found myself talking to the heroic Mordechai Vanunu, who told the world about Israel's nuclear weapons programme, earning himself 18 years in prison, 12 of them in solitary confinement. On the last night, there was even dancing.

The best news was the resilience of the people, whether manifested by organisations like the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, which restores Old City buildings and offers free services to those families willing to stay despite settler pressure, or by islands of free expression such as the Sakakini Centre in Ramallah, where I saw the Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad perform. Her poetry is tender, engaged, very particular and tremendously dynamic. In its attitude and hip-hop rhythms it is both totally Palestinian and totally Brooklyn - a fitting representative of a culture more than capable of responding to relentless change. At Bir Zeit university I helped run a workshop on "the role of writing in changing political realities". When asked to brainstorm ideas for expressing Palestinian reality through stories, each group of students came up with ideas worthy of production. Beyond Bir Zeit's lecture halls, all Palestine is bubbling with creative energy and intelligence, and this filled me with hope.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel published by Hamish Hamilton.