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Palestinian Voices Will Not Be Silenced

Since the Israeli assault on Gaza, a climate of fear has punctured British cultural institutions and seen attempts to silence Palestinian writers when their voices need amplifying the most.

Egyptian Novelist Ahdaf Soueif speaking at the Palestine Festival of Literature. Credit: Rob Stothard

When the most recent outburst of violence in Israel and Palestine erupted last month, the shock which greeted events led to a ricocheting of solidarity for all who were victim to the horror. In the past month, cultural practitioners in the Palestinian diaspora — removed from a catastrophe erupting yet again in their homeland — mobilised to ensure that the eyes of the world bore witness. 

But at the same time as they organised, spoke and shared accounts of decades of Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupation, the rug was being pulled from beneath them. A wave of repression swept renowned institutions that succumbed to ‘security concerns’ and began cancelling or indefinitely postponing Palestinian-related events. Arab and Muslim artists had nothing to do but watch their calendars empty out.

This was the experience of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), when its annual event in London was abruptly de-platformed in October. The festival, which was due to showcase works from writers and performers such as Tamim al-Barghouti, Rashid Khalidi, Soweto Kinch, Julie Christie and Esther Freud, was booked months prior to the current conflict. But this wasn’t enough for venues; the first to cancel was the renowned Royal Geographic Society (RGS), which said in a statement that the decision ‘was in no way a reflection on the event organisers, speakers or attendees, or a comment on the content of the event, but was a way of avoiding putting people at risk of harm during a time of heightened tension.’

After as many as 50 venues rejected PalFest, the seminal Egyptian novelist and PalFest co-founder Ahdaf Soueif eventually helped find a space at Hamilton House. Opening the event, she said she had never experienced anything like it: ‘in our fifteen years of producing literary events in and about Palestine’, she said, ‘there has never been such an institutional climate of silencing and fear.’ The crowd was always there: PalFest’s Friday evening event was sold out, with standing-only space for the 200 who braved the weather to watch stellar spoken word and musical performances. Drawing upon the words of Edward Said, Soueif assured the audience that despite the repression, PalFest won’t be stopped in its mission to ‘place the power of culture in confrontation with the culture of power.’

The cancellations have not been exclusive to literature. PalMusic, a British initiative to showcase talented young Palestinian musicians, was due to host their 10-year anniversary concert at Southwark Cathedral on 11 October. But on the eve of the event, the venue called it off over concerns for ‘the safety of the audience, musicians and Cathedral staff.’ Perhaps more troubling was the recent experience of British writer Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, who found herself at the behest of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) department of a major publishing company. 

Manzoor-Khan was scheduled to give an employee talk about Islamophobia in November, based on her 2022 book Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia. Instead, she was abruptly told the talk was off. ‘The DEI office believed that the talk shouldn’t happen in isolation and that there would need to be an antisemitism talk for there to be equity, and for there to be inclusion,’ she told Tribune. ‘I found that a really bizarre response, which assumed or applied that a talk about Islamophobia needs to be offset by a talk about antisemitism which gives the impression that a talk about Islamophobia is itself antisemitic, and that was really troubling.’ After Manzoor-Khan posted the exchange on social media, the company retracted the decision and said the talk could go ahead at a later date.

The policing of Arab and Muslim identity should be no surprise to a British state where the Home Office has been ‘turned into a branch of Shin Bet’, says prominent historian and academic Rashid Khalidi, referring to Israel’s notorious national intelligence agency. ‘We call her Cruella, as does Private Eye,’ Khalidi jokes to Tribune about former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Tuning in from his office at New York’s Columbia University, where he has taught Modern Arab Studies for over 25 years, he recognises the tension clearly. ‘There is enormous pressure on cultural institutions and universities not to platform anything to do with Palestine,’ Khalidi says. He said that while venues likely do have security concerns, there is little record of problems to justify them. ‘But that’s a pretext,’ he argues, and ‘certainly a pretext in many cases for political censorship.’

Compared to Britain, Palestinian censorship takes on another form in the USA, in part due to Israeli public relations firms, thinktanks and advocacy groups which work to quash criticism of Israeli government policies, as well as Washington’s longstanding support for ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. This means that any calls for Palestinian self-determination are profoundly taboo; Khalidi recalls his friend Michael Rattner, the late American civil rights lawyer, who coined the term ‘Palestine Exception to Free Speech’ over a decade ago. Khalidi concedes, however, that the horrific events and high civilian death tolls in this war have intensified discourse more than before.

Decades of occupation have cultivated a hostile atmosphere for those in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The writer and PalFest co-founder Brigid Keenan remembers the intimidation tactics of the Israeli authorities during the second PalFest in 2009, when organisers brought a group of writers out to Palestine to hold workshops and events with locals. ‘It had always bothered me that Palestine was cut off from the cultural world of the West, yet obviously Palestine is full of writers and poets,’ she tells Tribune. ‘The important thing is to give people a voice. If you are a colonial power, the first thing you do is try and suppress their culture. You think they’re savages, so you try to stop their rituals, stop the things they’re doing, change their stories.’

Keenan recalls an experience at an event being held at a theatre in Jerusalem. ‘When we got to the theatre, Ahdaf and I found it had been taken over by the IDF. We asked them why we couldn’t have it. They said, “Well, you can’t”.’ In the end, the evening was rescued by the French Consul General, who offered to host the event at his office as it ‘officially belongs to France,’ Keenan remembers him saying. ‘We all walked past the Israeli soldiers, and I remember speaking to one and saying: “Don’t you like good writing and poetry?” to which he said: “Yes, I do”’. When Keenan prompted him on why, then, was he doing this, ‘he didn’t have any comment’.

Yet the past few years have seen a rising interest for Palestinian artists in the West. Everything from Palestinian experimental theatre to hip-hop music has opened up new avenues for young people to engage with the Palestinian cause. ‘I have never in my life been inundated with books that are published in Palestine’, Khalidi reasons. ‘Everybody sends me a copy of their book, or the publisher sends me. This is new. If this kind of thing wasn’t attractive to the public, they wouldn’t be publishing it.’

Khalidi, whose father was Palestinian and mother Lebanese-American, knows life under bombardment from his time in Beirut during the bloody days of Lebanon’s civil war. Today, he touches upon that bitter irony; that it can feel worse being removed from a conflict than actually being there, particularly as he thinks of his relatives in Gaza and the West Bank. ‘From a distance one feels so helpless,’ he says. ‘I feel deep resentment that my tax dollars are being used to pay for the artillery shells, bombs and warplanes. People can see that a lot of innocent Israelis were killed, but people can also see that many times as many Palestinians are being killed. Stopping it should be the objective of everybody.’

But history shows us that despite it all, literature can be a threat. Thinkers and writers have always been at the forefront of resistance to oppression, and oppressors always consider them legitimate targets. From the murder of the revolutionary writer Ghassan Kanafani in 1972 to the arrest of 22-year-old author Ahed Tamimi in the West Bank this month, those who are armed to the teeth are frightened of those who can tell the truth. This is what makes PalFest — and its continuation in the coming years — so important.