This past weekend I attended “All That’s Left to You: Palestinian Writers in Conversation”, a panel that was part of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. For three years Sarah Schulman, Arte East and I—at first separately and then together—had worked to make this historic panel a reality. Jakab Orsos, the new director of the Festival, was an enthusiastic promoter of the event, and it was thanks to support from the Lannan Foundation and the Open Society Foundations that the Palestinian writers were able to come to New York to participate in the premiere North American literary gathering.
As PEN noted in its own description of the event, “For the first time in the Festival’s history PEN brings together a panel of leading Palestinian writers to take their place in the global literary community. From Palestine and from the diaspora, they will share their work, experiences, and visions, revealing how a literature is both imagined and created under occupation, siege and exile.” The title for the panel, suggested by one of the writers, “All That’s Left to You,” is taken from the title of a novella by Ghassan Khanafani, a revered Palestinian journalist and fiction writer who was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut in 1972.
The panelists were Adania Shibli, who teaches at Birzeit University in Ramallah, Najwan Darwish, who divides his time between Haifa and Jerusalem, and Randa Jarrar, who lives and teaches in Fresno, California. Their conversation was moderated by the esteemed Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury. The Tishman Auditorium at The New School was full—there were approximately five hundred people in attendance—and the afternoon was a triumph. Each of the writers read for 7-10 minutes: Randa chose a beautiful and poignant short fiction set in Gaza called “The Story of My Building’; Adania read a hilarious and biting excerpt from her essay “On East-West Dialogue”; Najwan read three stunning poems in Arabic, with the English translations projected on a screen behind him (see an exemplary poem here). Then the writers answered two questions about identity and exile posed by Elias Khoury, before taking questions from the audience.
The event was historic for a number of reasons. It was the first time that PEN had hosted a panel made up solely of Palestinian writers. Each of the writers represented a different segment of Palestinian society—one from the Diaspora, one a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and one who resides in the Occupied West Bank. It was the first time I have ever heard Palestinian writers speak in a mainstream literary venue in New York City the unvarnished truth about the misery of occupation, the humiliations they are put through by the Israeli government when traveling in and out of Israel and Palestine (read about Randa’s saga here), and the catastrophic ongoing loss and fragmentation experienced by the Palestinian people since 1948. The audience’s enthusiastic applause at the close of the session made me feel that we had inched a little closer to justice.
May 9, 2013