PalFest- Engaging the Culture of Power with the Power of Culture


We had discussed literary festivals and their venues in a previous blog. Ever heard of a literary festival that traveled to its readers, like, say the mountain to the Muhammed? PalFest does exactly that!

PalFest is the acronym for the Palestine Festival of Literature and a celebration of the word in a world where apartheid, bombings and harassment are everyday matters. The objective of holding the festival is singular; it’s for supporting the Palestinian morale. The act but attains a bunch of subsidiary goals including renewal of media interest in the human situation in Palestine and enabling the artists from the West, mainly, to sample what life is like in the heart of Arab land in these times.

The standard, location specific formula of a literary festival is impossible in Palestine. So the founder of the festival Ahdaf Soueif found a way of bringing poets, journalists, publishers and novelists to the occupied territories to celebrate, in Edward Said’s words, “the power of culture over the culture of power” in 2008.

The Gaza and the West bank are on your TV Screens everyday, we see human figures scurrying away from guns and bombs exploding and inert reports of casualties and evacuations. Where safety is itself at a premium, where is the place for art, you may ask! The Palestinians are doing it with grace; they don’t like to say survive, they prefer to live, and make sure their talent makes its presence felt. So they have built an open-air theater that they call the Return Theater, have a National Conservatory of Music, and run women’s cooperative that sell traditional food and embroidery. And now the festival of words too!

Chinua Achebe, John Berger, Seamus Heaney and Philip Pullman, as well as the late Harold Pinter and the late Mahmoud Darwish are all names closely associated with PalFest; they have been the patrons of this unique festival. The British Council, The UNESCO and the Sigrid Rausing Charitable Fund are the principal partners of the festival along with a number of brave Palestinian hands.

The PalFest Funding proposal tells us that PalFest invites a number of international authors each year to spend one week touring Palestine. They cross checkpoints to reach their audience, bringing a world class literary event to the people of a city under siege. Events are shared with local Palestinian artists, demonstrating that even under siege Palestine produces artists who can stand side by side with the best that the world has to offer. PalFest visits universities and conducts seminars and workshops on topics of the students’ choosing.

In 2009, the PalFest was held from 23-28 May 2009. Fourteen International authors attended the festival in over 6 cities, over 6 days. Other than the literary events and readings, there were workshops with university students in Birzeit University, al-Khalil/Hebron University, the Arab American University of Jenin (AAUJ) and the Jenin based NGO, The Freedom Theatre. In addition there were visits and music programs planned for the visitors.

The people who got back home after the fest in May at Jerusalem were asked if they enjoyed themselves and the writers looked baffled, the time they spend are at once the worst and the best of times. Authors brought in to celebrate PalFest saw what they had never hoped to see in their lives and brought back with them memories which will probably remain with them, only to be shared and grown along the roads they travel. For more details about PalFest visit

The Palfest happened in 2010 too and here is a marvellous article on how it went.

Suneetha is a writer by passion, profession and hobby. She writes fiction in English, poetry in her native tongue Malayalam and journalistic features in both. She can be contacted at

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