Venue: The Book of Gaza (readings by Nayrouz Qarmout and Mona Abu Sharekh) @ The Storey (Lancaster) [Thursday 16th October, 6.00pm]
It’s safe to say that the event did not go as planned.
After ordering my ticket I received an email informing me that:
Due to the closure of the visa office as a result of recent hostilities the two speakers are no longer able to attend in person but have pre-recorded their readings.
At first I felt disappointment; I had looked forward to seeing Nayrouz Qarmout and Mona Abu Sharekh in person. Nonetheless, the event itself still promised to be interesting and, further still, what better demonstrates the ongoing struggle in Palestine than the very fact that two writers cannot leave their country, for even a short amount of time, in order to read aloud and speak about their stories?
In his introduction to The Book of Gaza Atef Abu Saif draws attention to the restrictions on printing and publication in Gaza and discloses that Gaza thus became ‘the exporter of oranges and short stories’. Writing the stories themselves is not the challenge… communicating these stories, on the other hand, most certainly is, something that became increasingly clear as the Litfest event transpired.
Delays in the beginning of the event were the result of ‘technical difficulties’, something that became particularly understandable once the event began. Attempts had been made to connect via skype and Facebook to both Mona Abu Sharekh and Atef Abu Saif. However, as the event began to round off, these attempts remained unsuccessful; most likely because the distribution of power in Gaza is increasingly diminishing and rolling blackouts are becoming more erratic and frequent. There is something quite striking about having a panel sit before you, informing you of contexts of/and events in Gaza while behind these people is a projection of a skype page which reads ‘no answer’ after each attempted call.
Communication is limited and hindered, even from a technological standpoint; when inventions such as Facebook and skype, programmes that I’ve depended upon to communicate with friends internationally without racking up a huge phone bill, don’t even work then where do we stand? In the twenty-first century, where everything is mapped and satellites galore roam the skies, why is it so difficult to make contact?
Neither Nayrouz Qarmout nor Mona Abu Sharekh were able to cross the border in order to speak in Lancaster; Mona Abu Sharekh was not contactable via Skype; Nayrouz Qarmout was unable to send a pre-recording of her reading. All these demonstrate how communication has failed in what is an increasingly modern, technologically advanced world.
However, Mona Abu Sharekh was able to send a pre-recording of her short story ‘When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head’. Once again the short story was exported out of Gaza… the voice exported via the technological medium. Mona Abu Sharekh read aloud in her native language before a camera. The audience was able to see and hear her read her story. Beneath her reading the English translation of her words also appeared and so we find many different elements at work. In the first instance, Mona Abu Sharekh vocalises her story… she verbally delivers it and does so in her own language… this is her voice. The nature of the pre-recording is charged with the restrictions already laid out above; it necessitates a dependence upon technology and the voice must be mediated via the optic lens of the recording camera and the viewing screen, rather than Mona Abu Sharekh simply stepping across the border. However, whereas other instances throughout the evening demonstrate where electronic communications were unsuccessful, without technology there would have been no reading at all. There is also the issue of the English translation. Translation itself is a huge topic that could fill, and has filled, countless books, but in this instance I simply want to acknowledge that while the translation once more serves as a mediating force between Mona Abu Sharekh and her audience, it also allows for us to understand the words that she is speaking; it enables communication.
At the opening of the event we were told that, due to the event’s (and venue’s) alignment with the council, to quote, ‘we’re not allowed to be political’… a statement met with incredulous laughter from the audience. How does one not be political when it comes to discussion of Gaza (and Palestine)? Ironically, when Comma Press conceived The Book of Gaza, the book was intended to depoliticise Gaza; to go beyond the news stories of bombings and conflict and to show the smaller details… the meetings of old friends in coffee shops; the children chasing through the streets; the families and lovers.
The Book of Gaza does not have to be political. It can very easily be politicised, but these short stories are not news stories, or government reports… not everything has to be about statistics; maybe a bomb went off yesterday, but those two brothers also smoked on the street corner and talked about their sister’s upcoming birthday. Both these events did not necessarily occur yesterday… but what’s to say that one of these events is more likely than the other? What’s to say that these events did not occur yesterday, or today, or won’t tomorrow? If they both occur on the same day, which will make the news? The short story reaches past the frames of the news cameras and across the borders of countries and languages. In the words of Atef Abu Saif:
The book seeks to paint a portrait of Gaza through the eyes of its writers, as a city different to the one presented in the media. Gaza is a city like all cities by the sea… (p.xiii)
One last note…
Something to make note of, and which was discussed during the event itself, is that the stories that are featured in The Book of Gaza were all written before the most recent conflict that has occurred over the summer. Comma Press, the publisher of The Book of Gaza, includes on its website the more recent writings by the authors of the book which, once again, shows that despite the sometimes failure of technology, it does also allow for the communication across vast distances when physical travel (or print) cannot be achieved… if only the electricity and resources are provided.
Comma Press / The Book of Gaza: http://commapress.co.uk/books/the-book-of-gaza
Litfest / The Book of Gaza: http://litfest.org/the-book-of-gaza/
 Atef Abu Saif (ed.), The Book of Gaza (Great Britain: Comma Press, 2014), p.x