Friday, April 15, 2011

PalFest 2011: Day 1 - Ahdaf Soueif

So here we are at the end of Day One of the Festival and we’ve done it!

Our authors got through the King Hussein Bridge. Three were detained and questioned and questioned – and questioned. The rest waited for them and they all arrived in Jerusalem in time for some tea on the hotel terrace before heading off for our opening event at the African Community Centre in the heart of the Old City.

And in the heart of the Old City, surprise surprise, a new military barricade had sprung up just at the entrance to the African Community Centre. The armed Israeli soldiers as usual with their “forbidden, forbidden” – and the usual pretense that what they were doing was to protect the Aqsa Mosque. So we insisted that we weren’t going to the mosque and we kind of elbowed through. But the soldiers did manage to stop some of the audience and their presence meant that the reception and music that were meant to be on the street didn’t happen.

Never mind, we got on with the event: some great oud and songs by the terrific Golan musician Madar al-Mughrabi. You know, that’s a little indicator in itself: a Syrian musician with a Moroccan surname, performing Egyptian songs – Sheikh Imam and Sayyed Darwish no less – to a Palestinian audience – and it all totally normal and everyone knowing the songs and just about holding back from singing along. Anyway: then a great panel performance from Bidisha, Mohamad Hanif, Richard Price and Gary Young moderated by Najwan Darwish. The event was attended by many of our old friends including Wafa Darwish, Albert Agazerian and his two daughters, Suha Khuffash from the British Council and the new British Consul Sir Vincent Fean and many others.

I had to run off and do a BBC World interview – in an ENTIRELY empty huge television centre - and talk up the Egyptian Revolution – totally genuinely. How odd that the media still talks in terms of One Man: isn’t it a problem that the Revolution doesn’t have ‘A Leader’? (No, it’s not; it’s good that the Revolution is so broad-based and so authentic and so communally owned), how can you trust Field-Marshall Tantawi to deliver when he was part of the establishment? (Well, he is delivering, and he can’t act out of his personal will; he clearly has to act in negotiation – at least – with the wish of the people) and so on.

Ran back to the Festival in time for dinner at the amazing Jerusalem Hotel: maqloubeh and minty lemon and more Egyptian music. This time very loud and dancy. And who should come dancing in but our great friend, the irrepressible Munther Fahmi, owner and manager of the Bookshop at the American Colony, who is currently fighting a deportation order that would see him exiled from his native Jerusalem. If you’ve not yet joined the thousands of the great and the good who have signed the petition against his deportation please SIGN.

Oh, and earlier today, while the other PalFestians were setting up in the Africa Centre I hopped off to Bethlehem to take part in the KidsFest that PalFest and Lajee Centre and the Hoping Foundation set up in Aida Camp. The 400 or so kids had reading workshops and singing and puppetry and face-painting and the grand climax was every child tying a message or a wish to the string of a helium balloon and everyone letting go at the same time and the balloons floating in a swarm of colour into the sky. One little boy said he hoped his balloon would get to Gaza. Rich Wiles and the leaders of the Centre there were exhaustedly happy and Rich can now go on a one-day holiday to Jericho with his Palestinian bride.

What’s also very heartening is to see how many of the volunteers there are young men and women who grew up in the Camp and who were themselves children at Lajee. Some have stayed within Palestine, others come back from universities and jobs across the world to volunteer at Lajee for a couple of months a year. Lajee says they bring energy and hope. They say the kids at Lajee give them energy and hope.

“Only connect,” famously said E M Forster. And that’s what we’re doing. All of us. Children and adults, artists and audiences, Palestinians, Arabs and Internationals. We insist on the dynamic and creative links between us, on maintaining them, enlarging and intensifying them.  This is what matters, and this is what, across the world, will shape our future.

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