More than 3,000 people celebrated Palestinian culture, literature and community at the first Palestine Writes Literature Festival in North America. From December 2 to 6, the online global festival hosted live talks, cooking sessions, programming for children, an art exhibition, a poetry performance, music and various workshops.
The festival was initially scheduled to be held at New York University in March, but was delayed and forced to go virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 70 speakers, authors and artists were invited to share their work and celebrate Palestine.
Susan Abulhawa, 50, novelist and co-organizer of the festival, said that she was first brought in as an advisor to the organizing committee last year. The first iteration of the festival was called “Palestine Writes Back,” and was largely missing Palestinian organizers. Her colleagues on the committee realized this and were open to her suggestion that the festival’s original agenda be expanded and shifted.
“Palestinians are not this dichotomy that exists in popular imagination... we are neither terrorists or pitiable victims, we are not romati[cized] heros that can endure everything,” Abulhawa told Palestine Square in a Zoom call. “The way we exist in popular imagination is so mytholygized and villainized. And we want[ed] this festival to show Palestinians in the fullness of our humanity [and] the brilliance of our cultural productions, in our shortcomings, and in our beauty and nuances.”
“That’s what the festival is for. To show Palestinians in full color, in full sound, and full human form.”
Made in Palestine
Organizers of the festival wanted to employ Palestinians to set up the digital space. uMake, a Ramallah-based coworking and makerspace company, managed the technological set-ups for the festival that was powered by vFairs. Abulhawa also brought three Gaza-based Palestinians onto the organizing committee.
Aya Al-Zinati, 31, is a filmmaker and journalist. She contributed her video-production skills to help disseminate information about the festival. She was first introduced to Abulhawa (who was a participant) in 2013 during the Palestine Festival of Literature in Gaza and later worked on promotional video material for Abulhawa’s published poetry collection, My Voice Sought the Wind.
The pop-up video of a Palestinian peasant woman welcoming attendees to the festival upon log-in was animated by Mohammed Alhaj, a 30-year-old Palestinian filmmaker and video editor. Alhaj was attracted to the message of the festival and offered to help with video and design. A refugee living in besieged Gaza, he said that the Palestine Writes Festival provides a space for free expression, despite propaganda being spewed against Palestinians.
“The festival virtually bridged the distance between communities in Palestine and the diaspora,” Alhaj told Palestine Square in a WhatsApp call. “It allowed us to interact, to [share] songs, poetry, art, and heritage… we are a kind and peaceful people who exist through literature while others exist [only] through violence.”
Anas Herzalah, 20, is a graphic designer also based in Gaza. He was first introduced to Abulhawa through Upwork, an online freelancing platform, where she hired him to create social media marketing material for the festival. He then joined the organizing committee as a volunteer.
“It has truly been a great experience working with purpose out of love for our homeland, its heritage and genuine literature,” Herzallah told Palestine Square in a WhatsApp call.
A Celebration of Palestinian Imagination
Ayah El-Fahmawi, 23, a full-time clinical researcher, emerging Palestinian poet, and co-organizer of the festival, said that she was initially going to be a speaker as part of the in-person poetry performance. After the festival shifted online, El-Fahmawi was asked to moderate and curate the poetry performance segment titled “Palestine in Parallel,” which took place on the festival’s first day.
The lineup of performers included renown and emerging Palestinian, Native American and African poets, including Remi Kenazi, Jamila Osman, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Dareen Tatour, Rafeef Ziadeh, Lina Khalaf Tufaha, Tariq Luthin, Tahani Saleh, Mark Tilsen, Fargo Tbakhi, and Fady Joudeh.
The poets were asked to think about two questions as they selected their performance pieces: ‘Who are you in a free Palestine?’ and ‘What does Palestine look like when it’s free?”
“I want us to think about our history and our place in time, but I also want us to think about this radical imagination that (we) as artists and poets can have,” El-Fahmawi told Palestine Square in a Zoom call. “Poetry presents us with a unique opportunity to imagine an alternate reality, another future. I think it starts here [with] cultural production before it manifests into reality,”
El-Fahmawi also performed during the poetry segment.
“We want[ed] to communicate that as Palestinians we own our stories no matter what the rest of the world has to say about it,” El-Fahmawi said. “Not only do we own our stories in the way that we tell our narrative [or] talk about our history but we also own our joy.”
El-Fahmawi, who spent most of her life between Canada and the USA, said that community building efforts, like the Palestine Writes Festival, strengethen links to Palestinian culture.
“For me, this radical celebration of ourselves, our music, our food, our writing, and our cultural production is something that we can and should have a lot of pride in.”
On the fourth day, the festival held a film screening for “Odyssey of Hope,” a short film about a Palestinian family trying to reunite after seven years of forced separation as a result of the Israeli offensive against Gaza in 2014.
The film’s director, Ahmad Mansour, 30, was born and raised in Gaza’s Maghazi refugee camp before moving to New York to study film in 2015. He now resides in Washington, DC.
“Odyssey of Home is still a work in progress,” Mansour told Palestine Square in a Zoom call. “But I’m excited to screen it in a Palestinian-led, Palestinian-focused, and Palestinian-oriented festival. To have it there is something I [will] cherish for the rest of my life.”
Mansour was a registered attendee for the in-person festival. After the pandemic hit, Mansour was asked to join the organizing committee to produce videos to promote the festival in Palestine.
“I think the great thing about Palestine Writes [is that] it celebrates who we are without our oppressor in the picture, and without the allies of our oppressor in the picture.”
Abulhawa expressed hope that the festival will grow in upcoming years, and will be able to offer scholarships, writing residencies, and further collaboration with Native American and African American literary figures.
“We want [Palestine Writes] to be an institution that expands the Palestinian cultural footprint in the world, precisely at the time that Israel is shrinking our physical footprint; the land beneath our feet.”
The festival closed Sunday afternoon with a keynote session that brought together legendary cultural and political figures who have been life-long champions for Palestinian rights: Angela Davis, Hanan Ashrawi and Richard Falk.
All sessions have been recorded and are available to access on the festival’s platform for one month.