The integrity and courage of the Edinburgh International Book Festival
I reckoned it might be a good idea for me to do an event of my own here at the Virtual Book Festival. And I also reckoned it would be good to base my post on why I was inspired to organise this festival in the first place. But over and above that I also wanted to highlight a real world book festival that continues to get it right and achieve great book-related things.
Book festivals should be about books
I was prompted to run my own virtual book festival here at Put it in Writing after being very disappointed by the line up at a local book festival this year – a festival that has in the past had an appealing line up of authors, but that now seems to have lost sight of what I see as a book festival’s purpose i.e. to be about books. This local festival had no authors of genre fiction (apart from a couple of children’s authors) on the programme which was made up primarily of television stars, presenters and other celebrities, several of whom hadn’t even written a book.
So I must say I had a bit of trouble getting my head round a book festival that wasn’t mainly about books and didn’t seem to want to attract book readers to attend. Hence my attempt to do better on the blog.
However, I’m happy to say my faith in the book festivals of the real world was restored when I saw the programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival which will be taking place as usual in August. Yes, it has its fair share of famous names and and literary big-hitters and that’s understandable, but it also (despite some criticism) has genre fiction writers too. It offers writing masterclasses for aspiring writers, and it has smaller events with lesser-known authors too. It even has some events where those attending are asked to pay what they can afford rather than a set ticket price.
In other words it’s about BOOKS, WRITERS and READERS coming together, and it hasn’t lost sight of the fact that books and the power of the written word should be at its heart.
And by way of illustrating this fact I thought I’d recap on an event I attended last year especially as one of the authors from that event is back again this year and I have my ticket for her event already.
2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival Event
Nayrouz Qarmout is a young Palestinian writer from *Gaza. Her original event at last year’s festival had to be cancelled after the UK Home Office refused her the visa she needed in order to attend. After the ensuing outcry a visa was eventually granted and a new event was hastily organised.
It speaks volumes that the new event, although announced only two days before it was due to happen, was a sell out. The aim of the event was to give often otherwise unheard writers a voice and it was chaired by writer, Kamila Shamsie.
Besides Nayrouz Qarmout there were two other female writers taking part.
One was Brazilian philosopher and writer, Djamila Ribereiro, who said that one of her aims as a writer was to normalise not exoticise ‘the other’ and she shared with us how at the airport in Brazil on her way to Edinburgh she was spoken to in English – as it was assumed a black Brazilian woman couldn’t possibly be travelling abroad.
And the other was Hsaio Hung Pai a Taiwanese journalist who works on the Guardian newspaper and has written about the difficulties faced by migrant workers to the UK.
Both of the other writers were impressive but it was Nayrouz who left a lasting impression on me. She told us she was a writer had so far had only one short story about life in the Gaza strip published in a 2014 anthology called the Book of Gaza and that she was working on a book of short stories – The Sea Cloak & Other Stories due to be published in 2019. Yet here she was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
She told us she’d been born in a Syria to Palestinian refugee parents, but then as part of the Oslo Israeli-Palestine Peace Agreement in 1994 her family were sent ‘back’ to Gaza. She hadn’t been allowed to leave since. She spoke of her battle to get to Edinburgh, of the weeks it took to get a passport, then permission to travel, then eventually setting off, crossing into Egypt where she spent a horrendous night before getting to Cairo for her flight to the UK.
Nayrouz spoke with grace, humility and humour. She said she had no intention of seeking asylum – she has had enough of being a refugee. She said she was in Edinburgh to share her story – although this didn’t prove enough of a reason to meet the terms of a UK visitor’s visa. She spoke realistically about Gaza but described it as home. She didn’t get into the challenges posed by Gaza’s fractious and sometimes deadly relationship with Israel other than to highlight the practical difficulties that result for daily life. She acknowledged the peace movement in Palestine is conflicted with the two religious/political sides of Hamas and Fatah. But she made a point of adding that most people there are, as elsewhere, ordinary people. They’re neither peace activists nor terrorists as they’re so often portrayed in the media. Most people just want to live their lives in a place they call home – as we all do.
It was both a humbling and impressive experience to listen to this writer. I also regard it as a privilege to have been able to there.
2019 Event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
So, I was happy to see that this year Nayrouz Qarmout will be back to speak at a book festival event on 12th August this year. She will be taking part along with fellow writers in a discussion of personal stories relating to the experiences of migrants and refugees – something she also writes about in her new book.
Not only that but the other writers at the event are two of my favourite authors – Val McDermid and Ali Smith – and they’ll be joined by one of my favourite musicians, Karine Polwart as well. Safe to say, I wasted no time in getting my ticket.
Here’s what it says in the festival programme about the event:
HOME FOR MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES?
‘Hordes’, ‘swarms’ and ‘invasion’ – words used in recent headlines to dehumanise migrants. Guest Selector Val McDermid explores stories of individuals and families who’ve faced the decision to leave their homeland. Nayrouz Qarmout talks of her birth in a Damascus refugee camp and her subsequent move to Gaza; Ali Smith discusses those she encountered in her work on the Refugee Tales project; and singer-songwriter Karine Polwart shares some of her powerful, deeply-felt music and ideas about the migrant experience.
(Click here to go to the event page on Edinburgh Book Festival website).
So, thank you Edinburgh International Book Festival – for having the integrity and the courage to go for an event like this, for keeping the power of the written word and of books at the heart of what you do and for bringing writers like Nayrouz Qarmout to the attention of your book-loving audience.
More about Nayrouz and her writing from her publisher, Comma Press’s, website:
Nayrouz Qarmout is a Palestinian writer and activist. Born in Damascus in 1984, as a Palestinian refugee, she returned to the Gaza Strip, as part of the 1994 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, where she now lives. She graduated from al-Azhar University in Gaza with a degree in Economics. She currently works in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, raising awareness of gender issues and promoting the political and economic role of women in policy and law, as well as the defence of women from abuse, and highlighting the role of women’s issues in the media. Her political, social and literary articles have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, and online. She has also written screenplays for several short films dealing with women’s rights. She is a social activist and a member of several youth initiatives, campaigning for social change in Palestine.
PUBLICATIONS BY NAYROUZ QARMOUT
The Sea Cloak – To be published on 22 August 2019
A collection of stories from an exciting female Palestinian writer, translated from Arabic into English for the first time. The Sea Cloak is a collection of 14 stories by the author, journalist, and women’s rights campaigner, Nayrouz Qarmout. Drawing from her own experiences growing up in a Syrian refugee camp, as well as her current life in Gaza, these stories stitch together a patchwork of different perspectives into what it means to be a woman in Palestine today.
Whether following the daily struggles of orphaned children fighting to survive in the rubble of recent bombardments, or mapping the complex, cultural tensions between different generations of refugees in wider Gazan society, these stories offer rare insights into one of the most talked about, but least understood cities in the Middle East. Taken together, the collection affords us a local perspective on a global story, and it does so thanks to a cast of (predominantly female) characters whose vantage point is rooted, firmly, in that most cherished of things, the home.
ANTHOLOGY FEATURING NAYROUZ QARMOUT
This anthology brings together some of the pioneers of the Gazan short story from that era, as well as younger exponents of the form, with ten stories that offer glimpses of life in the Strip that go beyond the global media headlines.
*Gaza is a self-governing territory of the Palestinian state. It is bordered by Egypt and Israel and life there is far from easy and has many restrictions. To find out more see Wikipedia here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_Strip
Do you agree that book festivals should be about books, readers and writers? Which book festivals do you enjoy and why? Please feel free to leave comments below.