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PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: Palestinian Writers in Conversation

By Liel Leibovitz

The decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict has yielded many harrowing developments, but none, arguably, more absurd than the un-improvable bit of legal coinage that deemed a portion of Israel’s Palestinian residents as present absentees. The term applies to tens of thousands of Palestinians who resided inside what, in 1948, became the newly founded land of Israel, who had fled their homes or were expelled after the war broke out in May of that year, and who had chosen to remain in the newly minted Jewish state. These Palestinians, despite receiving Israeli citizenship, were presented by their new government with a Kafkaesque reality: they were citizens, yes, but, having left their homes, even if involuntarily, they were not permitted to return to their properties, forced to live in exile in their own homeland. They were simultaneously present and absent; like Schrödinger’s cat, they existed and yet they didn’t.

This strange quandary was perpetually on display in “All That’s Left to You: Palestinian Writers in Conversation,” the first PEN panel dedicated to artists from a country that, technically speaking, has always existed and yet doesn’t yet exist. And it was on display in the work and biographies of the three young panelists as well, two of whom were born and reside in Israel and a third who was born in Chicago, grew up in Kuwait, and settled in California. Asked by the moderator, the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, to comment on this complex state of exile, each writer seemed to reflect the sensibility evident in his or her writing.

The novelist and short-story writer Randa Jarrar, for example, talked about finally traveling back to Palestine only to be detained by Israeli security forces upon arrival, informed that she’s a Palestinian and as such cannot enter the country as a tourist, and deported back to America. “I’m a fucking Palestinian,” Jarrar quipped, smiling, “and if someone says, ‘who says so?’ I’m going to say, ‘Israel says so!’” It was an unexpectedly uproarious end to a bitter story, and it reflected Jarrar’s satirical touch; earlier on in the afternoon, she read a shortened version of one of her short stories, an adaptation of Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecote” transplanted to modern-day Gaza, that delivered both harrowing moments of violence and abuse and bursts of great comic ability.

Less amused, and considerably more incendiary, was the Jerusalem-born poet Najwan Darwish. The problem, Darwish said, wasn’t that he, a Palestinian resident of Israel, was in exile in his own city; the problem was that Jerusalem itself seemed to be in exile. “This place we’re living in is out of its geography,” he said. “Culturally, this piece of land is exiled, hijacked by the Zionist project and exiled from its surroundings.” And having hijacked the land, Darwish continued, the Israelis put in place an assortment of methods with which to torment its Palestinian residents. These, he expounded, were borrowed not only from Apartheid-era South Africa, but also from the United States’ confinement of the Native Americans to reservations, the racial policies of Nazi Germany, and a host of other Fascist regimes throughout time. But despite being engaged with the Palestinian political cause, Darwish added, defining the latter as an end to Israeli colonialism, he did not consider himself a Palestinian poet.

“I consider myself continuing an Arabic tradition of writing more than a Palestinian one,” he said. “I never see myself as just a Palestinian writer. It’s a critical obsession. They always try refer you to a certain tree, and they can’t imagine a further tree—they always refer you to the tree in front of your house. I’m not a fan of identity. But my paradox in life is that I ended up a committed writer, committed to the struggle, but inside me, as a writer, I’m against all those fabrications.”

Trees were the imagery guiding Adania Shibli as well, but hers, unlike Darwish’s, weren’t metaphorical. The strangest thing about living as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, she said, is that the land itself is in a state of constant flux. “You drive down a road, and you know that there are three trees there, but suddenly you can’t take the road, because it’s blocked,” she said. “Israelis are obsessed with destroying and rebuilding. The destruction of the landscape and changing it, it’s as if someone wants to take your memory. You start doubting yourself. Were the trees ever here? Or did they not exist? It’s a strange feeling. I don’t feel it outside of Palestine.”

Published May 6, 2013   Copyright 2013 Liel Leibovitz

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