In her third PEN Atlas despatch, British Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh reflects on Palfest, dealing with criticism, and what freedom feels like

The Palestinian Festival of Literature must be the most controversial literary festival in the world. In 2011, the Festival was tear-gassed, venues were closed down, and settlers filmed participants in Hebron saying ‘We have a record of you, we have you on tape, we know who you are.’ That was the Israelis. This year, Egyptian authorities stalled on the permission-granting process for its nationals to travel to the Festival until media attention embarrassed them into granting permits on the eleventh hour.Then Palestinian security disrupted and closed down the poetry reading by a teenager at an event in Gaza City and gave us a message by filming us, that was not unlike the settlers’ message. There are few peoples who Governments are less keen to give a voice to and there are few people, confirmed on my recent visit, more urgent to have a voice, than the Palestinians.

I recently came across the term PEP, an acronym used in the US for Progressive Except Palestine, to describe those individuals who advocate adherence to human rights principles and will espouse all sorts of liberal, possibly even radical views of world politics supporting freedom of expression, but who hit a blind spot when it comes to the Palestinians. This is all too often due to the lazy conflation of  ‘anti-Semitism’ with anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli policies.

My novel, Out of It, was mainly set in Gaza and written from afar. I did not know how it would feel to go back to a place that I had been living in as a fictional world for such a long time. I only knew it fleetingly from a couple of visits that I had made in the nineties when the place was going through a building boom of institutions and authorities. Our enthusiasm for the Oslo peace accords was muted. We felt a keen sense of humiliation in the compromises agreed to by the Palestinian leadership and the professional incompetence that they were prone to display. But no one anticipated the horrors that were to come in the form of F16s raids on schools, UN institutions and homes, together with the use of white phosphorous and the seeping, debasing nature of the blockade.

I have been mildly chastised by pro-Palestinian reviewers for ‘unflinchingly’ portraying the divisions within Palestinian society in my novel. I became more defensive over this point, than over the criticisms of it being anti-Israeli which were knee jerk in their nature and predictable in their existence. Learning how serious the divisions between factions has become during my visit to Gaza this time, confirmed my view that I had done the right thing by addressing them in Out of It. I do not believe that a writer should avoid writing about the failures that they would rather not acknowledge. The writer of fiction is not the PR agent for any government, nor even for any group of people. They should be free, within the bounds of responsibility, to write what they observe, feel and consider important. It is my view that when writing about a societal conflict which a writer of fiction has the power to create, a writer presents new representations of old realities and explains worlds seen frequently in a sensationalist way by the media, but they should not be tied down to partisan positions, nor be expected to uphold them unquestioningly.

Going back to literature for answers, there is a line by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani where he says that no matter what our failures are, these do not excuse the conduct of our oppressor. This needs to be recognized as well. The old adage that two wrongs do not make a right is too often forgotten.

Our Festival ends in Cairo, addressing a packed audience in a downtown theatre, where the walls of surrounding buildings are stenciled and spray-painted with revolutionary graffiti.

I fly back to London, calculating that I have been in seven countries in two months, desperate to be back home after two weeks away from my children. My ex-husband has been staying with them in my flat. I go out the night after coming home, driving in a car with a full tank of fuel. A CD given to me by a Californian friend, ‘Happy New Year Selma, Funk Soul Divas,’ scribbled on it is on. It is a summery evening and the city glitters, almost burns as the lights come on. I discuss topics with my friends from the personal to the political in an unlimited, indiscreet way. The question, What does it feel like to be free? What does freedom feel like? whispers in my ear and I vow to find ways, to build on ways of sharing my relative wealth of freedom with those that I left behind, and I am grateful to PalFest for providing me with some means of being able to do so.

About the Author

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer based in London. She is the author of the novel, Out of It, (Bloomsbury, 2011). Her short stories are mainly set in the contemporary Middle East. Recurring themes in her work are idealism (however futile), political engagement (or lack thereof) and the impact of social conformity on individuals.

In 2004 and 2005 she was selected as a Finalist for the Fish International Short Story Prize and was English PEN’s nominee for International PEN’s David TK Wong Prize in 2005. Fish also nominated her for the Pushcart Prize in 2007.

Her work has appeared in International PEN’s Context: The Middle East magazine, Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women and NW15: An Anthology of New Writing. Her work has been praised by reviewers in The Independent, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, Al Ahram Weekly, the Times and The Sunday Times.

Some of her short stories, reviews of her work and interviews about her are available on her website.

Selma is currently working on a second novel and a fiction feature film with the director Azza el Hassan.

Additional Information

Ghassan Kanafani, (1936-1972) the famous Palestinian journalist, novelist, and short story writer, whose writings were deeply rooted in Arab Palestinian culture and inspired a whole generation during and after his lifetime.