This is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature – Reviewed by Capri Huffman

Image by Capri Huffman


Dear Friends,

I regret that I cannot be here today, to receive you personally.

Welcome to this sorrowing land, whose literary image is so much more beautiful than its present reality. […]

We are now in the sixtieth year of the Nakba. There are now those who are dancing on the graves of our dead, and who consider our Nakba their festival. But the Nakba is not a memory; it is an ongoing uprooting, filling Palestinians with dread for their very existence. The Nakba continues because the occupation continues. And the continued occupation means a continued war. This war that Israel wages against us is not a war to defend its existence, but a war to obliterate ours. 

So begins the ‘Welcome’ letter from the late Mahmoud Darwish in This is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature. The book was published in 2017, though Darwish, renowned as Palestine’s national poet, penned the letter to inaugurate the first annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) fifteen years ago on 8 May 2008, three months before his death. 

Every entry in the collection that follows is a poignant piece of reportage, essay, or poetry from a Palestinian writer or a PalFest attendee who stands in solidarity, including acclaimed and bestselling authors Susan Abulhawa, J. M. Coetzee, Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker, etc. Their works approach Palestine from all angles: poems that plumb the depths of despair and outrage; the open wound of the eradication and replacement of culture and history; the reality of settler-colonial apartheid and the unceasing sporadic, senseless shelling and quotidian violence. If the goal of this book is to persuade, then it does so exhaustively, balancing between factual and intellectual analysis and visceral tragedy and emotion. Pieces by Palestinian and Arab writers expose the unlivable actuality of daily life for Palestinians, which must yet be endured, while contributions by writers in solidarity buttress these accounts and invite the outside reader to imagine themselves as visitors who have come and seen the proof with their own eyes. 

This is not a book that can be read in one sitting, or even a few. You will quickly become nauseated. You will have to set the book aside and walk away, maybe make some tea and take deep breaths or stare out a window for a while. You will be unable to look at the pictures on social media, or listen to the news stories about this sorrowing land and the steady, systematic murder of its people. But you will continue reading, because you have to, and you will see over and over that, no, Israel’s so-called ‘war on Hamas’ is not unprecedented. You will see that you cannot trust even a little bit the accounting of right-wing Israelis, or their government, or their military. This is Not a Border is so titled because there is not one: Israel has divided Palestine into a system of desultory checkpoints and walls, such that Palestinians can hardly get from anywhere to anywhere without permits and identification and multiple encounters with Israeli military officials, who can deny them anything and inflict casual violence for no official reason at all. There is a context, a normalization and codification of degradation, atrocity, dehumanization. Did you know, for instance, that in 1994 the Israeli-American settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred twenty-nine Muslim men during Friday prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, where the patriarchs of the Abrahamic religions (including Abraham himself) are said to be buried? Did you know that after Goldstein was killed by the surviving congregation, the settlers built a shrine nearby in his honor, and many still celebrate him to this day as a martyr and a saint for ‘killing terrorists’? Did you know that the mosque is not just a mosque now, because sixty-five percent of it was given over to settlers by the Israeli government, to be converted to a synagogue in the aftermath? The anecdote recurs in the writings of many authors in this book, because it elucidates and encapsulates the broader truth of the situation: 

Every day Israel kills at least one Palestinian. Every day it arrests and detains and interrogates and demolishes. Every day at Damascus Gate you see Israeli soldiers push young Palestinian men up against the walls to search them. Every day the settlers and soldiers stroll through Moroccan Gate into the Sanctuary. Every day the language of the authorities shades further into settler Third Temple language.

Sometimes a young Palestinian wakes up in the morning and takes a knife from her mother’s kitchen and goes out to mount a solitary, hopeless attack on Israeli soldiers. Sometimes Israeli soldiers kill a young Palestinian and toss a knife onto the ground next to him. The language of justice and decency is no longer relevant. The language of human rights is bitter. The language of red heifers and crimson worms and red heifers and cable cars and crimson worms and holy package tours is swelling. Here. Here in the heart of the world that will burst. Soon.  

— ‘Jerusalem’, Ahdaf Soueif, January 2017

It is no wonder that the rupture has finally come. From ‘Gaza, from the Diaspora — Part One’ by Jehan Bseiso:

There’s more blood than water today in Gaza.

It is the cruelest of ironies that these words ring truer today than they did at the book’s publication in 2017. The only question is how much blood there will be, and if anyone will stop it.

I can tell you to call your politicians and ask for a humanitarian ceasefire; I can tell you to donate to relief efforts, to attend protests and speak up on social media. And if you can, you should do all of those things. But I have few words to say that have not been said better by a Palestinian or Arab writer in this collection. And above all, PalFest and this book are about the power of literature to move people and to save them, to relieve and reveal truths that galvanize and unite. So I will close with some final words from this collection that have haunted me:

‘The Gaza Suite: Gaza’ by Suheir Hammad

a great miracle happened here

a festival of lights

a casting of lead upon children

an army feasting on epiphany


the living want to die in their countries


the living want to die with their families

My name is Capri Huffman and I run a book-themed Instagram (@sobstorybooks) with my friend Gabby, reviewing and promoting books by LGBTQ and BIPOC authors. My goal with my new book review series here at Mixed Mag is the same: to help great books by marginalized authors find the audiences they deserve! I follow new releases from all genres, from YA to literary fiction to poetry, so I’m sure together we’ll find some great titles to suit any taste.

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