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Open Letter to President Magill

26 September 2023

Dear President M. Elizabeth Magill:

My wife Anna Botta and I have many wonderful memories from our days as graduate students in Comparative Literature at Penn in the late eighties and early nineties. One in particular will serve to frame and reflect our complex experience this past weekend, when we attended the Palestine Writes literary festival in Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

As you will see, our feelings—of both pride and indignation—during and following the festival are not easy to summarize; that may indeed be the reason our thoughts turned to a light-hearted essay that a certain saintly scholar once wrote to encapsulate his own sense of what academic conferences are all about. Gerry Prince—who was born in Egypt back in 1942, who began teaching at Penn in 1967, and who is still a faculty member today—had the unenviable task of directing both our dissertations. At some point during those years, he gave us a copy of an essay where he used Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as an extended metaphor for his own understanding of the purpose and nature of an academic conference.

According to Gerry, we scholars—including grad student scholars-in-the-making—were like Chaucer’s pilgrims, traveling together with shared purpose towards a common destination. Professors surely differ as widely in style and substance as Chaucer’s characters, but, true to form, Gerry focused on the banquet and friendly competition, as well as the community. Though we were not, or were not all, religious in what we professed, we did share a common language, common values, and thus our journey was meant to be both the creation and affirmation of community.

No doubt, under the pressures of graduate study, and in preparation for a world where many already saw our profession as a luxury, not a necessity, at the time we suspected Gerry’s glasses might be a bit rosy. But that doesn’t mean he got it wrong.

We begin by evoking this fond memory for several reasons. First and foremost, it encapsulates the complicated feelings that we experienced this past weekend, as we returned to our alma mater to attend the Palestine Writes literary festival. It was great to be back on campus, to see how much had changed, and to see what had not. Mainly, though, it was inspiring to be a part of an event that was the very picture of what our prescient (and possibly immortal) dissertation director had foreseen so many years ago.

That said, we can’t write this letter without also registering, in no uncertain terms, our incredulity and outrage at some measures that were apparently agreed to in advance of these three days of affirmative and exhilarating pilgrimage. We were aware, of course, of the mediatized disinformation and smear campaigns waged against this festival, efforts that hoped to derail it entirely, or at least make political hay from it—the usual social media brushfires that make rational, democratic action so difficult today. We were heartened, frankly, when Penn seemed to stand up to this onslaught, rather than fold under the pressure.

Given this official position, however, we can’t understand, accept, or find any reasonable explanation for what happened the opening day. Of the three speakers scheduled for the conference’s opening plenary session, two were not allowed to appear in person and were forced to attend only by Zoom. That night, in short, in Irvine Auditorium we were witness to a truly disgraceful display of state and corporate power. Only when he tried to check in his luggage did the Black British journalist and sociologist Gary Younge learn that his U.S. visa—good for another six months--had suddenly been canceled. Even though Younge’s wife and two children are U.S. citizens, he was given no explanation for this cancellation, and he was not allowed to fly to the U.S. And that’s not all. Roger Waters, the world-renowned musician and outspoken supporter of the BDS movement, received what is perhaps even more outrageous treatment, given that it must have been sanctioned by your administration. Waters did fly to Philadelphia, but then learned that he would not be allowed to enter Irvine Auditorium and address the audience in person. On Instagram, you can see him registering his justified outrage—from a car while driving to West Philadelphia, where he then greets some of the conference attendees outside the venue and explains the situation to them.

We have no doubt that—whatever backroom deals and decisions were made to keep Younge and Waters from setting foot on Penn’s property, and thus from taking their seats in the chairs that waited for them onstage—no laws were violated; we assume that a private university can make whatever decisions it wants regarding who will be allowed to walk through its gates. We wouldn’t dream of challenging a Penn president and renowned legal scholar on those grounds. On the other hand, whether such behavior is ethically or educationally justified is another matter entirely. We find it simply appalling—a direct denial of what, in his in-person remarks at the plenary session, the third speaker, the brilliant author and essayist Viet Thanh Nguyen, called “capacious empathy”.

To conclude, however, we prefer to return to Gerry Prince’s vision concerning that form of pilgrimage for which Palestine Writes was a shining example. In addition to the plenary session, we attended, with a roomful of kids, a joyful participatory reading of a children’s picture book, Hannah Moushabeck’s Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine; we also heard three eloquent, insightful, and influential translators speak of the challenges they face; and we also learned, in a panel about publishing, about the rich tradition of Palestinian writers available in English, from stunning magazines like the Whiting Foundation awardee Mizna and the new Palestine-based journal Fikra, as well as from award-winning publishers like Interlink Books.

Though we are both scholars of comparative literature, neither of us is a specialist in the literature or culture of Southwest Asia and North Africa. For us, however, learning has only ever happened when we find ourselves on unfamiliar ground, never when we stick to our comfort zones. What we found at Palestine Writes —and what, we believe, everyone who came to it with an open mind must have found—was a rich, diverse, passionate, and talented group of scholars, writers, and activists coming together to express their common language, their common values, and their shared community. That such a pilgrimage, which affirms only the civil and human rights inherent and inalienable in us all, could be seen by any as a threat is unconscionable. Moreover, attempts to prevent pilgrims from coming together are not only unethical, they are also doomed to fail. Ideas, unlike people, cannot be sequestered.


Anna Botta, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Italian, Smith College

Jim Hicks, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
   and Executive Editor, the Massachusetts Review



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