Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
September 2011

EYE WITNESS


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Writing in Ramallah

It had been 11 years since my last visit to Palestine. When I wrote Where The Streets Had A Name in 2008, I based the book on research and photographs of an earlier visit, together with memories of conversations with my grandmother and family who, denied the right to return to their homeland, were living in Jordan. So when the Palestine Writing Workshop invited me as a writer in residence in Ramallah, I jumped at the opportunity. I ran an intensive writing workshop program in Ramallah from 2 April to 7 April 2011 for six brave, intelligent and downright hilarious women.

Olivia and Nora, who live in Jerusalem, took up to four hours each day to reach me in Ramallah. They needed to brave the notorious Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the unpredictable 'flying' checkpoints where a jeep suddenly stops traffic and soldiers demand to see everybody's papers. As a City Rail commuter in Sydney I've had my fair share of delays and transport tantrums, but Olivia and Nora's daily struggles plus the fact that their freedom to move within their own country is totally at the mercy of the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoints, put my tantrums over train timetable delays to shame!

The other women attending the workshop all live in Ramallah. Hala is a published poet but wanted to try something different in the form of a short novel. Each time she read out her writing exercise, I held my breath, knowing I was in for an exceptional treat. She never disappointed.

Shatha and Sahar are architects working with Riwaq, a fabulous centre for architectural conservation based in Ramallah.The centre safeguards Palestinian heritage sites and has the goal of protecting about 50 villages in the West Bank which contain nearly half of the historic buildings in Palestine. While driving through Ramallah I saw beautiful historic homes that had been restored to their original condition by the Riwaq team. Shatha wants to connect Palestinian kids to their heritage by turning oral history into exciting stories in a series of books. The stories will be depicted on ceramic tiles and put in public spaces in the villages where Riwaq works.

Danna is another architect and an aspiring farmer. She draws, bakes, gardens and helps organise a weekly farmers' market. A graduate of Birzeit University and CalPoly in the USA, Danna has worked as an architect in Ramallah and San Francisco; she attended the workshop eager to write and illustrate books for Palestinian children. Sahar was another participant who also expressed an eagerness to write for children; so many books for Palestinian children contain stories that have little relevance to their lives. None of these women had written stories before, but as I listened to them read out their work exercises, their eloquent, unique way with words and gift for nailing the voice of a child, stunned me.

Carolyn and Olivia, were working on wonderful adult stories to share and develop. Carolyn, a kindergarten teacher by day, is plotting an enthralling thriller set in New York.

Nora kept the class in stitches with her writing; she has just completed her first novel,  a children’s book called Amina and the Green Olive, a beautiful story that crosses between a village in Palestine and the USA. She's now on the hunt for an agent.

I also ran a workshop by video link to a group of budding young writers in Gaza.

Below you can read samples of the writing produced by this talented group of women.

Opening Lines:

"It was nine years, two months, seventeen days, four hours, and thirty-three seconds into my marriage before I realized what I had gotten myself in to."

"Why am I so thirsty?" said the fish.

“It’s a bad sign when you’ve gone to four grocery stores and all they have for ice-cream is pistachio.”

“He has creepy green eyes, long legs, crazy hair, a dirty smell, a big nose and a heart.”

Margaret could never seem to get the connection between how much she ate and how much she weighed.

"When is the last time I hugged one of them? I feel like I have that sickness where I can’t stand to be touched. Everyone else seems so happy and at ease about their homes, the way their children act and look but I am getting OCD about every little thing. Every toy has to be put away immediately. Their clothes have to match and I can’t stand it if they are stained or too small. Actually, I can’t stand to hear them talk. I am afraid of them, that they will start shouting and never stop."

Amanda was one of those women who didn't break rules because she didn't know it was physically possible.”

A 50-word story:

There was one last piece of flourless chocolate cake in the pastry case. The fat lady pushed the student aside to reach it, but the mother squeezed in the vacuum and got the prize. At home, she arranged the cake, a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a glass of Kahlua on the coffee table and switched on Oprah.

***

The Village of Burqa

The best part about my trip was that my father and five year old daughter joined me. My sixty-six year old father was desperate to see the house he was raised in and the village he grew up in, one last time. I hope he is able to make the trip again. My father's village is called Burqa and it is next to the town of Nablus in the West Bank. It is high in the hills and mountains, breathtakingly beautiful, with a view of the Mediterranean Sea on a clear night. None of our family remains in Burqa and most of the people my father knew have either died, or moved on in search of a better life.

The visit to Burqa meant that my father could search for his father's grave. Eleven years ago he could not find it. This time he did — faded writing on a headstone in ruins. Perhaps there was no starker metaphor for dispossession and displacement than my grandfather's lost and lonely grave.

My father's home is a magnificent structure, made of white limestone with ornate patterns on its doors and windows, and the original mosaic tiles on its floors. It sits on a huge plot of land filled with olive and fruit trees. Eleven years ago, a limestone verandah wrapped around the front of the house and my sister and I had stood on it with my father attempting to carefully extract his high school certificate from an old photo frame. The stones of the verandah have since been stolen, and the house is in ruins. Nobody is allowed to return to live in it and, therefore, look after it. My family are in Jordan but denied the right to live in their homeland. In the last ten years my grandmother, my uncle, my aunts, my great uncles have all been buried in Jordan. They should have been buried in their ancestral village. My grandfather's grave should not stand alone.

If 'home is where the heart is', then what becomes of people whose homes are denied to them; who are cut off from their heritage and birthplace? The knowledge that my father's home stands silent and alone, overlooking an occupied land, when its rightful inhabitants live stateless and displaced in neighbouring Jordan causes me deep pain. Yet I am certain that the pulse that beats in the heart of my father's home will never die. It defiantly holds on, waiting for the day justice triumphs. I just pray that my father lives to see that day.

Randa Abdel-Fattah

 

The Palestine Writing Workshop works to inspire youth across Palestine to read and write creatively and works with educators and other professionals in their endeavours to strengthen individual and communal voices. Through internships, professional writing courses, poetry performances, book clubs and much more, people are encouraged to utilise writing as a tool for social change as well as professional and academic development.

Readers interested in learning more about the ‘Palestine Writing Workshop’ and the programmes it runs, should visit http://palestineworkshop.org/

The workshop was done in coordination with the Tamer Institute and partnered by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, who published the Arabic translation of my book, Where The Streets Had A Name. 


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