In literature, too, an Israeli-Palestinian split

Two first-time literary festivals – one Israeli, one Palestinian – coincided without a nod to the other, creating one more divide in a troubled land.

British actor Khalid Abdalla, who starred in "The Kite Runner," reads at thePalestine Festival of Literature, held in East Jerusalem and several citiesin the West Bank.
Israeli novelist Amos Oz and South Africa's Nadine Gordimer signed books atthe International Writers Festival in Jerusalem.

Two literature festivals that take place in the same moment, in the same land, have the same lofty goals: celebrating the written word.

But in this city that has drawn poets and produced prophets, this is the story of two literary festivals whose organizers never talk, a tale that reads like a new page in the Middle East book of missed opportunities, and a narrative that has the uncanny ability both to entertain and to sadden.

The story might begin here: Sunday night at the finale of the first Palestine Literature Festival, and a flock of local and international literati streamed into the Hakawati National Theatre in East Jerusalem. Or here: Sunday night at the opening of the first International Writers Festival in Jerusalem, and a flock of local and international literati streamed into Mishkenot Shaananim.

Or the story could start a few years back, with a few worldly and bookish women.

One of them is Yael Nahari. An Israeli who is Mishkenot's director of programs, she decided four years ago that she wanted audiences "to meet the people they love to read," and began inviting prominent authors who had been translated into Hebrew.

Another is Ahdaf Soueif, a renowned Egyptian novelist who lives in London, and who was commiserating with a British colleague about the situation here. "I said, half-jokingly, 'If they do a festival in Palestine, I'll go,' " says Ms. Soueif, author of "The Map of Love" and other novels, in a conversation with the Monitor as all the festival's writers and performers gathered in Azkadinya, an East Jerusalem restaurant, after the closing ceremonies.

But there isn't a definitive place to begin this story – not one that won't irk the intelligentsia who tend toward one side of the divide or the other.

Yet this much is indisputable: The two maiden festivals overlapped in the mild days of May, at a time when all knew the streets would be resonating with history – at a moment when the US president would be visiting with an eye toward promoting peace. Yet even with the gathering of so many open and creative minds, the festivals were mostly unaware of each other's existence.

Jerusalem is festooned in the evenings with lit-up signs of another milestone number: 40. Last June marked four decades since Israel annexed East Jerusalem, a "reunification" in the Israeli lexicon and an "occupation" in the Palestinian.

But with two literature festivals going on in the same town – a fact largely unknown to the organizers and the top-shelf authors they attracted – it seems that a glass barrier enforces the divide in places where the more visible walls and checkpoints do not.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," read Irish writer Roddy Doyle on the Hakawati stage, enunciating each clause with a Celtic lilt. Mr. Doyle, author of "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha," said that, having been asked to read from another writer's work, he chose Charles Dickens's opening of "A Tale of Two Cities" because it seemed most apropos of the mood of the day. He continued, "It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

On a stage about a mile away, inside the same city limits, a writer named Eli Amir also took stock of the dilemmas of the day. "We were thrown into a historic situation that we have not managed to get out of. We are a torn nation," says Mr. Amir, an Israeli writer who was born and bred in Baghdad, using words that could just as easily have been said by a Palestinian. Amir's recent book, "Yasmin," was translated into Arabic in Cairo, where audiences reacted with praise for its humor and censure over the publisher's controversial move toward "normalization" with Israel.

That anything but the most compulsory level of cooperation with Israel is still viewed as a no-go zone for many in the Arab world is a key reason that the two festivals carried on as if the other didn't exist. The organizers of the Palestinian festival say that theirs wasn't designed to compete with Israel's festival or to exclude it.

"That it coincided with this time is good," Soueif says. "We're interested in helping Palestinians maintain a normal life, and to do it at a top level and show that it's possible. It shows this place is vibrant. It has nothing to do with Israel."

Across town, Ms. Nahari stands near the stage that had just been shared by Amos Oz and Nicole Krauss, author of "The History of Love," and expressed a different viewpoint. She'd had no idea of the existence of the other festival, and wished it were otherwise.

"I'm very sad about it, because we could have done something jointly, even one event," she says. "It's a pity. It's a mistake not do it together," she says.

That it is hard to simply celebrate the joy of literature when the area's political situation remains so tenuous was equally clear at the events tent at Miskhenot, where Israeli novelist Mr. Oz spent much of his hour-long, on-stage conversation with Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer discussing their positions on the conflict, each speaking forcefully against Israel's occupation of the West Bank. South Africa's Ms. Gordimer, known for her anti-apartheid novels, came under intense pressure to pull out of the festival. She came anyway.

"I came in solidarity with fellow writers," Gordimer told one of her audiences. "I believe so strongly in the need for enemies to talk to one another, and that's why I decided to come here."

American wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, Ms. Krauss's husband and best known for his 2002 novel "Everything is Illuminated," says he would have loved to have seen the festivals overlap, but imagines that might only have served to further push political issues to the fore.

"There are so few occasions to celebrate books," he says after a late dinner with the other writers who attended the Israeli festival. "My impression of this festival is that it's apolitical. In other countries, these wouldn't be questions. People make the mistake of thinking that because you're in a country, you support everything that country's doing. But if you were going to a literature festival in the US, would you not go because you don't agree with certain policies in Washington?"

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