Perspective: South African Author Zukiswa Wanner Shares Reflections on Her Visit to Jerusalem with Palfest
Zukiswa Wanner, a South African novelist, editor, and curator from Johannesburg, shares her reflections on a tour she took in East Jerusalem during her participation in the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which ran May 2023 under the theme of “Palestine & the Global South.”
On its Jerusalem stop, Wanner was one of the speakers in a panel discussion at the Nordic Café entitled “Surviving Colonialism,” in which she drew attention to the parallels of apartheid and racial segregation between South Africa and Palestine.
Zukiswa Wanner is the author of several novels, children’s books, and nonfiction works. She coauthored Nelson Mandela’s biography, A Prisoner’s Home (Penguin, 2000). She also curated the Artistic Encounters initiative, which has been running since 2017. In 2020, she became the first African woman to be awarded the prestigious Goethe Medal, an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany awarded by the Goethe Institut. She was also selected by New African as one of Africa’s 100 Most Influential Africans for 2020.
Wanner was one of a number of authors and artists hosted by Palfest, which started in 2008 and became an annual event where local and international authors are invited to address audiences and in a series of free public events that travels all around historic Palestine. Over the years, the speakers have experienced teargas and attacks; and at times, including in Jerusalem, scheduled events were shut down by authorities.
This year’s festival included workshops, film screenings, poetry marathons, and panel discussions in Haifa, East Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem. It has also become a tradition to invite guest speakers and artists on a city tour to raise awareness of the contemporary political realities in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Wanner offered Jerusalem Story parts of her journal, where she describes her tour around East Jerusalem and paints vivid and poignant scenes of life under occupation and settler colonialism. We pick up from the point in the journal where the Palfest group is arriving to Qalandiya checkpoint, the sole access point to Jerusalem for all Palestinians with Palestinian Authority IDs coming from the north.
There is a similarity, alas, in the way Palestinians are being treated in the occupied territories, the brutal methods. The humiliation of people, moving people out of their homes, keeping them on one side of the wall while their sustenance, their crops and grain, are on the other. It is indeed comparable to what happened in South Africa.
Nadine Gordimer, International Writers’ Festival, Israel 2008
We are now crossing into the Holy City for the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
While we are on a [yellow-plated] tour bus and could easily go through, our hosts decide it may be a better idea for us to get off at the checkpoint so we can go through as pedestrians and experience what Palestinians who have to cross this checkpoint daily for work or school have to go through.
We get the idea that it’s probably pretty bad when one of our Ramallah friends says they will not come with us through the checkpoint.
“I will see you in front.” Palestinians from Ramallah with green Palestinian Authority IDs cannot go through the checkpoint unless they get a special entry permit from Israel.
Oppressing forces are often devoid of irony, but I can’t help read the words at the entrance to the Jerusalem checkpoint translated “keep this place clean because this place is for you” with a certain level of levity. You see, entering the checkpoint with all its gates and security feels like the entrance to a prison, so I am unsure whether the sign is a threat or a welcome.
Power for the Sake of It
On the first full day in Jerusalem, annexed and governed by Israel as per Oslo Accord [sic], we wake up early as two scholars take us on a journey. A young man, Mahdi, who works at the al-Aqsa Mosque, shall lead the first part of the excursion through the mosque and then to the Islamic Museum. The older man, Mahmoud Jaddeh, is Afro-Palestinian and a former political prisoner who served a sentence from 1968 until 1985. Mahmoud will give us a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, showing us how settlers have taken over homes of Palestinians. He will also take us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Mahdi will tell me that his best friend of many years is Mahmoud’s nephew and therefore Mahmoud is like family to him, and Mahmoud will tell me the same about Mahdi in a separate conversation.
Our tour in the Noble Sanctuary was coordinated in advance with the Islamic endowment [waqf], but to get through still required Israeli clearance.
When we arrive, a young soldier (many of them do not look a day over 25) stops us. It’s power for the sake of it. We shall wait for 45 minutes before we are allowed in.
While we wait, we shall see Mahmoud spoken to in a seemingly threatening way by one of the gun-wielding soldiers, because he has dared to go and drink water. And that’s not all. One doesn’t need to be too keen an observer to see that no Muslim escapes the search by Israeli forces as they enter al-Aqsa Mosque for prayers. Not even the older woman we see who, we are told, has been working at the mosque for over 20 years.
Al-Aqsa is as magnificent an architectural wonder as it is a testament to the history of Palestine and Israel. Outside, one can see the golden dome that can be seen from anywhere in Jerusalem. Inside, the mosque is a work of art with many artifacts that have existed since it was built in the seventh century with parts being added to it. Famously in the 12th century when Jerusalem was conquered by Saladin during the Crusades, he brought the minbar from Aleppo, Syria, said to be one of the most memorable works of medieval Islamic art. The minbar stayed in the mosque until 1969, when it was destroyed in an arson fire, but it was reconstructed and reinstalled in 2007 by a team of experts hired by the Jordanian monarch.
As we tour, men and women come in to pray together.
In al-Aqsa, one of the three mosques I visit in Palestine, Islam seems a much more relaxed religion than I have seen it practiced in a few African countries I have visited or stayed in. They are just not allowed to touch or kiss, but they can pray shoulder to shoulder.
But even here, in al-Aqsa, there are scars. Two years ago during Ramadan, Israeli soldiers stormed the mosque with teargas, stun grenades, and bullets. There are shattered windows, and there are bullet holes in the walls of al-Aqsa Mosque from that raid on May 7, 2021, and subsequent ones thereafter. Palestinian Muslims have requested permission to repair the mosque from the Israeli government, because even here in a home of prayer as with all other places, Palestinians need Israeli permission before they can do any repair work, but they have not obtained permission. It’s as though the Israeli government does not care that the world will be able to witness this utter disrespect. For how else can you explain the refusal if the Israeli government really wants to make it seem as though Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism is the problem and not the Israeli state’s apartheid? But it’s also as though they know the world doesn’t care. They can get away with it.
In the same grounds as al-Aqsa Mosque is an Islamic museum that has a wealth of knowledge about al-Aqsa Mosque itself, the Dome of the Rock, and the history of the region dating back centuries. Remembering, some of what sticks with me are eighth-century panels from cypress wood from the ceiling of the mosque; a lamp of gilded and enameled glass endowed to a madrassa in Jerusalem by a former governor of Syria and later moved to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron; a plate with an Armenian inscription brought by a Christian pilgrim in the 17th century; and amusingly, for the crime fiction lover in me, a 14th-century legal deposition where a handwriting expert revokes his certification of a document because one of the witnesses’ signature was forged.
With such rich and documented history, how anyone can talk of Palestine as having been “an empty land for a landless people” is baffling. Because why are people coming from Europe, the United States (by way of Europe), and South Africa (by way of Europe) considered landless?
State-Funded, Internationally Backed Intimidation
Just outside the mosque is the Afro-Palestinian Centre depicting the history of Africans in Palestine and their solidarity with the people of Palestine. It is here where we have lunch with Mahmoud and another Afro-Palestinian man, both of whom emphasize how the conditions of the country have nothing to do with religion but are centered on a settler colonialism that was crafted with the aid of Europe and continues to happen because of the United States and most G8 nations turning a blind eye, thereby being complicit in the oppression. Our tour continues.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is in East Jerusalem, which has traditionally been agreed, even when Palestinians and Israelis disagree, to be Palestinian territory. And yet walking around, we see homes where settlers have come and put flags and, in essence, moved in even when there are Palestinians in those homes. In one home, a floor with settlers and another with Palestinians. This could be ideal for cohabitation, except it isn’t, because it’s a Palestinian home, and the idea is to intimidate them into moving out. And this is done with the aid of Zionist organizations in the United States and in Europe and in South Africa who collect funds to ensure settlers can stay in a place without worrying about jobs as they give them a monthly income for being . . . settlers in people’s homes.
The Israeli flags shall have an interesting parallel when we go and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the day we are there, I am unsure whether this is always like this. There are Christian groups doing pilgrimages, and what’s interesting is that a lot of them are carrying Brazilian and American flags. This fascinates me, as contemporary news has shown the Christian right in both countries also being fans of flags and their worrying leaders in the form of Bolsonaro and Trump. I wonder then whether this flag thing may be part of the reason why Evangelical Christians have chosen to look at the Palestinian problem as a religious rather than a human rights problem. And then again, do fundamentalists of any religion care for anyone’s rights apart from the right to impose their opinions on the rest of the world?
We leave Mahmoud and go on to finish our tour in Sheikh Jarrah.
We arrive at the home of 25-year-old twins and activists Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd. Mohammed, a writer and a poet, is on hand to give us a background of their home, neighbors, and a small tour of the neighborhood and the protests that have made Sheikh Jarrah famous.
After the 1948 Nakba, the El-Kurds and other Palestinians became refugees in Jerusalem, because their land had been taken by Israeli settlers. The United Nations built homes for these refugees in the 1960s, giving them three years to pay for the homes and get title deeds. The El-Kurds and their Palestinian neighbors did just that. But East Jerusalem has become prime real estate with many embassies and international organizations locating there. Zionists have thus decided they want this land. To this end, just like near al-Aqsa, settlers have moved into Palestinian homes arriving with guns and then settling in. Most often, with protection from Israeli government institutions, the Israeli police, and government-funded private security. I am reminded yet again of Bassem Tamimi’s words of the military industrial complex and capital that are the enemy. House No. 10 opposite the El-Kurds’ home has settlers who have put Israeli flags all over. The former residents of No. 10 spent a year sleeping in cars parked across the road from their home as a form of resistance but eventually, needing a normal life for their children, they left. We openly take photos of the settlers as they leave the house, and just like all Zionists we have encountered, they absolutely have no shame and hold their Zionist heads high.
The El-Kurds have not been safe either. Having put an extra room on the home without Israeli permission [something that is nearly impossible for Palestinians to receive in Jerusalem—Ed.], they received a demolition notice. When they contested this in court and there was a stay, a settler moved into the extension. A known white-collar criminal from New York, he receives funding monthly from a Zionist organization. On the day we are at their home, he is inside, but doesn’t respond to our knocks.
Having a stranger move in to their home is not the worst thing that has happened to the El-Kurds, though. Constantly, settlers who have come into the neighborhood dump their rubbish in the El-Kurds’ yard. The municipality will not permit them to remove it or burn it. Their attempts at building a community bookshelf in their garden has resulted in the books being either burnt or soaked with water until they gave up. Another attempt at creating a play area for children in their garden resulted in some other orders from the municipality. That the El-Kurds and some of their neighbors resist and still continue being in their homes against such difficult odds is a testament to their resilience, but I have asked myself since leaving, at what cost to them? And equally important, at what cost to the humanity of the settlers who see them and all Palestinians as enemies?
Every day in Palestine, I feel more and more weary as I see the Israelis’ ability to dehumanize the Palestinians. I feel more and more hopeless about humanity when I have conversations with fellow writers and think of how the world is complicit in the injustices in Palestine by its silence. How perhaps even we who knew and have loaned our voices had not nearly realized the horror that is Palestinians’ daily lives just trying to be . . .
In the evening, a new Palestinian friend shall ask me what I will remember most, what I will take away from Palestine.
[Regarding Jerusalem,] I tell her . . . Mohammed El-Kurd defiantly giving us a tour of his Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and my being extremely nervous on seeing the private security protecting settlers nearby will be one of my recollections. But I will also call to mind that as crazy as this seems to anyone I will tell, because he is from Jerusalem, Mohammed and his family are considered more privileged than other Palestinians. But should they fall in love with someone who is not from Jerusalem—to a Palestinian from Gaza or the West Bank—they cannot extend their legal status to their partners if they are not born in Jerusalem.
The idea that Israeli authorities hold corpses of Palestinians who die in prison as bargaining chips is something that will disturb me for a long time. As much as the fact that there are children in prison, that children can go to prison as terrorists if they throw stones and hit an Israeli police car or military truck . . .
I tell her . . .
I will cherish the humanity that is still there in spite of everything dehumanizing that Palestinians experience.
The fact that Palestinians still love, laugh, hope against seemingly difficult odds—but importantly, that they live and they fight.
I will look back, I tell her, and think of seeing five-year-olds and 80-year-olds who are defiant. But my heart shall break over and over again when I think of this, because a five-year-old should not be a fighter, should not identify an enemy, should not be worried that they may be shot because they are not Israeli or that one of their parents may be arrested and they will not know when they will come back. If they will come back. A five-year-old should just be a child, annoying their parents and siblings and teachers maybe. And an 80-year-old shouldn’t be fighting and fearing arrest. An 80-year-old should bask in the sunset of their days, playing with their great-grandchildren and teasing their children and grandchildren.
But here we are . . .
Here we are, 15 years after South African Nobel Literature Laureate of Jewish descent, Nadine Gordimer, attended the International Writers’ Festival in Israel against quite some opposition from many in South Africa and stated the words I quote at the beginning of this piece. And Palestinian land has shrunk more than when she was there in 2008, but the world seems to be working actively to silence injustices to Palestinians by the Israeli state by calling any criticism of what is supposed to be a secular state, “antisemitic.”
In a world where Palestine should be a wound on the conscience of every human being with any ounce of humanity, we shut our eyes and cover our ears.