September’s song is soaring, but the chords of summer echo on, not least my visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in late July for readings from A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry, the bilingual anthology I edited last year for Smokestack Books. Travelling with Rachel Searle, the Director of BlakeFest (Bognor Regis) – for whom I am consulting on the imminent Building Jerusalem event this Friday in this year’s festival – Palestinian-American poet Farid S. Bitar, and performance artist/historian Catherine Charrett, I chaired two poetry events in East Jerusalem and Ramallah; visited with Jewish peace activists in Haifa; and, in the Occupied Galilee, met with poet and political prisoner Dareen Tatour on the eve of her sentencing. Rachel and I returned home sobered by the manifold injustices we had witnessed, but also inspired to ‘see the world in a blade of grass’, and motivated to continue creating poetic bridges between Palestine and West Sussex.
A Blade of Grass contains poems in English and Arabic by Palestinians from the homeland and the diaspora. Launches have been held in London, Chichester, and New York, but celebrations would not have been complete without events in Palestine. Readings in Ramallah and East Jerusalem were necessary because, due to travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli Occupation, most Palestinians living in the West Bank cannot get permits to come to a reading in East Jerusalem. And a private celebration at Dareen’s house was also necessary: when the political prisoner cannot go the book launch, the book launch must go to the political prisoner!
Both public events featured celebrated locally-based poets Maya Abu Al Hayyat and Marwan Makhoul, and Farid Bitar of New York City, visiting his homeland for the first time in eleven years. The readings in East Jerusalem were hosted by Al Ma’mal Foundation, an art gallery housed in a converted tile factory in the Old City. In Ramallah the venue was the garden of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, an arts organisation and library located in an old Arab house where Palestine’s beloved poet Mahmoud Darwish once had a writing desk. The legendary Educational Bookshop of East Jerusalem supplied the books for both events.
Returning these poems to their origin in an occupied land made for an emotional visit. Of his time in Palestine, Farid Bitar told me: ‘Visiting the homeland left indelible tattooed painful memories of intense moments: being held for hours crossing Jordan into Palestinian land, searching my knapsack at the Qalandia check point crossing from the West Bank into Jerusalem, being accused of having a set of knives while it was my set of drawing charcoals.’
Rachel, Catherine and I also got a glimpse of life under occupation, taking tours of Bethlehem with independent Palestinian guide Salah Abu Laban, and of East Jerusalem and the Old City with young Jewish guides from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD). These tours showed us life on both sides of the apartheid wall that, in defiance of the internationally agreed ‘green line’, snakes through the West Bank, dividing leafy, lavishly funded illegal Jewish settlements from impoverished Palestinian neighbourhoods, which are deprived of social services including water, electricity, education, garbage disposal and healthcare.
For Rachel, the experience was sometimes overwhelming. ‘It was a trip to build cultural links with Bognor but I felt like I was witnessing an ‘impossibility’,’ she said. ‘How is it that a ‘friendly’, civilized, democratic and oppressed State, has actually been systematically denying the Palestinians the most basic of human rights even in Jerusalem unnoticed by the mainstream for 70 years? A propaganda machine that works not only in Israel but in the UK and the US too. Blake’s hapless soldiers just one brutal tool in the daily degradation cleverly systematized through the civil, legal and even tree-planting systems.’
For me, my third visit to Palestine in six years revealed shocking new dimensions of what ICAHD terms the Israeli ‘matrix of control’. After ten years of activism, I thought I knew how bad it was in Palestine, but that was a naive assumption. From one guide we learned that Area C, representing 60% of the West Bank, and under the terms of the Oslo Agreement already under Israeli civil and military control, is likely to be annexed soon. If so, the 160,000 Palestinian inhabitants will be made, not citizens, but ‘permanent residents’ of Israel (giving them no right to vote in national elections) and warehoused in impoverished villages and towns, killing off the Bedouin culture of the region, and burying the already moribund ‘two-state solution’ six feet under. Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, Salah pointed out a facial recognition gun mounted above the graffiti: an AI weapon that can be programmed to kill at a range of up to 1500 metres. Quite apart from the fact that extra-judicial assassinations are illegal, the gun has a 65% accuracy rate. It is in fact a prototype, being field tested on a civilian population. Confronted with this moral obscenity, I was brought to the verge of tears.
But while the obstacles to a just peace may seem as insurmountable as the wall, I took hope from the myriad forms of non-violent cultural resistance we encountered. The trip allowed Farid to visit his mother’s grave for the first time ‘putting closure on that chapter’; and made him ‘proud to read from A Blade of Grass in Jerusalem & Ramallah, under the fig tree of Mahmoud Darwish.’ Our guide in Bethlehem also embodied a creative response to violence and injustice. Salah, who spent four years of his adolescence in hospital and lost several fingers after picking up what he thought was a tennis ball, turned to poetry as a means of protest and self-expression, writing nearly three hundred poems as a young man. Now, through his hostel and tours, he welcomes foreigners with bear hugs of humour and warmth, educating them about the realities of Palestinian life.
In Bethlehem, Rachel, Catherine and I also met with Mazin Qumsiyeh, scientist, human rights activist and scholar, and, with his wife Jessie, co-founder of the Palestine Museum of Natural History, an eco-centre where Palestinians and international volunteers of all religious backgrounds work together to build respect for each other and the land. In Haifa, travelling with Farid, Rachel and I stayed with Jewish activists Yoav and Iris Bar, who have bought an old Arab house with the intention of finding the original owners and returning it to them. Haifa, a city in Northern Israel with a sizeable Arab population and a history of good Jewish-Arab relations, is also home to a new Palestinian-led campaign for One Democratic State, an inclusive vision long-endorsed by Mazin Qumsiyeh in his landmark book Sharing the Land of Canaan (Pluto Press, 2004).
For William Blake, Jerusalem represented peace and harmony: thus he wished to build the city in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. I love the famous hymn, but when I hear it I always think it would be a good idea to build Jerusalem in Jerusalem first, and amidst all the violence engendered by the Israeli occupation it was inspiring to meet people who still hold fast to a dream of sharing the land – a hope for the future to be discussed by an interfaith panel on Sept 14th at the ‘Building Jerusalem’ event at BlakeFest Fringe. Intending to make the event an annual part of the festival, Rachel and I have begun conversations with Palestinian arts organisations we hope will develop into creative collaborations between Palestinian and West Sussex school children.
Our pilgrimage ended on a defiantly Blakean note with our visit to the village of Reineh to meet A Blade of Grass contributor and political prisoner Dareen Tatour. Dareen (36), has spent over two and a half years under house arrest on charges relating to her poem ‘Resist, My People, Resist Them’, and was convicted of incitement earlier this year. As Blake wrote, ‘Poetry fettered, fetters the human race,’ and Dareen’s arrest has been denounced by International PEN, English PEN and other international human rights organisations. Thanks to Yoav, who communicates regularly with Dareen, Rachel, Farid and I were able to help cheer her up a bit on the day before her sentencing. After poetry readings at her family home, Dareen, who was allowed to go outside for two hours a day, gave us a tour of her beloved city, Nazareth, with its stray cats, angels and spice markets. The next day she was sentenced to five months in jail.
As a poet, painter, and the victim of legal injustice, Dareen has much in common with William Blake. It was fitting to end our journey following her through the stone streets of Nazareth, which shone, like her vision of a free Palestine, with a delicate but enduring light.
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Photo Diaries of the visit can be viewed here:
All images by Naomi Foyle unless otherwise stated. Please use only with permission.
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BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, is a small locally organised festival in Bognor Regis that celebrates the life and legacy of William Blake who lived in the area 1800-1803. The festival has its roots in Blake’s Beulah, a vision of which he had in Felpham, telling us that ‘Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates’ , where he saw angels and wrote of building ‘Jerusalem’. Aside from the festival, the project has worked at many levels; creating trails, publishing books to hosting poetry salons and art workshops. The aim is always the same: to regenerate Bognor Regis through cultural change.
Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, held as part of BlakeFest 2018, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn ‘Jerusalem’, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. A talk from English literature scholar Dr David Fallon (University of Roehampton) will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Daud Pidcock (Muslim Council); Dr Atef Alshaer (University of London) author of Poetry and Politics in the Modern Arab World; Rabbi Alexandra Wright (London Liberal Jewish Synagogue) [TBC]; Canon Peter Challen (Southwark Cathedral) and Blake scholar Dr Luke Walker. The panel will be chaired by Dr Simon Mouatt (Associate Professor, Chichester University). ICT Lecture Theatre (F11) Chichester University, Bognor Regis Campus, PO21 1HR. Friday 14th September 2018, 7-9pm. Free entry, Donations welcome. For more information contact Simon Mouatt S.Mouatt@chi.ac.uk
Al Ma’mal Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in a former Tile Factory in New Gate, in the Old City of Jerusalem, serving its surrounding community, their guests and the city’s visitors through a programme of exhibitions, live music and workshops. Since 1998, Al Ma’mal has been a hub for art, cultural vibrancy and learning while building bridges with the world and honouring Jerusalem’s own enduring qualities as a complex, culturally rich, ageless city.
Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre is a leading Palestinian arts and culture organization that aims to create a pluralistic, critical liberating culture through research, query, and participation, and that provides an open space for the community to produce vibrant and liberating cultural content. Located in Ramallah, KSCC is housed in a renovated building dating back to the early 20th century. The centre is named after the Jerusalemite scholar, poet, and nationalist, Khalil Sakakini.
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) is a non-violent, direct-action group dedicated to ending the Israeli Occupation and achieving a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Over the past two decades ICAHD has focused its activism on Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes (close to 50,000 in the OPT since 1967).
Free Bethlehem and the West Bank Tours, run by Salah Abu Laban, is a personal initiative that started in January 2015 with the aim of helping travellers discover Bethlehem and other cities in the West Bank, and educate themselves about the political, cultural, and historical aspects of the region. Free BAWT also runs the Bunksurfing Hostel and organizes hiking, camping and many other fun activities, and enjoys a solid 5 star reputation on Trip Advisor.
The One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC) is a Palestinian-Israeli initiative to establish a constitutional democracy between the sea and the river, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Currently based in Haifa, ODSC is a new initiative and will officially launch its movement this autumn. Meanwhile, it is building support through its website, Facebook page and articles in Mondoweiss.
The Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) and the Palestine Museum of Natural History (PMNH), operate under the auspices of the University of Bethlehem, and were established in order to research, educate about, and conserve our natural world, culture and heritage and use the knowledge gained to promote responsible human interactions with our environment.