The Palestine Writing Workshop

I’m a little more than halfway through my residency here at the Palestine Writing Workshop in Birzeit. Here is a belated post of what I’ve been up to:

I arrived in Birzeit, a village not far from Ramallah, at the beginning of June. My main role here is to lead a three-week creative nonfiction workshop called “Writing Real Life.” My plan for the workshop is to have each participants compose three original works of creative nonfiction that I assign – one each week – then gather as a group on the weekend to discuss everyone’s stories. My aim is to introduce writers to the process of writing from ‘real’ experience and to learn how to be a critical reader of other writers’ work.

Twelve people registered up for the workshop, and nine showed up. All are women – the only male to register never appeared. The women, though, have little in common but their gender and the fact that they live in Palestine. They range in age from early twenties to mid-seventies. Some of the women were born in here in Palestine. Some were born in America. Some of travelled widely abroad. Others have not. I feel fortunate to have such a diverse group of writers to work with.

The diversity extended to what they chose to write about. For the first assignment, I had them write a short scene from their life. I got a little bit of everything. A travel story about a trip to South America. A scene from inside a meeting of international NGOs. A story about losing a little brother among the crowds praying at al-Aqsa Mosque. A story about ice cream and one about ice hockey (Pandering to the Canadian instructor, perhaps?). One woman recalled a childhood summer living in half an old house while her father dismantled the other half, plank by plank. One writer recalled the night before a family trip to Puerto Rico. Another wrote about living in her family’s pharmacy during the Second Intifada. One writer wrote about a terrifying confrontation with her father. I think everyone in the group was particularly moved by this story and admired the writer’s courage.

I won’t post their stories on this blog, but here are some memorable lines from their first assignment:

We’ve suspected every man and woman who walked by carrying a little boy. He was wearing a blue shirt, jeans, and one shoe. He had a beautiful long lock of hair, so he was easy to spot from behind, unless a kidnapper has scissors.

That summer of  ’47 we occupied one half of the house while my parents dismantled the other.

The game of ice hockey has gone bad.  At that age I had not yet realized that accidents could happen when playing a game.

My mum approached us crying in panic as my dad was saying, “Bring me a knife, I want to slaughter her.”

She wanted to have a proper shower, a nice bed instead of a mattress, fried eggs for breakfast instead a labneh sandwich.

Very few things fail to surprise catholic school girls.

Each of their assignments described a ‘small’ moment that suggested a larger story behind it. Effective memoir always does this. It spins individual scenes of a life into meaning. The participants seemed to do this organically. They impressed me.

I was interested, too, to see that only one of the stories – the pharmacy scene – was about the Occupation. Before the workshop began I wondered if the bulk of their stories would be Occupation narratives. I wondered if the participants would assume that I, as a foreigner, expected them to write about their experience of the conflict. I’m pleased they didn’t, that they wrote, instead, stories that they wanted to write.

For their second assignment, I asked the women to each write a profile of someone they know well. The stories I’ve read so far have impressed me again, and I look forward to our gathering this weekend.

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