Dispatches from an Unoccupied Future: Reflections on the Palestine Writes Festival

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THERE IS SOME DISPUTE about the meaning of the patterns on a keffiyeh. The bold strips of black might represent trade routes going through historic Palestine, conjuring its history as a central site of intercultural exchange; they might also represent the walls and checkpoints dismembering and obstructing the land. There is less ambiguity about the twin pairs of olive leaves on the keffiyeh, which represent Palestinian Indigeneity and revolutionary fortitude. And the keffiyeh’s distinctive crisscross pattern, its most recognizable imagery (appropriated consistently by Israeli and Western designers and fashionwear brands), might represent a fishnet, thus denoting the Palestinian people’s connection to the Mediterranean; or it might represent ears of grain; or it might represent barbed wire, that ever-present symbol of the occupation.

Of all these interpretations, I am most drawn to the fishnet. As a symbol of our identity, a model for being Palestinian, it articulates one possible futurity for our people. A fishnet is an image of collectivism, of entanglement and dependence: in a net, singular strands become something larger, stronger. As one strand, I am always yearning to be knotted together with others, so that we are better able to hold, to catch.

During Palestine Writes, a virtual festival of Palestinian writers and writers in solidarity with Palestine, I began to feel this knotting together. I was reminded of the larger thing of which I am a part, and of the power and strength that emerges from it. Despite censorship, a global pandemic, and the consequences of ongoing displacement, thousands of attendees, participants, and organizers found a space in which we could join together and weave ourselves toward wholeness and repair. As I continue to reflect on the five-day festival, I find myself returning to the image of the keffiyeh’s fishnet pattern, this move we make from individual strands to intertwined pattern, from loneliness to connection. We trace the squares of our net, encountering each other along the way, through grief, joy, protest, and Zoom calls. We linger with the knots and examine their shapes, that we might know better how to tie them.

The keffiyeh began to mean something larger than itself through revolution, during the 1936 Arab Revolt against the British. Palestinian peasants and farmers, who wore the keffiyeh to protect against the sun, led the revolt; Palestinians from towns and cities began to wear keffiyehs in solidarity and to make it harder for the British to identify the revolt’s leaders. This moment of practical, embodied commitment to a wider revolution helped create the web of meanings around the keffiyeh today. Festival organizer Susan Abulhawa, in her opening remarks, situated Palestine Writes, too, in a space of political, linguistic, and narrative revolt: “This festival is for the water protectors, for the rangers and warriors who’ve dedicated their lives to protect life from profit. It is for the stone throwers, the street marchers, the agitators, and the disruptors. It is for the kite flyers, the hunger strikers, the political prisoners.” Throughout the festival, Palestinians and our many comrades in struggle enacted a cultural revolt, a sustained insistence on the necessity of art in our varied, connected revolutions.

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Part of that cultural revolt is a deep investment in asking what it means to be Palestinian, or what it could mean. The contrast between fishnet and barbed wire communicates something meaningful, I think, about the Palestinian struggle to understand our identities — something that became clearer for me after hearing Sophia Azeb speak on the panel “Cultural Dislocation and Dissonance.” Azeb called us into a wider and more expansive understanding of Palestinianness, one which acknowledges and is built on the multiplicity of Palestinian identities. “We are always in the process of becoming Palestinians,” she noted, arguing that the meaning of that future identity is always in flux, always open to revision and change.

If, as Azeb wondered, we became Palestinian in disaster, and if, as our continued existence promises, we will one day live to see the end of that disaster, then the question of who we will be when that happens is a pressing one. How can we begin to move away from barbed wire and back to fishnet — from an identity informed by disaster to something wilder, more open, more whole? Introducing the “Palestine in Parallel” poetry performance on the first day, festival organizer Ayah El-Fahmawi asked us to consider: “What does a free Palestine look like to you? And who are you in a free Palestine?” The poetry, stories, and thinking throughout the rest of the festival served, then, as a series of possible answers, exploring the meaning of our freedom as it is bound up with the freedom of others. “We will continue to know how to be Palestinian, together, when we are free,” Azeb reminded us. “We will know better how to be Palestinian, together, as we are free.”

This wider vision of futurity is one that the participants in and attendees of Palestine Writes sought to enact, in our brief embodiments of togetherness, over the course of the festival. We returned to Jerusalem through the festival’s innovative web design, the homepage of which was a virtual depiction of Jerusalem, with a Palestinian flag waving in a wind of pixels and digital avatars of a diverse crowd of people wandering around. (Sometimes I would just sit and watch them wander, immersed in the peace of this digital imagining.) We argued with one another on panels, committing deeply to urgent questions of survival and what lies beyond it. In the chats, we corrected each other, questioned each other, encouraged each other, added more information and context, insults and curses, jokes and love. These moments are what keep us alive, and what keep us together; the knots of a net are tightened by tension. We grow stronger when we hold each other to account, when we argue over tactics and meanings in search of something better.

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So much of the work of the festival was engaged in articulating the connections we have to others, whether in struggle, writing, analysis, or theory. On the panel “The Parallel Lives of Ghassan Kanafani and James Baldwin,” Bill Mullen, Robin D. G. Kelley, Rami Abu Shehab, Maha Nassar, and Huzama Habayeb offered ways of understanding the lives and thought of these two revolutionary literary figures as intertwined, informing and informed by each other’s work, though they never met. The notion of parallels offers us one model of understanding our relationships to one another, as lines traveling in the same direction. I wonder if the keffiyeh’s fishnet offers us, perhaps, a different one, one that illuminates not only the way our lives and circumstances might resemble one another but also the way those lives are bound together in a larger web. On the Baldwin/Kanafani panel, Robin D. G. Kelley reminded us that Black Panthers and PFLP militants trained together, that after George Jackson was assassinated in prison a collection of Palestinian poetry was found among his possessions. These are not only similarities to be intellectually traced but moments of intentional togetherness and solidarity between leftist revolutionaries. In these moments, Black revolutionary threads in the United States crossed with Palestinian revolutionary threads, knotting together in struggle and strategy.

What might change if we looked at our history, and the larger questions of our Palestinianness, and saw the wide array of these knots? If we understood our Palestinianness as, in fact, dependent on these knots dispersed throughout the world? What if one of the ways we become Palestinian is in our many collectivisms, our many solidarities and conflicts, our many small and large revolutions? Watching all the moments of enacted futures and solidarities at Palestine Writes, I found myself constantly invited into a wider understanding of the meaning of our struggle, the meaning of our Palestine as both a particular soil and a way of relating to one another in the world, a commitment to justice writ large. Palestine is in all the ways we survive, all the ways we revolt, all those with whom we knot ourselves together in that revolt.

Here is a brief litany of moments I recall with joy and gratitude. The laughter on my friend George Abraham’s face, in conversation with Zaina Arafat about writing Palestinian queerness. Laila El-Haddad, Vivien Sansour, and Mirna Bamieh insisting on our necessary refusal to compromise when fighting for Palestinian food sovereignty. The great Dareen Tatour reminding us of the necessary fight against our “internal occupations.” Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour performing her song “al-Keffiyeh Arabiya” on the fourth night of the festival, in which she insists on the keffiyeh as a symbol with a distinct history and politics. The consistency with which we denounced capitalists, Palestinian or not. Rana Baker telling us that Gazan incendiary kites constitute acts of creative disruption and environmental resistance. Palestinian political prisoner, activist, and thinker Khalida Jarrar’s letter, smuggled from an Israeli prison, illuminating the vital importance of literature to herself and her fellow Palestinian women prisoners. Angela Davis, in response to a question about what she would write to a girl incarcerated in an Israeli prison, explaining that what gave her courage during her own incarceration was the knowledge, as comrades outside supported and advocated for her, that she was not alone. “We want to meet each other,” Abulhawa said in her opening remarks. And so, knotting ourselves together with story, song, and language, we began to do just that.

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After the keynote panel, the final event of the festival, I called a dear friend of mine, the first queer Palestinian I had ever met. I told him about the festival, how meaningful it had been, and what I’d been thinking about fishnets and togetherness. He told me that it reminded him of an Arabic saying: “Our hearts are at each other’s gates.” In the days after, as I linger on the festival’s webpage — to catch up on events I missed, immerse myself again in the tensions and unities, the futures and memories — I hold this saying close. In this life of constant disaster, Palestine Writes reminded me, again and again, that we are entangled with one another, and that our entanglement offers us strength. Our hearts are at each other’s gates; I am filled with the hope that we might open them. That we might forget the gates are there, might remember they never really were. That we might let each other in.


Fargo Tbakhi (he/him) is a queer Palestinian American performance artist. A Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee and a Tin House Summer Workshop alum, his writing can be found in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Mizna, Foglifter, The Shallow Ends, and elsewhere. His performance work has been programmed at OUTsider Fest, INTER-SECTION Solo Fest, the Rachel Corrie Foundation’s Shuruq Festival, and elsewhere.


Banner image: “Palestinian keffiyeh loom” by TrickyH is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.




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