Danish-Palestinian poet Yahya Hassan read some of his controversial poems at a small cafe in Bethlehem last Friday night. It was the poet’s first reading in Palestine, and also his first in English. Hassan’s reading was part of an ongoing Danish-Palestinian writing exchange, ‘Words Without Borders’. Last October, the group held an event at Copenhagen’s Black Diamond library, and over the weekend it took part in a Palestinian literature festival, PalFest .
Hassan’s reading took place a day before the event officially kicked off at a small venue near where, according to Christian tradition, the angels gave the shepherds the news of the birth of Jesus. Organisers insisted that there was no symbolism intended in the choice of location, and that the discreet location and invitation-only crowd were all chosen in line with recommendations made by the national intelligence agency, PET.
A quiet reading
Hassan's reading was not mentioned in the program listings along with the other authors presenting their works. PET deemed his appearance a security risk, so the media was prevented from mentioning his visit before the controversial poet was safely on his way back to Denmark.
Hassan’s poems about growing up in an atmosphere of violence and religious hypocrisy in Denmark, and his sharp attacks on Islam, have led to several threats and at least one physical assault in Denmark. His events in Denmark are always conducted under heavy security. Although neither his poetry nor the debate surrounding them has gained any traction in Palestine, organisers were afraid that radical religious groups would organise 'something' if they heard about Hassan’s visit.
There was some eye-rolling and angry murmuring among the audience at Hassan’s Bethlehem reading, and the feeling was that his work would have created quite a stir if it had been read at a larger assembly.