Silence is a language

Jeremy Harding · Polemic Avoidance

Last week in the Occupied Territories, a bunch of (mainly) British writers, guests of the Palestine Festival of Literature, were asked to run workshops for the students at Birzeit. I was paired up with Robin Yassin-Kassab, the author of The Road from Damascus. Our workshop title was 'the role of writing in creating new political realities'. Right. Something about change then. Yassin-Kassab is a novelist; he knows what it is to ring the changes. I'm a journalist; I know how to change an inkjet cartridge. But we both agree that shouting tends to lock 'old' political realities in place, so why not turn this into an experiment about making a point without banging a drum?

The majority of our students, between twenty or thirty people, are enrolled in the English faculty. (The political science students have opted for other workshops, among them a packed session on Guantanamo.) All except one are women. Most are wearing the hijab. Soon it emerges that most speak good English. Right now, though, they're looking at us with an air of polite concern as you would at something on its last legs, but there's life in Robin yet: we introduce ourselves and he says a few words about stories, lyrics, film scripts, rap and YouTube. About speed of transmission, low costs, ubiquity of access. About the way that anyone can have a hearing; all they need to do is to get the content right.

The students divide into groups for a polemic-avoidance exercise: prepare a piece about the situation in Gaza during or since the December 2008/January 2009 assault, a text, a song, a scenario, a poem, a dialogue, an outline for a story, anything. No opinion about the assault, or open condemnation of it, is allowed. I've already steeled myself for the question, 'You mean like the BBC?' and the terse laughter that's sure to follow, but it turns out the students are too polite for that and before we know it, one of the groups has sailed out of the lecture theatre to rehearse in the corridor. Another asks if they can perform a mime. This is about language, I say. 'We believe that silence is a language,' a young woman replies.

There's a group thinking about dress sense as another kind of language: finding the idiom in which you're comfortable and using that ease as part of your case. One of them begins to map out a fashion show, with archive footage from Gaza projected on the walls to the side of the runway. A fourth group has observed the no-polemic rule with an ambitious draft for an epic movie: they've already packed scores of refugees from around the world onto a bus - this could soon need David Lean or Richard Attenborough - in order to downplay the plight of the Palestinians as part of a bigger, universal story. 'Uzbekis too!' says a young woman in a fawn headscarf, determined not to use the P-word. They're jolting along a mountain pass somewhere in northern Anatolia, and I'm looking at my watch. They've got five more minutes.

When time's called, each of the seven groups presents its work to the others. A band of comedians in hijab have turned the Hamas-Fatah conflict into a Premier League game with a running commentary as balls explode in the back of the net. Then the mimes give us a (spoken) synopsis of a drama in three acts: there will be sinister soldiers shrouded in black, but no one's going to be chanting slogans. Another group presents a scene in which a family fails to get through a border crossing at Christmas (Christmas, they explain, adjusts for the view of the Palestinians as 'Muslims'). And here's another mime. Three students are on stage. A rucksack is hurled onto the ground in front of them. They study it, withdraw, approach again with care; they look as if they're about to sing to it but instead all three kneel and start to write on it, gingerly at first, and then with more confidence; they're scrawling frenetically when the rucksack detonates.

The actors explain this mystery by saying that the rucksack should be seen as something originating in Israel that's come the way of Palestinians: it could be a political initiative, say, or a description of their own identity and history that they don't recognise; however seriously the women mean to take it, respond to it, or make a mark of their own on it, it's sure to go off in their faces. The other groups, who've enjoyed the minimalism of the piece, don't seem to need the explanation: it's for Robin and me.

These raw presentations were worked up in roughly fifteen minutes; some contained the kind of detail you'd only expect to come with the finishing touches. What if we'd had more time? But time in the West Bank is eaten up by the byzantine demands of the occupation, which interfere with everything, including sitting finals - any moment now. The rucksack, I notice, as the owner shrugs it onto her back, is full to capacity.