Palestine: Writing toward common ground

May 26th, 2008 | Posted in Beirut, Culture, Palestine, Politics
    Ahdaf Soueif discusses her work in advance of Beirut lecture…


Daily Star. by Laura Wilkinson. Friday, May 23, 2008. Photo: Palestinian boy in Gaza.

Giant sculptures of keys, 21,915 black balloons and wailing sirens – so far, commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Nakba (the Palestinian Catastrophe) have unfolded across the region in the form of protest, art, dance and now – with the efforts of author, journalist and translator, Ahdaf Soueif – literature.

As part of Al-Mawred’s Spring Festival – which this year focuses on Palestine – Soueif will be in Beirut this Saturday to present a lecture entitled “Palestine: Memories and Discoveries,” inspired by her recent involvement in the Palestine Festival of Literature (May 7 – 11). Using the event as a frame for her presentation, she will discuss what the Nakba’s 60th anniversary means to her and how her recent “discoveries” have affected her progressive optimism (and pessimism) regarding the future of the Palestinian people.

The Egyptian-born, London-based Soueif is a writer of international renown, who has over the years contributed to several distinguished publications (among them Al-Ahram Weekly, The Guardian, The London Review of Books and The Washington Post) as both a political and cultural commentator. Her own creative works include short stories such as “I Think of You,” and the novel “The Map of Love,” which was short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999. She also translated Mourid Barghouti’s “I Saw Ramallah” into English. Her works often address hybrid identities and the notion of common ground – conceptualized by her term “mezzaterra,” which subsequently provided the title for her collections of essays.

In her forthcoming lecture, she will be reporting on the situation as she saw it in Hebron, Bethlehem and Occupied Jerusalem. Often the subject of her political essays, the Occupied West Bank has come to be a poignant subject for Soueif, both in the context of Palestinian hardship and in the wider scope of “East-West” relations. Challenging the discourse that formulates Western policies toward Palestine and the Arab world in general, her tone is justifiably defiant but in exploring the notions of common-ground, of “mezzaterra,” the arguments in her articles fall firmly into post-colonial, humanist discourse.

“It felt natural to me to talk about the situation through the Festival,” she says.

Soueif holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Lancaster and, with several English-language works to her name, she says she prefers to write in English – especially when it comes to fiction. She seems unfazed about the possible incompatibility of literature and journalism. “Well, in both you are in the business of telling the truth. You just do it in different ways. Possibly the truth of fiction is more lasting and is somehow truer. But it takes a longer time to produce. And sometimes you have to address issues immediately. You feel you can’t wait for them to be transmuted into fiction.”

This year’s Palestine Festival of Literature hosted a string of national and international writers, including Mourid Barghouti and William Dalrymple, best-selling author of “The Last Mughal.” Soueif was a key initiator of, and active participant in, the festival – no small feat, given the daily hindrance of roadblocks and checkpoints Palestinians must face. This year’s Palestine Festival of Literature took place in Ramallah, Occupied Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with a program ranging from lectures, discussions, workshops and a performance by musicians from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.

Soueif was asked about the want of Israeli writers at the festival, evidently unintentional, in a recent Guardian article. “I’m resistant to this idea of always having to twin, that every time you talk about Palestine you have to invite an Israeli, or vice versa. They aren’t twinned.”

While she maintains the need for two different “cultures” to find a common ground, she suggests that, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may be that mutual acceptance of the “other” (that familiar literary question) can only come after peace is established. “For the moment the most that we can do is work against the demonization and dehumanization of the ‘other.'”

During this recent trip to Palestine, she did not encounter any Israelis. With the “memories” and “discoveries” that are to be discussed, it seems that for the present, her focus is on celebrating Palestine’s identity, despite the many blows it has suffered and despite the 60-year-long tradition of “twinning” it with its fabricated “other.”

Drawing on her own childhood experiences of a busy, pluralist household, she suggests that “mezzaterra” can be achieved if memories or identities of either “side” remain potent and untainted. “My grandmother had friends and neighbors who were Egyptian, Greek, Italian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish,” she recalls. “These women loved and supported each other, quarrelled, made up, banked their money with each other, shared their children and their festivals and their gripes about their husbands. They inhabited a common ground. They did not lose themselves, their identities or their memories. But they knew that the identities and memories of others were as valid as their own.”

As if in counterpoint to these previous examples of cross-cultural dialogue, she stresses that, as a form of “mezzaterra,” assimilation is subject to whoever controls the terms upon which the common ground is founded. “It may be that for a real mezzaterra to be found,” she suggests, “people have to come to it in conditions of equality.”

Such a proviso could be applied to Lebanon’s unassimilated Palestinian refugees. “When you have in a country, a refugee population that is perceived as a threat and is therefore kept bereft of certain rights and essential horizons,” she says, “it does not become possible to talk about mezzaterra.”

Ahdaf Soueif’s lecture “Palestine: Memories and Discoveries,” is on May 24 at 6 p.m. at Dawar al-Shams Theater, Tayouneh. In Arabic, with simultaneous translation into English. Please call +961 1 381 290 for more details. On the Palestine Literature Festival, including a blog of difficulties faced in executing it, see

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