For the first time in the Festival’s history, PEN brings together a panel of leading Palestinian writers to take their place in the global literary community. From Palestine and from the diaspora, they will share their work, experiences, and visions, revealing how a literature is both imagined and created under occupation, siege, and exile.
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: … What was astonishing for me was to see was a middle-aged woman like me, well dressed, with a certain dignity, with a small stick looking through the garbage. Also hiding, in a way. Feeling ashamed. Looking behind her back to make sure nobody was observing her.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because she was formerly well off, middle class?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Yes, yes of course.
JEFFREY BROWN: How is what’s happening come into your writing?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: First, it comes into my life because I have to move from this apartment.
JEFFREY BROWN: Move because of economic reasons?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Because we cannot afford the rent any more. To my writing, I think I am writing the way I was always writing throughout my life. But it’s more difficult to concentrate now.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Because I have this feeling of almost physical oppression, sometimes suddenly during the day, like an earthquake is approaching. When you go out, you see people begging. Now beggars usually don’t ask for money. They usually ask “Please can you buy me something to eat?” After awhile, I’ve found I’ve stopped giving things. I’ve become selfish. Sometimes I pretend I’m talking on the phone. It’s not that I don’t have the money. It is opening up the purse and knowing there will be another, and then another and another who approaches me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see it having an effect on society, the cohesion?
ERSI SOTIROPOULOS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. At the beginning I thought the crisis could be beneficial, in a way. That it would get rid of many silly things. The idiotic consumerism, the fast lifestyles. I thought it would be a chance to rediscover things like friendship. But I was wrong. It was an illusion. I mean the crisis empties the wallets as well as the souls.
Vicki James Yiannias has written a wonderful piece in Greek News on Ersi Sotiropoulos and her “Plato in New York” and her recent doings.
“… [A]n unusual, riveting, and groundbreaking presentation in the Living Room at the Gershwin Hotel on October 11 was described by Sotiropoulos as a “hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry”. “Plato in New York” was perhaps a “first” such hybrid by a Greek author. But it was not the only “first” from this acclaimed Greek author. Zigzag through the Bitter Orange Trees, one of her twelve books of fiction, was the first novel ever to receive Greece’s two most important literary awards, the Greek State Prize for Literature and Greece’s preeminent Book Critics Award (2000). More professional tributes to Sotiropoulos’ work: her last novel, “Eva”, a young woman’s odyssey through the backstreets of Athens on Christmas Eve, won the Athens Academy prize for best novel in 2011, and her book of stories “Feel blue, dress in red” has just been short-listed for Greece’s National Book Award.
Sotiropoulos, who lives in Athens and was Artist in Residence at the Gershwin Hotel from September 6- October 18 (and Director’s Guest there in 2010), explained to the GN that “Plato in New York” used fictional narrative, dialogue and visual poetry, was a way of exploring the identity of the city through analogies between two distinct and very different times and cultures, New York now and Plato’s Athens. “The idea is to portray New York as Plato’s cave, a complex place where it is almost impossible to separate the real from the virtual”, she says, “Plato wrote, ‘How can you prove whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?’ It seems like the eruption of the past in the present, but it is not so simple. With the virtual devouring big chunks of the real, apparent these days in the financial world and the media, Plato’s questions seem as relevant as ever.” Read more
Also, for a Greek perspective on the current European economic crisis, see these excerpts of Ersi’s piece for the BBC.
Have been transfixed by the scenes on the streets of Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria, watching the live coverage on Al Jazeera English on my laptop at the kitchen table. I keep thinking about the image of the crowd of people just slowly pushing back the line of police in riot gear: The people are simply too many to stop. But it becomes more frightening by the hour, as well.
More, from Radwa Ashour’s Specters, on a bit of the history of the places we keep seeing on the screen:
The incident at Abbas Bridge, when Cairo University students were blocked from behind by police officers and in front by the opening of the bridge, is a blank space in my childhood mind. The incident occurred on February 9, 1946, three months and seventeen days before I was born. At the age of 10 I would have the impression, even after my family moved to another house, that I had complete and total knowledge of the bridge, and that I saw from it more than others did. It would seem to me that I knew the buildings of the medical college, and its hospitals known as Kasr al-Aini, which occupied the northern end of the island and which I passed every day on my way to school from our home at Abbas Bridge and subsequently from our new house in Moustafa Reda Street. I didn’t know that in 1935 students of the college had hidden the body of their colleague, Abdel Hakam al-Jarrahi, in the university hospital so that they would be able to escort it in a public funeral procession. And when the Sudanese student Mohammed Ali Ahmad fell, the students of the college hid his body as well, and when the police had no luck in determining its whereabouts matters escalated into a battle between the students and the police, who tried to prevent them from staging a huge funeral for their martyred comrade. In my childhood the Kasr al-Aini building was a familiar presence. Later I would discover that a child knows things, and yet does not know them.
As tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets in Egypt and authorities respond with violence and by attempting to excise Egypt from the digital world, I offer this excerpt from the Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour’s most recent novel to be translated into English, Specters. As we’ve been hearing the recent reports of protests and their repression in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo (among many other places), I thought of Ashour’s work, which gives a sense of the history of popular protest in the same square.
On the morning of January 24, 1972 I will go to Cairo University and find it surrounded by security forces, and I won’t be able to go in to where a student sit-in has been staged in the large university hall. I will learn that the students were arrested at dawn and led off to prison.
In the evening, Mourid and I will go down to Tahrir Square: the students will be milling around the stone monument in the middle of the square, while other groups conduct discussions with passersby about economic and political conditions in the country, and explain the reasons for the sit-in. We head for the Izavich Café. There we find a number of our fellow writers and we hear talk of a national committee of writers and artists being formed. We sign our names on a petition sponsored by the committee that pledges solidarity with the students and their demands and condemns the arrests that took place that morning. We copy the petition, as do others of our colleagues. We divide up into small groups, each of which takes a copy of the petition, to gather the signatures of writers and artists. We carry out our mission and return to the square. The security forces, from a distance, are watching the students who are sitting and standing around the commemorative statue, shouting and chanting. We move on to the journalists’ guild, where a number of writers, artists, and journalists are assembling. We count the signatures: between nine o’clock and midnight, our activity has yielded 105 signatures. What are we going to do with the petition? Opinion favors sending it to the president of the republic, the prime minister, and the head of the parliament. Three delegates are chosen, and I am one of them. We leave the guild hall on foot and head toward the telegraph office in Adli Street. The employee on duty asks us the sender’s name, and we say, “This list—we want all 105 names to show.” He says it’s not possible, so we say, “The three of us, then—our names.” He refuses. I show him my card and the employee records the pertinent information on it, then takes the text of the telegram and the signatures that accompany it.We go back to the guild hall, and I leave with Mourid. On our way home we watch the students and the security forces. Before dawn, the forces advance on the students and clash with them; they arrest many of them, and pursue those who flee into the surrounding streets. In the morning, new students come to reinforce those who fled the night before; they demonstrate, and there are new confrontations with the police detachments.
There is more to the story, concerning my part in it and concerning the incident itself, but for now I move away from Tahrir Square, mere footsteps away from which I lived nine years without knowing the story of ’46. The story of ’72, though—that one I witnessed, and participated in, too. The workers’ protests in ’75 took place in the square, as well as the violent demonstrations of ’77, and in the middle of all these events, also in ’75, the funeral of Umm Kulthoum. A few meters from the heart of the square is the Mosque of Omar Makram. From the mosque, I will walk with the mourners time after time to say goodbye to friends and colleagues, and most likely my friends and colleagues will see me off from this very same place. The mourners will bid farewell to Umm Kulthoum from the Mosque of OmarMakram; I will hear about it and see it on the television screen while I am in the United States working on my doctorate. And from this mosque I will say goodbye to my lifelong friend, Latifa al-Zayyat. I take part in the ritual ablutions in the oppressive crypt of the Misr International Hospital. I go out with the body, and then we part company: she borne away in her coffin in the hearse, I in a car whose color I no longer remember.
Tomorrow: the story of ’46.
Thanks to the blog, the POMED Wire, of the Project for Middle East Democracy for the image of protesters in Tahrir Square this week.
In the conversation about Adania Shibli’s Touch just up at Belletrista, one of the participants said, “I had a conversation yesterday with a friend who had lived for several years in Asia. She observed that Americans were more interested in the facts of an event than many other cultures, and less comfortable with fluidity or metaphor.”
In the wake of national elections, when one is forced to contemplate questions about the national character, inclinations, and habits of thought, I found this observation intriguing. Is that it? Are we too fact-bound? And is that the same tendency a soccer coach from Malawi I talked to this week lamented about children’s sports in this country: Too much concern about the score.
I do wonder what grooves are being dug in us, and what part we have in the digging.
The death toll has officially crossed 1,600. The unofficial number is 3,000. Over 12 million people’s lives have been affected. Around 80% of the country’s food reserves are gone. The scale of this calamity is mind-boggling; the UN is predicting that the aftermath will be even worse than the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, and 2010 earthquake in Haiti combined.
What has hit Pakistan in this millennium? Or even in just this year alone? From the attacks on Ahmadis in Lahore to the plane crash in Islamabad to the floods in the north, to the riots in Karachi, the last three, in the space of just a few days last week? From the Taliban to the US drones. And now the floods are moving south, into Sindh. Terrifyingly, meteorologists are predicting that the rains will continue in the next 24-36 hours. So many crops have already been destroyed the price of tomatoes alone has tripled in two days. Are we looking at a nation-wide famine? In the past, Pakistanis could at least be proud of not needing food aid. Is even that dignity soon to be lost?
The particular case of Swat Valley is heartbreaking. Sawatis had to suffer the Taliban and then the Pakistan Army, and now most of the valley is completely cut off, so relief efforts are at a near standstill. Here’s a painful YouTube video on Mangora, Swat Valley.
And I just came across some more devastating photos.
What to do? If you are in a position to help, please donate to one of several relief agencies that are dependable and doing their best to access areas that the government alone does not seem able to help. (Don’t get me started on President Zardari’s grotesque visit to Europe this week, while his countrymen and countrywomen drown.)