For the last fourteen years, I and others have spent a chunk of our year preparing the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. As one of the co-founders, I execute every job I am even remotely qualified for from creating the website to doing PR. The executive director pulls his life apart to handle the other things: administration, institutions, finances and other tasks I keep far away from. By the time the workshops start the last week of June, and we find something going wrong or their being less money that we thought we look at each other wearily over coffee and wonder, is this worth it?
We survive the workshops and the workshops survive us. By Friday when the writers make their final presentations, the answer to that question is crystal clear, of course it is. After VONA is over, I hide at home, usually with a cold, trying to get up and write. Of course it’s worth it.
This year, we moved from one city to another, SF to Berkeley and jammed our workshops into one week instead of two. My class in political content in story, memoir and poetry was hot and dynamic; they held out on each other working hard on writing—then the walls came down and an embrace of ideas and perspectives, similar and not so brought them together.
In the course of the workshop, I told them that after vona, instead of nursing my post workshop blues, I would be going to Palestine to teach writers to teach writing. I wondered if they wanted to connect; send them anything. The week passed silently on that topic and I just dismissed it.
During Friday’s final presentation, the writers stood in a semi-circle, Iuri started to sing, the room held. My writers built an altar for the writers in Palestine offering something they owned: pens, notebooks, worry dolls, music, poetry, Gibran, more pens, a bracelet, photo of a Columbian village, a protest photo from the 60’s—one by one, they offered my Palestine writers some piece of their inspiration. Later another writer in VONA offered a testimony poem and a notebook. When I packed for my trip, I put the altar items in my carry-on. I could lose anything but not these. The love that constructed that altar was precious cargo.
Last night, in Café la Vie in Ramallah, my writers and I presented a reading in the lovely garden. At the table I brought out the gifts from the VONA writers. The Palestinian writers looked at the pile for a moment and then one by one, pulled them and held them and examined them, knowing what these personal items meant to the people who sent them. Ultimately they distributed evenly around the group. They had smiles, silent ones, wishes maybe, to meet their counterparts.
The Palestinian writers had spent the last few weeks teaching in refugee camps, guiding young girls to open up and be joyful in their work. I witnessed them at the Sakakini Center discussing their writing. They were inspired and powerful. I see them as a generation of writers who create writing communities all over Palestine that bring other emerging writers together.
A journalist asked me what I learned the most from my experience. I said that writing is done in any circumstances, with check points and i.d. issues, and permits pending and babies in the arms. An old friend told me last night, he was headed to a poetry festival in morocco and was turned back at the border; was refused permission to enter Jordan to fly out. He said, we have an imitation of a life here.
On the surface we are in gardens, smoking nigele, eating fresh greens, hearing prayer and arguments and poems. Beneath this the life is tenuous and depends on so much. So many. VONA writers are a little bit of hoping for the Palestine writers. Mine refuse the identity of the victim even though most of them can’t enter Jerusalem. Another said, foreigners write more about politics than we do. That phase is gone they agreed. What’s needed, has been said. Now there is love and life and song.
Once I had a creative writing teacher cut out different shapes of paper, all sizes and distribute them to the class. He said, make your poem fit the shape. The results were remarkable, almost more poignant than anything we ever wrote before. Checkpoint, to checkpoint, to checkpoint.
I am packing now. I leave Ramallah in 12 hours. My carry-on bag will be one altar short, fewer pens, notebooks, poems, the songs my writers at vona sang, the words they offered. Instead I have the images of young girls reading from their notebooks while their teacher holds her baby and offers them praise on their images.
Pockets of writers that I know keep meeting, now on every side of the globe. They are taking their senses of exile or disenfranchisement or inspiration to each other. Not an object, not a thing, not even a poem. On these altars are the ways/things we reach to each other, the ways we find common ground. The dialogue between people who have never met but who know each other somehow. Writing. Right?
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports