| by Irfan Husain
( January 24, Islamabad, Sri Lanka Guardian) How would most people react if three of their daughters and a niece were killed by shells fired without warning by an invading power? Speaking for myself, I would be shattered initially, but soon my grief would harden into rage and a desire for vengeance.But this is not the path Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish took when tragedy struck his family on 16 January, 2009. As a Palestinian doctor, he practised in an Israeli hospital where he was deeply respected. He had nothing to do with the resistance, but in an instant, his family was decimated.
Speaking about his experience at the Galle Literary Festival, the Palestinian doctor (as he is now known as) moved the large, standing-room only audience to repeated rounds of applause. Author of the international bestseller I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey, Dr Izzeldin’s spoke movingly about his incredible resolve to overcome his grief and loss.
He made the point that we should not allow ourselves to become victims twice. The initial loss should not allow hatred to consume us, thus victimising us repeatedly. This is easier said than to put into practise, and the Gaza doctor’s prescription is not for everybody.
According to him, a burning desire to succeed helps to overcome hatred. He gave the example of his surviving daughter who lost an eye and two fingers of her right hand in the Israeli attack. She learned to write with her left hand and went on to obtain high marks at school and university. He himself grew up in a refugee camp, but overcame his many disadvantages to become a successful doctor. But not everybody is endowed with this level of ambition and intelligence.
Although a discussion about reconciliation and forgiveness is very relevant in Sri Lanka, given its recently ended civil war, there were few references to the conflict in the sessions I attended. In the talk on Fundamentalisms in Fact and Fiction where I shared the stage with Gita Hariharan, the brilliant Indian short-story writer, I was asked by a member of the audience about the ‘hidden hand’ that had provoked the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. I replied that instead of sheltering behind conspiracy theories, we needed to look at our own policies and attitudes.
In another session in which I participated together with Susan Minot, an American writer, and Romesh Gunesekra, the famous Sri Lankan novelist, we talked about ‘writing political realities in fact and fiction’. I made the point that while before 9/11, the mantra used to be ‘one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’, now there is a purely black-and-white
approach in journalism. I read a passage from my book Fatal Faultlines in which I have described how children in Pakistan are used as suicide bombers to illustrate why it’s now impossible to draw a sympathetic portrait of a terrorist.
Now in its sixth year, the Galle Literary Festival has grown into a popular international event with both authors and audiences. Virtually all sessions have been packed, and there are interesting social and musical gatherings in the evenings. Of course, the shopkeepers, hotel owners and tuk-tuk drivers are delighted, with everybody overcharging foreigners.
This year, there are more tourists here than ever before. Virtually all accommodation is booked solid. Since the war ended almost three years ago, more and more foreigners have been flocking to this island paradise. Galle Fort itself, a picturesque 16th century town from the Dutch era, is thronged with people from around the world. Designated as a world heritage site by Unesco, the tiny town has some 400 houses out of which almost a third have been bought by mostly European expatriates. The majority of locals are conservative Muslims who are uneasy about the presence of so many foreigners, but as the value of their property has shot up as a result, they don’t make too much of a fuss. As usual, money trumps morality.
One session I sadly missed as I was speaking at another venue at the same time was a talk given by Richard Dawkins, the famous writer who has tirelessly advocated Darwin’s evolutionary theory. When I met him later that evening, he was pleased to be informed that his God Delusion was selling well in Pakistan.
The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore spoke about his recent book Jerusalem: the biography. Explaining his family’s long connection with the city, he spoke of its complexity with its myths, its mosques, churches and temples, and its mixed-up past. He informed the audience of something called ‘the Jerusalem Syndrome’ which often causes madness in visitors.
Some of them imagine themselves to be Jesus Christ, and other Biblical figures. So prevalent is this condition that a philanthropist has built a hospital to treat its victims.
Tom Stoppard is my favourite contemporary playwright. His Arcadia and the Utopia trilogy of plays are extraordinary explorations of abstract ideas, and their impact on people and events. For nearly half a century, he has been the dominant figure in English theatre. Small wonder, then, that his talk on his life and work was completely sold out, with people standing to hear him. A genial figure now in his late seventies, he spoke articulately about his work. Often rambling in response to questions, his easy use of language was nevertheless a treat.
Shashi Tharoor, the Indian writer and politician, was another popular draw at the festival. When I walked into the hall where he was speaking, I found it full, and standing at the back for an hour was not an attractive prospect. So I made my way to the Halle de Galle where I heard Katherine Frank speaking about her biography of Daniel Defoe, the 18th century author of the ever-popular Robinson Crusoe. She told us about how the author had plagiarised heavily from the real-life story of Robert Knox, a captain with the East India Company who was stranded in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) for years, and wrote about his experience when he returned to England.
All in all, a rewarding experience, made more so by the presence of a large number of friends who are here too.