Adania Shibli participated in Opening Night Reading: Bravery and All That’s Left to You: Palestinian Writers in Coversation at the 2013 PEN World Voices Festival.

One night, as I stood near the bar at a tango club in Paris, a handsome man approached me and invited me to dance with him. No, I shook my head, I do not know how to dance the tango. The poor man nearly cried for my sake; then he asked me, where are you from? I answered.

The moment he heard I was Palestinian, Roberto Roberto almost took me into his arms. Oh, Roberto, don’t press me too hard! Then, in a voice of bewilderment mixed with excitement, he began telling me that some time ago, he had met the most amazing woman in the universe, a Palestinian. He had driven her from the airport to her hotel, since he worked as a taxi driver. A tender yet charming woman who nearly melted him with her finesse the moment he met her. He really worshipped her. Since, on the whole, I am not the jealous type, I just went on calmly listening to him, as his extreme excitement became evident in every movement he made. His hands were clutching at the air, his feet were no longer touching the ground, and even his breathing became irregular. Then I began to feel that my face had become tired from that smile I had placed on my mouth since he began talking about that woman. Suddenly, he sprang towards me and dragged me to the dance floor. No, please! But, he said, the tango is very easy. Seven steps, while I looked around myself, embarrassed and stumbling with my shoes and trembling slightly. Roberto did not care, as he was thinking of her. Dancing with her. And what was I? Nothing but a spiritual intermediary who did not know how to tango. And by then, I no longer wanted to do it anymore and wished I could leave the entire place instantly. “I must go,” I said and suddenly stopped in the center of the galactic dance floor full of stars, each one of which knew the trajectory it would follow, except for me. Just at that moment, Roberto yelled that I should not come to a stop like that!

He had yelled at me, after having just met me. So I yelled at him and told him that I did not want to dance, nor did I know how and that I was not Palestinian. I did not add that I wished that he would not see that woman in me and that he would not treat me in this manner. Still, he came back and asked me to climb on to his feet; he would carry me as we danced until I have learned the steps. He then began to count in my ear: one two three four, five, six, seven. I kept track of his counting and as we went we made our way around the floor without uttering a word. And then, without knowing why, I found myself asking him: “Were you two in a relationship?”

“A fantastic relationship,” he replied. “I used to roam all over Paris with her. At times, I would explain to her what we were seeing, and at times, she would talk to me about herself and her country. She had had a difficult life. We shared a lot of things in common, as I also had had a hard life in Argentina, then later in France after I emigrated. Life is tough, we used to say as we would roam around in the car.

The thing I loved most was when her laugh would come from the back seat. She was so tender.”

“You’re very lucky,” I commented. Then I added, “What does this woman do in her life, when she is not sitting in the back seat of your car?”

With the same force of animation and happiness that was there since he began talking about her, and as he maintained the necessary distance between our bodies as per the rules of tango, he said: “She is a poet.”

“What is her name?”

“Touqan. Fadwa Touqan.”


Roberto suddenly paused, in the middle of the dance floor to ask with bafflement, “Do you know her?”


Yes indeed, I know Fadwa Touqan.

It was the first serious job I had got. Serious in the sense that I had an office and a desk that I could put my feet up on at the end of the day, like private detectives in film noir, and smoke. I could not believe that I had a computer and a chair; the secretary asked me whether it was comfortable. There was also a pot with a cyclamen plant in it that the foundation I had begun work for had presented to me as a gift on the occasion of my joining its staff. That poor plant—how it began to wilt as the days went by. The foundation was a cultural one. It organized a monthly program of different artistic events that the secretary, the office junior and I would work on. The director was on maternity leave, so we were trying to disturb her as little as possible. Therefore, we did not call that day to get her opinion on the predicament. We were preparing for the inaugural screening of the film Fadwa: Tale of a Poetess by Liana Badr. Usually, such events require a few tasks: a press release, a newspaper advertisement, invitations by e-mail and fax, posters in the local cafés and finally, buying juice and biscuits. We had taken care of all these matters perfectly well, other than a single issue: Fadwa. She had to be brought from Nablus to Ramallah to participate in the inaugural celebration.

Of course, at the end of the day when the screening time came, the audience of viewers would be overjoyed if they found Fadwa Touqan present among them. But they would never know the amount of hardship we—the secretary, the office junior and I—endured for this to happen.

Fadwa Touqan was one of Palestine’s most important poets. And there her telephone number was, recorded in the address book opened in front of the three of us, the secretary, the office junior and myself, under the letter F. We were despondent, thinking of a way to bring her. What means of transport would be appropriate for her? The first thought that could come to one’s mind was to order a taxi. We would call a taxi, give the driver her address, then call her and inform her that there would be a taxi awaiting her at her doorstep at such a time. We began to imagine the scenario. A car with seven passengers seats, the driver inside it is putting on raucous Arabic pop music while Fadwa is nearly flying out of the window with every twist and turn on the road, a familiar part of the Nablus-Ramallah route.

Another possibility was for me to go and bring her in my car. But, for the Poetess of Palestine—as she was called—to travel in a yellow Volkswagen Beatle, whose top speed on the highway (without any twists and turns or uphill climbs) reached 80 kilometers per hour, had to be unreasonable.

And what about renting a car? The office junior could drive while I stay here to preside over things. The office junior? The secretary looked at me, I at her and the office junior, and the office junior at me and her. Then we said maybe not. The office junior was very nice, but he…and then, what could he talk about with her?!

Silence returned to settle the atmosphere in the room, as cigarettes were lit to console our rotten mood. 

Suddenly, the office junior opened his wide eyes and said he had found it!


That evening, at about five o’clock, two hours before the screening, a luxurious black car stood in front of the foundation’s gate. Out of it emerged a handsome young man who went to the back door, opened it and the Poetess of Palestine appeared. He closed the door behind her, then pressed a button on a small case attached to the key in his hand, and locked it. That sound made our hearts jump, the three of us—the secretary, the office junior and myself, while we stood observing them from the balcony.

Suddenly the phone rang. A call for me, very urgent. Oh god, now? I took the receiver so as to excuse myself from the caller, but the apology took more than two minutes. And when I went out to the hall, I did not find anyone. They had all headed to the room that we had prepared for her to sit in.

She was sitting on the wrong seat, as it was small, and her legs were pushed underneath it, while her palms lay side by side in her lap. Then I saw them part from one another, and the right palm headed in my direction. We shook hands. I was certain that my head was raised, when my eyes made contact with her face; with the rouge, the eyeliner and the makeup on it. I was shocked. I asked her how the ride had been, and she turned to the driver. Her lips had parted with a smile that quickly turned into a sweet giggle as she said that the driver had made it an easy and good journey. He was very light-hearted. The driver, the secretary and the office junior laughed. They were all happy and laughing, while the least intelligent of smiles was painted on my face.

I asked her whether she would drink tea or coffee, and she chose tea. I put mint in the glass that I had just filled with hot water. Just at that moment, everything began to make me feel sad. The mint, the hot water, the glass, the sugar, the spoon, the Lipton tea and her heavy makeup. How embarrassing her makeup was. It gave away that she was eighty years old, that she lived alone and rarely went out. She no longer knew how to put her makeup on anymore.

But there were approximately two hours until the beginning of the screening, and the hope that her makeup would wear off by then.

I returned to the room, where they were all still laughing. The secretary’s eyes would often tear up when she laughed hard. I placed the tea in front of her, and retreated completely; moving my eyes between them and between the small piece of yellow cardboard that dangled out of the glass from the tea bag, reading “Lipton Lipton Lipton” one after another.


She said that she would read three poems that she had recently written.

She was standing in the middle of the floor, closely surrounded by the limited audience, due to the limited number of seats in the hall, while we—the secretary, the office junior, the driver and I—stood around one of the pillars at the back of the hall. The three of them had granted me the honor of leaning on it, while they stood with their hands folded.

And Fadwa Touqan began to read out:

I consoled my enticing heart

“My heart! That is enough

If your love has died

Do not grieve

Laugh at love

And deceive with laughter

An unyielding sorrow

To be honest, we had to control ourselves hard from bursting out with laughter. At this age, what could she even have to do with love?!


The first poem by Fadwa Touqan that I read was the “The New Year”.

At the end of every year, on the occasion of the onset of the New Year approaching, our teacher Ahmad used to ask us to memorize this poem for the next class. So in the next class, our throats would start screaming their words out, as if we were threatening someone. In fact, our veins would nearly burst, as all thirty-seven of us cried out “the neeeeeeeeewwwwyeeeeeeeeearrrrrrrrr”. But seriously, only five pupils had memorized it by heart, and that ruse failed to deceive Ahmad the schoolteacher, who suddenly with a gesture from his short stick that we used to call “Mr. Ahmad’s sausage”, would silence the five known pupils. And then, the words would begin to melt away in the space of the room, turning into fragments of words, then letters and finally muffled noises that would unite with the clanging of the chairs, until they disappeared completely and total silence would prevail. Then at that moment, Mr. Ahmad would take the initiative to launch into giving the real lesson: “Nader. Nader, what did you do yesterday?” Silence. “I will tell you what Nader did yesterday. He had his mouth open and he was swallowing the filth from his nose.” A muffled laugh would emerge from another pupil. Mr. Ahmad would be very happy with it, since he would turn around to its source, and five sausages for the insolent rascal who laughed, and who normally had not memorized the poetry, so he would get ten more sausages. The lesson was fifty minutes long, and after the first five minutes it would become more like Dante’s Inferno. Sometimes, some of the children who knew that they did not know a single word of the poem, not even its title or its rhythm, would begin to cry before Mr. Ahmad’s sausages reached their hands so that they taste from him the meaning of disrespecting poetry.

And meanwhile, Fadwa Touqan had died at the end of last year, when Mr. Ahmad would have told us that we had until next class to memorize her poem.

But no sooner did she die, he started talking about love in her poetry. That evening, we had some friends over, and we also had some differences over what had to do essentially with his utter insensitivity, or more precisely, his utter insensitivity towards me specifically. And all of a sudden, he launched into talking about Fadwa Touqan, the eternal lover, with great appreciation. I was unable to bear it. I rose and left the dinner and let him deceive his listeners, but not me.

No, not me. I did not just leave the gathering, but left Ramallah and went to Jerusalem, where for the first time, I felt happy about the existence of Israeli checkpoints in the world, as the checkpoint closes at nine in the evening, so I would not be able to return to Ramallah, thus to him and to forgiving him. God bless the Israeli checkpoints if they could separate us, as least technically. That hypocrite, talking about love!

I sat at the bar in a café in Jerusalem, satisfied with myself but also sad, as I calmly sipped my drink. Ooof. Thank god that I had found the strength to leave him, I started to tell myself, a little after nine o’clock. Thank god.

And Fadwa. She would be leaning against the pillar and muffle her laugh. Love is the fortune of the likes of her; one foot in the grave, her mouth painted with scandalously red lipstick, and she still writes poems about love. And I, at the bar, would finally discover to what extent love is not amongst my fortunes.


The time was a quarter past midnight, when I stood up and went to the waiter and requested to use the telephone. I called him and told him he had no right to talk about Fadwa, or about love in her poetry. It was disgraceful. Just as I was not going to come back to him tonight, as the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem was shut. But I would return tomorrow.

For to love someone like Fadwa Touqan, there has to be someone I love. There have to be two sides for us to be able to dance the tango.