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Adelaide Writers’ Week: rare moments of empathy and nuance found amid a storm of controversy

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Two policemen stood watching among the roses of Adelaide’s pioneer women’s memorial garden. Journalists and cameramen hovered. Heads turned as author Susan Abulhawa made her way to the stage. All seats for her talks at Adelaide Writers’ Week (AWW) had been snapped up long before, leaving stragglers to sit on damp grass. One man held a sign reading, “Free speech yes, hate speech no”, a Ukrainian flag in his hands. “I can’t believe how many people are here – it’s fantastic,” a complete stranger whispered to me. “Must be all of the publicity.”

All in all, as several people cheerfully told me over the course of the week, it made for the most lively AWW since feminists turned up to picket the poet Ted Hughes in 1976.

Literary festivals seem to peak and trough with controversy; years of neat, cerebral chats are suddenly poleaxed by a year of scandal. It was this year’s AWW that made news around the country over tweets from Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American author booked for the festival, in which she called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy a “Nazi-promoting Zionist” and “a depraved Zionist trying to ignite World War III”.

A storm brewed. Attention turned to the other Palestinian writers on the bill, including Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian poet whose debut collection Rifqa narrates his experience of dispossession in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. The Anti-Defamation League has criticised some of his social media comments as antisemitic, as well as a line in one of his poems: “They harvest organs of the martyred, feed their warriors our own.” El-Kurd has rejected this, arguing that his criticism is always directed at Israel, not Judaism.

Sponsors pulled out. Three Ukrainian authors pulled out, including Ukrainian-Jewish Australian writer Maria Tumarkin, who wrote on her website that describing Zelenskiy as a Nazi “cannot be classified as merely a contentious opinion”. Various figures in talks unconnected to Palestine, Israel or Ukraine quietly pulled out. Columnists and radio hosts who have railed against cancel culture on other days, argued that Abulhawa and El-Kurd should not be allowed to speak. Abulhawa’s visa was granted at the last minute.

AWW’s director Louise Adler, the Jewish child of Holocaust survivors, faced down media, reminding them that authors were invited based on their books, rather than their social media comments; and that criticism of Israel was not the same as antisemitism. “The conflation of the two is what’s at stake here,” she said.

On AWW’s opening night, South Australian premier Peter Malinauskas admitted he had been under immense pressure to axe its funding, and had considered doing so, but decided it would set a dangerous precedent if a government determined who was allowed to speak.

“If I was to unilaterally defund Writers’ Week on the basis of Susan Abulhawa’s views, what path does that take us down?” he said. “It’s a path to a future where politicians decide what is culturally appropriate … a path, in fact, that leads us into the territory of Putin’s ­Russia.”

Adler told the Guardian on Friday: “These matters are complex. None of this is simple.

“People are free to deeply object. They don’t have to come. Or come, and you don’t need to agree with what people think. But people listened. These steadfast Adelaide audiences came out in their thousands and listened with courtesy and respect for the conversation. It should be something that lifts the spirits of all of us.”

With what event chair Tom Wright dubbed “Adelaide’s relentless civility”, audiences repeatedly packed out chats about literature, but also sovereignty and dispossession, and all the tricky distinctions between criticism of Israel and Israelis, Judaism and Zionism, a population and their government.

“We can do this as grownups,” Wright told the audience at Abulhawa’s second talk, and that they did, engaging in discussions with complete strangers while in queues for signatures, books, coffee. Even a group of protesters at Abulhawa’s talk did so with empathy and dignity.

“Everything she had to say on Palestine was fascinating – I 100% agree with their cause,” said one woman with the group who asked not to be identified. “I just can’t agree with what she has said about Zelenskiy – but that’s her view. And we don’t get to hear many Palestinian people speak.”

El-Kurd, speaking to the crowd via video link from New York, addressed the line about organs that some had labelled antisemitic: it was based on easily found and widespread news reports from 2009 in which the Israeli military admitted pathologists had harvested organs from dead Palestinians, and others, without the consent of their families for years.

“I was very ashamed and furious at the fact that none of these Australian journalists who were so angry about this poem even burdened themselves with a three-word Google search,” he said. “I am a poet, I play with language. I am not going to apologise for writing, creating. I refuse to burdened with learning and memorising the tropes and libels created by white European men, centuries before I was born. I find it ridiculous.”

The poem, he added, was published with a footnote explaining all this. “I am angry at myself for even including that,” he said.

At Abulhawa’s second talk (equally full as the first), a man approached the stage, all cameras trained on him, as he shouted at Abulhawa about her tweets. Boos and jeers drowned him out; he was quickly escorted off by security towards waiting media. Minutes later, Abulhawa interrupted the talk to address him.

“I know you were all booing and I understand why,” she began. “But I also understand what happened is coming from a place of pain, one that we know very well. It is terrible to be misunderstood, making political analyses and criticisms, to have that misunderstood as cheering for someone who invaded the sovereign territory of someone else. As someone who understands what it is like to have bombs falling on the people you love, and to have your lives destroyed, that is not something I wish on anybody, ever. Certainly not on Ukrainians, not on anybody. That is not what I hope for Ukraine. I truly hope there can be a resolution that holds Russia accountable, but one that doesn’t take us all down this horrible spiral of death and destruction.

“That’s all I want to say. I am very sorry for your pain. I wish you prosperity, peace and safety.”

It was a moment of empathy and nuance that rarely makes the news (and in fact did not, for all the reporters buzzing around AWW at the time). That the man had prepared his protest was the exact kind of passionate objection that many Palestinians would understand and recognise. It is likely there were several others who objected to Abulhawa’s views sat in that audience, but it was with a sense of inquiry, a willingness to be possibly offended, that drove a conversation that carried through the whole week.

“This is the test of whether you believe in a civil and free society; that is whether you’re prepared to respect the right of others to have views you find profoundly objectionable,” former attorney general George Brandis said at his event.

“There seems to be a chain of madness now that has only to do with the touchiness, which means you’re very, very, far away from the real problems,” said British playwright David Hare, who described his own experiences travelling in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank: “In Palestine, things that we regard as unacceptable antisemitic tropes are said every day. In other words, the Israelis are referred to as Nazis, you’ll hear that 10 times a day … on the other hand if you go to dinner, as I have done in the settlements on a Friday night, you will hear people refer to the Palestinians as dogs, you will hear them called rats, you will hear them called animals who deserve to be herded up.”

Some had questioned why 10 Palestinian writers had been invited to speak at AWW in the lead-up, but one of the reasons was obvious when they spoke alongside First Nations writers of their common ground. After El-Kurd explained the line in his poem, Wiradjuri writer Jeanine Leane interjected.

“The amount of time colonised people, people on occupied, invaded lands, have to spend even explaining what they are saying to their colonisers, is vast,” she said, gazing out on the mostly white, older audience. After a moment, she added: “It is a dilemma because you want to know. We appreciate that. It is good.”

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Article source: The Guardian | Sian Cain | Sun 12 Mar 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000