Moving piece by Jamal Mahjoub in Guernica about his visit to Gaza with the PalFest literary bandwagon:
The Islamic University is the best funded of the four universities in Gaza. It is also the only one that is not secular. Our first day, we are given a tour of the segregated campus, our male guides giggling as we cross into the women’s section. The grounds are neatly tended and decorated with trees that stand between big, modern buildings, including a three-story library. Two of the buildings were bombed in 2009 but have been fully rebuilt. There are no signs of destruction or shortage. When I ask our guides about this I am told that they have “their own ways” of bringing in materials.
In a cramped lecture hall two other writers and I find ourselves facing a full house of mostly young women, nearly all of them wearing colorful headscarves and austere grey or black jilbabs. The fluency of English varies, and although they all display a great deal of enthusiasm about our visit it is unclear what is expected of us. This session was originally billed as a workshop, but after a round of introductions, I see that what the students really want to do is talk.
Many of the questions directed at us convey a concern about our motives. Why have we come here? What did we expect to find? I sense some degree of distrust, even resentment. The jilbabs and the headscarves give the impression that these women live sheltered lives. In contrast, though, they speak with a frankness I admire. Many of them already write. A couple of girls come forward to read out their poems. They do not wait for permission to speak. Like students in classrooms everywhere, they want to hear how we managed to get published and how they should go about getting their stories out into the world. They are witnesses to a unique situation which lends urgency. At the end, as we are about to leave, more of them crowd around still pressing for an answer to the question, “What do I have to do to write?” I repeat the same advice I have always given in similar situations: To write, all you have to do is write and keep writing.
On our last evening the closing PalFest event is shut down by security forces. It’s not clear who we have offended, but everything points to an accumulation of distrust. Gatherings in which men and women congregate in the same public space are frowned upon by Hamas. Two nights before, in what was the highlight of our roadtrip, the hugely popular and highly talented Egyptian group Eskenderella, who are traveling with us, gave a concert that was rapturously received. Eskenderella’s songs of revolution have been a fixture in Cairo over the last year, providing a soundtrack to the events in Tahrir Square. The local PalFest organizers were asked to split the concert hall, men on one side, women on the other, but they refused. Many of our authors are Egyptian, and the anti-authoritarian spirit has been running high at reading events and in interviews. It is perhaps not surprising that Hamas was made uncomfortable. In any case, on that last evening on the little stage at the Qasr al-Basha cultural center, the power is suddenly cut and the mic dies. A moment later a plainclothes officer runs across to snatch a camera from a young woman. What follows is a charged confrontation with an absurdly large crowd of armed police and plain-clothed security officers. In the end we are escorted back to our bus and allowed to return to the hotel. We take as many of the audience as we can manage. Many of them are nervous about possible repercussions, especially after we depart. Security men photographed much of the audience. Back at the hotel the terrace is converted into an impromptu venue and the concert continues long into the night with poetry readings and songs.