Claire Falcon reviews Free the Word meets Beirut 39
You know what it’s like. In a flush of enthusiasm, you agree to something, and then suddenly it comes round and you find yourself in the middle of a busy week thinking, ‘hell, why did I agree to this? I’ve got [fill in appropriate busy-Londoner-type excuse] to get done today’. The evil thought pops into your head, ‘well, I suppose I could cut it… when you’re freelance, work really must come first’. Then the angel on the other side wags its finger and says (sounding remarkably like my father) ‘you must live up to your responsibilities!’
So I found myself rushing towards Farringdon last Thursday lunchtime, cutting it fine as usual, but clearly the angels were winning because there was not a tube delay in sight; even a Circle Line train appeared within minutes. A handful of people was scattered about when I arrived, and I thought, ‘oh well, one of those, then’. But within a few minutes, the seats were full, and, in fact, more and more people kept coming in during the talk til they were lining the walls. (‘Really, it’s so rude not to be on time,’ I thought priggishly, my own near miss with the tube conveniently forgotten.)
It was only while I was waiting for it to start that I really switched on to what the talk was all about – and it made me mightily ashamed of my shabbily casual attitude to turning up. Two writers were there to talk about their work. Two writers who, despite being from the same land, could only meet far away in London. Ala Hlehel is a Palestinian writer with an Israeli passport living in Haifa. Adania Shibli is a Palestinian writer living across the border.
The format of the talk was quite simple. Ask the author a few questions about his / her work and then ask them to read a bit. We’re so used to reading these days, but being read to is something most of us probably haven’t experienced much since we were kids. There’s something uniquely powerful about hearing a writer speak his own words. But what made this talk unusual was that both were, of course, reading in translation.
The two stories were very different – Adania’s about a girl in her local Post Office, Ala’s a fable about how a writer became a writer (although he claims it’s not a story about himself). Both made me want to buy the book – so a good sales opportunity, clearly.
However it was much more than just a book reading. Things became
increasingly animated as the two writers told what it was like to live in a
country where your identity is denied. Ala talked about the irony of holding an
Israeli passport, which allowed him to visit all sorts of places but not many
Arab countries, while abhorring the label ‘Israeli Arab’. I’ve never thought
deeply about such a definition, and indeed, when he said it, my naïve reaction
was, is it that important?
And the answer is yes it is important. Fundamental, even. Because, as he explained, the term cuts off his identity. It denies his history, implying the beginning of his family’s existence only in 1948. From what they both said, it is these personal experiences, these everyday challenges of defining who you are when your identity is something you have to fight for, that affect you and therefore shape your experience as a writer.
‘Ask the Israelis to recognise me and my rights, and then I will talk’, and ‘The dialogue I’m interested in is the dialogue with the man at the checkpoint’, were the answers to a question from the floor about the value of talking to Israeli writers. And who could blame them?
But while this may have been a challenging point of view to those of us used to the freedom of being able to express our views however we like, the atmosphere was not at all negative. In fact, what could be more uplifting than Adania’s answer to the final question about what Arabic literature influenced her. ‘To me, all literature is Arabic literature, because I read it in Arabic and therefore I feel it is Arabic. Tolstoy and Shakespeare – they are Palestinians!’
God bless the angels.