Interview: Novelist and Political Commentator Ahdaf Soueif

Halfway into 2021 and my newsfeed is almost consistently grim. To my weary and untrained eye, everything seems to be rising. From pandemic death tolls to sea levels to right-wing….

Halfway into 2021 and my newsfeed is almost consistently grim. To my weary and untrained eye, everything seems to be rising. From pandemic death tolls to sea levels to right-wing authoritarianism.  Yet amid the deluge of distress if one thing stands out it’s the horrific scenes unfolding in Palestine, which is reeling under a fresh round of violence unleashed by Israel. Unable to look away and wanting to deepen my understanding, I decided to speak to someone with over a decade of experience working on the ground in Palestine.  Ahdaf Soueif founded the groundbreaking Palestine Festival of Literature – PalFest – in 2007, which takes place in the cities of occupied Palestine and Gaza. She is the renowned author of – among other titles – the bestselling The Map of Love (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 and translated into more than 30 languages), Cairo: A City Transformed, her account of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and Mezzaterra (2004), an influential collection of essays. She is also a political and cultural commentator, and her articles for the Guardian are published in the European and American press. From 2011 to 2015 she wrote a weekly column for the Egyptian national daily, al-Shorouk. Our exchange was as follows:

You have mentioned that you were already concerned about the Palestinian cause when you went to cover the Intifada for The Guardian. Could you tell us about that experience and what made you set up the Palestine Festival of Literature?

I’m a child of the Nasser years in Egypt. Growing up in Cairo in the Sixties meant that the Palestinian cause was our cause. A poster on my wall as a teenager said “The children of ‘48 are the commandos of ‘68. So, when I went to Palestine in 2000, I thought I already knew all there was to know. Of course, I was wrong. Nothing prepares you for the experience of actually being there. I wrote about this exhaustively for The Guardian. But what really hit me was the Palestinian ability to live – and resist – with grace under brutal conditions, and linked to that was the Palestinian insistence on continuing to be participants in the production of culture – music, literature, art. It was out of that recognition that my friends and I created PalFest – yes, the Palestinians needed advocacy and material help, but they also wanted and needed to be part of the cultural exchange of the world. 

What is it about a literary festival that you feel can help create awareness around the Palestinian cause? 

Well, I think any literary festival – and many of them now do – can and should make space for panels, discussions, and workshops that have a bearing on Palestine. It will always be possible to link a Palestinian issue to the theme of a festival. 

In the case of PalFest specifically, it was designed to bring world-class authors and cultural practitioners to Palestine for the Palestinians – but also we believed that once the visitors had actually seen the place, the people, the situation, for themselves, they would be unable to ignore the magnitude of the injustice that was taking place and of the lies peddled around it, and that this new awareness would inform their work and their attitudes and would help to change public awareness around the issue.

What are some of the rewards of organising this festival? Is there any particular high point you would like to mention? 

It was wonderful, year after year, to see PalFest having the effect we’d designed it to have. To see it make friends among the Palestinians, to see them host it and own it, to see the students wait for it. It was also very moving to watch authors and artists realise what they were seeing and go through shock, disbelief, and anger. And brilliant to see them come over to the side of justice and humanity. 

For me, though, one of the most brilliant moments happened in Gaza. We had never been able to get into Gaza because of the siege enforced by Israel and Egypt. In 2012, when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 had not yet been defeated, we managed to more or less force the Egyptian Foreign Office to give us permits to go into Gaza. We took with us the revolutionary Egyptian band, Eskenderella, and we held a concert. It was packed. The Gazan kids knew all the songs. The band was so moved at being in Gaza that they put on a superlative performance. It may have been one of the best moments of my life.  

Conversely, what are some of the unique challenges of organising this particular festival?  

You never knew whether you were going to actually show up to your event or not. Getting into Palestine was not easy. PalFest always went in via Amman and the King Hussein Bridge.  Because it was crucial for us to travel always in the way that Palestinians with West Bank IDs were allowed to travel, to operate under the same restrictions. The Israelis always kept us for hours at the border, only letting us in minutes before they closed for the day. Twice they refused entry to some of our participants and they had to go home. 

Also, PalFest is a traveling festival. Because of the hundreds of checkpoints Israel imposes on the roads between Palestinian cities we decided from the start that the festival would travel to its audiences. PalFest would go through the checkpoints so its audiences didn’t have to. So every day we were in a different city, a different checkpoint and a different hotel and that was quite hard. 

And then of course there were the skirmishes with the Israelis. One time they closed down our opening event in Jerusalem, another they closed off the area we were meant to perform in and tear-gassed us. But we always managed to hold our events just the same.

What impact has this festival had on the writers and social commentators who went with you to Palestine?  

I think that to answer that I’d ask you to look at our book, This is Not a Border: Reflections and Reportage from the Palestine Festival of Literature. Bloomsbury published it for PalFest’s tenth anniversary and it has about 40 pieces from PalFest authors.

Do you feel that the festival plays a role in the lives of the local Palestinian audience?  

Yes, indeed. Our audiences tell us that they wait for PalFest from year to year. They buy lots of the books we take with us. They follow and write to us on social media.

In 2019 the festival reinvented itself around the theme of Colonial Spaces Today that brought together writers, architects, and academics to consider the strategies employed by Israel in the control and conquest of Palestinian spaces. That topic seems particularly relevant now, in 2021, with the occupation of Sheikh Jarrah. Do you feel that the initiative had an impact on the way the world is viewing the current crisis? 

I feel, rather, that PalFest was in tune with the way the world – and particularly the young – are viewing the crises of the planet.

You also mentioned that in the decade since the festival’s inception the rise of social media has made it possible for the world to bear witness to the ongoing atrocities in Palestine, but that in 2019 you felt that it had not impacted Israel’s behaviour. Do you feel this still holds true today? I see a lot of Palestinian solidarity on social media now and a lot more awareness. Do you feel that there is now growing global pressure on Israel?

I think it’s been clear for a while that Israel has lost the battle for hearts and minds. It’s been exposed as an anachronism: a racist colonial-settler state. But you’re right this hasn’t pushed Israel to behave better, in fact, it’s probably made it keener to finish off what it wants to do on the ground – witness the extraordinary number of new settlements being built, the push to dislodge the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan (which I wrote about 10 years ago) and the daily incursions into the al-Aqsa. And these are only the most high-profile displacement activities Israel is engaging in across the country. As you say, there is definitely growing global pressure. But it will only have an effect when it’s translated into serious action: boycott, divestment, and sanction procedures like those that were put in place against apartheid in South Africa.

What do you feel is the future of the festival going forward? 

I no longer direct the festival; I remain as Chair of Trustees but my son, Omar Robert Hamilton, took over in 2018 and the “reinvention” you mentioned earlier is his work. I believe PalFest will continue to nurture cultural production that examines Palestine’s function as a lab in which Israel develops and hones instruments and practices that it then sells to repressive and would-be repressive authorities across the world: the control of civilian populations, the militarisation of the police, the political and economic use of incarceration, surveillance, the weaponisation of water and food, etc. The idea is no longer just “the Palestinians are subject to a grave injustice and you should support them,” it’s more “the Palestinians are suffering control and repression practices which will eventually find their way to you.”

You have mentioned how western media often misrepresents the Palestinian cause. Because big media houses often have their own positions and loyalties, I wonder if journalism can be completely unbiased. Do you feel that literature is a better bridge to understanding the Palestinian experience? What books would you recommend to someone who wants to inform themselves?

A good story or a good film is the best way to feel a situation. But good non-fiction is also essential. I recommend: 

How has the long involvement with activism affected you as a novelist?

It has taken up my time, my energy, my heart. I haven’t written fiction since November 2000.