Susan Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd must speak at Australia’s Adelaide writers’ festivalFeb 24, 2023
Australia’s major literary festival is facing backlash as it prepares to host renowned Palestinians writers Susan Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd. Once again Israel’s crimes against Palestinians are absent from the media storm, writes Randa Abdel-Fattah.
Next month’s 38th Adelaide Writers’ Week is historic. For the first time, one of Australia’s major literary festivals is programming a significant number of the world’s most prominent Palestinian writers in conversation with Palestinian and Indigenous writers and poets in Australia.
There is absolutely nothing surprising or original about the controversy that has since erupted over the two internationally renowned Palestinian writers: Susan Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd.
Palestinian-American novelist Abulhawa, is alleged to espouse “extremist views”, “Russian propaganda” and “hate speech” about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. She has also been condemned for describing Israel as “the only nation that systematically kidnaps and tortures children daily”.
El-Kurd has been condemned for Tweets calling Israel “demonic”, “sadistic” and “a death cult.” The case against him also references a dossier produced by the Anti-Defamation League which accuses El-Kurd of invoking a medieval antisemitic blood libel trope in one of the poems published in his debut book, Rifqa.
Jewish and Ukrainian leaders have called for Abulhawa and El-Kurd to be deplatformed. South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas has announced he will boycott their talks, whilst the opposition spokesman has raised concern over “South Australian taxpayer dollars” and called on the Premier to intervene and cancel the appearances of the two speakers.
The controversy has attracted extensive national newspaper coverage,, featuring interviews and comments from Jewish and Ukranian leaders. The Australian edition of The Conversation has weighed in with a piece by Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, who concludes that cancellation is not justified in the name of freedom of speech in a liberal democracy.
As a Palestinian Australian writer, who has been publicly vocal about Palestine since the early 2000s, and on the festival’s circuit in Australia and internationally since 2005, none of this surprises me. The pressure and influence of Australia’s pro-Israel lobby on media institutions and politics is well documented and something we Palestinians are highly familiar with.
For Palestinians, public platforms are not spaces often offered, but rather spaces we are forced to fight for.
What is also not surprising is the complete erasure of Palestinian voices in this debate. It is the sensibilities, feelings, opinions and demands of Ukranians and Zionists that have been privileged and deemed worthy of consideration. It is only Ukranians and Zionists who have been allowed to decide the meaning of Abulhawa and El-Kurd’s Tweets, comments and lines of poetry.
This runs deeper than allowing ‘two sides’ to comment. It constitutes a routine form of violence against a colonised people who are fighting both physical erasure in Palestine as well as from public discourse in the West. It is an erasure that dehumanises Palestinians who are never afforded the dignity of a cause; of motivation, trigger, provocation. Of a liberation struggle against a brutal colonising occupying apartheid regime and therefore a context for rage, anger, poetic artistic resistance.
Nobody has bothered to ask: when did El-Kurd post his Tweets? Why hasn’t the context of the May 2021 bombing of Gaza been mentioned? Why is El-Kurd simply a name, a headline, an accusation, not a human being who has grown up under a brutal settler-colony, apartheid regime and occupation and who at the age of 11, returned home to find half his house taken over by illegal Israeli settlers?
Why has nobody mentioned the footnote to that line of poetry: ‘They harvest organs of the martyred, feed their warriors our own’? A footnote reference to a news story in which the Israeli government admitted to harvesting organs from bodies of Palestinians, as well as some Israelis, without their families’ consent in the 1990s.
Why is there outrage at Abulhawa accusing Israel of kidnapping and torturing children, not the actual fact and evidence that Israel kidnaps and tortures Palestinian children?
Ultimately this is yet another example of the blatant racism against Palestinians. A racism that ignores their existence and struggle, that seeks to rob them of both emotion and rationality; that denies them their humanity.
Adelaide Writers’ Week has had the integrity and courage to stand firm in their decision to include Abulhawa and El-Kurd and not capitulate to the backlash. Over the weekend, the festival also emailed all its participants with a message responding to the media storm: ‘This year’s program includes writers who are displaced, dispossessed of their land and in exile. Significant space has been provided for First Nations, Ukrainian and Palestinian writers’.
Given the countless examples of institutions buckling under Zionist pressure to silence Palestinians and their allies, the festival offers an example of principled leadership on matters of justice and anti-racism. It has shown other institutions the responsibility of practicing an ethics of care and solidarity for victims of state violence and repression and that this is a moment to elevate the voices of the oppressed, not censor them.
First published in The New Arab February 21, 2023