Worldmaking in action at Palestine Writes festival
It has been a week since the Palestine Writes Festival in Philadelphia. There has been an outpour of love, gratitude and sense of triumph and pride by Palestinians across social media for what the festival, in all its glory and controversy, offered us.
On a personal level, there were certain circumstances that coalesced around my participation in the festival that revealed to me the power and potential of transnational solidarity. The kind of solidarity that is rooted in an analytic renowned African-American historian Robin D. G. Kelley describes as ‘worldmaking’.
That is to say, a shared vision of mutual liberation based on the indivisibility of justice, of imagining revolution. And imagine we did.
On the morning of the first day of the festival, I stood at the entrance gate to the venue, mingling with speakers and organisers who were dealing with the relentless violence of a powerful lobby intent on censoring Palestinians and their supporters.
"This was first and foremost a festival of love. Not love as some vacuous, performative bumper-bar slogan, but love for truth-telling, for standing one’s ground with integrity and conviction, for finding communal joy despite the grief and trauma, for embodying an ethics of care, empathy, and witnessing"
A jumbotron truck drove by, and I noticed my festival profile photo on the large screen. I was one of several speakers chosen as the “face” of “antisemitism”. The image on the truck changed, declaring “shame” on the university “for hosting a Nazi jihadi festival celebrating Jew hatred and promoting genocide.”
The irony of this smear campaign was not lost on me.
Only six months ago, festival director Susan Abulhawa had faced a smear campaign in Australia when Adelaide Writers Week invited her to attend its festival. Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd, who had also been invited and would join his panels by zoom, was also the subject of the campaign.
What ensued was a fierce and ugly campaign by Australia’s pro-Israel lobby to de-platform Abulhawa and El-Kurd, obstruct Abulhawa’s visa application, boycott the festival and pressure the state government and sponsors to withdraw funding.
Abulhawa was granted her visa at the eleventh hour and both prevailed in speaking to packed audiences. On the ground, the lobby failed. When it comes to grassroots community, it always does.
Palestine Writes, a cultural festival of literature and other arts, is happening in Philadelphia this week. It is the first live programme since its virtual gathering during Covid-19.@Brookethenews gives a taste of what to expect 👇https://t.co/RQwpLYIdVX— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) September 22, 2023
Abulhawa’s presence, and the panels curated in Adelaide, led to a strong show of solidarity with Palestinians from local First Nations’ writers and speakers. Relationships were strengthened. Friendships formed. Joint struggle reaffirmed and rearticulated.
And it was for these reasons that I ended up at Palestine Writes in Philadelphia not by myself, but with a contingent who had first rallied together in Adelaide: Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi poet and podcaster Lorna Munro brought the house down with her brilliant spoken word poetry at opening night while acclaimed author Karen Wyld, of Martu descent presented her picture story book Heroes, Rebels and Innovators: Inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from history at a story-time session with children and joined award-winning Yankunytjatjara poet Ali Cobby Eckermann on a panel about bending genre, form and narrative.
Award-winning poet and lawyer Sara Saleh presented her debut novel, Songs for the Dead and the Living, and Arab-Australian academic Jumana Bayeh, whose expertise is in Arab diaspora literature and culture, attended in solidarity.
This was first and foremost a festival of love. Not love as some vacuous, performative bumper-bar slogan, but love for truth-telling, for standing one’s ground with integrity and conviction, for finding communal joy despite the grief and trauma, for embodying an ethics of care, empathy, and witnessing.
We heard first-hand from Palestinians about the brutality of the Israeli regime, their unwavering resistance, and the power and agency of story-telling in film, art, and literature. We listened to Viet Thanh Nguyen and moderator Rachel Holmes in person on stage, but not everyone could make it to Philadelphia.
Roger Waters joined via Zoom from Philadelphia airport, banned from participating in the festival or stepping foot on the university campus, and Gary Younge joined online from the UK, his US visa having been revoked as he was waiting to depart Heathrow. Despite hateful efforts to censor the voices of those who speak out for justice in Palestine, the festival was a huge success.
But according to pro-Israel lobbyists, the festival was dangerous and threatened the safety of Jewish students on campus.
Which Jewish students exactly?
Was this claim one backed by all Jewish students at the university? Or was it an attempt to use claims of antisemitism to shut down criticism of Israel while indulging in the antisemitic assumption that all Jews support Israel?
Are the anti-Zionist Jewish students who came out in support of the festival less Jewish than Zionist Jews according to that logic?
"What was at stake for those in power was the world that the organisers, speakers and presenters invited us to imagine. The liberation blueprints and solidarity agendas we dreamed up together"
Or was this a pro-Israel Jewish students argument, in which case can we agree that it is not the job of colonised, occupied communities to make their colonisers and occupiers feel comfortable?
There is so much that can and has been said about the dehumanising, racist and disingenuous claim that a collective of Palestinians and their allies exchanging words of freedom and liberation risks the safety of Jewish people.
At the very least, such a claim offers a fascinating exposure of how deeply narcissistic perpetrators of violence and their defenders are.
When, at the festival, journalist Shadha Hanaysheh recounted witnessing the shooting of iconic journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while dodging to escape IDF sniper bullets, we are expected to privilege the feelings of Zionist Jews about such testimony and suppress Shadha’s voice accordingly.
When renowned Palestinian historians present projects by young Palestinian architects on reconstructing destroyed Palestinian villages, or when a panel of queer Palestinian writers spoke about the intersections of their identities, or when a panel of Indigenous, African-American, South African, and Asian-American scholars, writers, poets and journalists drew connections between race, environmental justice, BDS and organised workers’ movements, the pro-Israel lobby would demand that the terms of discussion, language and analytics that are allowed are those dictated by the settler-coloniser, the occupier.
A new report shows how the IHRA definition of antisemitism has silenced criticism of Israel in UK universities. It continues to undermine academic freedom and muddle our understanding of anti-Jewish hatred, writes @rrgould 👇 https://t.co/8pFTaYKKn7— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) October 4, 2023
The pro-Israel lobbyists were right to panic, but not about the safety of Jewish students, or antisemitism (which Israel is quite happy to ignore if it serves its settler-colonial enterprise).
Every Zionist playbook for silencing, intimidating and defaming Palestinians around the world has a chapter panicking over Palestinians refusing to tame their outrage or curtail their imaginations, and allies refusing to withdraw their support.
With every iteration of lobbying, racism and lawfare, Palestinians and other communities fighting state violence draw closer in their refusal to cede their space and their right to revolutionary, insurgent politics.
The festival brought First Nations writers from settler Australia to the unceded land of the Native Lenape peoples in Philadelphia to commune with local Black and racialised communities in conversation with Palestinians from all over the world, including inside ’48, the West Bank and Gaza.
That is worldmaking in action.
A commitment to worldmaking inspired us to listen and learn, share tears, laughter, joy, righteous fury, poetry, stories, food, dance, and song with writers, journalists, historians, artists, film-makers, directors, educators, and students from around the world.
We all embrace the kind of self-determination that is committed to rupturing and destabilising deep colonising relations of power and refuse to participate in practices that shield and hide injustice.
What was at stake for those in power was the world that the organisers, speakers and presenters invited us to imagine. The liberation blueprints and solidarity agendas we dreamed up together.
There is simply no force in the world, no matter how well-funded, how proximate to power, that can extinguish the radical imagination of people who are united in joint struggle for self-determination and liberation.
No wonder Israel’s supporters were scared. And so they should be.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is a Future Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching Arab/Muslim Australian radical social movements from the 1970s to date. She is also the award winning author of over 12 novels.
Follow her on Twitter: @RandaAFattah
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.