First US Palestinian literature festival to 'tell a story the world has a hard time hearing'

'These are giants in our part of the world,' festival co-chair Susan Abulhawa says. 'But here they’re unknown'

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JUNE 1:  Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American writer and human rights activist, visits the Al Aqsa mosque whilst travelling with the 2014 Palestine Festival of Literature on June 1, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel.  The festival is an annual event that aims to bring a cultural festival of international standard to audiences in Palestine to assert "the power of culture over the culture of power."  (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  al08ma-cover-abulhawa.jpg
Powered by automated translation

In March next year, the US will get its first major Palestinian literature festival. The schedule for the New York City event, called Palestine Writes, is crammed with literary greats, including Ibrahim Nasrallah, Huzama Habayeb, Adania Shibli, Mahmoud Shukair and Ghassan Zaqtan, and will also include an appearance by veteran American activist and scholar Angela Davis. Some participating authors live in the US and regularly appear at festivals. But for others, it will be their first time at a North American event.

The bilingual festival is set to open with poetry and music on March 27, 2020, just before Palestinians mark Land Day.

What is Palestine Writes?

The schedule is filled with panel discussions, workshops and plenaries, with 50 authors, artists and publishers expected to take part. Among them are winners of the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children's Literature and the Mahmoud Darwish Award.

BIRMINGHAM, AL FEBRUARY 16: Angela Davis speaking at the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation event at the Boutwell Auditorium on February 16, 2019 in Birmingham, Al. (Photo by Andi(cq)Rice/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Activist Angela Davis will be in attendance. Getty.

The event comes at an interesting time for the country, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank, including one deep in the heart of the largest Palestinian city in the area.

Netanyahu said the move would be a first step, with other settlements to follow after the publication of US President Donald Trump's peace plan for the region.

Festival co-chair Susan Abulhawa, speaking from her home in Pennsylvania, says that the line-up is intentionally packed. "We want attendees to feel they want to process all they've heard for days after the festival. The discussions and workshops are meant to be stimulating – intellectually and spiritually. In short, we want to give people things to think about, books to read, ideas to ponder."

The festival promises to introduce New York-area bibliophiles to dozens of Palestinian authors they wouldn't otherwise know. "These are giants in our part of the world," Abulhawa says. "But here they're unknown."

'We will tell a story that the world has a hard time hearing'

Memoirist and young adult author Ibtisam Barakat will be on hand to lead a workshop on writing memoirs and family biography. She says that at most festivals where she appears, she is the only Palestinian. By contrast, this festival will bring together different voices "to tell a more complete, larger story. That's unique given the fragmentation of Palestinians".

Barakat says the Palestinian experience gives "an example of how to beautifully and creatively tell a story that the world has a hard time hearing". This experience can help writers from other backgrounds learn to tell aspects of their life stories that readers refuse to hear.

One thing that makes Palestine Writes unique among Arab literary events in western countries is that it doesn't focus exclusively on Palestinian or Arab literary culture. Instead, it opens space for connections, particularly between Palestinian, African-American and Native-American writers. Alongside Davis, Native-American writers Nick Estes, a journalist and Ryan "Little Eagle" Pierce, a playwright, will also feature at the festival, as will Caribbean-American poet Aja Monet.

The festival will encompass a range of nationalities, not only Palestinians

Writers won't be separated by language or nationality, but will come together around various topics. A panel on prison writing will bring together Davis and acclaimed Palestinian short-story writer Mahmoud Shukair, who was arrested by the Israeli authorities in 1974. Shukair – whose beautifully fragmented Jerusalem Stands Alone was translated into English by Nicole Fares – served several months in prison before he was deported to Lebanon. It wasn't until 1993 that Shukair returned home.

This festival is a bit more radical in that we'll be talking about things that aren't usually discussed at literary events

Palestine Writes will also set itself apart from other literary festivals, as it aims to bring experiences, such as prison writing, from the margins to the centre of the conversation.

“Because for us,” Abulhawa added, “prisoners are not the margins of society. In societies of struggle, they are central to our communities.”

Another focus will be the effect of settler colonialism on natural landscapes. "What does that do to your world, and how are the books tackling that? And how do stories deal with that?" Abulhawa asks. "This festival is a bit more radical in that we'll be talking about things that aren't usually discussed at literary events."

Authors on the panels will be free to speak in English, Arabic, or both

Palestine Writes did not tailor invitations to those with easy access to the US. Poet Ghassan Zaqtan was unable to launch a US edition of his award-winning collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me in the spring of 2012, along with poet-­translator Fady Joudah, when his US visa didn't come through – although he ultimately got a visa for an autumn launch that year.

Zaqtan, who also has two brilliant novels translated into English by Sam Wilder, will be a guest of Palestine Writes. Organisers are prepared for difficulties, but they aren't tying themselves in knots. "We'll just take it as it comes," Abulhawa says.

Authors on the panels will be free to speak in English, Arabic, or both, with simultaneous translation available for anyone who needs it. On both Saturday and Sunday mornings, festival-goers can arrive as early as 8.30am for breakfast and a cultural market that will feature books, art, magazines and more. "People can come in, have coffee, walk around, talk to each other," Abulhawa says. There will also be talks and workshops on translation, magazine-making and children's literature.

For award-winning children's and young adult author Taghreed Najjar, this will be her first time at a US festival. She's particularly excited by the "mix of people participating," which ranges "from the political, to an array of talented young people, writing and performing in different genres, like [graphic novelist] Leila Abdelrazaq and [poet] Remi Kanazi".

The cost of tickets is being kept accessible, with early-bird prices starting at $50 (Dh184) for a three-day pass. Organisers have backing from donors and institutions, including the Lannan Foundation, but are looking for additional support. Those interested in donating, taking part in the cultural market or getting tickets can find out more at

While a range of vital topics will be discussed – from translation to mass incarceration and cultural appropriation – the festival is open to everyone with an interest in the literary arts. Abulhawa says: "Anybody who loves books, great literature, has a place at this festival."