Palestinian and Israeli Writers Speak Out
Sunday 6th April 2003, 7.00 – 10.00 pm
SOAS, Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, Thornhaugh Street,
Russell Square, London WC1
Chairs: Amanda Hopkinson, Arts England & Moris Farhi MBE, Vice-President International PEN, Savyon Liebrecht, Kamal Kadoura tbc, Assaf Gavron, Samir El-Youssef,Gilad Atzmon, Ghada Karmi
Dafna Dori and Band,Wissam Boustany, flautist
April 6th, 2003: the Iraqi war was still in full flow, Blair and Bush were sidelining into pushing for the ‘Road Map’ to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The chasm between Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, gaped like a black hole. But in between the chasm and the pain, nearly 200 people arrived at the Brunei Gallery, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, to listen, to talk, to share, to lay down the girders for a bridge ‘Across the Divide’.
Organised by Exiled Writers Ink! the evening was nothing if not controversial. Exiled Jews from Iraq mingled with Algerian writers, refugees from Bosnia and Saudi Arabia, Jews from London, Israelis, and Kurds from the torture chambers of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Chaired by Amanda Hopkinson from the Arts Council England, the audience were treated to a glittering array of readings, instrumental pieces and songs, offered by Israelis and Palestinians, willing to share a platform and sit together in peace and friendship.
In the second half Moris Farhi MBE, Vice-President International PEN, chaired readings and an all too brief discussion, which continued long after the darkened halls of SOAS had been left far behind.
The range and depth of work, which the audience were treated to, matched perfectly the eagerness expressed in multiple exchanges in the interval and a deep desire to tear down the barriers, which have arisen between these two great Semitic peoples.
Judith Elkan, a child psychotherapist, posed the question, “Isn’t it time for all of us to say sorry?” Her message was one of repair and reconciliation, echoing the brave work in South Africa, after the fall of the apartheid system. An active member of the Israel/Palestinian Peace Coalition, her message was one of hope that bitterness and hatred can be overcome in these two societies.
Wissam Boustany, the inspirational and internationally acclaimed flautist from Lebanon, created for
us an improvisation on the wind as a symbol of his desire to sit down with his Israeli neighbours and build a world where politics no longer exerts a destructive influence. Playing in total darkness, Boustany transported us on the magical wind of his beautiful music to a world where peace and friendship have swept away the pain of conflict.
By contrast Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli jazz saxophonist and writer, challenged us to reject the idea of a two state solution. His vision was one country, Palestine, based on equality and democracy, where all the people of the region, Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Druze, Bedouin, will live together and share the ancient land. Through his music Atzmon works to break down the barriers between Israelis and Arabs. To watch his interaction with Boustany, who sat close and constantly patted his shoulder in agreement and friendship, was to feel that those barriers can and will fall one day, whether one or two states emerge.
Samir El-Youssef, a well-known Palestinian writer, read the first chapter of a novella, which will be published in England this year, in the same book as several short stories by the Israeli writer, Etgar Keret. The writers and their publisher, David Paul, believe that such a combined effort could reveal the extent of similarities in the new forms of narratives emerging from both Israeli and Palestinian writers of a new generation.
It is just this lack of narrative which urges Ghada Karmi to write. A Palestinian who has made her home in London, Karmi points out that the world does not really feel the pain and hopes of the Palestinians because of the lack of narratives emerging from her people. Just as the Jews wrote so extensively about the Holocaust and informed the world of their terrible sufferings, so Karmi exhorts the Palestinians to emerge from the shadows and create the narratives which will tell the world their story. Reading from her memoir, ‘In search of Fatima: a Palestinian story,’ Karmi leads the way which hopefully will be followed by many others.
And finally Assaf Gavron, a young Israeli, army veteran and supporter of his country, while also keen to seek peace with his neighbours, read from his book which does not address politics, pain or suffering. Instead his story is about ordinary people, Israelis, who work in a removals firm in New York and get into trouble with the Ukraine mafia. Perhaps Gavron’s message is simply, in troubled times a writer must find his own voice and write what speaks to him. There is room for many kinds of artistic voices in the struggle to build a bridge.
In between the readings and discussion Dafna Dori and her band provided songs from the Yemen and the Middle East to flavour the whole evening with the sound of love amongst ancient villages and the olive groves.
A truly momentous evening, which will ring in our hearts and minds for many evenings to come.
Exiled Writers Ink! have planned a series of future events to include an afternoon in June where participants will have a further opportunity to meet and develop dialogue with an Israeli and Palestinian writer, as well as join a writing workshop to give voice to issues raised. In the long term, a series of workshops are being planned to allow the different groups to write together in facilitated workshops with a view to producing a publication at the end.