A culture of exchange or elitism?

A look at whether the dominance of the English language undermines Arab cultural initiatives.

palestine festival of literature
The majority of readings at the Palestine Festival of Literature are in English [Credit: Jamie Archer]

Perched on the stage of Al Hakawati, Jerusalem’s largest theatre, four authors from the Palestine Festival of Literature shared turns reading excerpts from their texts.

Members of the audience listened closely, some adjusting their headphones awaiting a translation of the English language readings.

Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian-British novelist and PalFest founder, sits on the transformed stage that resembles a British tea lounge, to moderate the opening night of the six-day festival.

Among the four writers are Najwan Darwish, a poet and critic from Jerusalem, Victoria Brittain, a former editor of British newspaper The Guardian, and Susan Abulhawa whose novel Mornings in Jenin was originally published in 2006 as The Scar of David.

“Jenin was the experience that changed me. Seeing human cruelty so close made me want to tell their story and counter the mainstream media’s portrayal [of the Jenin massacre in 2002],” Abulhawa told the crowd.

‘Unbound culture’

The first night of the festival honoured the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who had to cancel his participation because of illness, making Darwish the only participant to read in Arabic that night.

He recited a humorous poem about a man who no longer feels anything except for the “fabrication” of the past and present.

In Nablus, the crowd was what one would politely call “cosmopolitan”. Most made the trip from Ramallah and Jerusalem, others were foreigners who worked in Nablus with various NGOs.

Boys from nearby neighbourhoods climbed to the dome of Nablus’ Qasir al Kasem – an old palace restored by Riwaq, a NGO funded by the Swedish government that restores architectural heritage in Palestine – to watch Palestinian-American slam poets Suheir Hammad and Remi Kanazi perform in English, this time to an audience with no headphones.

For six days, PalFest authors toured various refugee camps and centres in Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem and Ramallah in an attempt to engage with the local population, but towns inside Israel with a sizeable Palestinian-Israeli population, such as Haifa, Acre, Jaffa and Nazareth, were not on the festival’s itinerary.

“I know how difficult it is to work under the harassment of the occupation,” said Darwish.

“But, I believe that the festival activities should reach Palestinians in 1948 occupied Palestine.

“Culture should not be bound with ‘Oslo’ borders. Palestine is not only comprised of the West Bank and Gaza.”

For Palestinians living inside Israel – often referred to as the “48 Arabs” for remaining in their towns and villages after the creation of Israel – the idea of being geographically fragmented and separated from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is not new.

“The state of Israel has not succeeded in separating Palestinians [inside Israel] from our identity and culture,” Rasha Hilwi, a writer and radio journalist based in Haifa, said.

“Acre, Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa – this will always be part of Palestine.”

Attack on Arabic

For patrons and participants, the idea of the festival was clear: To bring foreign writers to Palestine, and to have them interact with a Palestinian audience.

Inspired by Edward Said’s call to “reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power”, Soueif wrote in The Guardian that the motivation of PalFest is “to allow people to see each other” – a method, she said in Jerusalem, which allows a “two-way cultural exchange”.

But for many, the exchange was not an equal one.

Most of the educational programming in the festival seemed to target English-speaking Palestinians from middle class backgrounds, who are a minority in the West Bank.

In between performances in Nablus, PalFest author Suad Amiry jokingly told the audience that the reason for the night’s English-language readings was because Palestinians are “smart enough to understand English”.

The reasons, however, go beyond one’s intellectual capabilities and for many contribute to what they see as an attack on the Arabic language, whether through the imposition of Hebrew inside Israel or of English in Ramallah.

During the 2003 Israeli elections, Jowan Safadi, a Palestinian from Nazareth, worked alongside Azmi Bishara in the Tajamu’ campaign as a copywriter. That year, the party ran a public awareness campaign on the deformation of the Arabic language in Israeli-controlled education, culture and media.

“We were, and still are, forced to speak and interact in Hebrew at work and in schools,” Safadi said.

“The coming generations may not even speak in Arabic with the way Hebrew and English are being imposed on us.

“Even literature translated into Arabic is unreadable. And now you have these PalFest writers, like Suad Amiry and Raja Shehadah, who were both raised in Palestine, but write in English. If this is not ironic, I don’t know what irony is.”

Culture of imperialism

But this problem is not unique to PalFest or Israel’s Palestinian minority.

From Beirut to Amman, much of today’s cultural activities are conducted not in Arabic but in English, thus restricting the audience to either middle class English-speaking Arabs or Western ex-pats.

“The dominance of the English language is a sign of the NGO era here in occupied Palestine,” Darwish said.

“In some Arab societies the high and abnormal usage of English is a sign of class orientation. Simply, it’s the old lesson of culture and imperialism.”

Still, the PalFest has come a long way since its 2008 inauguration.

Unlike last year, when only four of the 21 featured writers were Palestinians, this year – with Palestinian writer Adania Shibli hired as a curator – organisers say they have made an effort to increase the number of Palestinian writers featured in an attempt to “Palestinianise” the festival.

“PalFest wants more Palestinian participation on every front,” Ahdaf Soueif said.

“This year, because PalFest had Adania as curator … we were able to make the connections and get more local artists to take part.

“PalFest would like to go to Haifa and Nazareth. It would also very much like to go to Gaza. But the festival has very little money and very few workers. It punches way above its weight; but it doesn’t have the capacity to do everything it would like to do. One day, when it has the resources, it will go.”

Sousan Hammad is a writer based in Nazareth who has worked in international film and literature festivals in the past. Her website and blog can be viewed at www.sousanhammad.com

Source: Al Jazeera