Every time one of my students reaches towards the middle of the table for the biscuits, there is a peal of thunder from the speaker in the ceiling, followed by the sound of supersize rats in a warehouse full of tinfoil. The conversation comes to a halt for a moment, but the students are oblivious: this is a video conference, and though we’re all on British Council premises I’m in a building in Ramallah and they’re 50 miles away in Gaza, with Israel in between.
These sessions have been organised by the Palestine Writing Workshop, a small, underfunded enterprise supported by the Palestine Festival of Literature, which I wrote about in the LRB in 2009. The workshops take place once or twice a year. I’ve just been in Nablus teaching a course in editing (four days) and I’ll be in Birzeit later, doing some non-fiction sessions (five) with participants I had last year. Non-fiction means journalism, and a bit of memoir: we look at a few models and build from there. Most of the students are in their twenties; some are doing similar workshops in Arabic, when they’re available; others use my workshops to sharpen their English. There aren’t many openings for journalism in Palestine, in Arabic or English, and PWW offers no diploma, but the web is another country and it’s big. In any case there’s a steady uptake for the courses: in the last two years, I’ve had about 30 students.
This is the second year we’ve tried a video link to Gaza. In 2010 it was set up from Birzeit for eight or nine students as a single session, ‘non-fiction in English’. This year, thanks to the British Council’s facilities, it’s no longer as though we’re shouting into two tin cans joined by a long piece of string. Nonetheless there are moments when we feel thoroughly pixellated.
First up is S, a large man in his forties with a cellphone that’s always popping off. He holds forth in a rich baritone, until there’s nothing for it but to interrupt. ‘S,’ I ask him eventually, ‘where is your pre-workshop assignment?’ For a split second he appears remorseful, but I know he means to do no written work outside these conference hours – and, anyway, his mobile’s jangling again. G is another boomer, with a generic American accent. Will she write anything? After the first exercise, things begin to look brighter. S and G produce lively vignettes about the daily strains of getting around in Gaza. G describes two exasperating rides with taxi drivers who can’t get her to her destination. ‘“Where was it you wanted to go again?” he asks. I repeat slowly: “Haid … ar Ab … del Shaf … i Street.” “Oh my God! Why didn’t you say so?”’ S too writes about a ride in town: he’s in a shared taxi driven by a chain-smoker with the nose of an infant set in the face of a giant, who sings to his customers. Across the haze of cigarette smoke and the din of nationalist songs, he notices the man is driving barefoot.
We spend half a session dismantling two longish articles about WikiLeaks. The first is by Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Bush and Rumsfeld; the second is by Julian Assange. The idea is to get to the heart of the argument: national security v. freedom of information. We move through this dense material paragraph by paragraph, the participants stripping it down like busy mechanics, with a pile of discarded bits mounting rapidly on the workshop floor. Before long they have completed the first part of the exercise: they can more or less envisage a 400-word precis of the argument and a line or two about where they stand. The next step is for each person to commit their thoughts to paper between sessions and send in the result.
We have been probing the idea of disguise: how writing, which serves mostly to divulge, may be used to dissimulate, or at least to withhold. Participants have been asked to think of an inanimate object and write about it without naming it. Now, as they read through one another’s pieces, they must say what objects they think their colleagues are describing. Two of them, a scientist and a journalist, are puzzled by the point of this exercise. A, who lectures in engineering, finds it painful not to explain that his object is a camera. He’s given the game away by saying that it has a detachable lens and a strap – he can’t see the point of all the hide and seek. Y, the journalist, is cannier: her object ‘understands me perfectly, and is also blessed with excellent listening skills’; it turns out to be the journal she keeps. She says that the rules of the exercise weren’t clear: were participants supposed to help their colleagues or perplex them? The answer is a bit of both, but I don’t like to say so until I’ve thought of something more convincing. Would I mind doing the exercise myself, she asks, and sending the result? Reluctantly I agree and there’s a loud, prophetic crackle above me as G reaches delicately for the British Council water jug in Gaza.
The WikiLeaks assignment is back and freedom of information wins the day, although A has turned in a scrupulously non-committal piece, worthy of a man who’s spent years working for an American wire service. Then, with a tentative flourish, he puts a feather on the scales at the last moment: ‘At the end of the day, it all comes down to who has the sweetest talk and who has the proof.’ Murmurs of assent in Gaza as we read over his conclusion together.
Late at night in Ramallah, poring over material from the participants, I look at a short exercise by B. She’s walking down her favourite street in Gaza City, which leads to the port. The fishermen’s boats are on the water; she describes it as ‘one of the most beautiful places in Palestine’. Y is asked to edit the participants’ snapshots from Gaza. She’ll put together this minimalist street scene, her own description of a bad start to an unsatisfactory day, and add in the two cab journeys, described by G and S. Then there’s an office scene, which A tossed off in a couple of minutes. Y gets down to it and after two email exchanges we have a short, tangible record of our six hours’ writing and talking, screen to screen. We call it ‘Gaza Days’.
It’s my turn to write about an unnamed object. Gazans hold the Guinness World Record title for the number of people flying kites simultaneously and have done for three years, despite stiff competition from China, so a kite is my obvious choice. I labour over the piece. First the sky is the sky, then it’s the sea, which makes the kite a fish with a long, lashing tail, struggling on the end of a line. This has to be a well-worn figure; anyone can get it. Off goes my email with the attachment and back comes the answer, a day later: ‘Thanks! A fishing pole? Fish?’
G has been asked to describe an image she likes: a cross and a crescent juxtaposed, each depicted as if cut with a jigsaw and reassembled, parts of the cross interchangeable, perhaps, with those of the crescent and vice versa. In her short, evangelical text she writes: ‘Something makes me extremely amazed that there is one god for all Muslims, Christians and Jews, and for all mankind.’ It’s clearly a strategic decision to pick this ecumenical image in a time of feuding faiths and rowdy atheism. Y’s image of choice says something more specific: it’s a blue sky inscribed with a white arabesque that corkscrews from the right foreground left into the middle distance, above a pale stone building. The sky is streaked with cirrus cloud. From the print I’ve made of the jpeg it’s hard to tell whether it’s a painting or a photo. It might have been commissioned for the dust jacket of a novel. I’m not sure why it puts me in mind of Point Omega.
The image, it transpires, is a photograph and Y wrote about it in February: the photo and her text have appeared on the website of Target, an alternative outlet for film-makers and journalists covering the Middle East. In Gaza, she writes, ‘people keep talking of a new war … About two weeks ago, I saw what looked to me like a confused Israeli pilot flying around in his F16, drawing circles in the sky. People immediately took it as a threat and a signal that war was coming. They even made up memories … and were convinced that on 27 December 2008, an Israeli jet, possibly even the same one, drew the same circles in the sky, and that was when war started … Well, congratulations Israel for winning the psychological war on Gaza.’
This is one of only two references, in the time we’ve spent together on screen, to the confinement and killing of Palestinians in Gaza. The first was from A, who wrote a stoical piece about Operation Cast Lead, quoting a remark by his little brother that the best thing about it was the splurge of meat-eating. (Once the grid was down, all provisions, frozen or refrigerated, had to be eaten before they rotted.) In 2010, when Birzeit put up the workshop link to Gaza and several participants aired their memories of the Israeli offensive, the fury was full on. Anger can get in the way of its object in a piece of description. It’s not that things have ‘moved on’ for this year’s participants; more that there’s been a kind of packing down: the ground feels firmer and the writing is freer to roam across it without falling down a bomb crater. The workshop term for this is ‘consolidation’: it’s what people try to do when they’re staying put, biding their time.