Reality Check or How to hold a festival under occupation

May 23rd, 2009, Jerusalem

When the Palestinian Festival of Literature opened today, the attendees got more than they could have imagined. They had a first-hand experience at living under Israeli occupation.

one wall

The story of the day

The story that everyone will be talking about as they head home from the festival's opening today, will not be the lineup of speakers or the panel sessions. It will be the fact that Israeli security forces came with guns in their hands and closed the ceremony down.

The attendees were mingling in the small courtyard outside the lavishly-named, simple double-storeyed Palestinian National Theatre. Here, a “national theatre” takes on more meaning than it would anywhere else. For a people without a homeland, having a “national” anything is a small victory to be had in the face of their perceived occupiers. Yes, even when it is a humble abode like this one, which resembles more a home.

Around ten armed Israeli security personnel turned up
on the theatre compound

The soldiers in with their rifles and uniforms came swiftly. They entered the wooden doors of the theatre and everyone was called inside. It was to prevent anyone from being locked outside, we were told. The strange message turned out to be wrong. The people in the courtyard piled inside, with cameras and camera phones held above their heads, focused on the unsmiling soldiers. There was a moment of uncertainty before it was announced that military orders required the opening ceremony to be shut down.

Shut down before it could even begin

Murmurs followed and it was declared that the venue would be changed to the French Cultural Centre where the Israeli presumably did not have jurisdiction. We were told to march together to the venue, in a new-found sense of solidarity.

Perhaps it was hard to unify a diverse group. For a handful it was hard for them to leave the theatre, without another shot of the soldiers, without hanging around to find out what was happening next. Finally satisfied, we made our way, meandering through the east Jerusalem neighbourhood, following behind those who went before us. Some held the floral arrangements, while others bore the trays of pastries for the opening reception. It looked like a strange self-catering tour group of East Jerusalem.

A lady stopped at an army van that had been parked closeby, and chastised the solitary solider sitting in the driver's seat through the open window. He remained silent, and looked just that little bit dismayed. When she left, he wound up the window and went back to being shielded behind the tinted glass.

A hastily thought-up alternative to being shut down: The French Cultural Centre in East Jerusalem five minutes away

The French Cultural Centre was another unassuming structure with the European Union and French flags flying outside. Chairs were put out in the muddy lawn and the crowd settled into the side courtyard. Speeches were made and adjusted for the loss of time in moving the event, but this best-intended alternative was foiled by a very lively Saturday evening unfolding outside the gates of the centre, particularly when a bridal convoy of cars merrily honked their way down the road. Without sufficient seats, those that stood around got fidgety. The fact that the Israeli patrol cars had followed and were parked outside did not help to hold the attention of the dispersing crowd on the speakers.

The Israeli police were obliged to respectfully keep a distance from the French Cultural Centre

This was more of a cultural experience than most had expected. It was a curiosity, for myself included, but not so for the Palestinian people. To express solidarity with someone, you should have to understand their situation and what exactly you are showing support for. This was a precious first lesson we should be glad to have experienced, just like those who had been caught at the checkpoint from Jordan into Israel for hours on end. It may have been an inconvenience, but at the very least, it was not a daily occurrence, for most of us will – at the end of this week – return to our lives of relative liberty.

One of the writers told the crowd, that the one thing that set us apart as humans was our ability to tell stories, and that he was here to listen.

It is not a bad idea - to say the very least - to arrive in the West Bank, to set aside the ideals, causes and perceptions that we have packed along with our luggage on this trip, and instead listen to the stories of the people here. The voices of the Palestinian people are already sufficiently subdued, without outsiders coming to further drown it out. Hopefully the next few days, this is what will happen, that voices which never make it outside the West Bank will be heard, loud and clear.

And let's be even-handed, and remember that there are two sides in this conflict. The right to be heard does not belong to just one side, and giving it to one will not deprive the other. Let the Israeli side of the story be heard, as well.

A conversation is two-way, and as much as we would like to help, it is not the outsiders who need to be speaking. It is the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The best we can do, is make sure they are both talking.

In-shallah, this is what will transpire.



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dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

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