“I’m not interested in seeking asylum or living in another country. I know what it’s like to be a refugee and I don’t want to be a refugee again.” The defiant words of Palestinian writer and journalist Nayrouz Qarmout speaking at an Edinburgh Book Festival panel entitled Our Voices Will Be Heard. Nayrouz’s almost wasn’t. Months of delays and two rejected visa applications from the Home Office here, on top of the bureaucratic and practical difficulties involved in leaving the Gaza Strip, meant that she could not travel in time for her original scheduled event, but was finally able to make it for a hastily rearranged panel on Thursday. That the event was nearly sold out with only a day’s notice is an encouraging testament to the interest her case has generated and an appetite among audiences to hear diverse stories, in the face of a perceived resistance to greater cultural interaction among some sections of society, not least our government.
This is the first time Nayrouz has left Gaza since 1994, when she returned at the age of 10 from the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus, where she was born. She is not a particularly controversial figure – she works for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and writes from the perspective of Palestinian women. But her stories are not overtly political; the one she read to us, in melodious Arabic with the English translation on a screen behind, was a simple, lyrical tale of a woman’s awakening to her own physical sensations during a swim on a beach in Gaza. Nayrouz’s case has become something of a cause célèbre this month in illustrating the difficulties faced by artists and cultural organisations as Britain appears increasingly suspicious and hostile to the contributions of outsiders.
“Gaza has been under siege for years,” Nayrouz told us. “People feel they are living in a huge prison. That’s how I felt in the taxi on the Rafah Border Crossing – that it was like a war just to leave this prison.” Trying to leave the Gaza Strip has been a Kafkaesque nightmare long before Britain’s rhetoric on immigration hardened. There hasn’t been a working airport in Gaza since 2000; the only exit points on the border are at Rafah, to leave through Egypt, or Erez, to leave by crossing Israel to Jordan. Either of these options requires multiple permit applications that can be rejected at any stage of the process. Nayrouz told heartbreaking stories of the night she had spent in a hall at the border, sleeping on the floor with other Gazans waiting to be processed, many of them elderly or sick.
If the current hostility towards different voices continues, we are in danger of crushing our own culture – not by bombs, but by slow strangulation
But there is no question that her own journey – which took her 48 hours, after detention at the border and numerous bribes – was made more difficult by the British government’s attitude towards her visit. She was subjected to extra checks on account of being a woman in her thirties and single. (Were they afraid that she must be frantic to bag herself a British husband and stay here?) She laughed about this when she told us, but described it as humiliating.
During the talk, Nayrouz was asked about the bombing of the Said Al-Mishal Cultural Center in an Israeli airstrike earlier this month. “This was the home of culture for poor people,” she said, visibly moved. “People didn’t have to pay to express themselves through the arts. As Gazans, we feel there is a systematic desire to crush culture. Otherwise why bomb an arts centre?”
She went on to describe the deep frustration and depression felt by young Gazans that comes from being able to access books, music and films from the world outside through technology, but feeling unable to participate. It’s easy to see how the destruction of a cultural centre would be an effective way to break people’s spirit in those circumstances. We are so fortunate to have a thriving literary and arts scene in Britain, and the vibrancy of our festivals depends on sharing ideas across borders. The percentage of translated fiction in Britain is embarrassingly small compared with other European countries, and many publishers and festival organisers are feeling increasingly daunted by the hurdles in trying to bring foreign authors here. If the current hostility towards different voices continues, we are in danger of crushing our own culture – not by bombs, but by slow strangulation.