Palestinian activist Leila Khaled was slated to speak at a virtual conference in September, hosted at San Francisco State University. The seminar was hardly high-profile. But following pressure from groups like the Anti-Defamation League, major platforms including Zoom, Google, and Facebook refused to host the event, citing anti-terrorism laws (Khaled is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). In the following weeks, Zoom shut down several events that separate universities hosted in solidarity with Khaled.
The incident sparked an outcry. It was the latest example of the censorship of Palestinian voices; a reminder that such silencing extends beyond the borders of the Israeli occupation, persisting even into the virtual sphere.
This is the context in which Palestine Writes, a five-day celebration of Palestinian literature and art, took place in early December. In spite of the “Palestinian exception to free speech,” as organizer Bill Mullen put it in his opening remarks, the festival went on. The artists, writers, and panelists, Mullen said, “simply refused to accept the idea that this festival cannot happen.” And so it did, hosting dozens of panels, poetry readings, and film screenings attended by more than 2,000 participants.
“This festival is meant to cross the borders that separate us.”
In March, before the pandemic moved it online, Palestine Writes was billed as the first Palestinian literature festival in North America. But perhaps it is more fitting that the festival, instead, took place virtually, hosting participants from every corner of the globe. “This festival is meant to cross the borders that separate us,” said Susan Abulhawa, another key organizer of the event. “We want to meet each other, meet our friends who stand in solidarity with us.”
Over the five days, Palestine Writes crossed many borders, featuring a riveting, diverse program. Events included cooking demonstrations, embroidery lessons, and poetry readings; panels tackled topics ranging from Palestinian science fiction to food sovereignty to translation. At its heart, of course, was literature, a force which Abulhawa calls “the vasculature of our societal body and the vital organs of our collective ancestral memory.”
Palestine is known for its rich tradition of resistance literature, but what emerged from the festival was not just a conception of literature as resistance — though, as the organizers noted, the very creation of Palestinian art has a quality of resistance, with censorship and repression at all sides. Instead, the festival envisaged literature as part of a broader project: a means of building global solidarity.
On December 6, Angela Davis spoke at the festival’s keynote panel, alongside scholar Richard Falk and Palestinian leader and activist Hanan Ashrawi. Before Davis took the floor, a moving letter from Palestinian politician Khalida Jarrar, which was smuggled out of the Israeli prison where she is being held, was solemnly read aloud by her two daughters. “Our struggle for liberation inside prison starts with resistance literature,” Jarrar had written. In response, Davis spoke of the Black writer and revolutionary George Jackson.
After Jackson was killed by prison guards in 1971, at age 30, a poem was discovered in his cell: “Enemy of the Sun.” The Black Panther Party published the piece and attributed it to Jackson, but in truth, it was a classic Palestinian poem written by Samih Al-Qasim, first published in 1958. The poem reads:
You may take the last strip of my land
You may plunder my heritage
But I shall not compromise,
And to the last pulse in my veins,
I shall resist.
“To me, that captures the inter-relationalities, the closeness, the intimacies of our struggles,” Davis said of the incident. Palestinian voices echo hers: “George Jackson has entered our culture from a very favorable gate: literature and freedom,” Nabil Ablawi, a Palestinian scholar, has said. For decades, literature has been a conduit for solidarity between Palestinians and Black Americans.
Jackson, and others in the Black Panther Party at the time, saw the Palestinian struggle as akin to their own; and saw their own resistance reflected in the words of writers like Al-Qasim and Ghassan Kanafani. Jackson hoped to build “a ‘united front’ of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist class struggle” across borders, writes scholar Greg Thomas in a study of Jackson and Al-Qasim; one which included Palestine.
The festival highlighted longstanding Black-Palestinian solidarity in its panel on “The Parallel Lives of James Baldwin and Ghassan Kanafani.”
Decades later, Palestine Writes continues this tradition. The festival highlighted longstanding Black-Palestinian solidarity in its panel on “The Parallel Lives of James Baldwin and Ghassan Kanafani,” two iconic writers whose lives and struggles echoed one another. And it framed Palestinian literature within larger, global solidarities, even as it celebrated Palestinian identity. It all served to “reincorporate the Palestinian struggle into our intersectional notion of social justice,” Davis said.
For decades, particularly in the United States, that has been a challenge. The platform Palestine Writes has given to Palestinian art, struggle, and resilience is rare. And at a time when Palestinians in Gaza are left without medical supplies, facing disproportionate and preventable harm from the pandemic, this platform is urgent.
As Ashrawi said during the keynote panel, “True literature, true creativity, true artistic expression challenges reality. It challenges the status quo.” Such is the power of Palestine Writes.