When William Sutcliffe attended the Palestine Festival of Literature in 2010, he had barely started on the work that would become his new novel, The Wall (Bloomsbury, 2013). The story was inspired by the Israeli wall in the West Bank that has turned Palestinian cities into isolated and over-populated ghettos while leaving the stunning Palestinian landscape, filled with olive groves, desert, rocky mountains and rolling hills, free for Israeli settlers.
The Palestine Festival of Literature is one of the more curious events in the literary calendar. The brainchild of Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, the idea seemed fantastical when it began back in 2008. The plan was to create a festival equal to any international event inside a nation under foreign military occupation—and as if that were not daunting enough, it would also be a touring festival, traveling to various Palestinian cities.
The organizers hoped to reach every corner of Palestine, a Herculean task in a country where it is notoriously difficult to move even the smallest distance. At the very least, the writers would gain an insight into the Palestinian experience of checkpoints, soldiers and segregated roads and buses—whether they wanted to or not.
After seeing the real separation wall on his journey with the Palestine Festival of Literature, Sutcliffe’s plans for his latest novel changed: “I found the experience absolutely horrific, to be honest. Seeing an entire population at the mercy of a foreign power is shocking, and returning to my novel after that was very difficult. I saw that I had to do justice to what I had seen.”
Sutcliffe, who is Jewish, wanted to focus on the way the wall hid the effects of the occupation from Israelis: “I saw the book as a fable that could be read on an abstract level about power and oppression. The wall hides it away, almost sanitizing it.”
The Wall focuses on a boy, Joshua, who moves to a settlement when his single mother begins a relationship with a settler. Unhappy with his new home, one day Joshua finds a tunnel he can use to get under the wall. He finds friendship on the other side, helping a girl his own age to tend her father’s olive grove.
The novel is written in a light and lucid style aimed at young adults, and delivers an emotionally charged ending that succeeds in making human sense of an inhumane situation. “I hoped the book could exist at two ends of the realist spectrum, both as a dystopian fantasy in the tradition of novels like Animal Farm, but also as a piece of realistic reportage,” Sutcliffe explained.
It can be difficult to write an accurate representation of culture other than one's own—and Sutfcliffe might not have attempted to write this story were it not for his experiences with the Palestine Festival of Literature. Since 2008, the festival has emerged into the mainstream, expanding to include not only the West Bank, but also Gaza and cities with large Palestinian populations inside Israel. It has brought writers such as Alice Walker and Henning Mankel to Palestine, and now also includes far more Arab writers than in those early days.
The first festival happened without much fanfare: there was a low-key launch at the London home of Palestinian British filmmaker Omar Al-Qattan, and writers who attended the first festival entered Palestinian territory individually as tourists and grouped together after they arrived. But it was still a tremendous success, with authors including Roddy Doyle and William Dalrymple entertaining large audiences as they trekked between Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The festival has now expanded from five days to two weeks, and this year included musical and theatre performances and a writing workshop; it also sponsors internships in the UK for young Palestinian writers. The festival was founded with the goal of celebrating literary culture in a blockaded territory—and it has grown to inspire writers to tell that story. William Sutcliffe's The Wall stands both as an indictment of a horrific situation, but also a wonderful love letter to the Palestine that he got to know, thanks to Ahdaf Soueif’s grand, quixotic idea.