Palfest: Who represents whom in literature?

This year’s Palfest raises important questions of the politics of literary representation.

palestine festival of literature
The Palestine Festival of Literature is an annual event attracting dozens of international literary figures [Jamie Archer]

On the opening night of the seventh Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) in Ramallah, an impassioned controversy broke out over the political correctness of literary and cultural representations of Palestinians in world literature. The renowned Danish writer Hanne-Vibeke Holst read an excerpt from her 2011 novel, Undskyldningen (The Apology), which injects a Palestinian turned suicide bomber, Khalil, into a rocky relationship between a liberal mother, Helena Tholstrup, and her daughter Sophie. Holst had not finished reading when some members of audience audibly made it clear that such images are offensive and outrageous.

International literary and cultural event like PalFest are no strangers to controversy, but they also can offer excellent and productive opportunities to reflect on the ways in which literary and cultural production can help transcend stereotypical Orientalist images. They can also open up a space for cultural dialogue, soul searching, and mutual translation.

Power and culture

This annual literary and cultural festival brings together dozens of international literary figures, artists and musical bands. They come to Palestine to reaffirm the world’s solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberty and human dignity against the inhumane and immoral Israeli apartheid state and Zionist settler-colonialism. Indeed, these luminaries are even more than willing to endure hours of humiliation, interrogation and detainment at the Israeli military border checkpoints just to attend the event.

These writers come to Palestine in order to celebrate, as the organisers state using a quote from the late Palestinian academic and public intellectual Edward Said, “the power of culture over the culture of power”. However, the relationship between power and culture, as Said has taught us, is more vexing than what this neat and elegant chiasmatic phrase suggests. Nowhere is this link more troubling than in the question of literary and cultural representations, and especially the Orientalist images of Palestinians and other colonised nations. These cultural images are embedded in institution of power and, hence, are genuine expressions of political beliefs.

Interestingly enough, three of the readings on the opening night of this year’s PalFest dealt, in one way or another, with these stereotypical Orientalist representations. They managed to suggest subtle ways for subverting these images or understanding the causes and implications of their existence. The internationally-renowned Sri-Lankan-Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatji read a scene from his novel The Cat’s Table, in which three Sri Lankan boys travel to Canada on board of a ship that sails through the Suez Canal.

The passage that Ondaatji read out described a scene in which someone on the banks of the Canal throws an orange to these teenage boys. In that scene, the owner of the orange remains an anonymous Egyptian in the darkness of the desert.

The scene itself reminded me of all those invisible African faces that Joseph Conrad’s Marlow cannot see in the bushes in Heart of Darkness. And yet this scene was different. The agency of the Egyptian Arab vanishes in the heart of darkness with his name and idiosyncrasy, but Ondaatji still manages to show his or her humanity in a simple gesture (the throwing of an orange to the Sri Lankan boys), an act of compassion and solidarity with fellow postcolonial subjects.

This might not be unexpected for a writer like Ondaatji, whose fiction explores the ramifications of the colonial encounter and the intricacies of the postcolonial scene. It is also significant that this scene, however short, does not invoke those stereotypical Orientalist images, to please the perverse appetites of media and publishing moguls and many of their customers.

Fighting stereotypes

In a more problematic way, Hanne-Vibeke Holst recycles the stereotype of the Muslim suicide-bomber, in order to criticise the alleged multicultural openness of the European liberals. In her book, Holst uses a Muslim character of Palestinian origin, Khalil (who sports a scar on his cheek that might have been inspired by Mohammad Bakri) as a narrative device that can bring into crisis the dysfunctional relationship between Helena, art director of the Berlin Opera, and her rebellious daughter Sophie. The libidinal investment in Khalil here smacks of the typical “bad boy” syndrome in fiction, but his representation as a Palestinian Muslim racialises the image in a way that could be seen as insensitive and insulting.

Although the book might use these Oriental images, it is important to point out that its aim is to deconstruct and dissect the racist subtext of European liberals, who sell their open-minded multiculturalism all over the world, but refuse to concede to it when it hits home. The novel shows Helena insisting on staging a controversial opera and yet refusing to accept her daughter falling in love with a Palestinian Muslim. Holst is clearly taking a risk here, because the price she pays for disclosing the racist fantasies of the liberal European is precisely the reproduction of the same pernicious stereotypes that she herself seems to be fighting.

While in Ondaatji the postcolonial subject travels in the realm of the empire and in Hanne-Vibeke the Oriental subject moves West, in Brigid Keenan’s work the upper-class female Westerner travels East, meeting the “Orientals” on their own terrain. Keenan read from her autobiographical book, Diplomatic Baggage, in which she records her witty remarks and humorous observations about the life of a diplomat’s wife in India and other places. Keenan obviously draws on a long tradition of travel literature, using the conventional device of the “culture-shocked Westerner in a strange land”. Needless to say, this genre reeks of colonial nostalgia and the many troublesome Orientalist images that beset genuine cultural dialogues and mutual translation.

In her comic style, Keenan subjects herself to self-deprecating humour, becoming an object of the same comic representations she uses in depicting the other characters and peoples from the Global South that populate her narrative. She even allows the Oriental “other” to mock her, offering the reader a detailed description of the Syrian ambassador snoozing throughout the dinner party she was hosting. She even admits that returning home is more emotionally and physically exhausting than traveling in these “strange” lands.

Nonetheless, comic self-criticism does not really counterbalance the absence of positive representations of the postcolonial “other” and it does not offset some of these negative representations of Indians as irrational or ineffective. Moreover, as Cynthia Enloe made clear in her book, Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Western officials and their trailing spouses, by their mere presence, voluntarily or involuntarily, support neocolonial policies that wreak social, economic and political havoc in the Global South.

The writer’s dilemma that authors like Holst, Ondaatji and Keenan face should not be underestimated. On one hand, writers should not submit their imagination and free expression to the tyranny of political correctness. On the other hand, they need to negotiate with a publishing industry that does not easily welcome new and non-stereotypical representations that may not sell well.

The writer’s predicament cannot be envied. Yet his or her power to convey solidarity with the oppressed should give us faith. After all, this is why we gather at the PalFest every year.

Dr Jamil Khader, Professor of English at Stetson University, is completing a year-long Fulbright  Fellowship at Bir Zeit University, Palestine. He is the author of numerous publications on postcolonial feminism, popular culture and literary theory.