Sydney Writers' Festival allows needed stories to be told

May 28, 2011

The annual Sydney Writers' Festival brings together a diverse range of acclaimed writers from around Australia and the world.

This year's theme “Words. To Live By” engaged readers and writers in a week long festival of ideas ranging from discussions about the future of media to the ongoing revolutions in the Arab World.

Some of the highlights of this year's May 16-22 festival include:

Songs of Blood and Sword

Afghan-born Pakistani poet and writer Fatima Bhutto spoke about her book Songs of Blood and Sword, which she describes as a “daughter's memoir”.

The session was facilitated by Sandra Yates, who describes Bhutto's book as “the story of Pakistan's most famous family, an extremely uncomfortable look at Pakistan”.

Bhutto is highly critical of the United States involvement in Pakistan, condemning its continued drone strikes, which she noted have killed thousands of “nameless and faceless” Pakistanis.

Addressing the ongoing protests across the Middle East, Bhutto said that indicators exist in Pakistan that are similar to those that provided motivation for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, such as high unemployment, crippling food inflation, and a very young population.

So why no mass protests in Pakistan?

“Fear,” she said. “Violence of state is so overwhelming ... [for example] people are disappeared ... bodies turn up years later.”

Bhutto said she felt compelled to address this sort of corruption and noted her own motivation to speak out in her book.

“It is silence that makes it possible for each government to employ violence ... there is no place for that kind of silence, it has to stop.”

The Dissident Cafe: Tweeting from the Middle East

This session was held as an interactive event where the audience could ask questions from the floor or via Twitter.

On the panel were Samah Hadid, Anna Perera, Farid Farid and Sara Haghdoosti, who spoke about social media and the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world.

Farid started out with the reminder that while the mainstream media's focus may move on, there remains an ongoing revolutionary process unfolding in Egypt and the region.

Summing up the role of social media in the uprisings, Hadid said: “[Social media] doesn't invent courage and resistance, but it sure as hell spreads it like wildfire.”

The panel also discussed then need for economic reform in Egypt, the immense level of solidarity with Palestinians across the region and the role of women in the uprisings.

Who's Afraid of WikiLeaks?

Barbara Gunnell, Guy Rundle, Robert Manne, Andrew Fowler and Suelette Dreyfus addressed questions of national security, political agenda, the role of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the impact of WikiLeaks on the relationship between the citizen and the state.

Manne gave his assessment of WikiLeaks: “I regard it as a revolutionary idea.”

Dreyfus pointed out that WikiLeaks was “a new kind of media organisation” and pointed to its journalistic point of difference in offering raw data.

Rundle said the technology embraced by WikiLeaks to facilitate whistleblowing allowed for a radically different relationship between power, information and citizenship.

Silenced Voices of War

Michael Otterman and Antony Loewenstein addressed issues associated with mainstream media coverage of conflict and the role of social media and blogging in amplifying unheard voices ― especially in the context of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and across the Middle East.

Pointing out the impact of the mass media on influencing public opinion, Loewenstein spoke about the way stories are framed, how language is used, and the importance of noting how certain ideas can be normalised as a result of media representation.

“The idea that hundreds of thousands of Arabs hate us for no reason is absurd,” he said. “They don't hate us. They hate what is being done to them.”

Otterman raised the issues associated with news from journalists embedded with the Western military in places such as Iraq.

He said this type of journalism allows “zero opportunity for engagement with Iraqis [and] deliberately screened out voices”.

David Hicks and Donna Mulhearn

Donna Mulhearn, who acted as a human shield in Iraq, spoke with David Hicks, who recounted his five-and-a-half years in Guantanamo Bay and the events that led to his being there.

Hicks explained his motivation for writing a book, saying he felt it necessary to combat the widespread misinformation about his story.

He said a lot of the decisions he made have been called impulsive, but that his intention was always good. “I saw the people from Kosovo and Kashmir the same as I see my family and friends.”

Mulhearn summed up Hicks as being motivated by justice and humanity together with a sense of adventure.

Hicks noted that his treatment by the Australian government, which allowed him to remain incarcerated by a foreign government in Guantanamo for so long, set a dangerous precedent. He raised concerns about the potential for Assange to be treated similarly.

While critical of the government, Hicks said: “I've got to thank the Australian public, for the marches and dressing in orange and all that.

“I went overseas to help people, I ended up detained, tortured and accused of being a terrorist.”

Hicks received a standing ovation at what was his first public appearance since the release of his memoir.

Mary Kostakidis described the moment in the May 25 Sydney Morning Herald: “People rose to their feet gradually and with a sense of purpose and obligation. They applauded because they felt we as a nation had let him down then, but it wasn't too late to stand up for him now.”

Other festival highlights included the “Write a Revolution” session, which brought together spoken word artists to discuss (and demonstrate) creative engagement with social and political change; a multilingual spoken-word performance by the Auburn Poets and Writers group; and “The Israel Question”, which looked at the ongoing occupation of Palestine by Israel and identified some of the obstructions to real progress in the region.

Audio recordings of many sessions are available from the Sydney Writers Festival website .

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