At the Adelaide Festival: The Adelaide Writers Week

March 10, 2023 by Alan Slade
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In the lead-up to Adelaide Writers Week (AWW), the director Louise Adler’s decision to include at least 10 Palestinian contributors and not even one Israeli author caused controversy.

Two of the Palestinians have already indulged in the equivalent of the blood libels in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well as accusing Volodymyr Zelensky of being a Nazi.

Louise Adler. AAP Image/Kristoffer Paulsen

Consequentially, two Ukrainian authors withdrew, as did three significant sponsors. Nevertheless, Ms Adler refused to take any action to modify her schedule.

Her message in the introduction to the programme included: “The world has finally reopened, and we are discovering our social selves, our pleasure in gathering together. I can think of no better place to celebrate what we share and what we understand than Adelaide Writers’ Week, to reflect on the world at large and at small, to marvel at the craft, creativity and imagination of writers and to savour conversations with substance that stir our hearts and change our minds. The thread that weaves through the 2023 program of literary luminaries, writers on their way and novitiates is the notion of truth – truths we acknowledge, truths we feel are debatable and those beyond debate. Do we want truthfulness in fiction or does it only matter in nonfiction?

Do novelists owe us the truth? Is the biographer’s task to tell nothing but the truth about their subject? Is my truth The Truth and yours simply your truth and therefore partial, imprecise or even suspect? Is any truth incontestable, universal? Does truth matter and if so, how should it be upheld in a world crammed with falsehoods, lies, misinformation and inaccuracies? If all ideas are reimagined or appropriated, if originality is a fallacious delusion nurtured in an artist’s garret, does truth even matter anymore?”

Obviously, for her, truth does not matter when she offers the authors of patent lies a platform.

A group of Jewish attendees considered various forms of protest at the relevant sessions (of which there were nine or more), including banners, leaflets, and commandeering front rows in order to stage an organised walk-out. Fortunately, they were dissuaded. At one session, a man quietly and respectfully distributed a leaflet, which caused no interruption.

Audiences were predominately and obviously pro-Palestinian, perhaps also anti-Israel. The press was at the more controversial of the sessions, anxious to report disruptions and, they hoped, confrontations. The only disruption occurred at the Tuesday afternoon session “Politics in Fiction”, with Susan Abulhawa and Samah Sabawi , chaired by Tom Wright, when a tall, well-dressed Ukrainian man walked in front of the podium and shouted at Susan Abulhawa.

Members of the crowd who heard what he said, booed. He was escorted out of the area by a security guard, where he was interviewed by the press. A member of his group was a mother whose son had been killed by the Russians in Ukraine one month ago. Prior to that, a group of Ukrainian supporters holding placards and flags stood quietly on a grassy knoll at the side of the area.

The Sunday March 5 afternoon session titled “Authors Take Sides” was, for this attendee, the most minacious, because, being on the weekend, the crowd was large and, with exception of climate activist Peter Singer, every participant, including the “moderator” was both anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian (in that order).

The programme featured Randa Abdel-Fattah (Palestinian Egyptian Muslim author of 14 books published in over 20 countries), Ramzy Baroud (editor of “The Palestine Chronicle” and author of six books including “My Father Was A Freedom Fighter”), Mohammed El-Kurd (writer from Jerusalem, Palestine (sic), currently Palestine Correspondent for The Nation. He and his twin sister Muna were in Time Magazine’s 2021 “100 most influential people in the world” ) and Peter Singer (professor of bioethics at Princeton University).

It was chaired by Sophie McNeill, an Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch, a previously investigative reporter with  ABC TV’s Four Corners, and Middle East correspondent for the  ABC  and  SBS.

Mohammed El-Kurd was live-screened from New York. The author of the infamous blood libel tweet was calm, quietly spoken and persuasive, whose family “had been torn from their home and homeland by the colonising European Jews, who are intent on ethnic cleansing the land of Palestine and have no tie to the land.”

Nobody elucidated the audience that no such country of “Palestine” exists or has existed. Nevertheless, his calm, quiet-spoken presentation drew frequent rounds of applause and cheers from the audience. Ramzy Baroud was the antithesis of calm and quiet. He shouted abuse at the Israeli regime, accusing it of all manner of horrors and apartheid, again to enthusiastic appreciation from the audience and fellow presenters.

It is unfortunate that there is a valid basis for some of their claims and that there were no means of acknowledging unemotionally that inequalities do exist in Israeli society, although they are far milder than those that exist against Arab refugees living in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

On the brighter side, the remainder of the AWW programme was generally thought-provoking and interesting, more than once causing one to decide between two equally attractive offerings.

Highlights were “Adventures in the Golden Age of Islam”, with Richard Fidler, undoubtedly one of the world’s best interviewers and most astute observers; “When Beckett Met Kafka and Beckett” with Shalom Auslander; “Dangerous Minds” with Nicci French (Sean French & Nicci Gerrard), Chris Hammer and Dervla McTiernan; “Don’t Try to Silence V.I. Warshawski” with Sara Paretsky; “The Perils of Publishing” with Adele Ferguson, Louise Milligan and Eve Thomson; “May These Words Bring You Home” with Grace Tame; “The Survivor’s Humour” with Sayed Kashua and “History Lessons” with John Boyne (author of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”).

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