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.
"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
“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.
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
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.