Palestine Writes festival kicks off in Philadelphia

Palestine Writes festival kicks off in Philadelphia
The Palestine Writes Literature Festival opened at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend following major backlash by pro-Israeli groups over the planned event.
3 min read
Washington, D.C.
23 September, 2023
A dabka troupe performs at the opening ceremony of the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. [Brooke Anderson/The New Arab]

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival opened in Philadelphia on Friday afternoon, with attendees filling a large historic auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania.

Amid much anticipation and tight security, guests and presenters filed into the Irvine Auditorium, first past a small group of pro-Israeli protesters, then to the myriad outdoor stands of Palestinian arts, crafts and literature. Inside the building, black and white photographs of historic Palestine hung on the walls.

As people took their seats, the strong sound of drumbeats and traditional Arab music filled the spacious room. The screen then turned to historic phots of Palestine, along with a poem by Susan Abulhawa. A dance troupe, the Freedom Dabke Group, brought the audience to their feet, setting the tone for a series of energetic presentations.

With the festival's focus on Palestinian literature and culture, there has been the expected backlash. Speakers made reference to the challenges of bringing the large gathering together, alternating between humour and defiance.

"We're not full of hate. We're full of love," said Amer Zahr, a Palestinian American comedian from the Philadelphia area. "We hate occupation."

Along similar lines, Abulhawa followed by listing some of the challenges organisers of the festival faced as they planned the event.

"It has been quite a journey to get here. There have been a lot of roadblocks," said Abulhawa. "There are people who can't bear our expressions of humanity," she said, noting their struggles to get funding for the festival, and thanking the donors and others that have stood by them. 

She also paid tribute to the Native Americans originally from the area prior to the founding of Philadelphia, as well as longtime locals in the university neighbourhood who have been affected by gentrification.

Huda Fakhereddine, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania, said emphatically: "Despite the racism and discrimination and double standards, this voice for agency, literature and the arts has been won."

Abulhawa acknowledged the unusual nature of the gathering, while also suggesting that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

"It's not an ordinary literature festival. It's not boring," she said. "It is a gathering of our shattered family. It is meant to be an intersectional defiant space to be with our friends in our refusal to disappear, and our refusal to accept racist tropes.

"It's meant to be an intellectual, joyous and creative space. So many of us have made it our life's work. With great urgency, we collect the memories of our elders, the pieces from a broken hole we're desperate to reassemble, the seeds to plant until we can return."