The 2012 PalFest activities are about to begin! I’m hoping to participate more than I did last year. What happened last year? Read this story about my unsuccessful attempt to attend the PalFest 2011 closing event in Silwan.
April 11, 2011: Last night my family was sitting around doing nothing in particular, but I still had to pester and beg and insist that we go out. We live in Jerusalem, a world-class city! Even on the Palestinian side of town, there are things to see. But too often we let the most banal of life’s obligations fill up our time and we get stuck in a rut.
It was the last day of PalFest (the annual Palestinian Literature Festival) and we had already missed most of the contemporary dance festival. My eldest really, really, really didn’t want to go, so she stayed with her friends celebrating the last school day before the Easter break. My middle child, characteristically eager to please me, was happy to join, but she brought a book expecting to bored. My youngest was playing with another 7-year old. I called the girl’s mother, a dear friend, and convinced her to put the girls in her car and drive behind us to PalFest.
The closing event of the 2011 PalFest was being held at the Silwan Solidarity Tent where internationals and locals gather to protest the demolition orders on 80 or so of Silwan’s Palestinian homes. It’s a Palestinian community just adjacent to the Old City, and one that, unfortunately, has religious significance to Jews. It might be a lost cause, but Silwan is going down fighting – hard (get more information here and here).
It only took 10 minutes to get to the corner of the Old City walls where the road curves down and left to Silwan, but that road was roped off. We had forgotten Passover. There are always closures and detours and traffic problems on Jewish holidays, but this one was massive. Cars everywhere with nowhere to go.
We took a right, away from Silwan and drove to the Palestinian bus station to ask a Silwan bus driver (#76 if you ever need to know) what he suggested. He said there are back roads, but it would take more than an hour and we might not get there. We deliberated. My friend had the idea to walk straight through the Old City; Silwan is just beyond the Jewish Quarter. It was 8 pm and the event should have been starting, but the chances were that if we couldn’t get to the venue on time, the performers might also be late. And since the weather was lovely and the kids were awake, we parked near Damascus Gate and walked into the Old City.
I was euphoric. First of all, the Old City is beautiful at night. I don’t remember the last time I was there at night. It was alive and crowded with pushy, noisy vendors and tourists. Taking advantage of the visit, I was quickly able to buy the piece of Palestinian embroidery I wanted to send to my cousin. I was also excited about the line up. DAM, an internationally recognized rap group was playing. Suad Amiry, an internationally recognized author (and friend) was scheduled to MC.
Actually, I saw DAM perform just last week at TEDx in Ramallah (which surreally was held in Bethlehem) and I was hoping they would play their song, “I’m in love with a Jew” about falling in love with a Jew in an elevator (“She was going up, I was going down, down, down”). For some reason, I like that song!
The adults, walking fast to get to the show we were already late for, were followed by the three kids. We took the left fork at the bottom of the Damascus Gate entrance and my friend led us this way and that way until we found ourselves in a sea of black hats. I have never been in the midst (really the midst) of SO many orthodox Jews before and it made me nervous. My friend (who is Palestinian) and I look like foreigners but my husband is clearly Arab. Although no one seemed to notice us or care, I found my stomach tied in nervous knots for the rest of the night.
The checkpoint into the Jewish Quarter was closed and there was already a crowd of angry Jews yelling at the soldiers because they wanted to get in. It didn’t seem smart hang around to watch a fight brew between the Israeli army and religious Jews, so we followed someone’s directions and took two left turns to get to the other entrance into the Jewish Quarter. There, we found ourselves on some stairs in a crowd of hundreds of people standing packed between the narrow alley walls. No one was moving. My husband wasn’t nervous at all (amazing) and asked someone what the delay was (though by talking, most people would know for certain that he’s an Arab). It turned out a “suspicious object” had been found just ahead and that checkpoint was also closed. I pulled my husband away from the crowd, sure that he’d be rounded up. We walked fast into the Arab section where I could breathe again.
We pondered whether we should give up or not, but my friend kept saying, “It’s right there” pointing to the wall. She meant that Silwan was just on the other side of the wall, which was true, but somehow an understatement and an overstatement at the same time. I, too, really wanted to go to that PalFest event. Badly.
Kids in tow, we backtracked to the place where the “suspicious object” had been and found, strangely, the path was open. Completely open. We walked down the stairs and up to the next checkpoint without even slowing down. Jerusalem is such a weird place. Then, despite all the focus on “security,” no one paid any attention to us at the checkpoint because an international guy was carrying a box of what looked like fossilized chips of biblical cooking pots, and the soldiers were so interested, they didn’t pay attention to anyone else. We breezed through that checkpoint and walked straight down to the Wailing Wall. There must have been thousands of people there. It was all lit up. Beautiful in its own right, but so strange to walk through that reality out the Dung Gate to the top of the hill over Silwan, one of Palestine’s hottest hot spots.
Tour busses (Passover, remember?) were lined up to our left but to our right was the entrance to Silwan and nearly empty. We started to walk down the hill toward the solidarity tent, but locals came forward and told us to re-consider. Soldiers had tear-gassed the tent. There was rock throwing. My old activist persona wanted to go anyway, to show support, and to bear witness, but my mother identity won out. It was too dangerous. We turned back.
We had been walking through a maze of human, political, cultural, physical and vehicular obstacles for more than an hour-and-a-half trying to reach a place that was an easy 15-minute drive from our house. We arrived but couldn’t take part. Instead, we went to the Austrian Hospice and had tea and cake.
Here’s a video about PalFest including footage at the end of what we missed: