where the writers are
Literary Ramallah I
Walid Abu Bakr

The Literary Circuit, Part I


All of the students in my class are published writers. They have novels or short story collections or poetry, film scripts, plays. None of them have an MFA from anywhere; in fact, their degrees are in Physics, Civil Engineering, Sociology.  The writers know each other pretty well in Ramallah and not only about their books, also of their lives. It is part of understanding the writer to know what community she lives in, whether it’s conservative or not; whether getting out is complicated or easy; whether there are insufferable expectations on her.

One of the mitigators of the literary scene is publisher, writer, Walid Abu Bakr.  Maya brought us together at a coffee place in a stylin’ part of Ramallah called Al Tireh. The café was a contrast to the ful diner we went to in Ramallah Tahat, a traditional part of the city where women are rare customers in the restaurants and coffee shops. It’s old style Palestine with the food put between the diners in terra cotta bowels and a stack of bread serving as the eating tools. There are no napkins, but a sink in the corner where each customer cleans off after dipping and slurping. The plates of humus, ful, falafel, and pickled vegetables cost Maya 18 NIS ($6ish); the coffee for the two of us in Al Tireh 46 NIS.

Within minutes into our conversation, I realized I was talking to an icon, a kind of living legend. His ideas are fierce. Hijab constricts the creativity of women writers, the best writers in Palestine are the 30 something’s, there are no great ideas around anymore. He pronounced clearly, “I am looking for the one great idea.”

He explained all the places he had lived, had been expelled from, the losses in his life. I remembered again how Ramallah, the West Bank was part of Jordan not that long ago. He couldn’t’ stay here for the obvious reasons, went to Kuwait and left there—life is a chessboard for him and for many.  I wonder how you get your footing to write, or maybe you become a gypsy writer, getting in a chair anywhere and making it happen.

We discussed the great ideas, the great writers and he seemed to have known them all: “I stayed fifteen days with Marquez when his book was made into an Italian film.” “I said to Najib Makfouz….”  He only claimed these alliances as I brought up each author; not bragging, connecting. He told me about a writer who was dying of cancer and while he was dying his son was in an accident and was in a coma for 3 years, his book was about waiting for life and death in one breath.

In a few hours we covered the world, inside us and outside. I could have sat there all day as the traffic got thicker, as the trucks ground up the hill, as the boys in soccer uniforms ran by, as the ladies with the computers talked loud in a mixture of English and Arabic; as the police officer across the street randomly stopped cars and issued some kind of tickets or examined some kind of documents. When I was young this conversation could have never happened. I would have frozen and waited.


You might wonder why someone would choose to go to a poetry reading in a language she doesn’t understand. Yet, I was anxious to see the Iraqi poet who had been in the café garden read his works at the Sakakini Center. This beautiful house was donated as a cultural center and boasts readings and other cultural events. The garden was set up with about forty chairs and when we arrived we were 3 of a few people. Within a half hour, the chairs were filled and the poet took his seat in the front.

The rhythm of someone else’s poetry puts me in a writing trance. It’s almost better that I don’t understand. I ride the sound and write furiously. The reading was long and the sun gave way to a little chill in the garden. The poet smoked cigarettes as he read. After I wrote a section of my novel, I wrote a mini-tableau of the reading:

·        The woman in the front row, veil and wearing skin-tight jean takes two phone calls during the reading. She sits directly across from the poet chatting.

·        Children play loudly in a park across the street

·        The poet says something that make Maya go wow

·        The girl with the cell phone leaves through the rows forcing people to shift their chairs.

·        Maya rocks to the poetry reading, her body resting on the backs of the legs of the plastic chair

·        The poet reads a piece that someone requested on Facebook

·        The poet waves his cigarette (#4) as if he is conducting an orchestra

·        It grows cold and the garden starts to empty; Maya borrows my shawl

·        Remah wonders if I am bored.

·        I have written things, put names in a notebook with bicycles on the pages. I am afraid I will forget as usual

·        I know these lists are a lazy way of keeping memories.

1 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip


are beautiful snapshots that you share- i pictured it and smelled the smoke. thanks.