where the writers are
We Are Starting Here--Writing Cultivator's Workshop, Day 1
Moustafa and Asmaa two writers

3 July 2011

Every reading, workshop, conversation and meal in the Arab world always begins with someone or actually everyone noticing I suck at the pronunciation of Arabic. It is noticeable mainly because I immediately screw up names, particularly those which end in –ah. The writing cultivator workshop I am leading in the town of Bir Zeit is no exception. The eight teacher/writers grinned, laughed and generally rolled their eyes as I chatted with Rajaa (ah), Asmaa (ah), clumsily transforming them into raj-a and asthma…oh please. You would think there would be a genetic gift of Arabic pronunciation but not in my case. Blond Midwesterners at Georgetown University rattle off better Arabic than I, the daughter of two Lebanese immigrants. Go figure.

My workshop is on the second floor of a large house in Bir Zeit. We are not at the university; we are in a studio gifted by Palfest, a family and some other magical manipulations. Our seminar tables are doors on crates covered with pink tablecloths. We have local juice, water, cookies and flies coming in the casement windows jumbling in the middle of the white stone room. The building is coming back from a slight deterioration, but even with missing parts and unusable bathrooms downstairs, I am inspired by the old stone houses in the town, a very historic town, love the arches, the terraces off every room and the dried-out but full of possibilities garden below. We are next to the Edward Said Music Academy and we expect to hear violins at any moment.

My class is filled with writers, mostly late twenties and early thirties, some single, others with children. They come from different parts of Palestine—Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bir Zeit, Nablus and Hebron.  One writer who is missing lives in Gaza and is waiting for her permit. If/when it is granted, she has a maximum of 10 days, no more, out of Gaza. We have two men and six women—different religions and backgrounds, some born in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere; some have been in Israeli prisons.

We are on a mission to create writing communities in the camps in Palestine. I have developed a course that is a mixture of pedagogy, writing work, group dynamics and mentoring. The first chapter (15 pages) was sent to them before I came. Sofie, the program director, was worried about the opening day. Would the writers make it? Would they be ready? Everything is unpredictable. We arrived at the building early to set up and the writers start arriving immediately. As we prepare, the conversation among them is about roads.

If maps were honest they would answer all the questions commuters need: how do I get to Ramallah from Jerusalem without the hours of waiting at the Kalandia Checkpoint? What’s the quickest way to Bethlehem circumventing the roads for settlers only? The writers share strategies with each other. Their papers and their status inhibit them from this direction or another. So they prepare to hike through fields and on back roads to get to school.  One student from Ramallah, B, just had an operation in Jerusalem. Her husband couldn’t visit her in the hospital. Later this summer they are going to Florida and Boston. B’s husband can go to Disneyworld, but not Jerusalem 16 Km away.

Combustion is the word for day one. Every idea I threw in the middle of the table was a spark that set the writer/teachers off into discussion. Some already knew each other; others were new to the workshops. One had less English than the others and so people translated back and forth.  Talk was exciting and forthright: why writing is important, why it’s more exciting to teach children than adults or the other way around. How poetry is just lies, or truth? The expanse of imagination of memory.

In the middle of all this I feel the hope of the project. A national writing workshop effort—a place for anyone, any age who wants to try, to voice, to escape. Coming from a country where the proliferation of writing programs is at plague level and Iowa Writing Workshop just celebrated seventy five years, it’s exciting to be on the ground floor of this effort, especially where borders stifle the body and the soul. The writer/teachers are enthusiastic as they listen to Sofie and I explain their status as cultivators, sowing the soil for generations to come. Inside borders, writing communities will sprout, weedy and strong.

I learn a lot from the writers the first day, about them, who has the sense of humor, who is the most serious and unflinching. They tell me things that surprise me like when they were kids the Intifada was kind of fun, throwing rocks and teasing the Israeli soldiers. But then their older brothers would have to pay for the little kids’ entertainment.  They say it stopped being funny when they learned what it all meant.

They tell me Ramallah is an illusion, the influx of foreigners makes it an open city, navigable, internet everywhere, English speakers, posh gyms and expensive restaurants. You see every type of dress on the street. Packs of Europeans strolling into the shops. The locals don’t even notice them anymore. They resent the jobs all going to these other invaders whose salaries push up the prices beyond the locals’ ability to pay.  There’s a FB page protesting the prices in Ramallah restaurants.

Outside of Ramallah refugee camps and villages are in full effect without these luxuries aimed at the visitors and the issues of isolation, supplies, lost land, lost access, limitation and oppression harden the situation. Weirdly in the occupation-tourism route, these places are often ignored. One of my writers said, they come and look at the wall, join a protest, sit at a few checkpoints and then have a cappuccino and congratulate themselves for their humanity.

Part cynicism/part reality. I could be considered one of these invaders except I don’t get a salary and within a month my job will be over and the Palestinian writers will take over and start, what we hope, are generations of writing workshops, for their own, run by their own.

Check it out. (donate) http://palestineworkshop.org/



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Imagination and memory

Elmaz, this seems like such a rich experience you are embarking on - for the students as well as for you. Coming as you do from a different society, with a different baggage, the concept of borders gets extended, does it not? Your observation about Ramallah was an eye-opener, so one can well imagine what else lies in store.

You mentioned along the way, "The expanse of imagination of memory."

This encapsulates it all.

Thank you for sharing this and hope the symbiotic relationship will be wonderful.